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‘Wrong, indefensible’: S5000 founder hits out at Supercars pathway

THE founder of S5000 has slammed the eligibility criteria required for a driver to be allowed to race in Supercars as question marks hang over the open-wheel category’s future.

The word ‘Superlicence’ will disappear from January 1, 2024 with Motorsport Australia and Supercars both abolishing the system, which was instigated in 2017 to provide a formal way of determining a driver’s suitability to race in the championship full-time.

However, Supercars’ driver eligibility requirements will remain the same for 2024, following on from revisions made midway through this year that enhance the role of Super3 and Porsche Carrera Cup Australia in the pathway to Supercars.

To be eligible to race in Supercars, a driver must satisfy at least one of these three criteria:

  • A minimum of three Supercars Championship round starts in the past five years
  • A minimum of six Super2 Series round starts in the past three years (including endorsement signatures from the race director)
  • A minimum of three Super2 Series round starts in the past three years, plus a top three end-of-season ranking in either the Super3 Series or Porsche Carrera Cup Australia in the past three years

Supercars also reserves the right to provide an exemption to drivers “based on his/her international or historic Supercars racing achievements”, while drivers must also be at least 17 years of age and hold a minimum FIA International Grade C licence and Motorsport Australia International Competitor licence (minimum Grade C).

S5000 founder Chris Lambden, who served as its development manager for category manager Australian Racing Group until this year, claims the continuing restriction may force the open-wheel category to be parked for next year.

In an open letter to “interested parties, the motorsport industry and public”, Lambden outlined the situation from his perspective.

“Originally, the Super2 option was introduced as an ‘alternate’ means of Supercars Superlicence qualification, if a driver didn’t quite have the required points,” he wrote.

“Fair enough – but somewhere along the way the wording changed from ‘alternately’ to one of compulsion.

“This is completely wrong and indefensible … So, the standard required to drive in Supercars is now ($600k) cash-based.

“Right now, there is a stalemate. ARG owner Barry Rogers has drawn a line in the sand – if the Superlicence issue isn’t resolved, they may ‘park’ the S5000 cars.

“To date, MA has not been able to insist that Supercars abandon the discriminatory regime.”

Elsewhere in the letter, Lambden praised the new free-to-air-based TV deal for the SpeedSeries as removing “the other negative haunting S5000”, as well as citing what an alternative future could look like for the category.

Read the open letter in full below:

The year is drawing to a close and, after some 18 months trying to assist in resolving a couple of behind-the-scenes issues that have been and continue to negatively affect the car/category I played a part in creating, it is time to update interested parties, the motorsport industry and public, in the hope that the issues can be resolved and S5000 be allowed to re-establish itself on merit.

As it stands, no S5000 driver, of even the highest standard, can accept a drive with a Supercars team. (The same applies to a number of other relevant categories in the sport). A sensible Motorsport Australia (MA) system to acquire Superlicence-qualifying points through success across a range of categories – very much like the FIA system applying to F1 – has ultimately been replaced by Supercars’ own requirement that you cannot race a Supercar unless you have completed six races (ie a season – budget $600k+) in a Super2 car. (This was recently modified to excuse top-three Carrera Cup and Super3 drivers. Porsche spends significant dollars with Supercars …).

Originally, the Super2 option was introduced as an ‘alternate’ means of Supercars Superlicence qualification, if a driver didn’t quite have the required points. Fair enough – but somewhere along the way the wording changed from ‘alternately’ to one of compulsion.

This is completely wrong and indefensible. Super 2 was created (by Supercars) primarily as a means of off-loading its old cars, and yes, it has been one of the options in terms of acquiring Superlicence points. But the day (last year) when it became a compulsion, Supercars entered into a world of discrimination, anti-competitive behaviour, restraint of trade and so on, totally unacceptable in 21st century Australia.

After S5000’s parent organisation Australian Racing Group (ARG), raised the issue with MA – they understood the ramifications – MA’s reaction, somewhat bizarrely, was to end the Superlicence points system, which has achieved nothing, because Supercars has continued with its ‘compulsory’ Super2 requirement. So, the standard required to drive in Supercars is now ($600k) cash-based.

This has led to some appalling outcomes – the most obvious being the case of double Gold Star champion (and former German F4 champion) Joey Mawson, with points to burn, who was told in February of this year, literally while testing for PremiAir (a co-drive was in fact offered) that “If you think you’re going to race one of these cars without doing six races in Super 2, you’re dreaming …”

That is unacceptable – and the protestation that half a dozen races in an old model car is an essential ‘safety’ issue, better preparing drivers for Supercars, is ridiculous when you recall that the likes of Skaife, Lowndes, Bright, Kelly, Murphy, Larkham, Bargwanna, and more, all moved directly from Formula Holden (the 1990s predecessor to S5000)  to Supercars – and they did okay, didn’t they! More recently, time spent in S5000 by Thomas Randle and James Golding (who qualified for a Superlicence prior to the rule change) has clearly been beneficial.

This issue has harmed S5000 significantly – the inability to move to Supercars, if offered, deterring numbers of quality new entrants.

Right now, there is a stalemate. ARG owner Barry Rogers has drawn a line in the sand – if the Superlicence issue isn’t resolved, they may ‘park’ the S5000 cars. To date, MA has not been able to insist that Supercars abandon the discriminatory regime. There is currently no calendar in place for 2024.

S5000 – conceived, designed and developed in Australia – is a great example of the excellence within Australian motorsport engineering, and a challenging single-seater formula. Feedback suggests the Australian motorsport public loves the category.

Right now, Motorsport Australia needs to step up. It is affiliated to the FIA; Supercars is an FIA-recognised category; organisations such as the FIA don’t accept any form of discrimination …

To be honest, to date, I have a sense that MA is slightly ‘uncomfortable’ with S5000 – maybe because it’s not part of the FIA’s Formula 4/3/2 official F1 pathway. Who knows. There have been technical restrictions applied that don’t equally apply to other categories, and so on – and none of that has helped.

Right now, if the Supercars Board itself cannot understand the degree of discrimination/anti-competitive behaviour it is promoting and end it, then MA needs to re-assert who runs motorsport in Australia; that the Super2 ‘compulsion’ is ended. Now. Continuation of the Superlicence points system, rather than dumping it, might be a logical conclusion.

It would add to the good news recently of the return of free-to-air TV to the MA SpeedSeries next year – great news and a tick in the MA box. It was, in my view, ARG’s decision to prematurely go for a pay-TV deal two years ago with a relatively small provider, and the resultant significant drift in audience (and thus sponsor value) that affected all ARG categories, that has been the other negative haunting S5000. That is now fixed.

Where to now for S5000? With the Superlicence barrier removed, it can re-assert itself as a challenging, worthy category in Australian motorsport. My personal original concept for S5000 was that it would contest a compact, focussed, five-round series in the late September-November window – like BBL, or TRS in NZ – when much of the European/US motorsport season is over. That didn’t eventuate. Maybe these circumstances will re-ignite that plan …

Chris Lambden

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