Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Aussie V8s' silly season a microcosm of racing economics

Like it or not, the bulk of silly season activity in any genre of sport is driven by the sponsors that drivers and riders bring. If you have good backing, you'll have a decent chance of a sideways move at worst and an upwards one at best.

Beyond all this though is the fact that those at the very top of their sport don't have to deal with that kind of unsavoury activity and make moves based on income, ambition and promise of success. British Superbike is a perfect example: the plum rides have gone to those riders who have either shown incredible promise (Tom Sykes, Cal Crutchlow, Leon Camier etc.) or those with a proven track record like Shakey Byrne. You don't start to get into riders who bring backing until about 10 spots down the grid.

All of which makes the V8 Supercar silly season seem somewhat weird. Of the 12 places on the top 6 teams, three were open for change. The factory Holden Racing Team let go of Todd Kelly, who had had a bit of a lacklustre year, and managed to woo '07 champ Garth Tander away from the HSV Dealer Team, an outfit that was supposed to be the second best Holden team but has somewhat led the way lately. Along with Tander came some of the top staff of HSVDT and their primary sponsor, Toll. This left HSVDT in a bit of a pickle. They needed a sponsor and a driver, so what could be better than a driver that brings a sponsor? Enter Paul Dumbrell, an average talent, along with Autobarn, the Australian equivalent of Kragen or Schucks.

Over in the Ford camp, Stone Brothers Racing were at the end of the road with 2005 champ Russell Ingall. In his place they brought in talented young Kiwi Shane Van Gisbergen. No connection between Van Gis' contract with SP Tools, and the fact SP Tools is title sponsor of that car now...

This left poor old Ingall out in the cold. You would think a recent series champ would get a drive based on his own merit, but it took an alliance between him and sponsor Supercheap Auto to sort out a ride. Supercheap were leaving the PWR team, who were breaking up into small pieces, and latched onto Ingall in order to put together a package with midfield outfit Paul Morris Motorsport. If Ingall hadn't thrown his hat in with SCA, he'd be looking for work as a racing instructor at Queensland Raceway in 2008...

At the tail end of the field, where all drivers must bring cash, the song remained the same. A man who's had a mediocre career in anything he's driven, Marcus Marshall, brings his family's No Limits money and sponsorship to the struggling Britek team. Four guys who do well in the Fujitsu V8 support class but who now bring their backing to main series teams are Tony D'Alberto, Kayne Scott, Andrew Thompson and Fabian Coulthard. Their financial means are clear, given the quality of equipment they've secured in the Fujitsu series, with D'Alberto in particular getting his hands on ex-championship winning chassis.

Perhaps the most bizarre pay-to-play example in V8s is Michael Caruso, who came second in the Fujitsu championship last year. He's been hired by Garry Rogers Motorsport, who are typically top-ten material. Ordinarily you'd expect a team like that to go for pure talent - in this case they've gone for someone with slight potential but decent money. Another shrewd move by the eternally shrewd Garry Rogers?

The economics of racing is a fascinating topic, and I hope that one day someone gets around to writing a proper book on the topic. Surely there are plenty of smart drivers who have run out of backing, looking to put their experiences down on paper? I remember running into Morgan Davies, a friend of a fellow rallyist, at a rally in Southern California. Morgan had been running very successfully in single-seaters but even so his stories of trying to secure backing made my eyes water. In desperation, he had turned to the ARCA series, since he claimed it easier to find sponsors for stock car racing. Of course the costs were higher too. A check of his website reveals no recent news so perhaps that strategy didn't pan out.

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