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Edition

Australia
Opinion

Will Gen3 cost Supercars its identity?

Supercars unveiled its Gen3 prototypes to almost universal approval during the recent Bathurst 1000 weekend… but is there something missing from the next-gen cars?

Ford Mustang GT Gen3

The future of Supercars is finally here. After a full year of mystery surrounding the sport’s next technical step (the teams found the whole thing a little too mysterious at times), the covers have finally been lifted off the prototype Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang Gen3 Supercars.

It’s been a rocky road to this point, between accusations of vested interests, questions over critical supply (including engines), the proclamation of a highly unusual mid-season introduction, the inevitable backflip of that proclamation and the ‘shiftstorm’ of the stick versus paddles debate.

But there was a sense all was forgiven as the cars were unveiled on the Friday morning of the Bathurst 1000, approval of the Mustang and Camaro almost universal as the paddock and public took their first proper look.

Now, full disclosure: I haven’t seen the cars in the flesh yet, my Bathurst travel plans curtailed by the frustratingly strict border controls in my home state of Western Australia.

But anyway.

On the Thursday evening before the Bathurst 1000, shortly before the embargoed studio shots of the cars started to filter through, my phone beeped with a candid shot of the Mustang.

It was my first look at a Gen3 car. And my first impression was, “oh, right. Okay”.

It didn’t look bad. Far from it. Looked good. Looked like a Mustang. But the first thing I noticed was that it didn’t look like a Supercar.

To be brutally honest, I was underwhelmed.

The Gen3 prototypes in all their glory

The Gen3 prototypes in all their glory

Since the introduction of the five-litre rules to the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1993 there’s been a certain look and feel to the cars. Design cues that have carried through, or at least evolved in a way that’s been easily traceable. If you put an early car next to a current car, the lineage is visible.

That’s of course been helped by consistency across the model range. You’d expect road cars to evolve with some level of consistency and carryover in terms of their design, and in turn the same happened to the racing cars.

The Holden teams have been racing four-door Commodores throughout the five-litre era, the most radical change from an aesthetic point of view being the move to a hatch-back rear boot with the current European-built ZB model.

There's been a recognisable likeness to cars throughout the V8 era

There's been a recognisable likeness to cars throughout the V8 era

The Ford teams raced the four-door Ford Falcon in its various iterations until 2019 when it was replaced by the Ford Mustang. That brought its challenges, too, with the two-door Mustang body needing to be stretched over a control chassis designed for sedans.

The outcome was one of the oddest-looking cars in Australian Touring Car Championship/Supercars history, the race-going Mustang’s weird angles worsened by DJR Team Penske/Ford Performance’s uncompromising quest to maximise downforce.

The first time I laid eyes on the current Mustang my first instinct was to check if it was April 1. The drooping nose, the comically large rear wing; it felt impossible that it was real. But it was. It made a hell of a first impression, although not in a good way.

But what I will say is that I was anything but underwhelmed.

Unsurprisingly, the category quickly set about avoiding a repeat of the mutant Mustang. There was talk about lowering the roll hoop on the current chassis, but it was going to be too difficult and too expensive.

With the Mustang itself the best deterrent for another two-door stretched over a four-door chassis (just ask Ryan Walkinshaw about his still-born Camaro plan), attention turned to Gen3 and better accommodating two-door cars. The new chassis was built with coupés in mind and, from the moment the concept was properly launched during the 2020 Bathurst 1000 weekend the slogan was ‘road car DNA’.

The Camaro prototype heads out on track at Mount Panorama

The Camaro prototype heads out on track at Mount Panorama

In other words, racing cars that looked like their road-going counterparts. Like the Commodores and Falcons always have been.

As the behind-closed-doors development of the prototypes continued across this year the term ‘road car DNA’ kept coming up. Back in June, Supercars’ Head of Motorsport Adrian Burgess revealed that, after seeing early bodywork designs, he gave the homologation teams another month to better refine the likeness to the road cars.

“We purposely built a month of… I wouldn’t say delay, but we allowed both manufacturers to go further down the road of incorporating as much road car DNA into the styling of the cars,” he said at the time.

“They will carry far more road car DNA then we've ever seen on a Supercar before.”

That’s a mark that’s undoubtedly been hit. These cars look like the production models without any doubt. Right down to the daytime driving lights on the Camaro.

But in striving for road car DNA, I feel the Supercars DNA has been lost. Or at the very least compromised.

Now, I’m in no way advocating that the Gen3 cars should look like the current Mustang. The Gen3 Mustang is by a very long stretch much easier on the eye than the existing car. And the Camaro (the pick of the two for me) is much better than anything that would have been bashed into a shape suitable for the current control chassis.

The Gen2 Mustang made a heck of an impression when it made its public debut

The Gen2 Mustang made a heck of an impression when it made its public debut

It’s also worth noting that Supercars has a long, proud tradition of restraint with its car design, particularly in comparison to something like the pre-GT3 DTM. And that’s a tradition worth preserving.

Another point is that we don't actually know exactly how the race-ready Gen3 Mustangs because, as first flagged by Motorsport.com earlier this year, there's a facelift on the way for 2023.

But… my first impression of the prototypes was that the cars could be headed to the Bathurst 6 Hour production car race rather than the Bathurst 1000. Or, and perhaps even worse, that these are Mustangs and Camaros that could be racing in any series, anywhere in the world.

You couldn’t say that about any other Supercar from the V8 era.

The rear wing is the bit I keep coming back to. I know we want, and need, to cut aero, and I know the current Mustang rear wing is a piss take to the extreme, but surely some middle ground, with a largely decorative box-style wing, could have been found.

Are the Gen3 rear wings aggressive enough?

Are the Gen3 rear wings aggressive enough?

They say first impressions last but in this case I’m not so sure they will. The more I watched those prototypes cut laps of Mount Panorama over the Bathurst 1000 weekend the more I started to warm to them. I started to imagine them racing and it all started to make some sort of sense.

And the early signs are that the engine note, another hallmark of this championship, looks to have been expertly retained. Another pre-launch concern I had was that the new modified crate motors wouldn’t be a match for the current screaming bespoke units, but at least through the TV speakers they sounded very good. And reports from trackside backed that up.

The slight caveat is that the Mustang wasn’t running any mufflers, but the point is we don’t seemed to be headed for a flat, droning sound from these new cars. A huge win.

All that’s left now is for the series to put the final nail in the paddle shift/auto-blip coffin and confirm that the mechanical stick shift is here to stay (which, as I type, is expected to be the case).

Supercars needs Gen3, and I want it to be a success. In fact my livelihood depends on it, as is the case for most who work in the Supercars paddock.

Its success also won't be defined simply by how the cars look, either, with bigger questions at play, such as what GM does once the Camaro meets its impending demise.

Anyway, the current Mustang is proof that if you look at something enough you’ll get used to it. So I’m supremely confident that I will mellow to the tiny rear wings on the back of the Gen3 cars.

But at the same time I feel the look of the next-gen cars adds to the sense that this is a monumental shift for Supercars. A whole new chapter. With cars that don’t even remotely look like those from the past.

I won’t necessarily miss the current Mustang after Sydney/Adelaide next year. But I will miss the Supercars DNA of the current cars. It has served us so well.

The Gen3 cars in action during the Bathurst 1000 weekend

The Gen3 cars in action during the Bathurst 1000 weekend

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Edition

Australia