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Stick shift vs paddle shift: the inside story of Supercars big gearbox debate

There’s certainly no shortage of edge-of-your-seat Supercars news right now. Between the great bidding war for Supercars ownership and the growing stick vs paddle debate, the future of V8 motor racing in Australia has never been more anxiety-inducing—or brimming with possibility.

Ever since Sean Seamer announced that Supercars will test both paddle shift and the current-style stick lever with its Gen3 prototypes, no one’s been shy to share their thoughts.

With so much going on, we want to try and make sense of it all, take a peek behind the curtain and bring you the inside story of stick vs paddle: the great Supercars gear debate.

So, stick or paddle? Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter!

V8 Supercars Australia CEO Sean Seamer

A quick recap on the stick vs paddle debate

In case you missed it, V8 Supercars Australia CEO Sean Seamer has officially announced that the latest Gen3 Supercar prototypes will test both the paddle shift and the current sequential stick shift. This move comes off the back of years of speculation, and a recent decision to go with an automatic gear shift (AGM) system regardless of whether or not the category mandates a move to paddle.

This has, of course, sparked division and vocal opposition. The general consensus amongst drivers is that a move to the paddle shift will at best kill the theatrics of the sport, and at worst, degrade the skill of talented drivers so they’re doing no more than engaging in a game of glorified “PlayStation”.

Despite this, there’s still those in the supporters’ corner, vying for a modernisation that will align Supercars with other international categories who’ve made the switch to reflect trends in the consumer market. Their key argument: people just don’t drive manual cars anymore.

The team at Triple Eight Racing have led the conversation through action, having already developed a paddle-shift that works with the category’s Albins control gearbox and Motec ECU, which they’ve been running on the Sandman ride car since 2014.

triple 8 paddle

However, key stakeholders with the power (and the cheque books) seem invested in the move to the paddle shift, citing safety improvements, engine longevity and a potential cost motivation that fits with Supercars’ recent announcement that, “an overall targeted cost reduction of 30-40 percent” was in the works.

But what do the drivers think? Let’s have a closer look at each gear style and what the teams have to say.

The sequential gearbox

Back in 2008, debate was raging about the controversial move from the traditional H-pattern to the sequential stick shift. The idea of just hitting a lever to click through the gears was sacreligious to many who enjoyed the thrill of drivers skipping slots on a down change and the character that H-patterns add to the cars.

Greg Murphy claims he shifted into the wrong gear in his Bathurst 1000 pole position time of 2:06.8594 which was set in 2003 and stood as the fastest lap ever recorded at Mount Panorama Circuit, until eclipsed seven years later, well after the move to sequential. It is known colloquially as “The Lap of the Gods” and widely regarded as one of the finest moments in Bathurst folklore.

Greg Murphy's car

At the time, Jason Richards famously stated, “A sequential shift is like traction control, it takes away another element of the driving skill.”

While the impetus for change was to get rid of the dreaded miss-shift which caused damage to the transmission and engine, there were additional concerns about driver safety (although anyone who remembers Tim Slade’s Bathurst collision this year will say that sequential shifting isn’t without its faults). Despite initial opposition, the sequential gearbox still symbolises the joy a talented driver getting physical behind the wheel. Paddle proponents also point to the stick shift adding to the fractured wrist and leg Chaz Mostert suffered in his horrific high speed crash at Bathurst in 2015.

With Formula One and Indy Car already making the switch to paddle shift, there’s also the argument that resisting change will give Supercars a point of difference to an international audience, which could be an important priority for the new Supercars majority owners and their approach to future marketing. How much input the current bidders have in the current conversation is anyone’s guess— but we’d love to be a fly on the wall.

Who’s for the sequential gearbox

Pretty much everyone. When it comes to big name drivers, there’s a lot of vocal support for keeping the status quo.

The strongest statement comes from current championship leader Shane van Gisbergen, who didn’t mince words when saying, “Throw paddle shift in the bin.”

Shane van Gisbergen

The Red Bull Racing Team leader was backed by fellow podium finishers Brodie Kostecki and David Reynolds who publicly applauded his comments.

As far back as 2017, there’s been opposition to the suggestion of a move from stick shift to paddle shifting. Todd Kelly told back in 2017:

“That process of heel-and-toe, getting the timing of the change right… if you take all that stuff away you’re a step closer to sitting on the PlayStation.”

So, what do the Supercar greats have to say? Does their invaluable grasp on what works for fans and Supercars culture say it all, or are they simply stuck in the nostalgia of the golden years and refusing to move with the times?

According to legend Greg Murphy and our good friend John Bowe, a move to paddle shifting is a giant leap from what makes great racing, and is destined to fail to entertain fans who love seeing the physicality of the gear changes, and a disservice to championship drivers who should be tested on their full skillset.

“It should be a driver’s category, not a category for software engineers” says Bowe.

John Bowe

Who’s against the sequential gearbox

Triple Eight boss Roland Dane is in favour of making the switch away from the sequential stick shift when Gen3 cars are introduced next year, arguing that it will minimise costs by reducing stresses on the engine and gearbox.

This sentiment was echoed by Red Bull Ampol Racing great, Garth Tander who focuses on the paddle shift’s ability to help drivers over-rev less.

“You can put a lockout on the downshift so that you don’t downshift too early… so from a team owner and a cost point of view, they probably like that.”

triple 8 driver

He also comments on the call for a ‘push to pass’ system being floated by Supercars, saying that it’s too hard to explain the system to the casual observer. This is notable because casual viewers are the exact market Supercars need to focus on to grow the fanbase and flourish after what could be called a turbulent time for the category.

It’s also important to note the safety argument for moving away from the stick shift. Ditching the gear stick simplifies driver extraction in the event of a significant accident and means the driver can be positioned further from the door.

The paddle shift

Earlier this year, drivers at the Tasmanian SuperSprint 2021 were introduced to a prototype of how the placement of the new technology would work. This wasn’t a shock for teams who knew that the Gen3 parts tenders included a requirement for a paddle shift system, including a CAN control switch system, switches, and display with integrated shift lights.

The unveiling was less controversial than the calls to omit the “autoblip” which takes the heel-and-toe technique of the drivers and mimics it for the down changes.

Who’s for the paddle shift

There’s no skirting around the fact that drivers are by and large anti-paddle shift. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some big names out in support. Most notable is Jamie Whincup and Triple Eight Racing, who’ve backed the proposed changes as a necessary modernisation for Supercars who need to attract the next generation of fans, who’ve grown up without manual cars.

Whincup’s paddle

Whincup says,  “Everything new, and modern, and fresh, is paddle shift”.

He stresses the need to let go of nostalgia.

“I’d like to see the gearstick, but what’s best for the category, if I was designing the car, I’d run a paddle shift, a hundred percent. It’s pretty clear to me…We’ve got to keep moving forward. We can’t be getting stuck in the past.”

Erebus Motorsport driver Anton De Pasquale is another voice in support of the movement, stating the obvious, “you’ve still got to drive the car fast.”

Garth Tander has copped some slack online for his support for paddle shifting. Tander’s stance is interesting in that he won his titles back in the era of H-pattern gearboxes. However, he warns that holding onto nostalgia isn’t doing the sport any favors because the next generation of fans won’t be able to relate to the cars.

“If we want to see Supercars as a performance variant to the roadgoing cars, then I think we need to be relevant to what the current performance road cars are”, he says.

Who’s against the paddle shift

For those of us who grew up with manual transmission and the theatre of the H-pattern and sequential stick shift, change can be a hard pill to swallow. And many would argue that maintaining a point of difference when so many other categories are moving to paddle shifting is an excellent reason to stay true to tradition. David Reynolds sums it up perfectly when he says:

“What we have is unique. Everyone else has gone that way (paddle shift), so why should we go that way too? You want things to go wrong, you want the human element rather than the electronics taking over.”

What Supercar fans think about stick shift vs paddle

There’s been a pretty clear response from old school Supercars fans who are strong in their opposition to a change from stick shift to paddle shift. We’ve even seen a big online movement of fans saying they want to take things further back and return to the H-pattern shift box.

While this won’t happen, it does open up a new world of possibilities for categories like the Touring Car Masters who can cater to this nostalgia and position itself as a contender for viewership and sponsorships. Could we even see breakaway categories rise from the ashes, featuring the current generation of Supercars with their stick shifts still intact?

Tickford Racing have bypassed the drama altogether, debuting in April a Solar Supercar that has rejected the paddle shift for “a lightning fast automatic gearbox that gets that power to the ground quicker than we ever have before.” It was an April Fools joke that just added to the entertainment the teams always provide to this great Australian racing category.

Tickford solar supercar

Just like everything in Supercars news right now, we simply don’t know what the future holds. Until we’ve heard who’s won the Supercars takeover bid from Archer Capital, the future of our sport is as baffling and exciting as ever.

Let us know your thoughts

Paddle shift, stick shift, who gives a shift? We want to know your thoughts. Connect with us on FB or Twitter.

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