Gordon Lomas is a freelance writer specialising in motorsport and motoring. He worked for News Limited for twenty-six years under various newspaper mastheads, and during his career he has covered some of the world’s leading motor races, including the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1.
He first reported on Australian touring-car racing in the Group A days, saw the transition to the V8 Holden vs Ford formula, and has regularly covered the V8 Supercar Championship since its inception in 1997. He is the author of V8 Supercars: The Whole Story, a landmark title published by Penguin in August 2011 and reviewed exclusively on RichardsF1.com.
Gordon sat down to talk exclusively to us about the book and some of the major talking points in V8 Supercars…
Firstly, congratulations on V8 Supercars: The Whole Story, which is the first end-to-end chronology of what has been one of Australia’s greatest sporting successes. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in the project and the steps and the timeframe you had to put this together?
That’s a good question and one I wish I was asked more often last week when I started the promotion of the book. My background in this whole project started early last year when I was approached to write the book, and I had a timeframe of three months.
By the time I signed the contract, I had three months to write the book. Ideally a project like this really needs a good six months to a year, and I was initially very scared about this. It’s been the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken, but I was so determined to pull it off.
What’s helped is that I’ve been part of V8 Supercars since Day 1, and I’ve been privy to all the manoeuvrings when the brand first started in late 1996, when Tony Cochrane [the current V8 Supercars figurehead] took over the running of the sport from the Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS). I’ve had a lot of writing in my archives since those days, and it was simply a case of putting all the pieces together.
Lo and behold, by the middle of last year, I’d achieved the deadline, and Penguin are very happy with the finished product.
What was the level of support you had from key players in V8 Supercars, and what were some of the challenges with this project?
A lot of the key stakeholders were extremely accommodating and obliging with my requests. They were extremely convivial and approachable on all of these topics.
The main challenges were some of the politics that have transpired over the years – and there has been a lot of it – in terms of team ownership disputes, political wrangling within the sport’s administration. One of the really touchy issues was the attempt in 2007 by [former aspiring Prime Minister] John Hewson to overthrow Tony Cochrane as the Chairman of V8 Supercars. That was extremely difficult to write about, but I think, in the end, we’ve been able to give fans a lot more detail and insight as to what went on with a lot of these issues.
You’re not at all hesitant to critically examine some of the areas where V8 Supercars has not necessarily succeeded, such as its short-lived ventures to Canberra and China. How much of a revelation was it to have V8SA boss Tony Cochrane admit that he was very much to blame with the Canberra fiasco, for example? [The series attempted an ill-fated attempt to stage championship rounds in Canberra during the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June. For those who’ve ever been to Canberra in June, it is freezing at best. Crowd attendance was appalling, the circuit was roundly panned, and the event was quietly shelved after just two years.]
Again, I’m glad you’ve pointed this out. I was really surprised that Cochrane was willing – without being pushed – to elaborate on the Canberra situation, particularly, and take full blame for the event failing. As readers of the book will know, he was caught up in a political bun fight between the Australian Capital Territory government and the Federal government over the staging of the event, and subsequently the event suffered as a consequence. To me – given that Cochrane has a reputation for not accepting blame and being a ‘his way or else’ ruler – I’d give him full marks for being so brutally honest about his role in the situation.
You’ve been part of the V8 Supercars landscape as a journalist since the days when it was the Australian Touring Car Championship? What do you believe are the most influential changes / evolutions the series has undergone in the last fifteen years?
There are two key areas. Firstly, the mandate for the series’ administration was to do deals with governments to broaden its appeal. One of the first deals they did was with the Northern Territory government to sign Darwin’s Hidden Valley Raceway onto the calendar, and it staged its first V8 Supercars race in 1998. That paved the way for other deals, and the next one to be signed was when Adelaide came on board the following year to host the CLIPSAL 500 [on the shortened Grand Prix street circuit].
Secondly, the television deal done with Channel 10 to bring the sport to a mainstream TV audience was a massive change. They took a huge punt with what Cochrane promises that it would turn into success, and it did. Channel 10 did a great job during their tenure as the series’ broadcaster in bring the sport to the mainstream population.
Don’t forget that back in the dark ages of the Australian Touring Car Championship [the precursor to today’s V8 Supercars Championship] the Seven Network pretty much gave the series scant regard. A lot of the rounds were replayed late at night, and it was largely invisible to the everyday Australian.
In those days, the Bathurst 1000 was the only event that was given any sort of prestige. Now there are a series of marquee rounds on the calendar, with races like Adelaide and Darwin proving hugely popular events. Bathurst will always be Bathurst and it’s special in its own right, and now we’re seeing the series branch out overseas to the Middle East and Asia.
The 2005 event in Shanghai was the one and only event to be staged there, but that was no fault of V8 Supercars Australia. They were dealing with a promoter who turned around and changed the rules midstream, and V8 Supercars elected to walk away from it. Since then, we’ve seen rounds in the Middle East crop up, and in 2013 the series will go to the Circuit of the Americas in Texas.
What are your thoughts on the series branching overseas?
I’m torn with regards to the concept. It’s great in many respects, and I understand, commercially, why they decide to do it, because they’re paid handsomely for the privilege. But they need to be careful about how far they take it: the more races they field overseas, the greater the risk of disenfranchising the home fans. This is where I’m hesitant, and the series bosses have got to tread carefully. Going into what is effectively NASCAR heartland, they’ve got to be asking if any of the locals are actually going to turn up to an event that essentially doesn’t relate to their market.
Of course they’re going to do a deal with Marcos Ambrose [the former V8 Supercars Champion, who now races in NASCAR] to field a car for him in the hope that it may pull in a decent crowd, but it remains to be seen just how many people actually turn up.
This is the exact problem with the rounds they’ve had in the Middle East rounds – at Bahrain and Abu Dhabi – there simply is no one there. At the first race at Bahrain in 2006, there were barely 1,000 spectators there, and the bulk of them were Australian Navy personnel on a day’s leave from the US Fifth Fleet navy base stationed at Manama!
And conversely, what are the areas that the series needs to work on to sustain and build on the level of success it is enjoying, for example: the introduction of more manufacturers, or improvements in broadcasting?
The broadcasting issue is interesting. The telecast is actually a combined production of the Seven Network and V8 Supercars Broadcasting, which actually produces the coverage for Seven. The coverage has copped a lot of criticism from the fans, and this is an area that Seven really needs to look at. They’re clearly struggling with their AFL commitments and scheduling their other programs they’ve taken on board. Next year is the final year of their current contract, and I doubt that Seven will re-sign. If Network Ten gets it back, then that will probably be a good thing.
One of the other challenges facing the series is the lack of permanent tracks in Australia. There is a lack of permanent racing facilities in Australia, and many of them are simply not up to scratch for a top-flight national category like V8 Supercars. They might be great for State and Club championships, but not for a show that now has FIA accreditation and is the ‘Formula 1 of touring cars’.
Your question about the need for more manufacturers is equally relevant. I’m all for bringing more manufacturers into the series, which has outgrown the ‘Ford vs Holden’ division. The series has only been a dual-manufacturer series since 1993, whereas before that it was open slather.
The ‘Car Of The Future’ – while being not only a cost-cutting measure – will allow more manufacturers to get involved, and the Australian car-buying public have shown that there’s more out there than just a ‘Ford vs Holden’ way of thinking. That rivalry has been around for ages, and it won’t diminish even if you open it up to more manufacturers.
Having said that, the sport needs to attract the right manufacturers. The likes of the exotic marques – BMW, Mercedes and Audi – wouldn’t work. You’d feel a bit embarrassed as the owner of a Mercedes-Benz C63, for example, if its AMG cousin was beaten on the track by a Commodore or a Falcon! The manufacturers that come on board must be doing so for the right reasons, and to reflect the right image.
What is your assessment of the 2011 season to-date? We’ve seen Jamie Whincup run away into what looked like an unassailable lead, but the rest of the field seem to be pegging him a little bit now. Can he be caught by anyone in the chasing pack, and who do you believe are his biggest threats?
Triple 8 Engineering has been the benchmark team for a number of years, and the result we’re seeing today is largely a culmination of this. While Jamie has won two titles on his own merit – he only just missed out to James Courtney last year, through no fault of his own – Triple 8 has been the best team out there since 2006, when Craig Lowndes lost the title to Rick Kelly in, frankly, dubious circumstances.
They are the best organized, best engineered team out there. But I do think Jamie can be beaten, and principally his challenge will come from his team-mates Lowndes. He hasn’t had this strong a start to his season in five years.
Conversely, James Courtney looks set to take the mantle of having the possible season of any defending champion in the sport’s history. What’s gone wrong with James? Is it an issue at his end, HRT’s or a combination of factors?
It’s a good point. I think that much of this is a case of bad timing with James electing to make the move to HRT during the off-season – which he really had to do – but the team has itself been going through lots of change and heartache. [Team owner] Tom Walkinsaw’s death last year didn’t help things, but I think the trouble has largely stemmed from within the team.
James has suffered from a lot of damage-related issues and retirements this year. He’s very hard on his equipment – he’s had a lot of steering issues, in particular – but a lot of this lies with the infrastructure of the team, in my opinion.
Your next major project in the works is a definitive history of the Bathurst 1000, which you’re currently working on and are hoping to launch at the event’s 50th running next year. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
This is another collaboration with Penguin, and they must have been happy with my V8 Supercars book because they floated the idea! We didn’t even have to pitch it to them, they came to us late last year and proposed the idea.
There have been quite a few books written over the years about the Mount Panorama circuit and the Bathurst event, but we’re taking quite a different approach with this one. We’re really looking to embrace the people of the town, the council, the businesses, and to use the book to tell their story. We’ll also be going right back to the city’s birthplace in 1815 and all of the things that transpired since: the war between the indigenous tribes and the settlers; the gold-rush era; the bush rangers and Ben Chifley, Bathurst’s most famous son [who would become Australian Prime Minister].
And it’s taking all of these stories and linking it back to motor racing, which actually started there in the early 1900s. Motorcycle racing was quite prevalent around the roads of the district, and in the 1920s Speedway racing really started to take off.
In 1938, the mayor, Martin Griffin, decided to effectively hoodwink the government into funding a nice tourist drive on the site that is now known as Mount Panorama, when he in fact had every intention of building it to be a racing circuit! The site later went on to host four Australian Grands Prix before touring cars came along and made it what it is today.
It’s an all-encompassing book, and not one where we’ve set out to make it a ‘race review’ style title; it’s out to tell the colourful stories and behind-the-scenes stuff – with plenty of motor racing stories of course – of one of the most important events on the sporting landscape. Everyone thinks that the Melbourne Cup horse racing event is the only ‘race that stops a nation’ in Australia, but the Bathurst 1000 is the mechanical version of that.