Opinion: why the Supercars (and its fans) need to embrace V6s
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Let me just say that I'm not a runaway fan of six-cylinder engines. The unmistakable burble of a V8, or the frantic piercing scream of a high-revving four or five cylinder — they're both more appetising prospects to me.
Yes an 'RB' or '2J' has endless tuning possibilities, and yes BMW's six-pot M-cars are a delight in sound and capabilities. But they don't generally make for a stirring race car in my eyes (and ears).
I bring this up because a week ago we published this opinion piece by long-time NZ Herald motorsport scribe Eric Thompson, in which he pleas the case for the category sticking solely with eight-cylinder engines. This off the back of Holden announcing it would shelve its plans to run a turbocharged V6 in the ZB Commodore next year, and Ford's confirmation that they would return to the series with Mustang V8s.
"I really hope that Supercars stays true to its V8 roots," said Thompson.
"There are enough categories out there dumbing down their engine sizes to appease the tree huggers. For a start you've got Formula E, which sounds and smells like one of those electric go kart tracks, followed by the World Endurance Championship LMP1 class with tiny engines and a whole lot of electric motors and then there's F1 with all their electric gizmos and a tiny engine as well.
"Not every form of motor racing has to conform to saving the planet. Look at MotoGP. Some of the best racing you'll ever see and not an electric motor in sight. There's room for a bit of everything and it all doesn't have to be dumbed down to the lowest electric common denominator."
Certainly, it's a popular view that the series should stick with eights. It experienced its biggest growth during the 'V8 Supercars' era through the '90s and '00s, during which time television audiences boomed along with factory support from Ford and Holden.
But, the view that the world's categories are moving in this direction to 'appease tree huggers' is — with the exception of Formula E, perhaps — complete silliness.
First and foremost, these moves are reflections of market direction. Holden, for example, no longer sell a car with a V8. Their ZB Commodore comes with a 3.6-litre V6 in their top VXR trim, and somewhat naturally the manufacturer wanted to run a race-car that reflected this.
Porsche and Audi, who had a big hand in making LMP1 what it is today before ... err ... waving goodbye, are both in the middle of integrating hybrid and electric technology throughout their range. And just like they have for countless decades, they want to use the competitive world of motorsport to hone those technologies before rolling them out to people like you and me.
Note too that LMP1, at the height of the recent war between Audi, Porsche, and Toyota, experienced its greatest surge of following in years (perhaps off the back of peak levels of distaste at Formula 1's descent).
MotoGP? Well, it doesn't have electric bikes because they're simply not a mainstream item in the two-wheeled arena. Simple. But it's on its way — just look at the popular Isle of Man TT Zero event for electric bikes (Kiwi Bruce Anstey has won that one twice).
Many of the people wanting V8s to hang around in Supercars cite the category's 'V8 roots'. But you barely need to go more than a few decades back in time to find when Supercars (the Australian Touring Car Championship, as it used to be called) featured different engine platforms. There were Skylines, Sierras, Supras, M3s, and more that utilised turbocharged sixes and fours of all kinds.
This was the Group A era, and it wasn't exactly successful for the sport in this part of the world. But Group C was, and it was underlined by cars like George Fury's Nissan Bluebird (the one that claimed a magical Bathurst pole position in 1984) and Jimmy Richards' wide-body BMW 635i.
If you go back even further, you'll find that small cars with small engines are a frequent figure. And that goes all the way back to the battle that kicked the sport of touring-car racing off in Australasia; Moffat versus Brock. Moffat's weapon in the early '70s was the Falcon GTHO — a larger-than-life sedan that was the quickest of its kind in the world. Brock meanwhile drove a humble Holden LJ Torana XU-1 powered by (you guessed it) an inline six engine. This was the rivalry that helped the sport become mainstream in Australia, yet many don't even think to include it when talking about the roots of Aussie touring-car racing.
And, which of those two drivers was more popular?
It's been almost 50 years since those days, and the sport has changed wildly. Much of that stems from a world that's changing around it, and in the face of Australian manufacturing's imminent death, Supercars shifted its focus away from car brand rivalry and towards marketing its drivers and teams — a bit like Nascar.
It's been slow progress, but we're starting to see these narratives gain traction. More and more people now think along the lines of 'Penske versus Red Bull' rather than Falcon versus Commodore, and unlike the Aussie car industry, those kinds of people-driven stories and rivalries can last a lifetime.
Hopefully Holden will one day go back to gut instinct and dust off their turbocharged six cylinder project. The category could (would) benefit greatly from more variety in 2018. GT racing is on a global high, as are categories like the BTCC and TCR, because of their embrace of variety.
And nobody who watches the field of SUPER GT machines flying through 130R at Suzuka at full tilt is sitting there thinking "man, why can't they all sound the same?"