'So crazy, it just might work': why Chaz Mostert's shock move could be genius
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Saying 'shock move' in that headline is a little click-baity, I agree. The news that former Bathurst 1000 winner Chaz Mostert was going to leave Tickford Racing, his Supercars home for the last six years, to join Walkinshaw Andretti United as the team's lead driver in an all-new 2020 line-up has been rumoured for countless months. To the point where the broadcasters were basically admitting that it was happening, prior to the formal confirmation of the shift earlier this morning.
“I’m super excited to be joining the Walkinshaw Andretti United family, it’s going to be full of new challenges and for me and at this stage of my career I’m excited for some change,” he said in the team's official press release. “I’ve spent most of my Supercar career on one side of the fence and really enjoyed that, but now I’m excited to jump over to the other side and hopefully build something special.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the WAU team and their fanbase, my fans that have followed me in my journey so far are all incredible and I hope they continue to support me next year and beyond, no matter the car I drive.”
Photo / Matthew Hansen
It's a swap that seems far fetched at first look from the perspective of Mostert; a regular championship front-runner in a team that's made a business of being at the pointy end. The numbers don't lie after all; Mostert finished an unlucky fifth in the points this year, while Walkinshaw's two capable drivers — former champ James Courtney and Scott Pye — ended up down in 11th and 12th with just two podium finishes in the season between them. There's also the very real lure of a seat at DJR Team Penske as Scott McLaughlin's replacement, if he decides to shift to the US at the end of 2020.
But, motorsport is complicated, and rarely does what we see in the sport exist on a flat plain. And there's a handful of compelling (and risky) reasons that someone like Mostert would leave a front-running team for a mid-field one. And no, those reasons aren't just represented by gif images of people making it rain with fat stacks of cold hard cash.
The most prolific theory around someone like Mostert joining a languishing organisation like WAU is (and you'll hear this get repeated often in 2020) that 'he's the kind of driver that you can build a team around'. This is the kind of verbage that tends to be attached to drivers that have a noted reputation for good race-car set-up and team morale building.
It's not without merit, either. Over the years across a range of different categories, different race drivers have been able to turn the fortunes of various teams around. Scott McLaughlin's impact at DJR Team Penske (along with genius engineer Ludo Lacroix of course) helped turn that squad into a powerhouse, and you could in some ways say the same of drivers like Marcos Ambrose and Jamie Whincup.
But, maybe the most interesting driver to draw comparison to here is Mark Skaife.
Photo / NZH file, Wayne Drought
Before Walkinshaw Andretti United, we had the Holden Racing Team — a dominant, powerful, colossus of a team known for its incredible form in the Supercars Championship through the late '90s and into the early '00s. Race-winning form that lingered with the team until just a few years ago. But, HRT wasn't always this brutal, successful powerhouse. In the early '90s it was struggling. Through Tom Walkinshaw it arrived with a bang in the late '80s, with the wild and iconic HSV Walkinshaw VL Commodore. They won the Bathurst 1000 in 1990 in a giant-killing effort up against the turbocharged beasts from Nissan and Ford. And when it was decided that the series would move to a Ford vs Holden V8 formula, HRT were seen as sure-fire chances for outright success.
Yet, in those years they struggled. Across 1993 to 1995, HRT's best championship results were a pair of thirds with Peter Brock in 1994 and 1995. It could be argued that HRT's other drivers, Tomas Mezera and Wayne Gardner, weren't quite up there with the V8 elite of the period — and perhaps the cigarette money other teams had access to helped them thrive. But at the same time, HRT still had Brock his feisty competitive best. They'd always elevate at Bathurst, but they were firmly third or fourth best during each of those seasons in an era when there were only six or seven big, well funded professional teams.
Among those regularly pipping HRT was Skaife, winner of the title in 1994 with the Winfield-backed Gibson Motorsport and someone seemingly on the edge of leading the next generation of racers after Brock, Dick Johnson, John Bowe, and the like. When cigarette advertising was banned at the end of 1995, and Skaife limped through a trying 1996 and 1997, a drive at HRT surfaced for Bathurst and he took it.
HRT by then were admittedly once again a championship and Bathurst-winning team, following the arrival of Craig Lowndes. He and Skaife combined to sweep the championship between 1998 and 2000, but arguably it was in the years after Lowndes' departure that HRT was most dominant. Skaife was illustrious for the way he was able to set the cars up (other Holden teams occasionally got him to drive their cars to help with set-up advice), and the way that he honed the 2001 and 2002 Bathurst/title sweeping HRT 045 chassis — nicknamed 'Golden Child' — set a new benchmark in the Supercars era.
It's not a perfect comparison, admittedly. Skaife's move to HRT was a no-brainer for the driver at the time. Only loyalty to Fred Gibson forced him to hesitate. For Mostert, there's perhaps a very different core motivation to want to start fresh.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
The closest Mostert has come to winning the championship was 2015, when a season where he was almost equal par with teammate (and eventual champ) Mark Winterbottom was cut short by a violet crash at Bathurst that broke his left leg and sidelined him until 2016.
Since then, his championship form has been undeniable. But, he's never been an outright title contender. Seventh in 2016, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018, and fifth in 2019. Even the new Mustang couldn't elevate things, with Tickford regularly trumped by DJR Team Penske at almost every round this year. Tickford, for all the resource and talent it's thrown at Supercars, has just the one title to show for it in 16 attempts with a slew of hugely talented drivers. HRT meanwhile has won titles and Bathursts across three different different decades.
It may look like a midfield operation at the moment. But, it looked like one in 1995 too. Don't write them off yet.