As far as dramatic conclusions are concerned, few sporting moments will come close to Sunday’s Supercars finale.
It rivalled the tensest moments of State of Origin matches, Ashes tests, football World Cup encounters and more.
With minutes left, zero points separated championship protagonists Jamie Whincup and Scott McLaughlin and in replays the that will be played for years to come, the whole season boiled down to just a few kilometres of competition around the streets of Newcastle’s East End.
The title swung in the dying seconds as some bold and brash moves on track and brave decisions from the stewards determined the final dramatic turns of a memorable campaign. It ended in Whincup’s unprecedented seventh championship — cementing his spot as the greatest driver of his era, if not all time. The disappointed rivals at DJR Team Penske will spend little time licking their wounds and rebound to resume hostilities next year.
Before the calendar has rolled onto December and 2018 is still abstract in concept, talk is already active around the next championship fight. That’s a buzz you would shell out hundreds of millions for if it was sold on a shelf.
But in the days after Newcastle’s circuit is packed up and the curtain draws on the year, one man will be preparing to step away from the series after arguably making as big an impact on the category as those doing the winning on track.
James Warburton will leave his post as Supercars CEO after four and half years where controversy and acclaim littered his journey in charge of the business.
As captain of the ship, big calls made him both public enemy number one, yet a popular figure inside the paddock. He had a titanic set of problems to overcome as he oversaw an era in the category that coincided with more rapid transitions in both the media and automotive landscape than ever before. And at the sport’s core, it is essentially cars you recognise from showrooms running around in front of cameras. Change was foisted upon the series and sitting still was akin to certain death. When you see a storm on the horizon, would you rather your captain remained in situ and waited for its arrival or began steering a different course? What we know for sure is Supercars is now in a different place to when Warburton arrived in mid-2013.
Now, as he readies to depart Supercars’ North Sydney HQ for the final time, it’s time to assess the former TV exec’s tenure and legacy.
THE MESS HE WALKED INTO
At the time of his arrival, Warburton was forced to square up to some immediate and severe problems. Car of the Future brought the addition of two new manufacturers for its inaugural season, but below the sleek and shiny surface was a category that struggled to hold itself together.
The TV deal, at least for the competitors, was a dud financially. With 28 newborn next generation cars on the grid, teams were both financially and physically exhausted. By the year’s end three Racing Entitlement Contracts had been returned to the category. In a time where a sport’s success is measured in growth, V8 Supercars began to shrink.
To those with a thin skin, the job as CEO of this particular business could considered a poisoned chalice. The recent history of the leadership wasn’t glowing either. Predecessor David Malone’s tenure was short-lived and guidance in the business was lacking following the sudden passing of Non-Executive Chairman James Strong in 2013 and former tsar Tony Cochrane stepping away from the company in 2012.
Ahead of 2014, the business’s financial strength had deteriorated further as the ramifications of previous administrative calls played out.
Recent court documents of a case between V8 Supercars Holdings Pty Ltd v Sanpoint Pty Ltd (owned by the family trust of former racer and team owner Dean Fiore) elucidated the sport’s dark days.
Cash dividends to REC holders would be limited to just over $30,000 following the recovery of an overpayment in 2012 and other operating costs such as tyres. Insiders were threatened by the rise of the Australian GT, fearing V8s would lose teams to the burgeoning global format of GT3 racing. One team owner revealed they were losing $2 million a year from one of their other businesses to support the racing team in a sum that was to rise exponentially if nothing changed.
Tim Miles, a businessman who worked as an adviser during the sale of the business to Archer Capital in 2011, emailed Archer business partner Rishabh Mehrotra and director on the board of V8 Holdings with concerns over the health of the sport and foresaw massive financial losses for the teams that could not be absorbed.
“In 2014 there will be 25 cars on the grid — which could be categorised as;
“a) 19 cars — entered by teams operating as long-term sustainable businesses. Of these, in 2013:
“i. 2 — Were profitable,
“ii. 7 — Broke even or made a small loss,
“iii. 10 — Made a significant loss.
“b) 6 cars — entered by teams with a “benefactor owner”.”
Left looking at the storm raging ahead, Warburton acted. He was brought in for his experience in the television industry and worked this into his next major business deal.
THE TV DEAL
A six-year $241 million deal between Fox Sports and the Ten Network would be a bitter pill to swallow for many — but one that would save the skin of those in the game. With the announcement coming over 12 months in advance of its 2015 commencement, the ill-filling and white-hot hate of the internet grew into a loud and aggressive online commentariat. Many were reading the last rites to a sport one year ahead of its salvation opportunity. The notion of Warburton snatching something that was broadcast to the masses in a heavily advertised medium for free to a premium product without breaks through a Foxtel subscription made him a target for the vitriol. To those charged with balancing the ledger, his call was the only one he could make. Those on the outside thought it akin to firing a cannonball into his own ship’s hull.
Even today, the merits for and against are the broadcast arrangement are debated. The television product is better in quality and the unique cumulative TV ratings supplied by the business in the opening years painted it a glowing success. Meanwhile, the ongoing tough sponsorship market for teams can plead the case in opposition. What cannot be argued against is the success the cash injection had in keeping the sport and teams alive.
However, the decision to stage the 2015 season-launch and test in Sydney on the same weekend as the Bathurst 12 Hour will go down as a great failure. The myopic choice saw Supercars fire a shot at the GT world it was internally threatened by. The move was heavily derided by fans and the motorsport community and as well as preventing teams and drivers taking part in the growing event down the road at Mount Panorama, it earned the business an unenviable reputation as a bully.
In a welcome backflip, the call six months later from Supercars to purchase the Bathurst 12 Hour and lean heavily on the company’s events arm again courted controversy. Fears of sabotage gripped the more paranoid Australian motorsport enthusiasts and proved unfounded. In the meantime, as the race has grown in stature and audience, it has proved to be a master stroke of business and smoothed the waves of discontent that lingered.
‘THE NEXT GENERATION IS RUNNING LATE’
In another call that made him a lightning rod for criticism, Warburton’s gaze focused to the future. The car industry and market shifted so much the category needed to move with it. From the start of 2017, the Gen2 rules would open the door for cars of different shapes and sizes outside the current four-door sedans to join the series, provided they conformed to the series’ control chassis and aerodynamics. The decision to open up the engine rules and allow forced-induction and non-V8 configurations into the sporting regulations would also enable the business to move with the times — even if the nomenclature alteration from V8 Supercars would take time to adjust.
It was not without reproach. Many in the Supercars fraternity consider the V8 to be sacrosanct, but few could deny the need to move with the times.
Announced late in 2014 and scheduled for 2017, Gen2 is yet to begin. As of 2018, the series will have a five-year old Nissan Altima you can no longer buy with a V8 engine it was never sold with raced by a team in the final year of its current arrangement with the Japanese manufacturer. There will be at least seven non-factory supported Ford FG X Falcons competing as an analogue to a vehicle that is no longer produced. The majority of the field running under the Holden flag will utilise a GM-badged car that is now delivered from a now Groupe PSA-owned subsidiary in Opel. They will all be powered by a V8 after the introduction of Holden’s twin-turbo V6 engine was delayed by 12 months until 2019. The next generation is running late.
Warburton’s vision of a race in Asia shadowed a growing trend of expansion in the region by Australian businesses. The reasons for a push in the area are myriad and valid, yet year after year, local regional races at circuits like Winton and Queensland Raceway are still firmly on the calendar. Deals to compete in Asia have either been rushed into or promises have not been fulfilled at the other end. As it stands, the 2018 calendar will not have a race in the region — with the idea becoming a white whale to the sport’s higher-ups. And if you count 2015’s five-car demonstration run in Malaysia as a success you need to stop drinking the kool-aid.
THE BIG THINGS
In the latter part of Warburton’s tenure in charge of Supercars, the organisation was linked to many suitors looking to buy Archer Capital’s stake in the business. Investment bank UBS was brought on board to help facilitate any sale as media reports linked News Corp Australia, Sports Entertainment Limited, TEG and other bids to the self-anointed top-three Australian sport. At the time of writing there has been no sale.
Even before last weekend’s race in Newcastle — which replaced Homebush’s Sydney 500 after it declined in popularity over its tenure — the jury was out on how it would play out. The objections to the event were loud. Coverage from local media heaped much praise on the race’s positive impact to the Hunter Region while still giving the opponents their right to voice concerns. Spectators suffering minor injuries from a V8 Utes crash was a dark moment in an otherwise successful weekend that will be long remembered from the racing perspective. Both sides of the debate were proved right in their concerns and promises.
THE INSIDE VIEW
As a character, Warburton’s passion could never be questioned. Working as a reporter covering the category, he would often provide robust answers to tough questions and wasn’t afraid to let you know if he disagreed with a story. He also moved on quickly and never held a grudge — even if you were on the receiving end of an almighty spray.
Without lending to sycophantic musings, I was also able to witness how he worked up close. In the interests of transparency, I make the disclosure I was a Supercars employee for part of 2017. It was a relatively short-stint that ended on good terms and one where I chose to depart the business to focus on areas in my life away from the workplace.
In this time I saw a CEO who led by example and was incredibly hands on when it came to the business. He was forward thinking when it came to media and the growth of digital, saw the value of opening the door to manufacturers and through the impending SuperUtes series, Gen2 architecture and the 12 Hour and always had one eye on the road ahead. The Gen3 plans he spoke of publicly were evidence of a long-term future where he envisioned great growth and potential in the business once it cleared the inevitable hurdles that would pop up. Even as manufacturing and media moved in seismic ways, his focus on building a better product did not waver.
So where does this leave his legacy? No reign in Australian motorsport oversaw controversial calls and invited debate like his. Gen2 has been delayed. The 12 Hour moved from a calamity to clever move. The TV deal still separates fans, but the survival of the teams proved its merits. The Asian dream remains exactly that, while night racing will also make a return next year.
However, away from all the politics of the business one area of the sport has improved in leaps and bounds. Hiding in plain sight, the quality of the racing has never been better.
Realising quickly in 2013 the formats and events created more confusion than finding the ideal spring rate, Warburton enacted some consistency in the calendar. When the parity debate re-emerged after years of lying dormant, he charged some of the brightest people in pitlane with resolving the problem across engine performance and aerodynamics. Years of cost cutting led to restrictive tyre rules that held back the racing. After working with Dunlop, those problems have disappeared from the discourse.
The issues on track that limited the sport’s entertainment value were chipped away at over time under Warburton’s watch. Eventually, the racing started to take centre stage again over politics.
Few people that witnessed the dramatic conclusion to the Newcastle 500 will disagree it is a climax that will live on as one of Australian sport’s memorable finishes. McLaughlin and DJR Team Penske will bounce back while Whincup’s reputation will only grow as the weight of his achievements sink in. But the on-track product being as remarkable, competitive, enthralling and entertaining as it currently stands is testament to Warburton’s work.
His tough calls leave the business in a healthier position than it was when he arrived. But to the fan, more important is the racing being better than ever.
That’s the legacy of a controversial figure few of the detractors will dare to acknowledge.