James Warburton has overseen a period of major changes for the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship since he took over in mid-2013.
Bringing unbridled energy and an enthusiasm for action notably missing in some of his predecessors, Warburton has ruffled feathers along the way.
The face of the championship through a key period of transition, Warburton has attracted plenty of criticism from fans.
Team owners, though, have hailed his efforts to achieve sustainability and stability, dragging them out of financial uncertainty and setting the foundation for the future.
Supercars.com takes a look at the hot topics that have defined Warburton’s reign, from media rights deals to V6 turbos and the “ultimate sledge”…
The TV deal
From left: Ten's Hamish McLennan, Warburton, Foxtel's Richard Freudenstein and Fox Sports' Patrick Delany in 2014
If there is one deal that James Warburton’s tenure as CEO will be remembered for, this is it. Signed in late 2014, the $241 million, six-year media rights deal with Fox Sports and Network Ten brought Supercars into a new era.
Struck to give teams a crucial income boost amid a tough period, the move to a pay TV-orientated structure was always going to ignite debate among the fan base.
Warburton championed it as a deal that had to be done following the previous, cut-price, two-year agreement with Seven that he declared had “brought the sport to its knees”.
The mix of pay and free-to-air for the marquee events has ensured viewer numbers remain strong, headlined by Bathurst, which last week dominated its timeslot on both channels.
Warburton’s arrival in mid-2013 came at a difficult time for Supercars teams, which had sold their majority share in the business to private equity firm Archer Capital two years earlier.
No longer able to rely on hefty Racing Entitlements Contract dividends thanks to their reduced share, the income crunch threatened to significantly reduce the grid by 2015.
The solution came largely in two parts – the aforementioned media rights deal, and the October, 2014 ‘grid fee agreement’, giving teams an increased percentage of annual revenues.
Much effort too went into cutting deals with suppliers and category sponsors to lower the cost of going racing, including everything from tyres and fuel to travel.
While three RECs were handed back at the end of 2013 – and one at the end of ’14 – Supercars will again head into next year with the current 26-car line-up intact.
Comments by key team owners in the wake of Warburton’s exit announcement speak volumes for the stability brought about by these key deals.
Warburton and Virgin Australia's John Borghetti
The ability to close big deals was the hallmark of Tony Cochrane’s reign and a skillset notably lacking in the time immediately following his exit.
TV aside, Warburton’s era has included the sale of naming rights sponsorship – to Virgin Australia in mid-2016 – for the first time since 2001.
Warburton has prided himself on bringing key contacts from the ‘top end of town’, with the likes of Harvey Norman, Lexus, Vodafone and Porsche also signing on.
In the last five years, Supercars has also secured new agreements with almost every Australian state government, headlined by the establishment of the Newcastle finale.
Long-term extensions were also done for the Adelaide, Gold Coast and Townsville street races, as well as the Northern Territory’s iconic Hidden Valley event.
Warburton’s time has also seen Supercars add a fully-fledged Sydney office to its Gold Coast roots, building a core team of executives in the New South Wales capital.
Having originally been slated to work from Supercars’ Gold Coast base, Warburton wrapped finance, television, marketing and sales and sponsorship staff around him in Sydney.
Warburton stressed in his public statement today that the combination of staff across the Sydney and Gold Coast offices has the business well placed to continue its recent growth.
Supercars is now chasing a new CEO and MD, with Matt Braid also set to depart at the end of 2017.
A night test took place at Sydney Motorsport Park in August
Night racing has been spruiked by Warburton as a key platform for growing the sport since his arrival.
After some near-misses and a brief flirtation with ‘twilight’ events, it was recently announced that racing under lights will finally happen in 2018 at Sydney Motorsport Park.
The first Australian Supercars night race in more than 20 years, the use of temporary lights will provide a test-case for the circuit’s bid to gain publicly-funded permanent lighting.
It’ll also be a litmus test for Warburton’s ‘Big Bash’ vision, with Supercars qualifying and racing action to take place within a three-hour window on the Saturday night.
Warburton’s other big push has been an expansion into Asia and, by his own admission, the failure to secure an event in the region is the biggest disappointment of his reign.
Trumpeting the potential to grow the businesses in the region, Warburton – who joined Supercars immediately after its one-off sojourn to the USA – has aggressively chased deals with Asian promoters.
The closest Supercars has come was a demonstration appearance in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, which ultimately failed to progress into a return to Malaysia the following year as the event folded.
A host of ‘memorandum of understanding’ deals have been reached with other promoters and circuits in the region, but so far none have managed to come off.
Formula 1 ties
Warburton with AGPC CEO Andrew Westacott
What could well pave the way into Asia for Supercars has been another of Warburton’s projects – a tie-up with Formula 1.
After years of unsuccessful negotiations with F1’s previous management, Warburton earlier this year secured a deal with its new regime to race for points at Albert Park.
The alliance now has Supercars approved as an official F1 support category, opening up the possibility of appearing at other grands prix.
Atop Warburton’s hit-list is the Singapore Grand Prix, which has been a long-time target of Supercars and is seen as an ideal platform to showcase the championship in the region.
If Warburton can secure Singapore prior to his exit in December it will be among his greatest achievements.
Manufacturers and Gen2
Increasing manufacturer participation in Supercars will remain a major challenge for Warburton’s successor amid the evolution of Australia’s car market.
The Car of the Future was already up and running when Warburton joined, leaving his focus on the ‘Gen2’ rules that open the shopfront to two-door vehicles and non-V8 engines.
Despite the freedoms, only Holden – with a V6 turbo to be phased in next year – has committed to a new platform, while Nissan is currently assessing its future.
The Gen2 foundations have been set, but their true impact is yet to be seen, including whether they can lure back Ford after it ended official involvement in 2015.
Supercars undertook a two-stage rebranding - introducing the red S before dropping the V8
Foreshadowing the inclusion of other powerplants such as Holden’s V6 turbo was the rebranding from V8 Supercars to Supercars in mid-2016.
First applied in 1997, V8 Supercars had become a popular tag amongst much of the fanbase, but was on borrowed time with Gen2 on the horizon.
Amid the rebrand and launch of Gen2, Warburton has stressed that V8 engines will remain on the grid for the foreseeable future.
Much effort, too, has gone into ensuring the V6 sound does not prove a turn-off for fans, who have been fed on a V8-only basis for almost 25 years.
Warburton arrived amid a row over parity between the incumbent Fords and Holdens and the new-gen Nissan and Mercedes, with engines and aero both major talking points.
In response, Warburton increased resources for the category’s motorsport department, which developed a new engine parity system ahead of 2014 that remains today.
Warburton recruited current sporting and technical director David Stuart in mid-2014, taking the category’s in-house capability to a new level.
That came amid an overhaul of the aero parity process, which has helped create the most-stable parity environment since the V8 format began.
A lack of calendar consistency was circled by Warburton as a major area for improvement early in his tenure.
Condensing the schedule has not been easy, with various events locked into their traditional dates, and teams needing time to turn around their cars between race meetings.
The latter means that Supercars’ schedule will never rival that of the major ball sports for consistency and in 2018 the season remains just two weeks shorter than five years ago.
However, the March-November timeframe does include an extra two points-paying events, including two trips to South Australia for the first time in over 40 years.
Amid a sporting marketplace that is finally unlocking the potential of greater female participation, Warburton made it a priority to ensure Supercars was not left behind.
He spearheaded the Supergirls wildcard program for 2015, with Swiss Simona De Silvestro and Renee Gracie becoming Bathurst’s first all-female pairing since 1998.
The pair returned to Bathurst last year, and Supercars directly secured De Silvestro on a three-year, full-time contract from 2017, brokered via sponsorship from Harvey Norman.
The unprecedented move has drawn extensive media interest while De Silvestro sets about trying to match the hype with results.
The Bathurst 12 Hour is now a key asset for Supercars
Amid the difficult financial times for the teams in 2014, GT racing emerged as a major threat thanks to surging competitor interest in the international GT3 format.
Warburton controversially took on the Bathurst 12 Hour in 2015, scheduling a pre-season Supercars test on the same date that prevented star drivers from competing.
Peace was made the following year with Supercars taking over the running of the 12 Hour.
While viewed by some as a cynical move, the extra muscle of Supercars events’ arm has seen the race go from strength-to-strength and add significant revenue to the business.
Warburton has also chased a similar deal for Supercars to manage the Australian GT Championship, which is expected to kick-off in 2018.
Moves to secure the future of the GT championship have come amid a wider-scale push to strengthen the Supercars support card.
The second-tier Supercars series has this year been boosted via a rebranding to Super2, increased profile within telecasts and the introduction of the SuperSprint wildcards.
Elsewhere, Supercars took on the dying V8 Ute Series at the start of last year and is currently developing SuperUtes for 2018.
The backing of the Super5000 project caused controversy, and time will tell whether the V8 open-wheel class and the SuperUtes project will strike the right chords in the marketplace.
The Un-Australian ‘sledge’
Warburton’s declaration that Triple Eight’s decision to protest the 2016 Bathurst result was “un-Australian” will go down as his single biggest headline-grabbing soundbite.
Upset that the category’s showpiece race could be decided in a court room, Warburton declared that Supercars had to “defend the integrity of our sport”.
An aggrieved Jamie Whincup described the “un-Australian” comment as the “ultimate sledge” – raising tensions between the CEO and the most successful team of recent years.
While the case was quickly thrown out by CAMS’ Court of Appeal, it remains the most controversial Bathurst of the modern era.