Supercars is facing its greatest challenge of the pandemic

After an intensely challenging 2020 season, 2021 promised to be a smoother ride for Supercars. Unfortunately the complete opposite is playing out.

A little under four weeks ago, Supercars CEO Sean Seamer was asked during a media roundtable if 2021 was proving to be more challenging than 2020.

He was adamant that wasn't the case.

"I think we're in a very different position to where we were last year," he said.

"Last year we'd only completed one round and we had very little understanding as to how different governments and health departments would be responding to different scenarios. Now we find ourselves, having delivered seven events half way through the year, with an immense amount of knowledge."

As those words came out of his mouth, he was right. Things looked a little bleak in late July, when the revised 2021 schedule was announced, but there was still plenty of room for optimism.

The lockdown in Sydney, as late as it was thanks to premier Gladys Berejiklian's desperate attempts to avoid it, was underway and there was hope that things would turn around quickly as it had done during other outbreaks.

But, as NSW records another 600-plus positive cases today, we now know it just hasn't worked out that way.

Rehashing that month-old quote doesn't serve to trip Seamer up. It simply demonstrates how rapidly the COVID-19 situation on Australia's east coast has evolved.

The game has changed. Significantly.

 

Suddenly, having those rounds in hand isn't the major advantage over 2020 that it was a few weeks ago. Last year we were in catch-up mode, but the field of play was much more open.

As Victoria descended into disaster during its infamous 2020 outbreak, life mostly got easier everywhere else. Queensland was a safe haven for the Melbourne teams. New South Wales was the golden child of virus management that brushed off its encounters with COVID with ease. COVID barely existed as far as Far North Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia were concerned.

To say getting the rounds required for the TV deal away was easy would be to downplay the remarkable work Supercars put in to make it happen. But in comparison to this year, yeah, it was a walk in the park.

This year the goal posts are moving way too fast. The outbreak isn't contained to one place like it was with Melbourne last year. It's centred on one place, Sydney, but its reach, both current and future, is far greater.

There's a question mark over Melbourne, which is currently in lockdown again and once again case numbers in the 50s today.

Queensland has been in and out of lockdown recently and you wouldn't bet against the Delta variant making its way across the NSW border again at some point.

The same goes for South Australia. Up until yesterday the Northern Territory was in lockdown. Things look fine in Western Australia right now (where this journalist is happily tapping away at his keys), but one case and premier Mark McGowan will wield his lockdown stick once again. For that reason, Supercars is scared to race in Perth.

So how can it guarantee that it will get the five rounds it needs to complete the season and bank the Fox Sports cheques?

The even bigger difference to 2020, however, is that, for the first time during this pandemic, the Bathurst 1000 is in danger of not going ahead.

The Great Race is a hell or high water sort of deal. It has to happen. It's a centrepiece of the broadcast deal. Series and team sponsors will, without doubt, want a discount if they don't get their day on the Bathurst stage.

A Bathurst 1000 without crowds is bad news for Supercars. But bad news is something we've all learned to weather over the past 18 months.

No Bathurst 1000 at all is a whole other level.

The sheer importance of the Bathurst 1000 going ahead means there's every chance Supercars will make it happen. But boy-oh-boy, what a challenge it's going to be.

Last year, Bathurst was easy. The 4000-person limit on crowds was disappointing, but the event was always going to happen. Once the Victoria-based co-drivers and support staff had done their quarantine, we were off and racing. Easy peasy. NSW was COVID-free.

But not this time. There are now challenges both getting in and out of the state. And with the outbreak now firmly entrenched in the regions, including Bathurst, there is no guarantee that even a behind-closed-doors event will be feasible by November.

There are other challenges too. Racing at Sydney Motorsport Park in late November seems impossible right now. And will the Queensland government really want to roll the dice on an expensive street circuit build for the Gold Coast 500 in early December, given the danger of more lockdowns before the end of the year?

Hopefully yes. Very potentially no.

 

Speaking earlier this week, Tickford Racing CEO and Supercars Commission member Tim Edwards told Motorsport.com he's confident the required five rounds will happen... but who knows how they will look.

"We demonstrated last year that we can navigate some pretty challenging circumstances," he said.

"Everyone is committed to making that happen. Will it be as published at the moment? No idea. Your guess is as good as mine. We're fortunate that we've got another six or seven weeks before the first of those events.

"We'll probably take a deep breath at the end of this month and say okay, how does it look? Then we'll take another deep breath a couple of weeks later and as we get closer, if we have to make changes, I'm sure we will – much like we did last year.

"But there's a commitment from everybody to make sure that we deliver the championship. It's too early to say, we're just fortunate we've got this extended break at the moment to allow the country to right itself."

Australia's vaccination rates are surging at the moment, a small glimmer of hope that a return to a more normal life is around the corner. Perhaps the magic 70-80 per cent that's been flagged as a vaccine threshold to ease restrictions will arrive in time to save the Supercars season.

Even if it doesn't, you'd still back Supercars to get the five rounds (and most probably a Bathurst 1000) done, based on Seamer and his management team's impressive record of both playing by, and navigating, the COVID rules during the pandemic.

But getting there is going to require Supercars to face it greatest challenge of the health crisis yet.

 

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