Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Motorsport: Erebus set Sandown goal

They might have struggled this weekend at Pukekohe but the Mercedes of Erebus Motorsport V8 hope to be competitive by September.

Nissan and Mercedes are the new kids on the block in this year's championship, as the longstanding duopoly of Ford and Holden has been broken. But while the Nissan Altimas have already proven reasonably competitive, the Mercedes have struggled near the back of the pack.

That wasn't unexpected. Erebus had huge ground to make up on the rest of the field. The final sign-off with the German manufacturer was completed only last October and the new Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG cars had to be ready by mid-January.

"We were starting off from a pretty low base," Erebus Motorsport team manager Dave Stuart told the Herald on Sunday. "We didn't even have a car six months ago. We had to complete the design and build of the car, including the new five-litre engine.

"By the time we hit the endurance races [Bathurst and Sandown], we should be able to push into the top 10. I expect us to be on the money when we get to Sandown [September 13-15]."

"[In] Perth [May 3-5], we expect to observe notable improvements in the cars' performance," agrees EMV8 CEO Ryan Maddison. "By the time we enter the endurance race season, we should be heading into the phase for our long-term goals."

It hasn't all gone to plan. Before last week's meeting in Tasmania, Maddison, Stuart and a senior engineer made a flying trip to Germany. It was supposedly to discuss the plan for the rest of 2013 but the car's performance issues would have been near the top of the list.

"The engine has good top end speed but we have had some driveability issues," says Stuart. "It's mainly around how we are coming in and out of corners."

It has been noticeable that drivers Lee Holdsworth, Tim Slade and German rookie Maro Engel have struggled to maximise speed before a bend, as well as accelerate optimally out of one.

Erebus, who encompass the team formerly known as Stone Brothers Racing, remain the closest thing to a New Zealand team in the V8 Supercars Championship.

They employ plenty of expatriate Kiwis at their Queensland base and Ross Stone is still involved in the day-to-day running of the team, though brother Jimmy is pursuing other interests.

They have been a perennial contender in recent years, winning championships in 2003, 2004 and 2005 but are set for a season of relative struggles.

"We are trying to do upgrades as often as we can," says Stuart, "and we are very confident that we are on an upward trajectory."

Nissan, which had a much longer but still challenging lead time (their deal was signed off in February last year), have been more competitive and are probably ahead of schedule. They were near the middle of the pack in Tasmania but struggled in yesterday's races at Pukekohe. In the 27-car field, the Mercedes were 18th, 24th and 25th in race one, and 21st, 25th and 26th in race two.

Meanwhile, V8 Supercars CEO David Malone hasn't ruled out the possibility of another manufacturer joining the circuit, saying there are a "number of ongoing conversations" with interested parties.

"We don't have a time frame on a new manufacturer but I think we have shown with [Nissan and Mercedes] that this category has the ability to make things happen relatively quickly," Malone told the Herald on Sunday.

Despite their struggles on the track, Malone says the new makes have been fantastic for the sport, with a marked increase in track attendance and TV audience figures.

"It has created a lot more interest in the category and brought in new fans," says Malone. "It has only been a positive."

V8 Supercars hope to grab another swag of aficionados next month, with round five to be held in Austin, Texas. It will be the sixth non-Australian venue to accommodate V8SC after Pukekohe, Hamilton, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai and Bahrain. They have signed a deal for the next five years, racing at the new Circuit of the Americas, a monster 5.5km track with 20 turns that's been compared to Bathurst's Mt Panaroma and last year became the venue of the United States Grand Prix.

The Nascar All Star Race at Charlotte is on the same weekend and the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar race is the weekend after.

"We are not trying to take on Nascar or anything like that but there is plenty of room for other players in that market and we have already built a following there through television coverage."

What might make the Supercars work in America going up against Nascar is that the V8 race cars' various models look different. Nascar machinery all looks the same, just badged differently, and GMC (Holden in Australia) and Ford America are keen to have the event to showcase their respective brands.

- Herald on Sunday

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