How crisis talks over Supercars’ Gen3 future could leave it without a paddle

With Supercars’ Gen3 era on the horizon, a shift is set to take place – in more ways than one – but, as has become clear in recent weeks, the plan to bin the stick and use paddles with electronic assisted shift has been met with fierce opposition

How crisis talks over Supercars’ Gen3 future could leave it without a paddle

Albert Park, March 2017. Max Verstappen climbs into Shane van Gisbergen’s Holden Commodore Supercar and starts prodding buttons and pushing pedals. It’s just a Red Bull photo shoot, but the layout of the cockpit piques Verstappen’s interest. He asks van Gisbergen if he left foot brakes. The Kiwi explains that with these cars you not only need to brake with your right foot, but you also need to heel-and-toe on the downshifts.

Verstappen, at that point already a third-year Formula 1 driver, shoots a puzzled look back at van Gisbergen.

“What’s heel-and-toe?”

The exchange illustrates how quickly technology moves in motor racing. At the time van Gisbergen was shocked that Verstappen had never even heard of one of motor racing’s classic techniques. But there’s a good chance Max has never driven a road car with a H-pattern gearbox, let alone a racing car.

It may be dead, or at least dying, in Europe but the art of heel-and-toe lives on in Australia. The era of the H-pattern in a Supercar has been over for more than a decade, but even the current sequential stick shift units best respond to the most traditional of driving styles – brake with the left side of your right foot and blip the throttle with the right side of your right foot as you downshift, to match the road speed and engine revs. Or something very similar, each driver has their own preferred way of keeping the brake pressure consistent while modulating the throttle.

Some drivers use the clutch with their left foot as they downshift, some don’t. But left foot braking is considered a no-no. It’s bad for fuel economy and the cars respond better to fully clearing the throttle in the braking zone. There are only two drivers in the field that left foot brake, Garry Jacobson and Fabian Coulthard, and the latter only does so because of permanent damage to his right foot sustained in a karting crash years ago.

But there are fears that the heel-and-toe’s days may be numbered down under. There is a very real push for the Gen3 Supercar, which is set to be introduced next season, to bin the stick and adopt paddles with electronic assisted shift.

Pace Innovations Gen3 prototype Ford Mustang Supercars chassis

Pace Innovations Gen3 prototype Ford Mustang Supercars chassis

Photo by: Supercars

It’s become a hot-button issue, the flashpoint of the controversy surrounding the new rules. Most of the drivers are furious about it. The fan feedback has been almost universally negative. But it’s seen as necessary progress in small-but-influential circles and is therefore very much on the table.

“I hate it,” says Tickford driver Cam Waters. “For me, what makes our cars so good is that you actually have to drive them. There’s an art to it, and part of that art is using the gear stick and heel-and-toeing.

“Everyone has their own techniques and that’s what sets us all apart, which is a good thing for the sport.”

For the drivers, the biggest gripe is that paddles will make the cars too easy to drive. Supercars are famous for being over-powered, under-gripped and just downright ugly. Even the most talented of international drivers struggle when they get in a Supercar for the first time and, as odd as it sounds, it’s a badge of honour for the Supercars stars. Many of the current drivers complain that through improved aero, brakes and tyres the current-spec cars are already too easy to drive – and paddles will only make them easier.

“Every driver in Supercars is a good driver, there's no doubt about that. But the exceptional guys, who are at the front week in, week out, I feel like the skillset is in the way they get the car to the corner, on the brake and on the clutch using the gearbox. Going to a paddle shift with auto blip, that will take that element away. It will remove a skillset that separates the good from the exceptional" Nick Percat

Brad Jones Racing driver Nick Percat is in no doubt about that, having tried both paddles and a stick shift on his simulator during the Supercars Eseries that briefly replaced real-world racing last year.

“I back-to-backed it when we did the Eseries. It’s 100% easier with the paddles,” he says. “I used to absolutely give it to a few of the guys who were using the paddle shift option because it’s just easier.”

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Photo by: Motorsport Images

According to Percat losing the stick shift will rob the category of what separates the good drivers from the exceptional drivers.

“Every driver in Supercars is a good driver, there's no doubt about that,” he says. “But the exceptional guys, who are at the front week in, week out, I feel like the skillset is in the way they get the car to the corner, on the brake and on the clutch using the gearbox.

“Going to a paddle shift with auto blip, that will take that element away. It will remove a skillset that separates the good from the exceptional.

“The first time I drove a Supercar was at Mallala with the Holden Racing Team. It was all about trying to figure out how to brake the car before the corner. If you look at the guys who have been unbelievable in these cars over the years, guys like Mark Skaife, Garth Tander, Jamie Whincup... everyone says what they do on the brake pedal is where the magic is.

“It would be disappointing to take that element away. And that’s what will happen if all you have to do is push the brake pedal at the right pressure, pull a paddle and electronics takes care of the rest.”

Waters adds: “100% cars will be easier to drive with the paddles. You don't have to blip, you don’t have to think about it. You just pull a paddle and it does everything for you. I think it’s boring.”

Perhaps an even bigger danger than the cars being easy to drive us that they may look easy to drive. Modern Formula 1 cars are insanely fast and, one can only imagine, incredibly difficult to drive. But would you know it from watching on-board vision? Not really. All of the controls are contained on the steering wheel and modern camera technology absorbs all of the distortion in the road surface. A modern on-board simply doesn’t stack up to the famous footage of Ayrton Senna bouncing around Suzuka in 1989, plucking gears as he wrestled the car over the bumps.

Start action

Start action

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As it stands Supercars hasn’t gone down that path. When you watch current on-board vision the cars look hard to drive. Between swinging from the in-car anti-roll bar adjusters, to tweaking the brake balance corner-to-corner, to diving on the brakes and desperately grabbing for the gear stick, there’s a lot going on. And it’s spectacular.

There’s talk the anti-roll bar and brake bias adjustment could be scrapped with Gen3. If the gear stick goes as well, Supercars runs the very real risk of the cars looking way too easy to drive. And if a fan sitting at home starts to think ‘hey, I could do that’ then the battle for engagement has well and truly been lost.

"Enthusiasts love to see how we manipulate the chassis with the different tools in the car. It’s important we have those tools at our disposal, and the paddles will take away an element of that. It will look like we’re doing what people joke about – just sitting there turning a steering wheel" Nick Percat

“With the new cars you’re going to lose that,” warns Waters. “At the end of the day we’re in an entertainment business. When you watch the on-boards it’s cool seeing the heel-and-toe, the brake bias changes, the roll bar changes, all that stuff. And Supercars wants to get rid of all of that. It’s going to make the cars less exciting to watch for a spectator.”

“People cry out for cool on-board,” adds Percat. “People want to see what we’re doing inside the car and now we have the camera technology to be able to show it off.

“Everyone loves the footage of Shane van Gisbergen coming off Turn 2 at Symmons Plains and changing the roll bar twice, on the gears and then adjusting the brake bias into the hairpin. That’s what everyone wants to see.

“Enthusiasts love to see how we manipulate the chassis with the different tools in the car. It’s important we have those tools at our disposal, and the paddles will take away an element of that.

“It will look like we’re doing what people joke about – just sitting there turning a steering wheel.

Shane van Gisbergen, Red Bull Ampol Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Shane van Gisbergen, Red Bull Ampol Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“I have a group of friends that I've raced karts with since we were kids – exceptional karters – and a couple of years ago I took them for a hot lap at Sandown. They all said the same thing when they got out – ‘I have no idea how you do that’. I was talking to one of those guys just this week and he said, ‘I reckon I could drive a Supercar if it had paddle shift and there was no heel-toe’.

“That speaks volumes to me. You can't always put on good racing, but you can always make sure you’ve got good on-board footage.”

So where is the push to adopt paddle shift coming from? Most of the positive noise around paddles has been coming from Triple Eight. As the GM homologation team T8 has a very hands-on role in the Gen3 project and boss Roland Dane is widely-considered one of the shrewdest politicians in the Supercars paddock.

The paddle push is nothing new for Triple Eight. When the team turned one of its Commodores into the wild Sandman ride car back in 2014 it fitted the wagon with a fly-by-wire throttle and six-speed paddle shift ‘box. A year later T8 team manager Mark Dutton talked about the safety benefits of paddle shift after Chaz Mostert broke his leg on the gear stick of his Tickford Ford when he crashed during qualifying at Bathurst. In other words, it’s a campaign that’s been years in the making.

Jamie Whincup, who will replace Dane as Triple Eight boss next season, has been the most vocal supporter of paddle shift in the media over the past few months. That was at least until the recent crisis meeting between Supercars and its teams to address the unrest over Gen3. One key outcome from the meeting was a media blackout of sorts, with most interview requests for comment regarding Gen3 now being declined. Whincup cancelled an interview with Autosport for this story at short notice. We asked Supercars to suggest alternatives to present the pro side of the argument, but didn’t get a clear response before the deadline.

The safety issue is now irrelevant, as Mostert’s 2015 crash prompted the category-wide introduction of ‘safety cell’ style seats with leg protection. So the current paddle shift push seems to be built on two pillars – relevance and cost.

It’s hard to argue that a sequential stick shift is relevant to modern series production cars. Manual cars in general are a dying breed and the ones that still exist are H-patterns. A lot of modern cars, particularly those with dual clutch automatic transmissions, do have paddles – although you could question whether people really use the paddles when they’re on their way to the supermarket.

Shane van Gisbergen, Triple Eight Race Engineering Holden

Shane van Gisbergen, Triple Eight Race Engineering Holden

Photo by: Mark Horsburgh, Edge Photographics

Perhaps a more pressing question is how important relevance to a road car really is.

“Everyone thinks we need to stay relevant, but there is no relevance anymore,” says Waters. “It’s an entertainment sport. Whatever makes the sport and the racing exciting, that’s what we need to stick with. Paddle shift isn’t going to give us that.

“At the end of the day people still go and watch horse racing. Riding a horse to work went out of fashion 100 years ago. People need to stop worrying about staying relevant. Stop trying to follow the trends and stick with what works. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Another element to the issue of relevance is the fact that Supercars is one of the last professional racing categories not to have adopted paddles, putting it at risk of looking old fashioned to the wider racing world. But Percat says that’s something that should be embraced.

“Whenever we’ve raced overseas, gone to places like Abu Dhabi and Texas, everyone loved our cars because they were raw race cars,” he says. “I don't know why you would want to get rid of that.

"I don’t see costs being the reason. Particularly when you look at the cost of converting the gearbox to be able to run the paddles. You’re looking at something like $20,000. How many dog rings do we break in a season? I doubt it’s more than $20,000 worth" Nick Percat

“There’s a reason people from overseas are buying old Supercars and bashing around places like Brands Hatch in them. Because they are cool racing cars. It’s disappointing that we want to go away from that and become just like any other racing car in the world.”

The cost argument is based on the lifespan of the gearbox and engine. Drivers regularly use the downshift as a way to help pivot what is a relatively lazy car, using rear locking and counter-steering to fight understeer. Percat explains: “You can change the balance of the car on the downshift. Look at The Bend; for Turn 1 you try and change down quite late because you’re coming off a big straight and there’s a lot of rear instability on the way in. So you’re trying to limit any rear locking.

“But then at Turn 6, where it’s very sensitive to front locking, you down change much earlier to try and clear the brake. Every corner you’re manipulating the balance of the car on the down change.”

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Photo by: Mark Horsburgh/Motorsport Images

It takes its toll on the dog rings, no doubt about that, and over-revs clearly aren’t great for engine life. But Percat isn’t convinced the savings will outweigh the changeover costs… or that paddles will even eliminate wear and tear on the ‘box and motor internals.

“Look at Carrera Cup; they use a paddle shift and you still have to rebuild those gearboxes quite often,” he says. “The lifing won’t change. It’s the same gear set, so I don’t see how the lifing would change.

“There might be a tiny bit less wear on the dog rings, but that can still happen with a paddle shift gearbox. If it’s locking the rear wheels under brakes, it’s not selecting the gear cleanly – whether it’s a paddle with an auto blip or a stick and a clutch.

“I think the beauty of having the clutch is that when you get into a situation where you hit a false neutral, you can use the clutch to change the speed of the gearbox and mesh the gears correctly. Every time I’ve driven a GT car, I find that if it won’t go into gear cleanly it will skip a gear, because you’re hanging off the paddle.

“So I don’t see costs being the reason. Particularly when you look at the cost of converting the gearbox to be able to run the paddles. You’re looking at something like $20,000. How many dog rings do we break in a season? I doubt it’s more than $20,000 worth!

“The costing is just an excuse to convince people it’s the right way to go.”

Percat is also concerned that eliminating engine braking as a driving technique could harm the racing product, with drivers forced to play follow the leader.

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Nick Percat, Brad Jones Racing, Holden Commodore ZB

Photo by: Mark Horsburgh/Motorsport Images

“Some drivers don’t use the clutch on the down change. I use it about 70% of the time. At a fast corner where it’s a quick down shift and then straight back on the gas I don’t bother. But with the big stop at The Chase at Bathurst, for example, I use the clutch and go down two or three gears in one clutch depression.

“The point is there are a lot of different methods. But once you have an auto blip and a paddle, there will be a set criteria for the engine management system to allow a down change. So we’ll all be doing exactly the same thing.

“I feel like it will make it more difficult to pass, because you can’t do anything different to the guy in front.

"The physical aspect will be gone. It’s not just the fans that don’t want it to look easy. As drivers, we don’t want it to be easy" Nick Percat

“And even the fitness level required... the amount of times I’ve sat in debriefs and us drivers have been talking about how the gear cut didn’t feel clean towards the end of the race. And it would turn out it was just physical fatigue.

“That can lead to mistakes and overtaking opportunities.

“But you won’t get that with paddles. I remember back when I was in Formula Ford and I used to train with the Walkinshaw drivers, Garth Tander, Will Davison, David Reynolds... and at the recovery sessions they would be absolutely rooted from the old H-pattern. Even once it went to sequential they would have bruises on their shoulder blades.

“That physical aspect will be gone. It’s not just the fans that don’t want it to look easy. As drivers, we don’t want it to be easy.”

Cameron Waters, Monster Energy Racing, Ford Mustang

Cameron Waters, Monster Energy Racing, Ford Mustang

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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