GT3 Rises the Ranks During 2013
A new breed of GT cars and races were introduced in 2006, GT3. Its aims were to reduce costs, equalise performance and make it possible for non professional drivers to go racing in a professional manner. It has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its creator, Stéphane Ratel, the charismatic Frenchman who has been Mister GT since the mid-90's. His Stephane Ratel Organisation (SRO) has run World Championships for the FIA and taken GT Racing to every corner of the globe. In the wake of this success, factories and professionals followed. Now instead of the resolutely non-Pro FIA GT3 European Championship there are several arenas for top line teams and drivers to compete - in fact, aside from the Le Mans 24 Hours virtually all the major endurance races will accommodate cars conforming to GT3 regulations. How they measure and define balance of performance is another question though. In 2013 Ratel abandoned the FIA GT1 World Championship, citing economic factors, and concentrated his efforts on running a European-based FIA GT Series with a largely professional field running in two one-hour sprint races per weekend. The series was boosted immeasurably by the arrival of Sebastien Loeb Racing's two McLaren MP4-12C GT3s with the rallying superstar at the wheel of one of them. There was a good variety in the field with the GT Academy Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 pair........... And the German trio of Audi... BMW... And Mercedes. On the field, racing was closely contested and made for a good spectacle - attracting crowds that made promoters smile. After the trials and tribulations of running a World Championship, SRO seemed to have got its mojo back. The sprint series was topped off in style during the finals in Baku, which you can read more of here in The Eastern Front: FIA GT Series in Baku. SRO also ran the Blancpain Endurance Series, which had a more traditional format of multi-class, three-hour races. It is held that a picture is worth a thousand words, the start shot here from Monza's first chicane is eloquence itself when trying to describe the success of the series. Big grids were a feature of all the Blancpain races...there is obviously a good market for this kind of racing. As well as the Gentlemen, the factories were also on hand. Aston Martin winning the Silverstone round convincingly. Of course the big event in the Blancpain Endurance Series is the Spa 24 Hours. We covered this fantastic race earlier in our Spa 24 Hours Recap and Crowds and Cars feature. And that leads us neatly on to the topic of long distance GT3 car and driver of the year. Unquestionably Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 and Bernd Schneider, winners in Spa. Schneider is perhaps best known for his five driver's titles in the DTM. But he also had experience in the world of GT Racing, winning the 1997 FIA GT Championship with this Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and finishing second the following year with five wins to his credit. Schneider retired from full time competition in 2008, but remains as an Ambassador to the Mercedes-Benz and AMG brands. So it was not entirely a surprise to see him at the Dubai 24 Hours in January in a Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 and winning. The following month, down in Australia, Schneider topped the podium at the Bathurst 12 Hours, once again in the Mercedes... he was getting the taste for this. Next up was the Nürburgring 24 Hours. The result was a familiar one with Schneider and Mercedes continuing their winning ways.
Spa was next up on Bernd's schedule and we have already seen the result, another win for the German in his SLS. A new race in the Blancpain Endurance Series was the revival of an old classic, the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres. Bernd was present once again trying to help his team mate, Maximilian Buhk, win the BES Pro Drivers Title. Another race win followed and the drivers title as well. There was some consolation for the Belgian Marc VDS BMW outfit who secured the teams championship. Herr Schneider had one last surprise for 2013. In December he headed back to the United Arab Emirates for the Gulf 12 Hours, held at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Reunited with his Black Falcon team from the Dubai 24 Hours, he scored another victory - taking the win in six major endurance races... an incredible record for 2013. The Gulf 12 Hours also was significant for the debut of a new marque to GT3 racing, if not motorsport - the Bentley Continental GT3 brings one of the original sportscar superstar brands back to competition.The GT scene in 2014 looks on the surface very healthy, the line up of brands fighting for victory on the tracks is amazing - Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Mercedes, McLaren, Nissan, Porsche and Viper...what a line up! Additional good news is that it's not only the International Series that are prospering - ADAC Masters, British GT and many other national and regional championships can boast of full grids also. As always, there are issues to be addressed - management of costs, balance of performance and establishing a path for converging the rules. No doubt vested interests, rampant egos and plain old stupidity will cause confusion, but there seems a will amongst the true movers and shakers to agree to a common set of technical regulations in the world of GT Racing.