AS FAR as racing-related news days in Australia go, Friday August 16 will probably stand out as being one of the bigger of the year. We break down the key stories and take a stab at analysing what they mean.
WORDS: Richard Craill
BANG-bang-bang! Within five hours on a Friday morning a series of significant announcements and breaking news rippled through the motorsport press and social media. It was a busy morning just digesting everything produced, let alone trying to get on with other jobs that actually pay the bills..
What’s more is that, in a year dominated by parity wranglings, politics, fines and big-picture ‘future of the sport’ stuff, these were all good news stories. Even Dale JR’s plane crash, which we won’t cover here but is significant none the less, turned out to be a positive and it’s not often you can say that when a plane crashes..
Here’s a look at what was announced and what it really means.
RUBENS BARRICHELLO TO RACE S5000
HEADLINE SUMMARY: 11-time Formula 1 winner, Brazilian hero and all-round nice guy Rubens Barrichello was announced by S5000 as the first confirmed driver for the series’ first ever round at Sandown in September.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: It means that after years of ‘will it or won’t it happen’, S5000 is actually going to be a thing and it’s going to be a serious thing at that. Like TCR, category owners ARG are spending the money in the right places with S5000 to make sure it launches with as big as splash as possible.
In Barrichello, you have a driver well-known to both hard-core and more casual racing fans who in particular will have good recognition in Melbourne, where he stood on the podium five times in the Aussie Grand Prix.
And even though he’s not been in a big ‘wings and slicks’ racer since he contested the 2012 IndyCar championship, ‘ol Rubinho has remained sharp racing Brazil’s version of Supercars.
What’s more, we suspect that attracting a big name like this will act as a carrot dangling on a stick to other drivers – after all, it’s not every day you have the chance to race on a level playing field with someone like Rubens Barrichello. This may help more people sitting on the fence commit to getting behind the wheel of an S5000 racer at Sandown.
What we have here is a promoter spending money on something that will definitely draw attention to their product and, potentially, bring people through the gate to what is already set to be a cracking event at Sandown.
Promoters promoting? Imagine that!
WAU ANNOUNCES BATHURST 1000 WILDCARD
HEADLINE SUMMARY: Walkinshaw Andretti United confirmed that IndyCar stars James Hinchcliffe and Alex Rossi will steer a third ZB Commodore from the team in the 2019 Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: THE Bathurst wildcard from WAU has been long-speculated, as has the possibility that some of Michael Andretti’s IndyCar drivers would steer it.
While Hinch doesn’t drive for Andretti, he does now find himself driving for McLaren – who just bought into the Schmidt-Peterson Motorsport team he races for in IndyCar. McLaren is headed by Zac Brown, who is the ‘United’ in WAU’s lengthy title. It’s a long link, but a link none the less.
Most importantly, the Canadian is one of the most popular figures in the IndyCar paddock and, having contested several of the Gold Coast’s Supercars international co-driver events, has a following here too.
Rossi is a Formula 1 ex-pat and an Indy 500 champion so not only has brand cred in the ‘States, but in other parts as well.
It’s a high profile addition with plenty of wins: The drivers will be popular. The Bathurst grid goes to 26 cars and Supercars’ gets some more international cachet’ for the biggest race of the year.
Save for getting Fernando Alonso in the car, this is probably the best possible outcome for a WAU-led wildcard that will generate plenty of positive stories across the board. Following their progress over the weekend will be interesting.. the team aren’t going very well at the moment but tend to step up when they get to Bathurst regardless of regular season form.
And while Hinch and Rossi have never been to Bathurst before, the Canadian has raced Supercars and Rossi is well-versed in jumping between different types of cars – so they may go OK.
WARBURTON JOINS SEVEN WEST MEDIA
HEADLINE SUMMARY: FORMER Supercars CEO, Channel 10 boss, ARG non-executive board member and dealmaker James Warburton was announced this morning as the new CEO of Seven West Media – the company that operates Channel 7, Prime Media, the West Australian newspaper group, Pacific Magazines and more. He replaces outgoing CEO, Tom Worner.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: THIS was an interesting one and a bit of a surprise. Worner seemed entrenched at Seven West, while Warburton had only recently announced his investment in the Shopper Media Group, becoming a non-executive director of the retail digital business.
Nevertheless, the media industry is a fast-moving one and the former Supercars CEO’s appointment instantly resonated within the motorsport industry and fans given his high-profile role within the sport for nearly five years, and his more recent appointment at ARG as a non-executive director there, too. He’s also helping Simona de Silvestro secure her long-term Supercars future in Australia so certainly remains in the motorsport mix.
Of course, the first thing everyone thought was that this may impact the way the next Supercars TV rights deal plays out.
While there’s no doubt that it will be very low on his initial priority list – he’s probably yet to have business cards printed – there’s very good reason to assume that Warburton’s appointment may impact the next rights deal, due at the end of next year.
After all, he was the one that secured the lucrative and critical $240m investment from FOX Sports and Channel 10 five years ago that has underpinned the financial health of the sport since.
He gets the sport, understands the potential airtime and commercial benefits it may bring and, with Supercars looking for more free-to-air impact in their next agreement, he may turn out to be a decent ally of the sport when they get to the negotiating table.
What’s more – and this may be drawing a long bow, but stay with us – it could also help smooth the choppy waters that exist between Supercars and ARG. Having the head honcho of a serious media player running point on getting the pair on the same page and avoiding issues like the recent Adelaide 500 drama might be a massive plus for the sport.
Time will tell.
WHILE Rubens Barrichello is a fantastic get for S5000 and will help launch the category in style, and the WAU wildcard is the first step in showing the international strength on which that team and the broader category has to draw from, the irony of today’s ‘Good News Friday’ is that the least Motorsport-relevant announcement could ultimately be the biggest one for the sport.
From a motorsport perspective, having a former CEO from within the sport – someone who understands it intrinsically and deeply and who is an admitted fan of it too – heading up one of the four major players when it comes to media rights is a potential boon.
The next media rights deal is utterly critical for Supercars, as they seek to retain their financial position, improve the chances of selling Archer Capital’s stake and also increase their viewership by more free-to-air offerings.
If, once he has his business cards printed and feet under his new desk at Seven West’s HQ, he decides that making a play for the next round of Supercars media rights would compliment their current Cricket and AFL agreements it could be a key moment for the sport moving forward.
In the meantime, we’ll enjoy watching Rubens-freaking-Barrichello racing an open-wheeler at Sandown (What will he make of that place!) and a couple of gun IndyCar aces adding to the colour and excitement of Australia’s Great Race.
And we’re all very, very thankful that Dale Earnhardt Jr and his family walked away from a plane crash at a small regional airport in Tennessee.
That could just be the best news that this Good News Friday had to offer.