Many people who work in V8 Supercar will arrive at the opening round of the 2007 season in Adelaide next week without any sense of the previous year having ended.
Much will be different about the championship this year, and change on that sort of scale requires a lot of late nights, be it in the boardrooms or on the workshop floor.
There is an entirely new generation of car. There are, for the first time, rules governing how much money the teams can spend and, to some extent, how they can spend it and, on the sporting front, there has been a complete overhaul of both qualifying and the points system. Approaches that for years have stemmed from conventional wisdom now require a fresh start with a clean sheet of paper.
There has been so much going on, in fact, that everyone has virtually forgotten that the battle for the drivers' title last year ended so dramatically or acrimoniously...
A dark horse for much of the season, Toll/HSV Holden driver Rick Kelly moved onto serious contention for the championship late in the year. His surge culminated in a showdown against Ford's leading light Craig Lowndes, the only driver capable of matching the late Peter Brock as a public folk hero.
Lowndes held a slim advantage going into the weekend but Kelly was able to keep him in sight during the first two races, a task that appeared to be made easier for him with the help of some of his Holden allies. Just one point split the pair going into the third and final race of the weekend, and when you consider that the entire championship is built around the premise of a Ford versus Holden rivalry, the organisers could not have written a better script for the finale.
But in the end, it was an anti-climax. On the second lap of the race, Lowndes was trying to find a way past the HRT Commodore driven by Rick's older brother Todd, and was inadvertently hit from behind under braking by his title rival and punted squarely into Todd's door. Lowndes spent the remainder of the race driving in and out of the pits to have tyre problems attended to, while Rick was able to cruise home to claim the crown.
But in the scramble to prepare for a season that offers so many new elements, any grudges have been swept under the carpet. The 2007 V8 Supercar Championship is a fresh start, and here are eight things to look out for.
Rick Kelly drives the new Holden VE Commodore © GM Media
Holden's VE Commodore
It's probably not going over the top to say that Holden's new VE Commodore is the most significant V8 Supercar to be built since the inception of the series.
The VE represents a complete generational change for the Commodore. Past models, from the VT that first took to the track in 1998 up to the VZ that won last year's championship, were built around the same basic platform. The VE is completely new from the ground up.
Dimensionally, it is different - the wheelbase is longer, the overhangs are shorter and it will have a different aero profile, the latter being something that will face particular scrutiny early in the season as part of an eternal quest to maintain parity between the two cars. (The VE is being introduced at a time where the performance difference between the Commodore and the Ford Falcon is minuscule).
As exciting as the VE may be for Holden, it could make life tricky during the opening rounds as teams learn to get a handle on their new machines. This won't be a problem for everybody, as some Holden teams will not even have their new cars ready for the opening round and will start off in last year's VZ.
Ford has a new car of sorts too, with the BF model Falcon replacing the very successful BA. The difference in this case, however, is largely cosmetic - a stopgap for 2007 as the Blue Oval prepares to unveil its 'real' new car in 2008.
The Supercar will take a leaf out of Formula One's book for 2007 when it switches to a 'knockout' qualifying system. During sprint rounds, qualifying will run over a 45-minute session broken up into three parts. All cars will participate in the opening 15 minutes; the 20 quickest will be allowed to stay on for the second 15 minutes, and the final 15 minutes will be restricted to the top 10.
If you find yourself pining for the old 'all-in' session that was followed by a single-lap shootout for the top 10 to decide the final grid, you'll be happy to know that the traditional format is being retained for the two endurance races at Sandown and Bathurst.
Now this is something worth getting excited about. One of the biggest flaws with the V8 Supercar championship in recent years was a points system that awarded points all the way down to last place and offered little reward for gaining a position. Drivers would often decide that risking an overtaking move on a car in front wasn't worth the meagre extra helping of points on offer.
That is no more. Now, the actual breakdown changes from round to round, depending upon whether the weekend is a three-race format (i.e. most sprint rounds), a two-race format (e.g. Adelaide) or a single race (Sandown and Bathurst), but the fundamentals are the same. Points differentials from one position down to the next are now much greater, offering a bigger incentive for overtaking. Better yet, anyone who finishes below 15th place goes home empty-handed.
The Clipsal 500 in Adelaide © Ford Media
When the Formula One Grand Prix moved east to Melbourne, Adelaide looked to V8 Supercar to fill the void. It puts every bit as much energy into its V8 street race as it did the GP, with the result that the Clipsal 500 is now, along with the endurance races at Sandown and Bathurst, one of the championship's flagship events.
But amid the carnival atmosphere and the 'first day back at school' vibe of a new season, Adelaide can cause the teams some headaches - especially this year. The combination of fast corners, concrete barriers and minimal run-off means that Adelaide punishes mistakes. When someone gets it wrong, it tends to have an expensive outcome. But the Holden teams that have their new VEs ready will need to be extra wary, because the cars are so new that some vital spares - like panels - are hard to come by.
It is also a tricky race logistically, as you will see if you dig out your atlas and turn to the map of Australia. All of the teams are based either in Melbourne or on the Gold Coast in Queensland, which is nowhere near Adelaide, and even further from Perth, where the cars are due for the second round three weeks later.
Unlike NASCAR teams that take a different car to every track, V8 teams use the same car over and over again, and return to their workshops in between. For the Queensland teams in particular, simply travelling to Adelaide, then back to the Gold Coast, then across to Perth inside three weeks is a big undertaking, and the last thing they need is to have to rebuild one - or, God forbid, two - crashed cars in the meantime.
A few new blue-chip sponsors have found their way into V8 Supercar for 2007. Dick Johnson Racing will take to the track in the colours of Jim Beam, setting up a whisky war against the Jack Daniel's emblazoned cars of Perkins Motorsport. Industrial tool giant Irwin, meanwhile, will be seen on the side of the second Britek Motorsport Falcon driven by Alan Gurr.
But the deal that Triple 8 signed with Vodafone blows everything out of the water. Not only is it the most lucrative sponsorship arrangement in the history of the championship, it is the biggest sponsorship deal in Australian sporting history - Australian magazine Motorsport News suggests that it is worth as much as $15.8 (US Dollars) - AUD$20 million.
The three-year deal will see the cars of Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup racing under the 'Team Vodafone' moniker and will provide exclusive content to 'Vodafone live!' subscribers with 3G handsets.
The Vodafone 888 Ford © Ford Media
There may be more money washing around in some parts of the V8 paddock, but there are now restrictions upon how much of it can be spent. Called the TREC (Total Racing Expenditure Cap), the new cost-containment policy will see two-car teams restricted to a budget of AUD$6.75m for the 2007 season. Single car teams will be limited to 60 percent of the figure, three car teams will be allowed 120 percent, and four-car teams restricted to 130 percent.
In essence, the restrictions apply to every element of a team's budget that helps the car's performance, including salaries (staff and driver), parts and development. Marketing and promotional expenses are excluded. Plans are in the works for the TREC to be reduced next year, but in its 2007 form it will not pose a huge problem for a number of teams that are already operating at or below the mandated level.
But for a few of the heavy-hitters including the two factory teams, Holden Racing Team (HRT) and Ford Performance Racing (FPR), the Toll/HSV team and Team Vodafone are going to have to take a long, hard look at the way they do things. It is particularly bad news for HRT and Toll/HSV, which are considered so closely aligned that they have been 'grouped' and thus are viewed as a four-car outfit.
Not surprisingly, the concept does not have unanimous support along pitlane and there are also questions about how it can be policed and what sort of potential exists for the exploitation of loopholes.
In comparison with the past couple of seasons, the driver market was relatively sedate for the coming season.
The biggest move was triggered when Jason Bright decided that it was time to realise the long-held ambition of being his own boss and departed FPR for the self-owned Britek Motorsport. This opened up a plum seat in a Ford factory car, and in the end Steve Richards was tempted across from the Holden side of the fence to fill it.
Shane Price and Jack Perkins © GM Media
Elsewhere, a couple of lean years has prompted the popular New Zealander Greg Murphy to suit up with Tasman Motorsport, leaving his old job at PWR to be taken by Paul Dumbrell. Jack Daniel's Racing will have a completely new line-up - one that is highly unusual in that both are rookies with Jack Perkins and Shane Price recruited to drive the black Commodores.
John Bowe, 1995 series champion, has announced that this will be his farewell year, and that he will spend it with the small PCR team - a deal that leaves former Champ Car driver Marcus Marshall without a seat. Alan Gurr will get his big opportunity at the wheel of Britek's second car and Andrew Jones will join his uncle Brad Jones in a Team BOC Ford.
There was plenty of room to spread out and get comfortable in the grandstands when the V8s made their first trip to Bahrain last year, but despite the small crowd numbers the event was deemed a success and is back on the calendar for 2007.
It's a different story in New Zealand though, where Pukekohe will be hosting the Supercar for the final time. NZ's slot in the series will be filled by a street race in Hamilton from 2008 onwards.
In Australia, Eastern Creek will this year rejoin the championship after a couple of years on the bench. The event replaces the non-championship support slot at the Australian GP, and will be held over the Queen's Birthday long weekend in June - offering a rare chance to see V8 Supercar go racing on a Monday!