Ford and Holden is alive at Bathurst — but not in showrooms
AUSTRALIA'S greatest motor race is on the brink of a new era.
This year's Bathurst 1000 will be the first without a factory-backed homegrown Holden on the grid - and it's the last hurrah for the front-running Ford Falcons.
The top Holden teams have already switched to imported Commodore body shells.
The rules allow them to run old-school V8 mechanicals because the new Commodore is only available with four-cylinder or V6 power.
It will be the Falcon's final official fling at Bathurst because the top Ford teams will switch to Mustangs next year.
The only Australian-made Ford and Holden V8 Supercars on the grid in 2019 will be backmarkers.
While putting a Mustang on the track makes sense for Ford - showroom sales are 10 times higher than originally forecast, even after the price went up - the same success hasn't translated to the Commodore.
The imported Commodore is selling at a fraction of the rate of the locally-made model; by the end of production last year V8s accounted for two-thirds of sales.
If it were called another name - and ranked in the correct vehicle sales class - it could be deemed more successful.
The imported Commodore outsells the Ford Mondeo - its closest rival - by more than three-to-one.
However, it's a shallow victory because it's a distant second behind the Toyota Camry, the overall sales numbers are small, and the care factor among fans is zero.
The Chevrolet Camaro - the Mustang's traditional nemesis and remanufactured for right-hand-drive locally by Holden Special Vehicles - is not eligible to race under current V8 Supercar rules.
There's also a reluctance from Holden executives to switch its race car to a Camaro because it's unmistakably a Chevrolet, which doesn't polish Holden's image. Only a third of Holden's network of 200 dealers sell the Camaro. The Mustang is available at every Ford dealership nationwide.
FORD V HOLDEN: THE SALES RACE
In the battle of the brands this is the first time in 21 years Ford will head to Bathurst having sold more cars in showrooms than Holden.
The last time Ford beat Holden in the sales race was in 1997 - when the blue oval badge claimed market dominance for the third year in a row.
Both former favourites are now ducking it out in the bottom half of the Top 10; Toyota is on track to lead the market for the 16th year in a row after displacing Holden in 2003.
While Ford is well into its post-manufacturing recovery, Holden has only recently hit rock bottom, twice this year posting its lowest monthly sales since being established in 1948.
The Ford versus Holden battle has all but evaporated - except on the racetrack.
The new showroom battles are showdowns with SUVs - the American term we've adopted for high-riding wagons and 'faux-wheel-drives' - and double-cab utes.
The Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger pick-ups are on track to finish first and second in the sales race for the second year in a row.
However, punters don't seem motivated enough to watch a field of diesel-powered double-cabs racing for 1000km - no matter how much merit there may be in the new ute series designed to emulate on the track what we're driving on the road.
Which is why, more than ever, Australia's premier motorsport category is about entertainment.
Market research expert David Chalke says "ancestral tribal loyalties" have race fans still cheering for Ford and Holden - even if the family car these days is neither.
"It's a bit like when people fill out their religion on a Census form. They tick the box and say they're religious but the last time they went to church was when they were baptised," says Chalke, the principal of Strategy Planning Group, a market research firm that monitors changing consumer attitudes.
"Most fans own SUVs and double-cab utes but they still feel a connection to the Ford versus Holden battle and will identify with either brand even if they no longer own one," says Chalke.
This makes it difficult for other car companies to enter the sport because there's no guarantee it will translate into an increase in sales.
Volvo left the V8 Supercar series at the end of 2016 - notching up eight wins in three years - after showroom sales didn't spike.
And 2018 is Nissan's last season after two race wins in six years. Nissan sales have slipped by 26 per cent since it started V8 Supercar racing in 2013.
Modern motorsport is "a mixture of racing and a circus", says Chalke, who estimates between 10 and 15 per cent of the population have an interest in it.
Although the drivers and engineers are highly skilled, motor racing is "increasingly in the entertainment business because the link between road cars and race cars is all but gone".
Chalke also believes the passion for the decades-old Holden versus Ford battle is "at risk of vanishing, the longer we stop buying those cars".
"There will always be diehard fans who keep the faith (but) there is a risk interest will wane because the linkage to road cars, and Australian-made ones at that, has been broken."
Motor racing legend Fred Gibson says that's why the sport needs to retain the roar of V8s.
Gibson notched up the Ford Falcon GT's first ever Bathurst win in 1967 with co-driver Harry Firth, and then went on to dominate the sport as a team manager in the 1990s with a pair of Nissans so fast they were banned.
To prove his success with Nissan wasn't a fluke he delivered Holden's first championship win in the modern era with a V8 Commodore in the hands of driver Mark Skaife.
Gibson has seen the sport evolve into the multimillion-dollar business it is today.
Back in the 1960s Gibson's race car was towed to Bathurst the back of an old trailer. Some private entrants drove their cars to the track from Sydney or Melbourne as part of the engine's "running in" process.
"Those days are long gone," says Gibson. "We can't go back to watching production cars race because that's as boring as bat shit. Forget about what's on the road, make (the sport) entertaining."
"With all due respect to V8 Supercars now, they might look like a Commodore or a Falcon or a Mustang or whatever, but they're nothing like the cars you drive on the road. They're a bodyshell draped over a purpose-built race car."
Gibson says that's not a bad thing. Indeed, it's one of the formulas that has made NASCAR so popular in the US.
"People want to hear the noise of a V8 and watch fast and exciting racing," says Gibson. "The V8 engine is the core reason behind the success of V8 Supercars. Leave hybrid and electric cars for the showrooms. Just look at Formula One. Hybrid technology has f---ed F1, the cars sound shit."
Maintaining the rage with V8s might seem outdated in an eco-friendly world but, as well as being entertaining, V8 engines make financial sense.
"V8 engines are relatively affordable and they help level the playing field. The more affordable the category is, the better chance the low budget teams have at landing a punch on the big budget teams, and that makes for exciting racing. It's entertainment, it's not about making road cars go better any more."
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling
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