Ford's Shock Return To Supercars

Was this the best-kept secret in Australian motorsport?

On Tuesday, Ford announced that it was returning to Supercars in an official capacity. The venerable Falcon will be replaced by the Mustang for 2019. When the news was leaked by Auto Action on Monday it came as some surprise.

Since 2016, Ford’s presence in Supercars has consisted of privateer teams running Falcons homologated back in 2015 before Ford pulled its funding. At the end of 2014, Ford paid Tickford Racing (then known as Prodrive Racing Australia) to replace the old FG Falcon with the FG-X before withdrawing all financial support. The future of Ford in Supercars became more and more uncertain as time went on. During that time Tickford received sponsorship from Melbourne's Bayford Ford. DJR Team Penske who had not had any factory backing, continued to be supported by Metro Ford in Brisbane. Penske continued to display Ford logos on their cars out of goodwill. Both teams faced speculation of Mustangs, Mondeos and other manufacturers (Tickford Kia and Penske BMW were the most persistent rumours).

Ford began planning a Supercars return early last year. It established early on that the car had to be a Mustang and not a Mondeo. Later in the year began talking to the teams. Earlier this year, Roger Penske publically said that he’d given up on gaining funding from Ford and was talking to other manufacturers. More recently he threatened to run Commodores. Tickford, meanwhile, remained publicly committed to running FG-X Falcons in 2019. Tickford, with its Ford-based road car business was more invested in the Ford brand, factory funding or not. Were Penske’s comments just a stunt, designed to divert the public’s attention? Was he trying to speed up the negotiations? We’ll never know for sure.

Ford Australia president Graeme Whickman said the company had never closed the door on Supercars, and never stopped talking to or supporting the teams. If that's the case, why didn't they renew their sponsorship of Tickford at the end of 2015 to some degree to keep their foot in the door?

The duration of Ford's commitment is unknown. Ford says it hasn't set any fixed time frames, stating instead that this is an ongoing partnership. The use of the term partnership and refusal to call Tickford and Penske factory teams is bizarre, and raises questions about Ford's commitment to Supercars. The most important thing however, is that Ford has returned.

How will the two-door Mustang fit over the control chassis? All we know at this stage is that it does. Tickford and DJR Team Penske confirmed this in the early stages, but more detailed design work still to come. It’s been suggested that the roof height may have to be raised slightly to clear the roll cage. The Mustang is 4,784mm long, 1,919mm wide and 1,381mm tall, with a 2,720mm wheelbase. This makes it 72mm lower than the current lowest car in Supercars, the Ford Falcon. It also has the shortest wheelbase and the most cab-rearward proportions. It is longer than the Volvo S60, so overall length won’t be an issue. A supercar doesn’t have the same dimensions as it’s road-going equivalent. A VF Commodore supercar is only 1220mm tall. In terms of height, that would imply there's there's no problem, but the Mustang's body will have to be lowered like every other car, and then the roof raised to fit over the roll cage . The Mustang’s dash to axle ratio is also a concern. The Mustang’s windscreen will need to be pushed forward to clear the front of the roll cage, while the roof will need to be raised 100mm. As Tickford team principal Tim Edwards explains it, "it fits on the current chassis. It's like every other car that gets stretched, squeezed, pushed and pulled. You can hide a multitude of sins by doing composite panels". According to Supercars' technical director David Stuart, there's nothing to worry about. The Mustang's body can be modified discretely without ruining the shape. "There are difficulties to do it, but it's possible maintaining the look of the manufacturer's DNA", he explained.

The Supercars control chassis

The Supercars control chassis

Eight Mustangs are expected to contest the 2019 championship. Four from Tickford, two from DJR Team Penske, as well as one each from 23Red and Matt Stone Racing. Ford is allowing any team that wants to run a Mustang to produce Mustang-specific panels themselves, which opens the door to other teams running Mustangs. Given that Holden has outsourced the entire Commodore program to Triple 8, other teams may be tempted to switch. Would any? It would depend on how much time they have once development has been completed, and the circumstances each team faces. The 5.0L V8 will be carried over from the Falcon. Edwards preferred this approach to changing the car and engine at the same time. Ford remains open to switching to a version of the twin turbo Ecoboost V6 used in the GT at a later date. It seems that no manufacturer wants to be the guinea pig. With less than a year before the 2019 Adelaide 500, there isn't really enough time to produce a new competitive engine. The way things are going, expect Nissan to run a V6 from 2020.

I've previously argued that Supercars doesn't strictly need Ford, as long as it has at least two committed and competitive manufacturers. I still think that this is the case, but having Ford back is important nonetheless. Ford is to Supercars what McLaren in Formula 1. Ford, although it hasn’t always sponsored a team, has had a presence in the ATCC since the early 1960s. Between Falcon, Sierra, Mustang and Cortina, more ATCC/Supercars drivers’ titles have been won in Fords than any other brand. Losing, or rather not getting Ford back would have dealt a big blow to Supercars more than losing Nissan would.

This week's announcement goes a long way to explaining why Ford teams didn't bother homologating composite panels last October when Triple 8 was given approval to use them on the ZB Commodore. They may have wanted to wait for a; Mustang negotiations to fail, or b; for the ZB to come out with a competitive advantage.

At the end of the day, how or why Ford is returning doesn't matter. The great news is that Supercars secured has two manufacturers for 2019. Now we need a renewed commitment from Nissan.

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