How Prodrive pulled off the seemingly impossible

Mark Winterbottom leads Chaz Mostert at Albert Park. Photo by Rhys Vandersyde
Prodrive’s Mark Winterbottom leads team-mate Chaz Mostert at Albert Park. Photo by Rhys Vandersyde

After 13 years of trying 2015 finally saw Ford poster boy Mark Winterbottom seal a long-awaited first V8 Supercars Championship title for himself and Ford factory team, Prodrive Racing Australia – ironically coming in the marque’s last season of factory funding. While Ford may have delivered this year’s V8 Supercars title winner, it’s worth a look at the back story to realise just how impressive the feat was after several tell-tale signs suggested financial support for its work team was minimal at best.

Rewind the clock to Bathurst 2013. Winterbottom wins the Bathurst 1000 for the first time, giving Prodrive, then Ford Performance Racing (FPR), its first Great Race win as well. That victory came just a day after Ford confirmed it would continue to support FPR the following season (the only team to receive factory funding in 2013 and 2014), despite the announcement in May that it would cease manufacturing in Australia and retire the Falcon by 2016.

Twelve months later and Ford announced it would no longer fund a factory team in V8 Supercars beyond the 2015 season, a result of its transition from local manufacturer to full line importer only. In response, the Ford-backed team released a vague statement making just one mention of FPR, referring instead to itself throughout as Prodrive Racing Australia (PRA). Then in the off-season break between 2014-2015, the FPR moniker was quietly dropped as the team began homologating the new Ford Falcon FG X, with the team carrying out all of the development itself, and sourcing parts from Ford without assistance.

The pre-season test came next, held over two hot days at Sydney Motorsport Park. Even though the field was on old, used tyres, Chaz Mostert’s fastest lap in the end-of-weekend shootout session revealed the FG X’s potential. Despite issues like bonnets deforming and front bumpers flexing at high speed, the new Falcon was off to a good start. Again, Ford’s lack of support was clear to see. Apart from a badge on the nose and boot, no Ford logos appeared on any of Prodrive’s cars. Further evidence emerged at Dick Johnson Racing (DJR). Using Prodrive-built cars, the customer team only had one spare front bumper, its suppliers struggling to make enough stock before the test. Meanwhile, David Reynolds and Andre Heimgartner, also racing under the PRA umbrella with The Bottle-O Racing Team and Super Black Racing respectively, both took to the track in the old-spec FG Falcons, recording times slower than that of their FG X running stable-mates.

At the first round of the season in Adelaide, Mostert came a close second in the first race, while Marcos Ambrose in the DJR car secured his spot in the top-ten shootout on return to the category, a strong start for the new car. At the non-championship round supporting Formula 1 at Albert Park, PRA clean-swept the weekend with four 1-2 finishes for Winterbottom and Mostert, while Reynolds finally in the FG X, soon jumped to the same times as his stable-mates. For Symmons Plains, Heimgartner’s car was also upgraded to the FG X spec, giving the young Kiwi rookie his first top-ten finish. The two main Prodrive racers meanwhile secured a second place finish each, as the team’s momentum grew.

If the success at Albert Park was the fuel to start the team’s championship campaign, Barbagallo provided the spark to ignite it. Mostert got his first career pole while Winterbottom took out both Saturday races, building up the team’s trademark early-season form. The team then moved on to its home track of Winton, clean-sweeping the round in both divisions. Winterbottom took two wins with Mostert scoring one. Moving up north, the next stop came at Hidden Valley where Mostert took a race victory and Reynolds took a pole and victory, his first of the year. Though Winterbottom didn’t struggle, his rivals gained a bit of ground on him in the championship standings.

That pressure didn’t last long. When the paddock moved to Townsville, Winterbottom dominated the round taking out both races, with Reynolds again showing his potential. Things got even better in Ipswich, Winterbottom winning the two Saturday races and Mostert winning on Sunday. The momentum then started to swing Mostert’s way at Sydney Motorsport Park as he took out two of the three races, looking to assert his dominance over the pack.

Sandown was the next stop on the tour, the first of the endurance races. Despite some scary moments and threatening speeds from other teams, Winterbottom and co-driver Steve Owen won, with Mostert and his co-driver Cam Waters coming home with another form finish, further extending their points lead to the rest of the field. Next it was Bathurst and the memorable but frightening crash for Mostert in qualifying. With a fractured leg and wrist the defending Bathurst 1000 champion was ruled out for the season. While stable-mate Reynolds ended up securing pole in the wet conditions, Winterbottom turned in a brilliant drive to fight back from effective last after a 15-second penalty for an electrical problem, to finish second at the chequered flag. Around the streets of Surfers Paradise however, Winterbottom’s title’s bid and PRA’s teams’ championship fight appeared to falter. Losing the edge on speed while rivals Red Bull Racing enjoyed a late season resurgence, Winterbottom moved into damage limitation mode, staying out of the drama over the next two rounds and allowing Lowndes right back in to the title fight. He lost further ground after Lowndes won two of the weekend’s races at Phillip Island, while Reynolds was controversially spun out of contention by Shane van Gisbergen in race one.

With his lead reduced to 179 points over Lowndes, and Prodrive’s Pepsi Max Crew with a slender 71 point advantage over Red Bull, Winterbottom found what had been missing over the past few rounds at the season-ending Sydney 500. Despite doubts of the championship leader’s overall consistency and speed, he was able to put one over Lowndes around the streets of Homebush, consistently finishing ahead in the weekend’s practice and qualifying sessions, before securing pole for the first race of the weekend while his rival would start from last. Even though he didn’t win a race, Winterbottom wrapped up the championship on Saturday and became the official champion after the final race on Sunday.

Winning the 2015 drivers’ championship was down to Prodrive Racing Australia and not Ford Australia. Prodrive bounced back from an almost total withdrawal of factory support to winning a championship all in one season. Not only that, but it proved that you don’t need to have a Triple Eight chassis to win a championship. The season ended with Winterbottom winning nine races, and team-mate Mostert taking the award for most pole positions (11) despite missing out on the final eleven races of the season, while PRA stable-mate Reynolds finished third in the standings. Over in the development series, Waters also claimed his and the team’s first Dunlop Series title. However, unable to halt the Red Bull charge, Prodrive were just denied the double championship win, thanks in part to lacklustre results from Mostert’s replacements, Waters and Owen.

If you had have asked any Ford fan a year ago if they thought Winterbottom would win the championship in 2015, they’d most likely have said no. As the article’s author I would’ve, and even at the pre-season test weekend, I did. However, what you can never do in this sport is underestimate the power of a team. Prodrive and many Ford teams before them showed that you can win with little to no support from the factory, Dick Johnson Racing for example in 2010; and that is why PRA should be remembered as the best team of the year.

For the Ford faithful, it should be remembered that this is not the first time the blue oval has withdrawn backing from the sport. While there were a number of Ford supported teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, 1999 saw Glenn Seton Racing rebranded as Ford Tickford Racing marking Ford’s first factory-entered effort since 1973.

What we’ve come to realise over recent years that V8 Supercars is no longer a marketing priority for Ford. Most disappointing of all to see is Ford’s complete lack of interest in Prodrive’s remarkable success in 2015.

In the meantime, Prodrive and DJR Team Penske will continue to run FG X Falcons next season without support from Ford. And any teams wanting to race Fords beyond that will likely have to develop them without factory backing. But, it’s hoped that with more liberal eligibility rules coming in to force from 2017 – which perfectly suit the two-door V8 coupe Mustang – that the door could yet be opened to a Ford return.

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