Sunday’s Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour marks the kickoff of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, a new global GT3-based championship under the command of Stephane Ratel, aimed to connect the world’s key GT endurance races in a new, unique format.
The inaugural season of the GT Challenge will see a three-race calendar, all utilizing existing endurance races, as part of a gradual buildup of the series that could feature as many as five races on five different continents by 2018.
For now, the season will include Bathurst, the Total 24 Hours of Spa, as well as the Sepang 12 Hours, which recently came under the control of the SRO Motorsports Group last year.
“We knew the Bathurst 12 Hour is a great event. And I couldn’t think of a better way to start this Intercontinental GT Challenge,” Ratel told Sportscar365.
“We’re happy because to start off with four manufacturers represented and 12 cars is good. We were thinking we’d be happy with three to four [manufacturers]. It’s good start.”
Audi, Bentley, McLaren and Mercedes have all registered as GT Challenge manufacturers, and will nominate up to four cars per brand to score points in each of the three rounds.
In addition to a manufacturer’s championship, there will be two drivers’ titles also up for grabs, both in an overall classification and for Bronze-rated Am drivers, adding incentive for drivers to take part in the entire season.
Ratel said the concept is for manufacturers to select local teams for each event, instead of having the same team and equipment being transported around the globe, as seen traditional world championships.
“I think what we do is extremely efficient,” he said. “You have GT3, which is the only category that’s absolutely global today.
“You have cars in all of the important markets, so you can really do a series where it’s more cost-effective and environmentally friendly to fly a couple of drivers and engineers than to fly a full team of car, equipment and personnel. That’s what we’re proving now.”
GT3 manufacturers, particularly those with successful customer programs, have shown their initial support to the concept, despite some an early setback.
A planned six-hour enduro at Circuit of The Americas, to have run during the Pirelli World Challenge weekend next month, was canceled due to lack of entries, reducing the 2016 calendar from four to three rounds.
“I think the the [championship] is a good idea,” said Head of Audi Sport customer racing Romolo Liebchen. “But I [asked] Stephane Ratel if it was a good idea to plan a race in the U.S. at this time of the year.”
While Liebchen proved to be correct, both Audi and sister brand Bentley are optimistic about the overall and long-term concept of GT Challenge.
“COTA is a bit of a disappointment where only 10 or 12 cars entered. But I think it will bounce back,” said Bentley Motorsport director Brian Gush.
“It’s another championship that you can win outright and we’ve always prioritized championships where we can win outright. That’s why we’ve entered.”
A total of 12 cars from the four manufacturers, out of the 36-car overall starting grid, have been nominated to score points in tomorrow’s Bathurst 12 Hour.
It includes three Audi R8 LMS cars, two from Melbourne Performance Center and a single entry from Phoenix Racing; both Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3s, all three Erebus Motorsport-run Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3s, as well as the four McLaren 650S GT3s in the race.
The two highest-placed nominated cars from each manufacturer will score points towards the title, while all drivers entered in GT Challenge will score points towards the overall drivers’ title.
Ratel is particularly enthused about the prospects of the Am title for Bronze-rated drivers, which unlike the overall drivers’ classification, allows drivers to switch manufacturers between races.
“I think it’s a fabulous program if you’re an amateur driver,” he said. “It’s not linked to a brand so you can start and do the first round with a Mercedes and the second round with a Ferrari and a the third round in a Porsche.”
With a race at COTA planned for late 2017, and a possible trip to the newly renovated Kyalami Circuit in South Africa the following year, Ratel is hopeful of seeing his latest dream of a global GT championship become a success.
For now, though, he’s stressed the importance of building the foundation of the budding GT series one step at a time.
“We’ll need to promote it,” Ratel said. “It will take time but people seem to understand the concept and we’ll grow the interest in it. I’m very confident more manufacturers will join.”