Mercedes-Benz U-turn on V8 Supercars
Two months after twice declaring it wasn't interested in participating in V8 Supercar racing, Mercedes-Benz Australia has executed a spectacular, if reluctant, handbrake turn and burnout.
The German luxury brand will be now represented on the grid next year by Erebus Motorsport, which will enter the elusive fourth brand alongside Holden, Ford (at least for the moment), and another 2013 debutant, Nissan.
But not as a factory or dealer-supported entry.
The team of three E-Class lookalikes will be owned and financed by well-heeled businesswoman Betty Klimenko, a colourful Mercedes-Benz aficionado whose Erebus team has been racing two SLS AMG GT3 sports models in the Australian GT Championship.
Klimenko is the property developer daughter of Hungarian immigrant John Saunders who co-founded Westfield with Frank Lowy.
With her eye-catching blast of blonde hair with pink highlights (this week), bold and obvious body art and a preference for making an all-black fashion statement, Mrs Klimenko doesn't fit the usual stereotype of a race team principal or perhaps even a Mercedes-Benz owner. But she'll match or better bank accounts with most along pit lane and is reportedly ready and able to throw money at achieving her goals in Australia's most popular motor sport category.
Her new Mercedes-Benz-based team will be engineered by the Queensland-based Stone Brothers Racing, which has won V8 Supercar championships with Marcos Ambrose (two) and Russell Ingall.
The two Stone siblings, Ross and Jim, will thus end a long relationship with Ford, which is pulling back its commitment to V8 Supercars as sales of the locally-produced Falcon large car nosedive.
In a further shock move, Mrs Klimenko and Erebus have begun the process of acquiring SBR from the Stones.
For some time Mrs Klimenko's ambitious deal to race Mercedes-Benz-based cars in V8 Supercars appeared to have come unstuck on Mercedes-Benz Australia's strong belief that V8 Supercar racing's working-class demographic and passionate Holden-versus-Ford heritage was not remotely a comfortable fit for the brand's up-market positioning and wealthy customers.
Only last month Mercedes-Benz said it was not fielding "a factory car" and that V8 Supercars was not the right fit for its brand.
As well, Mercedes-Benz in Germany has a strict policy of participating only in Formula One and major international race categories.
But Betty Klimenko clearly doesn't take no for an answer. With strong connections to the Mercedes-Benz's AMG division in Germany, thanks to a large investment in their products, she redoubled her push to develop a technical partnership for an ongoing V8 Supercars program in Australia.
Mercedes-Benz Australia has emphasised strongly that the brand's participation in V8 Supercars will not involve any support from the factory nor its local dealer council.
"Still, we want people to understand that while Mercedes-Benz Australia has zero involvement in this project, we have now given it our blessing," said Mercedes-Benz Australia public relations chief David McCarthy. "We initially said 'no' but robust discussions followed. Erebus and Betty Klimenko are valued customers of the brand and their loyalty means a lot to us."
The cars will be powered by a smaller version of the 6.2-litre V8 used in various AMG production cars. It was be race tuned and its capacity reduced to 5.0 litres to meet the upcoming Car of the Future regulations.
"In the end this is a business arrangement between AMG in Germany and its customer Erebus Motorsport," added McCarthy. "Of course, we will watch the cars with interest and hope they do some winning ... as much as any brand is allowed to win in V8 Supercars. We sense Erebus's strong links to AMG will bring some real technical benefits."
There is much to be read into what hasn't been said about Mercedes-Benz's change of heart.
Having seen two decades of the Holden versus Ford track wars and a unique tribal culture dominating the category, Mercedes-Benz Australia is very aware of the menace to the three-pointed star's careful nurtured brand image.
While half a world away, AMG sees a commercial opportunity to sell hardware to Erebus, Mercedes-Benz Australia is sensitive to the risks of being on the grid. They'll be called German bullies if they win. And laughed at if they lose.
As is usual in these arrangements, Mercedes-Benz Australia has insisted on the right to veto the sponsorship the cars will carry. Don't expect to see commercial support from Fred's Dollar and Dime Shop.
Undoubtedly, though, the arrival of Mercedes (and Nissan) to the grid in 2013 brings some long-overdue variety to a time-weary show that appears to have done little to help sales of the only two cars on the grid.
V8 Supercars claims the past decade or so have been the best for Australian motor sport. Yet between 1998 and 2011 sales of the Falcon dropped almost 73 per cent and Commodore more than 57 per cent. In the same time the new-car market has grown almost 26 per cent.
Erebus Motorsport CEO Ryan Maddison says the team is now rushing to ensure the three Benz-badged cars will be on the grid - and competitive - for the opening round of the 2013 championship, Adelaide's Clipsal 500, in February.
"We're behind the eight-ball with the tight timeline, but we're confident we have the right people to do the job," Maddison said
"All the AMG engine development for V8 Supercars has been done in the virtual world [with computers]," he said. "But it helps us that the engine has already been used for motor sport, in GT sports car racing." Erebus paid AMG for the engines under a regular business arrangement.
Maddison also said that SBR has a new Falcon-based Car of the Future almost finished and that this will be track tested within a week or two.
A mad scramble has now begun to put the 5.0-litre Mercedes-AMG V8 race engine, and the Mercedes version of the Car of the Future body shape through the obligatory V8 Supercars Australia testing processes to ensure performance parity with its competitors.
It's a high pressure time for the V8 Supercars technical people as they are also putting the 2013 Nissan Car of the Future through the same laborious engine dynamometer and aerodynamic procedures.
Maddison told Drive that SBR's current commercial relationships will stay in place for next year meaning the three current drivers - Shane Van Gisbergen, Lee Holdsworth and Tim Slade are favoured to be retained.
And lots of people in motor sport are hoping that hitherto jingoistic Australian race fans might be finally ready to warmly welcome foreign brands into the V8 Supercars cauldron.
Sydney Morning Herald