I had planned to wait until the mid season to write this article but the events of Winton, and indeed the four rounds before last weekend have prompted me to bring it forward by a few weeks, and assess the progress of what was mooted as HRT’s comeback year. With the KL City 400 rumored to be knocked off the calendar we are just over 1/3 of the way through the 2016 VASC season and in today’s post I want to examine whether progress has been made by HRT since 2015, and address perhaps one of the biggest questions surrounding VASC at this moment in time, the issue of manufacturer support.
Before I go on, I would like to state that I’m no HRT supporter or hater, but I do think the championship would be a much poorer place without them and I would hate to see the Holden Racing Team name leave top level motorsport. Some die hard Ford fans may disagree, but think having HRT around, and more importantly having HRT being successful is a bonus for the sport. Everyone’s interpretation of success is different of course, but I think we could agree that what we’re currently seeing from Australia’s most famous race team is far from it. Personally, I would define success in Supercars (at the moment) as frequent championship challengers (maybe the odd win) and podium finishes aplenty throughout the course of the season, especially in a field as competitive as we see today. For a team of their stature, history, staff, budget and drivers expecting HRT to at least be on the level of Volvo, and more likely to be regularly out-racing Triple Eight and Prodrive is a fairly reasonable expectation.
Has slimming down Walkinshaw helped?
The switch from preparing four cars to two was supposed to ease the workload at HRT and allow the team to focus on running just the two cars to their maximum potential. Eleven races into last season the team had amassed five podiums, and Courtney was right in the championship hunt however fast forward to 2016, and the team have finished on the podium just three times, and have been nowhere near it since Adelaide. Of course, the series has also visited Philip Island early on in 2016, but even last year at the Island Courtney’s 6th place in race one represented their highest finish of the weekend.
Even more alarming figures appear when you look back and consider top ten finishes from the first few founds of the last two seasons. In 2016, out of a possible 22 top ten finishes so far for HRT, Tander and Courtney have finished inside the top 10 on just 12 occasions, that’s just 54% of the time. When you compare that figure to say, championship leader Mark Winterbottom who has finished inside the top ten 81% of the time, or Red Bull Racing who have secured 18/22 top ten finishes ( also 81%) then it becomes clear to see where some of HRT’s problems lie. Interestingly, apart from his retirement at Symmons Plains, SVG has finished inside the top ten at every single race so far – talk about being consistent.
When we wind the clock back to 2015, taking into account the first four rounds/12 races of the season (Adelaide, Tasmania, Barbagallo and Winton) HRT scored a possible 18/24 top ten finishes, a rate of exactly 75%. It doesn’t much to deduce that instead of moving forward so far this season, if you look solely at top ten finishes and podiums it actually appears that HRT have fallen even further backwards in 2016. The worrying thing is, it doesn’t just stop at top tens.
Qualifying is letting the team down, badly.
I’ve said many times before that Courtney and Tander are both great racers, after all you don’t become a V8 Supercars champion without being one and more often than not the HRT Commodore has been fast when it comes to race pace. Qualifying on the other hand is a totally different story. I’m not sure of a word I could use to describe their qualifying performances this season. Abysmal springs to mind. In a field as competitive as we see have, where all the cars are covered by just a few tenths of a second qualifying is more important than ever and as a result of that, it makes it even more difficult to move forwards from a poor grid position.
If we look back at the first four rounds of 2015, Courtney managed an average qualifying position of 8th on the grid, helped by some strong early season form at Clipsal and Symmons Plains. Tander managed an average qualifying position of 10th. Looking at the first four rounds of 2016, Courtney has managed to qualify an average of 11.9 (we’ll say 12th) on the grid, and Garth Tander a shocking 15th/16th. Both massive drops from their qualifying form in 2015. So it’s clear to see that a large part of HRT’s current problems lie in the disappearance of qualifying speed, put into even starker contrast when you consider that both drivers currently sit higher in the championship than their average grid position would suggest with Tander 8th and Courtney 11th.
Lot’s of talk, but not much action.
HRT are great on street circuits and I think their form book at the likes of Adelaide, Townsville and the Gold Coast speaks for itself, however James Courtney spoke at the start of the year about how they needed to become specialists at all types of circuit to be consistent challengers for the championship, and that’s clearly not happened. Winton hasn’t been particularly kind to the likes of Triple Eight over the past few years, but consistency is when you still have both cars finishing inside the top ten, despite it being a weaker track, and that’s exactly what Triple Eight did over the weekend (barring Lowndes’ 14th place finish in race one). HRT are yet to display that kind of consistency, and until they do it’s hard to see them ever regaining the championship, I would argue that already, just 1/3 of the way through the season the drivers championship is already well out of reach.
Then there’s the question of drivers
I mentioned in my Winton Wrap that James Courtney looked like a beaten man when he chatted to Greg Murphy on the grid ahead of race 11, and that’s not the first time I’ve noticed his dejection this season. He was brought in from DJR in 2011 to win championships for HRT, and it hasn’t happened, to be honest it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon either. It can’t be easy for Courtney and Tander to keep themselves motivated when drivers of their calibre are reduced to racing for scraps in the midfield and it’s my opinion at least that with both drivers being out of contract the end of the season the team could do with a bit of shake up, for both HRT and the drivers themselves.
Courtney and Tander are talented enough, and good enough racers to easily secure drives elsewhere, and despite the best attempts by some to deny it, I believe they do still have that star quality and pulling power to both bring in sponsors and lead a team. There’s been talk of Tander going to BJR, which I think would be a safe move, but I’d be more interested to see how the future of James Courtney pans out, personally I would like to see him in a Nissan. Surrounded by new staff, in a young and rapidly growing (and progressing) team would be ideal for JC to recover some of the motivation which seems to have left him, and I think he would also be the final piece of the jigsaw which Nissan are missing in terms of star quality.
If Courtney and Tander do depart HRT at the end of the season, there isn’t exactly a surplus of high quality, out of contract drivers to take their place. Of course, much of this year’s silly season will revolve around the future of Scott McLaughlin and if he does end up taking Scott Pye’s place at DJR Team Penske, then I think Pye would be the perfect candidate for a drive at a rejuvenated HRT. There’s been some talk of McLauglin to HRT but personally I can’t see that happening, and think as things currently stand it would be a step backwards, even if Garry Rodgers Motorsport can’t secure any new manufacturer backing for next season. If McLaughlin wants to move on from GRM I can’t image it being anywhere but DJR Team Penske.
Where the second driver could come from is anyone’s guess. Nick Percat would be an obvious choice due to his ties with Holden and his Bathurst victory with Tander but if HRT are really going to regenerate into a top team again I think signing Percat would be a mistake. Yes he won at Clipsal but I think he lacks the star quality to take on the likes of Lowndes, Whincup, McLauglin and Frosty etc. It would be unlikely to happen but I think someone in the vein of David Reynolds would be a far better choice, or even a Dunlop Series young gun. HRT need that star quality to bring them back to the front, someone who is capable of dragging results out of a car which flatters it’s finishing position, and someone who scores podiums and victories when rivals are having bad days. Yes he won a Bathurst, and yes I could turn out to be wrong but I really don’t think Percat has the star quality needed to race for HRT. Of course, HRT could tempt McLaughlin with a monster paycheck, but judging on the amount of sponsors currently on the car I can imagine Roger Penske can more than match their offering.
What does the future look like for Holden’s legendary team?
Paychecks and money brings us to my final point in my assessment of the woes at HRT, and that’s finances and their future status as a factory supported team. Holden have yet to announce their future plans for Supercars, and I can’t be the only one wondering if “Holden’s factory racing team” will still be adorning the sides of HRT’s transporters next year. Personally, if I was looking at motorsport from Holden’s perspective and it came down to supporting just one of HRT or Triple Eight I would find it difficult to find reasons to pick HRT, apart from nostalgia and history. HRT’s Commodores have been beaten consistently week in, week out by the Commodores of Triple Eight, the Volvo of Scott McLaughlin, the Fords of PRA (although these are essentially independent) and even sometimes the Nissan’s of Caruso and the two Kellys. If I had to go with one of the two teams, I’d go with Triple Eight. All I can say is I’m glad I’m not in charge of deciding!
The lack of sponsorship on the cars of Courtney and Tander is also alarming, although part of that could have something to do with the difficulties faced by every team in today’s competitive and cutthroat sports marketing climate, but the HRT Commodores are certainly looking sparser than a few years ago. Of course, this could be conscious decision by Holden in an attempt to raise the profile of their own brand on the cars, but it could also be the sign of a bigger problem behind the scenes at HRT, again, I hope it’s the former but I guess only HRT’s finance department will ever know. The salaries being paid to Courtney and Tander are large, and if sponsorship revenue is dwindling then not renewing the contracts of their two drivers could be forced upon the team, for reasons outside the control of Adrian Burgess.
But hey, that’s just my opinion!
That concludes my assessment of the current state of play at the Holden Racing Team. As I said at the start of this piece, I’m not a HRT die hard, neither do I wish bad results upon them and I do genuinely hope Holden continue to support the team well into the future. Although still Australia’s most successful racing team, the last few years can’t have been easy for anyone working at the team, or their fans and reiterating what I touched upon before, I think it’s good for the sport when HRT are having some success. It doesn’t have to be domination, but I think everyone at Holden is expecting more than the results currently being produced and I hope the start of this season doesn’t work against them when Holden are considering their decision.
So that’s my opinion, and I’m really interested to hear yours! I’m eager to hear from both die hard HRT fans, and the die hard Ford fans on the other side as to what you think the current problems are, and if you’d like to see continued Holden support through into Gen2. Let me know on Twitter (@hairpin_corner) or in the comments below!