Motorsport: Cochrane calls time

By Eric Thompson

The main driving force behind the resurgence of V8 racing in Australia, New Zealand and new markets abroad is leaving the sport after 15 years behind the wheel.

Former chairman of the V8 Supercars Tony Cochrane is chasing new challenges after his legendary, hands-on approach and "I know what I'm doing" school of management.

Cochrane and his team took a sport that, in November 1996, had $30,000 of debt, almost no contracts, no television deal for the coming year and no Bathurst and turned it into the success it is today.

V8 racing has always been entertaining on the track, but Cochrane bought the wow factor off-track too, as witnessed by the very successful Rock 'n' Race format at the Sydney event.

If that wasn't enough to keep him busy, Cochrane was also one of the forces behind the Car of the Future (COFT) project, which comes to fruition in 2013.

Just hours before the end-of-season Gala Dinner in Sydney, where he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Driven sat down with Cochrane to get his take on his time in V8s and what might lie ahead.

Why did you get involved in motorsport?

First of all, I've always been a fan. I first got involved in the business side of the sport because I was asked to help out by the NSW Government in Sydney when they had the 500cc world motorcycle Grand Prix and it went into bankruptcy. They needed someone to step in at the last moment to run it back in 1995.

I was involved with Barry Sheene in those days and he and I got it up and running and did a good job. The Queensland Government then got into trouble with the Indy on the Gold Coast and asked me to get involved in that back in my IMG days.

With all the changes to the car, some drivers moving on and you stepping away it seems to be the end of an era?

I don't know if it's the end of an era. In reflection, I always thought Car Of The Future was a logical time to make significant change to the category.

Personally, I think change is a healthy thing and people can stay too long. I've worked very close with Mark Skaife getting COFT agreed and getting two new manufacturers on board.

To me it just made logical sense to do it [leave] now, and I want to do so other things in my life. It's been a phenomenal journey.

When you first arrived at the helm, did you think the category would turn out to be as big as it is now?

That's part of the reason I'm stepping away. To do it properly it's a very intense role - seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. People on the outside don't realise running a sport is an amazingly stressful, challenging, never-ending role that has a huge scope. So after 17 years in the sport, it had a hand in my decision-making. You don't always get these things right and I don't subscribe to the theory that I'm getting out at the top either. I think the sport and the business will continue to grow. It's got a great, solid foundation to continue and is a robust business model.

Back when you took over the category it was in debt and the future was looking a bit bleak. What did you see in it?

What we did have was a great product. We had the stars-in-cars and I knew how powerful that combination would be. My detractors said we had to have all the other stuff and since we didn't we would fail miserably. What we then did, over the next 15 years, was build up the infrastructure and now there is very solid foundation behind it all. You've got 28 strong teams and good franchise system and there's a lot of money in the sport.

You've always had a lot passion for the sport and now it's in other hands. Do you think people more interested in a numbers game may not have the category's best interests in mind?

Look, I don't think it's really my place to comment. Change always brings change and they'll do things differently from how I did. That's not to say they're gong to do things badly, or that I did things well or badly. Change is change and they will run it differently. I'm sure they will do things better than I did and some not so well as I did. It's just what you go through in a change cycle. They are still in the entertainment business and they understand that. We are in a subdivision of entertainment called sport and the moment you forget [entertainment], you're in trouble.

The new car hits the track in competitive anger next year. How do you think that'll pan out?

Oh, that's going to be exciting and especially with two new manufacturers joining in. It's a brand new car that everyone's using where there's no data, everyone's starting from ground zero and all the drivers I've spoken to have said the new car is much more driveable. I think we're in for a really exiting time over the next few years because no one knows what's going to happen. With everything being so new it gives all the teams, big or small, a chance to step up. Some will do it better and others won't. As we've seen in all forms of motorsport all over the world, some teams that are mid-pack now will become contenders and others that are borderline contenders now will slip back. That is what makes sport of all descriptions so exciting.

Now that you've stepped away from V8 racing are you still going to watch the odd meeting?

I really do feel that if you say you're going to step away you do step away. I'm not one of these people to hang around the edges and tell management how to manage, or tell the board how to operate. I still have an advisory role and the board or management can come and find me if they want to run stuff by me.

What have you thought of this last season with the old cars? A lot of teams put a lot of effort into cars they knew were at the end of the road.

There's a lot of sponsorship dollars and gone are the days when teams would think they'd have a new car the next year and do bugger all to the car this year and just cruise. Well, your sponsor isn't going to cop that these days. He's putting millions of dollars into your team and wants to see some results. So they've all been out there peddling pretty hard all this year.

How do you think the drivers will fare next year with the new car?

There is going to be a changing of the guard. There are some drivers at the end of their careers and they are going to have to accept that and move on. To be competitive in the V8 now it's a young man's game and it's very tough.

Greg Murphy has been an absolute great ambassador for your country and great driver. Even Greg will now realise the V8 game at this elite level has moved on for him. He would still be competitive in a small series like V8 SuperTourers but there's a chasm between the two in professionalism, fitness levels and effort.

What are your thoughts on Shane van Gisbergen leaving?

At just 23 that's a shame. It's a huge shame for him personally. I don't know the background so I'm not going to speculate on it but it's unfortunate it wasn't recognised earlier and more of an attempt was made to find a solution. I think one of the real exciting things from a Kiwi point of view is clearly Scott McLaughlin. I really think if properly handled and managed, not rushed and everyone being a bit patient, he'll be a real New Zealand superstar.

Got to bring up that old chestnut - what are your thoughts about going back to Pukekohe?

It's quite funny really how people who don't know the history snipe away at you. We never wanted to leave but we were told the racetrack was going to be shut down and redeveloped for horse racing and stuff. We moved to Hamilton and V8 Supercars did the right thing by not walking away from it and backing it at a loss for two years.

We wanted to show the fan base in New Zealand that they mattered to us. Now we have a fantastic partnership with the New Zealand Government, the Auckland Council and Counties Racing Board. It'll give the place a 15-20-year life and it's so close to the biggest city in the country.

Any idea what you might do now or are you just going to take some chill time?

I've only just really finished with V8s about now so I'm going to have the rest of December and all of January off. And then I'm going to recalibrate in February and March and think about what I might want to do. I've got a number of really interesting offers to consider and I have my own ideas as well. I'm certainly not retiring.

- Hamilton News

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