Mark Fogarty

Nis­san Aus­tralia is once again faced with the dilemma of de­cid­ing whether to stay in, or leave Su­per­cars

Motor (Australia) - - INSIDE LINE -

HERE’S THE prob­lem. You’re a car com­pany that hardly sells pas­sen­ger cars any more, yet you’re in up to your eye­balls in the na­tion’s ma­jor sedan­based rac­ing se­ries. What’s more, you’re rep­re­sented by a dis­con­tin­ued model run­ning an or­phan V8. The co­nun­drum doesn’t end there. Your much-vaunted fac­tory team has won just two races in five sea­sons de­spite the ex­pen­di­ture of many, many mil­lions of dol­lars. Ba­si­cally, you aren’t com­pet­i­tive, so when you fac­tor in mar­ket rel­e­vance, why bother? Wel­come to the dilemma fac­ing Nis­san Aus­tralia. The com­pany is once again go­ing through the tor­tu­ous process of de­cid­ing whether to con­tinue in Su­per­cars be­yond the ex­ist­ing com­mit­ment to the end of next year.

It was lit­tle more than a year ago that Nis­san re­newed for 2017/18 af­ter a pro­tracted ap­proval process. This time, though, there are a lot more ques­tions to be an­swered, not the least of which is whether the lo­cal op­er­a­tion wants to stay in Su­per­cars. That fun­da­men­tal go or no go de­ter­mi­na­tion has yet to be made. Nis­san Aus­tralia man­age­ment is still weigh­ing how rac­ing would fit with the com­pany’s prod­uct strat­egy and brand po­si­tion­ing in 2019 and be­yond.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, a new man­ag­ing di­rec­tor ar­rived in early Septem­ber, au­to­mat­i­cally trig­ger­ing a re-eval­u­a­tion. Cana­dian Stephen Lester re­placed lo­cal Richard Emery, who was a de­clared cham­pion of Nis­san’s fac­tory team in­volve­ment in Su­per­cars. Lester has in­her­ited a rac­ing pro­gram that is, lit­er­ally, for­eign to him. Even though he is in­ter­ested in rac­ing and, from his In­finiti back­ground, is across its po­ten­tial for im­age en­hance­ment, Su­per­cars is unique to Aus­trala­sia – and, on the sur­face, at odds with the com­pany’s lack of main­stream pas­sen­ger cars.

Run­ning a rac­ing pro­gram that is out on its own is an­other prob­lem. How – and if – it can be in­cor­po­rated into Nis­san’s global mo­tor­sport pol­icy is a key part of the puz­zle, es­pe­cially as Ja­pan still hasn’t de­cided what its next flag­ship in­volve­ment will be.

If noth­ing else, so far Lester has shown a will­ing­ness to ob­jec­tively as­sess the sit­u­a­tion. The ques­tion be­ing asked is: what is Nis­san get­ting out of its multi-mil­lion dol­lar back­ing of the Kelly Rac­ing-run Nis­san Mo­tor­sport Aus­tralia with its four-car squad of Al­tima V8s and whether – and how – it aligns with his vi­sion of the com­pany’s fu­ture? He at­tended the Sandown 500 just a cou­ple of weeks af­ter his ar­rival and was also at the Bathurst 1000, tak­ing an ac­tive in­ter­est in the Su­per­cars show and the team’s for­tunes.

Lester de­clared at Bathurst that no de­ci­sion had been made ei­ther way on Su­per­cars af­ter next year, and was equally adamant that he is in no rush to de­liver a ver­dict. De­spite the Al­tima V8’s lack of suc­cess in the five sea­sons, Nis­san mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives claim a mea­sur­able ben­e­fit to the brand, main­tain­ing the pro­gram is about pro­mot­ing Nis­san rather than the Al­tima.

Fur­ther­more, the com­pany’s re­search un­der­lines that com­pet­ing in Su­per­cars par­tic­u­larly ap­peals to Navara own­ers, sug­gest­ing the in­volve­ment reaches a key de­mo­graphic of ute buy­ers. That seg­ment is one of Nis­san’s main­stays in Aus­tralia as it has be­come al­most to­tally reliant on pick-ups and SUVs.

Which is yet an­other vex­ing is­sue. In the ab­sence of any sedans or even hatch­backs in the fore­see­able fu­ture, what body shape would a next-gen Nis­san Su­per­cars racer adopt? An un­known new over­seas model or the GT-R? The lat­est Gen2 rules al­low twodoor coupes and the GT-R sil­hou­ette could be adapted, along with an adap­ta­tion of the Nismo GT3 rac­ing ver­sion’s 3.8-litre twin­turbo V6. But there are con­cerns that rac­ing the GT-R in Su­per­cars would be the wrong im­age for Nis­san’s ‘halo’ sports car.

If Lester de­ter­mines that a re­newed fac­tory backed Su­per­cars pro­gram is de­sir­able – which is far from a like­li­hood, much less a given – then that is only the start. Nis­san HQ and Nismo have to be con­vinced to sup­port the fund­ing of an ex­pen­sive lo­cal rac­ing pro­gram for a small mar­ket out­side the global cor­po­rate mo­tor­sport loop (what­ever that is go­ing to be).

Also, Nismo would have to be brought on board to help de­velop a Su­per­cars-spe­cific ver­sion of the VR38DETT mo­tor. There would be no rea­son to per­sist with the lo­cally de­vel­oped 5.0-litre rac­ing de­riv­a­tive of the 5.6-litre Pa­trol V8, which has fallen short of match­ing the Ford and GM V8s. All that on top of the afore­men­tioned angst over what sedan or coupe model a fu­ture lo­cal racer’s ap­pear­ance would mimic. But wait, there’s still more.

If all those prob­lem­atic plan­ets can be aligned, Nis­san Aus­tralia would then need to de­cide whether to stay with Todd and Rick Kelly’s op­er­a­tion, split sup­port with an­other team or switch its fac­tory back­ing else­where. Plus, whether to keep fund­ing four cars or cut back to two fac­tory en­tries with as­sis­tance to ad­di­tional non-works cars. There is a lot to pon­der, so don’t be sur­prised if Nis­san’s fu­ture in Su­per­cars isn’t known un­til well into next year.

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