What are we going to see in the form of a recovery from Holden. Let the games restart this weekend at The Townsville 400

1. Collage for Mid Year report

We’re at the halfway mark in our Supercars season and the events so far have turned the tables on track action in more ways than one. In putting this piece together we take a snapshot of the last few years of Supercar racing and attempt to explain current happenings and particularly the Ford recovery. But first we need to clear the air on the issue of Supercars where I am often asked as to why I am so involved in Aussie Supercars and not equally supportive of the local SA stuff.

Well the answer to that I will cover in detail in a future post…but it is essentially around the real interest I have in the way things are done in Supercars, as well as the historical context… and certainly not to cast any criticism on local racing. The fact is that there has been a constant in  Australian saloon car racing over the years that has made it a lot easier to keep competitive racing on the boil… the bedrock of what us oldies were weaned on… that all-time great battle between Ford and the General.

In the rest of the world, this fight has been usurped by multibrands and to be quite frank, back in the day we were exposed to a limited number of big name manufacturers to choose from….it was also almost a hereditary thing…families were Ford, GM (Chevy) or Chrysler.  It has now become so crowded with Logos and so many have been gobbled up by one another that it is really difficult to align oneself in the same way.

That’s OK I suppose but sad to see that this classic battle is disappearing, even in the USA…fortunately however, not so in the land of Kangaroos. One has only to visit Bathurst on race weekend to feel the passion amongst the Ford and Holden supporters. I recall my only visit to the mountain some years ago watching the top ten shootout. Stationed at Hell Corner at the end of the pit straight and far from the crowds on the mountain, one could hear the roar of the Ford and Holden groups as their respective charges exited the cutting on their individual runs along the top …an extraordinary experience and absolutely unique in the realm of car racing.

Back to this story

It must have been about three years ago when we noticed Scott McLaughlin in the Volvo at Philip Island and it was not only his flat-out pace that was so impressive but the fact that he showed his superb racing skills in winning the two races that weekend. Here was a young guy mixing it with the top guns, his unusually mature behaviour on track in the most pressured situations must have left the established racers a little wary. For every race after that, I focused on what he was doing as much as watching the rest of the racing. By the end of the year his exploits in what was really a second-tier car/team compared to the top Fords and Holdens was, in a nutshell… surprising. DJR had obviously seen the talent and when Volvo pulled out, snapped him up and he became a Ford man. But not only a Ford guy under the wing of that very serious and accomplished racer Dick Johnson… but he moved into a special realm and one of the most professional racing outfits anywhere in the world…Penske.

2. Philip Is 1
3. Philip Island 2


We will get to a cover Penske and his associations in earlier years with Pony cars in a moment but here is a man known to select the best people he can to maintain his racing legacy… It was therefore no surprise to see Ludo Lacroix, race director at 888 Holden, considered to be the No 1 race engineer in the business, moving to DJRP at the same time.

4. Penske 1
5. Penske2


I can remember smiling to myself when hearing the news of the two appointments and a thought flashed through the old brain “this is going to put a cat amongst the pigeons”. Not only were these two very talented people moving to the team but my memory of Penske and his reputation for consistently finding that ‘unfair advantage’ as far back as the 60’s rang bells immediately…this is not only a renowned businessman, but a race car strategist who will find the last vestige of performance from a given package.

Let’s stop for a moment and take a peek at just how strong the Red Bull/Holden 888 squad was by the end of 2016, winning 17 of the 29 races. More emphatic, Holden took a total of 24 wins, with the remainder going to Ford with 2, Volvo 2, and Nissan 1. Very much a Holden/GM whitewash.

All this was happening at time in the Australian car manufacturing business where both Ford and Holden plants were shutting down to rely on imported product.  Ford racing was not looking strong at all either but the purchase of the DJR outfit by Penske in 2015 provided hope for the racing brand…and resulted in limited progress to 2016…but nothing to suggest that 2017 was going to shoot the lights out.  Looking at the field for that 2017 season, Holdens outnumbered the Fords almost 3 to 1 and 888 right on top of the pile.  The strength of the V8 Supercar series was about to show its mettle.

The contest on the track with V8 power between these two giants had started back in 1967, both leaning on American horsepower, Ford with the 289 Windsor and Holden with the 327 Chevy.

6. Falcon 1


7. Falcon2


8. Monaro


9. Commodore 1


The venerable Ford Falcon had been around since early 60’s and in V8 racing form won Bathurst in 1967. The first Ford vs Holden battle commenced in 1968 with the arrival of the Monaro and the fight ensues today, the point being that during that time we have seen the pendulum swing between the two consistently… and we were about to experience one of those swings in 2017…but an unusual one this time.

Whilst the latest FG-X Falcon remained in the racing game in 2016 in the hands of some very smart outfits, the car was on the back foot in terms of track performance as well as a marketing tool for Ford. The last production Falcon, an XR 6, rolled off the Ford assembly lines in October 2016.  The plan for the Mustang as a race car was on the table but the Falcon needed to soldier on for another two years…and in 2017 take on the General… with 888 Racing on a high.

This brings me to the Penske background and his start as race team manager for a factory operation in the USA…also in 1967. This was his first involvement with ‘Pony’ cars and the GM vs Ford scrap. Ironically the original connection was to come from the ‘no-motor racing’ Chevrolet…and as so often happened during the 60’s, it wasn’t GM as a company that got the ‘quick car’ stuff done but individuals in the tech areas who risked their careers to do so. It was Vince Piggins who put the numbers together and despite the ‘No Racing’ nonsense, created the Z28 Camaro, arranged the leg-up into TransAm racing and appointed Roger Penske as the ‘quasi’ works team manager. I say quasi because Penske had been tasked with running a works team that wasn’t officially a works team. He had been a champion Corvette racer as a privateer, during which time the link with Vince had been made…

10. Penske3
11. Penske4

“There is no one in this sport who’s better known for his high standards of car preparation, presentation and development than Roger Penske,…. The words of Bobby Rahal.”

His first soiree into the world of manufacturer supported motor sport must have been exceptionally difficult, not only in managing the tech side coaxing a dormant Chevrolet into a fight with a high flying Ford…. but handling the GM political football. I have read pages and pages of the early history but short of interviewing the man, we will not know whether his management style in handling his manufacturing “masters” came about naturally, or as a result of having to entrench his authority due to the internally conflicted ideology within the General.

The Bottom line is that Penske did take charge…. unlike Ford and their relationship with Shelby who tolerated Ford engineers in his system, Penske is reputed to have been the exact opposite…. He called the shots on how, when and where GM folk needed to get involved…something that caused some friction eventually between Piggins and himself….but undoubtedly provided the direction and tight control needed.

I mention this chapter in the history because the roles at that time were reversed, a classic once-off road course Ford vs Chevrolet battle 50 years ago with the 31 year old Penske running the GM outfit against Ford’s Mustangs. He won the contest and the ‘68 and ‘69 Trans Am seasons went to Chevy Camaros built essentially out of GM’s parts bins by Penske with support by GM Engineering through Piggins…. clobbering Ford at the height of their racing game.

13. 1969 Camaro Vs Mustang

1969 – Penske Camaro Vs Ford…Chevrolet Won

Fast forward 50 years and the same duel …with Penske again front, middle and centre to the action…this time batting for Ford and still running 5 litre factory based V8’s. The staggering advances in engine development over the period resulting in ‘restricted’ engines now producing 650Bhp as opposed to the roughly 440Bhp of late 1969.

Significant from a historical perspective for the 2017 season and despite the fact that Supercars these days use a common subframe with only the outer profile of the production cars to provide visual ID, it was to be the last year that two Australian ‘designed and made’ cars were to compete against one another in the Supercar series…and it did not disappoint. The driver’s championship went down to the second last lap of the last race of the series and went to Holden…just.

12. Newcastle


The Manufacturers title went to Ford… a fitting end to  the Ford GM/Holden battle with locally designed cars that started in the late 60’s. Very significant though that the V-Power DJRP cars had come from also-rans the year before, to not only be title contenders… but McLaughlin being clearly the quickest car on the grid in the latter half of the season. If it were not for an error on that second last lap in Newcastle, Scott would have been champion. The unquestionable highlight of the 2017 season?…that record 2:03.83 Bathurst lap by Scotty, signalling something special was coming in 2018.

The real point though is the fact that a car approaching it’s sell-by date in the Supercar series, popped out of the woodwork to send a dominant message to the rest through nothing other than  exceptional preparation and top tier driving….a lesson to be learnt by all.

First out of the box with an “imported” car built outside of Australia becoming a Supercar was the Opel Insignia derived ZB Holden Commodore in early 2018… criticised by the Ford fans who labelled the car an Opel so as deride the lineage. That was typical of the rabid fan support but something of an irony because Holden V8 racers going back to the 70’s were Opel derived anyway and that is where they obtained the Commodore moniker in the first place. The ZB was not a ground-up development but essentially a rebodied VF Commodore incorporating progressive improvements  along with expected Aero and Centre of gravity benefits. The ZB also broke the mould being allowed as a two door hatchback in the series for the first time.

Early performance suggested that the new Holden had countered the Falcon threat…but that did not last long and it became very obvious that the Shell V Power Fords were consistently quicker… convincingly taking the 2018 championship. For DJRP to run the Falcon in the 2018 season and surpass the performance of the new ZB was an ominous ring of the bell pending the intro of the Mustang for 2019. This was a car which had been in prep for over a year both in Australia and at Penske HQ in the USA….highly likely to be quicker than the Falcon it replaced…. and that is where we are today. A new Era of Supercars with both the Blue Oval and General now based on imported product…. The first round must go to Ford.

Where are we halfway through 2019 then?

  1. The 6 Mustangs in the field hold 48 top 5 finishes
  2. The 16 Holdens in the field hold 31 top 5 finishes
  3. The only ZB Holdens in contention so far are the Erebus Penrite cars of Dave Reynolds and Anton de Pasquale with Whincup beginning to show some race pace.
  4. Those Penrite Holdens at Darwin can thank their engine department for giving them straight line missiles which prevented the Fords getting a run on them down that long straight…not necessarily something that will be of benefit at all tracks.
  5. Red Bull Holden are still scratching…something we should not see from a works outfit halfway through the year

Only a calamity will prevent McLaughlin from taking the championship…so two in a row for Ford and as history has shown, that run could last for another year…unless the General has other ideas. The difficulty of course is that different to 2018, where the DJRP cars were the only Fords clearly quicker than the 888 Holdens…all 6 Mustangs are on the money this year.

There was talk of bringing the Camaro onto the scene for Holden but this has two problems, firstly Chevrolet have yet to appreciate that the right hand drive world would love to have a Camaro dedicated to them. Secondly the Camaro is distinctly a Chevy, not a Holden, giving the marketing boys a problem with branding…lets see what happens.

Are Holden going to make the comeback through development skill or return to a fight on parity??…I hope it will be the former.

Let’s return to the battle for the second half of the year…. we have been here before, with one or other of the teams showing dominance….historically the situation has steadied and become an even battle or swung back the other way….

The magic now is watching the recovery.

14. 2019 Commodore Vs Mustang

2019 Penske Ford vs Holden….Done and Dusted??