Billed as the “Official Factory Racing Team Of Holden”, HRT has endured another disappointing season so far despite a major redesign of the front end of its VF Commodores and a wholesale overhaul of race team engineering staff.
Courtney’s victory in the second Saturday race of the season-opening Clipsal 500 Adelaide and strategic come-from-behind second place in the Castrol Edge Townsville 400 Sunday race were rare – and aberrant – highlights of an otherwise unconvincing first half of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.
While Courtney was able, on occasion, to coax top 10 qualifying speed from his recalcitrant Commodore, Tander has been mired in the back half of the starting grid.
Tander’s tenacity and racecraft have regularly seen him fight his way into the tail of the top 10, but his on-going struggles in qualifying mean his race heroics have fallen short of podium finishes, with his best result this year a fifth.
The debate is whether advancing years have dulled the feisty 39-year-old’s formerly front-of-the field qualifying edge or if his car – the rebuilt wreck of co-driver Warren Luff’s car-destroying crash in practice for the 2014 Supercheap Autos Bathurst 1000 – has a fundamental flaw that explains why the #2’s set-up doesn’t correlate with that of the #22.
The latter theory will be tested when the championship resumes in the August 26-28 Red Rooster Sydney SuperSprint at Sydney Motorsport Park, where Tander is set to debut a new chassis.
In summary, HRT is a squad under fire, subject to searing scrutiny and constant criticism, and the centre of rampant speculation about its future, ownership and the fate of top management, along with expressed doubts that Courtney will stay and that Tander is wanted.
As he awaits Holden’s long-delayed verdict, HRT owner Ryan Walkinshaw – the son of the late Tom Walkinshaw, the founder of Supercars’ most famous and followed squad – is committed to turning around the tattered team.
Walkinshaw heads the expanding remnants of his dad’s TWR automotive and racing empire, offsetting HRT’s decline with the success and prosperity of Holden Special Vehicles (HSV).
With HSV negotiating a new 10-year deal to enhance the next generation of imported hot Holdens, Walkinshaw and his influential mother Martine are determined to re-establish HRT/Walkinshaw Racing as a Supercars showcase.
Although now based in the south of France following the family’s divestment of the Gloucester rugby union club, they are both regular visitors to Melbourne to oversee the Walkinshaw Group’s Clayton-based Australian operations.
Ryan Walkinshaw, 28, spoke with supercars.com.au just a few days after having his tonsils removed. Despite a croaky voice, he stridently and openly discussed HRT’s on-going travails, and vigorously refuted the rumours and innuendo surrounding the team.
Drivers’ Championship: James Courtney – 10th; Garth Tander – 12th
Teams’ Championship: 5th
Standout moment of the season: Amid the safety car scramble late in the second race at Townsville, Courtney pitted for new soft tyres from seventh position. He resumed in ninth spot at the restart and proceeded to charge through the front-runners, snatching second on the finish line from Mark Winterbottom. Although earned by smart strategy rather than innate pace, his thrilling rubber-assisted scythe to the podium overshadowed Shane van Gisbergen’s victory.
MF: What is your assessment of HRT’s season so far?
RW: Hugely disappointing, especially compounded by the fact that with the developments we did in the off-season, we went into the season with a fair amount of confidence. It turns out that with the updates we did to the car in the off-season, it’s forced us to completely rethink how we set the car up and, sadly, with the lack of testing we’re able to do in the category, we’ve been on the back foot at a lot of the events and that’s obviously been demonstrated in the results.
There have been positives: James Courtney’s race win in Adelaide and his exciting strategy-assisted second place in Townsville. So it’s not all doom and gloom.
No, but we’re here to win races. We’re not here to just have a couple of sun spots on a season. We want to have a good solid season all the way through the year, not ups and downs, which is obviously what we’ve had this year. So, yeah, as a group, we’re obviously disappointed, but we have to continue to focus and see, going into the enduros, if we can try to salvage something – particularly something like Bathurst, which is now going to be our top priority.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Do you have a clear direction to take?
Well, we’re hoping so. We’re getting our head around the car with every race, but as you know, it’s an incredibly competitive category and the lack of testing is really frustrating us because really need to take the cars out, and go and try some of the new direction that we’ve found over the last couple of events, and try and fine tune it. So we’re doing a lot of work, obviously, back at the factory as a group and I’d like to think that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but these things don’t happen overnight, sadly.
It must be very frustrating, if not annoying, that the team is under constant scrutiny and criticism. How difficult does that make it to progress when the focus is on the team so severely?
Of course, it doesn’t help. There’s no one in this sport that people like to sledge in the press more than HRT and we are under constant criticism, and it obviously puts a huge amount of additional pressure on the guys to perform. Which as anyone will tell you, too much pressure is never really a good thing. You need to be able to manage it, but when it’s coming from every direction, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. But at the same time, that’s the position we’re in, and we just have to deal with it and get on with it, and do the best we can do.
You understand, though, that the reason you cop it so much is that Holden Racing Team is such a big name in the sport and it’s held to a much higher standard than almost any other team.
Of course, we fully understand the reputation and how iconic the brand is. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept that we’re the sport’s punching bag. We’re well aware of our failings and know we need to fix them. We don’t need to be reminded of where we should be and the fact is that the constant carping isn’t helping. No one is working harder to return the team to the top, or wants it more, than all of us in the team.
What is the future of the team? There’s rampant speculation, everyone has an opinion, and you’re waiting for Holden’s decision. Will HRT survive?
I guess that’s more of a question for Holden than for us, really.
But the simple fact is that as we speak, you don’t know whether Holden will still be involved in Supercars from next year, do you?
Look, Mark, I can’t talk about any negotiations we have with any sponsors, particularly not our manufacturer. I can’t talk about anything like that, I’m afraid.
Even to the extent of just acknowledging whether you know what Holden is doing or not?
Not even to the extent of acknowledging whether we know or not. It’s not my position to say.
But, obviously, you’re hoping that Holden will continue with Walkinshaw Racing next year and beyond?
Again, I’m not going to comment any further on it, Mark. It’s not for me to say anything about anything like that, I’m afraid.
There’s also been speculation that Walkinshaw Racing is for sale. Is it?
Well, it turns out that every single year these rumours ending up raising their head and every single year they’ve not been true previously. The last time there were major rumours about us selling just happened to be at exactly the same time that we were in a delicate negotiation with Holden about our future. So I find it entertaining that every single time we end up having a negotiation with Holden, some group of people start rumours about us selling the team.
So it’s not for sale?
If it’s for sale, you guys will be the first to know. I’d prefer it if people stopped asking me every six months and if it is for sale, I’ll just let people know rather than everyone asking me every six months. That a deal?
But it is true that you’ve been seeking minority investment in the team, isn’t it?
Like a lot of the other teams down pit lane, minority investment seems to be the way to reduce some of the risk of being a team owner and it’s something we’d be open to, but only if it were the right kind of partner. Even in our Holden contracts, we’re not allowed to sell a majority stake, anyway, so the idea that we’d be able to do so is an impossibility, anyway. But a minority share can be sold. I think we’re the only team now – apart from maybe Betty Klimenko’s – that has a sole owner. Everyone else is in some sort of partnership, which is prudent business from a reduction of risk standpoint, but also it’s good to get some other like-minded business people involved in the group to help with sponsorship and the business strategy of the team. So if the right kind of partner came up at some point in the future, then obviously we’d look at selling a minority stake.
So, come what may, Walkinshaw Racing will be on the grid in Supercars next year?
I’d like to think so. It’d be pretty expensive for us to close it down.
Where are you with drivers? As we know, both James’ and Garth’s contracts are up for renewal at the end of the season. Do you want to keep them, are you talking to them about re-signing?
Yep, we’re obviously talking to our drivers. I’m not going to go into any details about negotiations with driver contracts, obviously, because that’s not something we do until we decide to announce it to the public. But, obviously, we’re talking to both our drivers – as we would be doing in this situation, of course.
James is still getting strong-ish results, but Garth is particularly struggling in qualifying. Is the problem with Garth or, has been suggested, with his car, which is being replaced with a new one?
I would be surprised if there’s an inherent issue in that particular car (rebuilt from big crash in practice at Bathurst in 2014), but at the same time, I’m not going to start going into nitty-gritty details and assessments on the driver’s performance. Both drivers and the team haven’t been getting the results as a group, and it’s a team issue, it’s not just a driver’s fault, it’s not just the engineers’ fault. As a group, we have to do a better job – and that goes for qualifying and in the races.
Adrian Burgess was the man you brought on board to turn things around. Someone has to bear the ultimate responsibility, so what’s his future with the organisation?
Yeah, again, I’ve had a few people ask me this and I think it’s pretty inappropriate when you end up getting journalists constantly asking for you to make a comment about whether one of your employees still has a job or not. I don’t think it’s something anyone should have to discuss publicly, anyway. I mean, how would you like it if I went to your boss and asked him every single week to get into the press and say whether you still had a job? I don’t really think it’s an appropriate question in any situation. But Adrian is the team principal at Walkinshaw Racing. His job within the Walkinshaw Group is to run all things motor sport and he obviously knows and is fully aware of the frustration we have with the lack of results this year, and knows he is the man responsible for trying to turn it around. And, obviously, we are giving him everything he needs to be able to do so.
The reason I’m asking is to clarify the situation and confirm that he is staying. There have been rumours that at the end of the season he was planning to return to the UK.
Again, I would delicately add that it’s in the interests of some people down pit lane to try to put rumour and speculation into the grid and into the press about instability in our team. And that is a rumour that doesn’t have any credibility behind it. We heard rumours that Adrian was leaving at the beginning of this season, which just turned out to be nonsense. So I would just put this latest speculation about him down to the mischievous rumour mill.
The reshuffle of the engineering group and who’s working on the cars hasn’t transformed HRT’s fortunes. Is it a necessarily painful process the team has to go through before the benefits are realised?
You’re spot on. It is a necessary process that we have to go through. It’s certainly not ideal, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, and I think we got ourselves into a little bit of a vicious circle in that respect. Not to take away from the abilities of Blake Smith (replaced by Alex Somerset on #2) and Alistair McVean (replaced by Rob Starr on #22) – they’re both great engineers – but in this current situation, they were struggling to get us out of it, so we had to make a change. Even the psychological benefits for the drivers was pretty important. Obviously, Alistair is still within the group and still working behind-the-scenes. Maybe things will change again in the future, but at this point it was certainly a necessary thing to do. Certainly, not ideal and we’re going to have to take a little bit of pain whilst Alex Somerset and Robbie Starr get back up to speed and work our way through similar issues, to be honest, to what Triple Eight had last year. It sounds as if the issues they went through last year for the first half of the season is what we’re going through now. Similar changes to the car (new front upright design) and then having to resync your set-up on how to get the best out of it.
It’s also a painful process for you to have this conversation, so what are the positives that are not being spoken about? Explain how all these rebuilds, regroups and reshuffles are going to pay dividends?
Well, the positives will come when we start getting the performance. It’s a performance-based industry and whilst we’re still, I believe, one of the best teams as a group when it comes to strategy and so on, as we managed to prove many times previously, until we actually get the car up to being as competitive as the Prodrive and Triple Eight cars, we’re not going to be positive about too much stuff. We’re a very well-funded team with a great number of strong partners and unlike some of the teams down pit lane, we work very hard to keep the rate card up to what we view is the real value of space on these racecars rather than discounting it just to have something on the car, and we’re pretty proud of that. We still have a great group of people in the team and, hopefully, we can get it all to gel with a car that performs a little bit better towards the enduros.
You do realise, Ryan, that apart from your direct rivals, pretty much everyone in and around the sport – including the media, even if it doesn’t always seem so – wants HRT back at or near where it used to be.
It doesn’t always appear that way, for sure, from our perspective, but I do know what you mean.
Especially the fans.
Of course. And we have the largest fan base in the sport and they’re the ones I feel most sorry for when we don’t get the performance that everyone expects out of us.
Clearly, your message is that HRT is working hard to find a way back and you’re confident it will find its way back to the front of the field on a consistent basis.
Oh, we’re going to be doing everything we can to try to achieve that, for sure.