By Liz Swanton
It was 1980 when the Holden Commodore made its first appearance in what was then called the Australian Touring Car Championship. At the end of this year, it will make its last—and Team 18 is ready for the final tour.
The first round of this year’s series will be the Newcastle 500 (4-6 March). It comes hard on the heels of the category’s compulsory test day when everyone gets to see the shake-out of the annual game of ‘musical chairs’ as drivers (and technical staff) change teams. But there’s no change at Team 18, with Scott Pye (seen in DeWalt Racing livery) and Mark Winterbottom back on duty together.
It’s the first time Newcastle hosts round one of the age-old red-versus-blue rivalry and it’s fair to wonder if that will disappear. With the last Ford Falcon leaving Australian racetracks at the end of 2018, and now the Commodore, our ‘Australian’ muscle cars will be replaced with two American variants doing battle: a two-door version of the Ford Mustang already familiar to Australian Supercar spectators, and a Chevrolet Camaro.
Both enter the sport under the new ‘Gen3’ regulations. This is a revision in the rules aimed at cutting costs for competitors by introducing more standardised components to the cars and redesigning the chassis to favour the two-door coupe body shapes.
It’s welcomed by team boss, Charlie Schwerkolt, who believes the move to more of a ‘control car’ with similar componentry should provide closer racing—“and hopefully favour teams with drivers who can really adapt easily to a new car, which we’re blessed to have with Mark and Scott”.
He describes the Camaros as a much “sharper-looking” car than the fans are used to seeing and hopes they will be as excited as the teams are. The switch to US muscle cars is not, he says, something new.
“It’s a bit like turning back the clock to the golden years of motorsport when I first started watching Allan Moffat’s Mustang and Bob Jane’s Camaro battling for the Touring Car Championship in the early seventies. I’ve always had a love for American muscle, so to see the Camaro back on the grid is something I can’t wait to see.”
Team 18’s Gen3 Camaros will be built by Triple Eight Race Engineering so the team will simply take delivery come the end of this year and hit the ground running in 2023. In the meantime, it is business as usual and Charlie Schwerkolt is delighted with the team stability.
“We’re now in our third year as a two-car team with the same driver line-up. It’s really exciting to have the continuity with both drivers, and to be building on what was a good season in 2021, despite the COVID interruptions. Obviously, we’re hoping for a better season this year.”
Mark Winterbottom is also thinking positively. He is focused on enjoying every minute of the season ahead—and the season ahead of that. “I’m excited for the Camaro. It is sad to see Holden and the Commodore nameplate go, but as a sport we’re always looking to keep up with the times and we’ll still maintain our DNA of the V8 muscle car when the Camaro joins the grid.” Winterbottom describes starting the season with the street race in Newcastle as “massive”, saying the drivers have really missed the big events of the last two years.
“Hopefully we will be racing in front of big crowds again—and being able to race to the calendar will be great,” he laughs. “Not having it shift through dramas, locations and dates as it has over the last two years; a bit more certainty in life for all of us.”
He’s particularly looking forward to the compulsory test day to check out the other drivers with their new teams. He uses the day as a rough form guide to who might do what in the year ahead.
“It’s always interesting to see who has landed where when the dust settles. Sometimes someone rolls straight out, and you think ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that’, and others roll out and you expected more, so that first test day gives a really interesting dynamic. It will also give us an idea of where we fit in the mix.”
While Winterbottom says the team may not necessarily make huge gains with their cars on the first test day of the year, it is a chance to see what their technical gurus have been up to in the off season, and to compare notes with his teammate. Scott Pye says one of the team’s great strengths is the synchronicity between the drivers.
“On race weekends, our car set-ups are very similar so it means on a test day we can work well together,” Pye says. “Test days are always extremely busy, and I spend most of the day in the car running through a program, and trying to learn as much as possible, so the opportunities to compare notes come in debrief.
“It’s after the test when we can really analyse what the two of us have done, but in terms of engineering I think we have a very strong group as a whole. You can’t underestimate how much that sort of stability helps a team function well. “For me, working with ‘Frosty’ has been terrific. We have a great relationship, and we push each other every time we’re out on track, so if we can keep that up, the results Team 18 wants will come.”
Like his teammate, Pye will feel some emotion when Commodore takes the chequered flag for the last time in 2022, but he doesn’t believe it will change the sport for the spectators.
“While the Ford versus Holden rivalry built the foundation of the sport, there are so many more layers to the championship, with fans sticking by the teams and drivers as well—and they will still have their brand to cheer on, as we saw when the Mustang replaced the Falcon in 2019.
“The anticipation for the Camaro is insane. We can’t wait to get it on track in 2023.”