Saturday
Apr302011

GT3: The Magic Number?

When the GT3 format was first devised by Stephane Ratel’s eponymous organisation in 2006, it was envisaged as just that – a third tier, which would slot in below the international manufacturer battleground of GT1 and the semi-pro arena of GT2 and would be aimed mainly at amateur gentleman drivers. But as the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, it’s looking increasingly likely that GT3 will play a more important and widespread role in GT racing around the world than was originally envisaged.

This situation has come about largely due to the changing fortunes of the GT1 class. Having dwindled to virtual nonexistence under ACO-rules racing, the category was finally culled by the French governing body last year, paving the way for the GT2 class to be renamed GT Endurance and split into Pro and Am divisions. But last year was, of course, also the first season of Ratel’s GT1 World Championship, in which it was envisaged that a new generation of GT1 machinery would do battle on a global stage in standalone, high-profile races, instead of sharing the grid with GT2 cars as before.

Some doubted the first World Championship race would ever happen, but Ratel proved the doubters wrong, and a full grid of supercars took to the track at the magnificent Yas Marina facility in Abu Dhabi in April of last year to kick off what turned out to be a great season of racing. Yes, the majority of the cars on the grid were ‘grandfathered’ old GT1 cars, like the Corvette C6R, Maserati MC12 and Aston Martin DBR9, but there was also a pair of two-car Nissan  teams running the brand-new NISMO-developed GT-R – exactly the format of manufacturer support, but not direct involvement, that Ratel hoped would guarantee the series’ longevity and stability – two words quite foreign to sportscar racing’s lexicon for much of its history.

But fast-forward to the first round of 2011, and the picture is not quite so rosy. The four Maseratis are gone, as is Swiss team Matech, the organisation that developed the GT1 version of the Ford GT and ran one of the pair of two-car Ford teams in 2010. These withdrawals, combined with that of one of the two Lamborghini teams from last year, have left some of the 2010 teams having to step into the breach and set up satellite operations to run more cars. The end result is that 40 percent of the grid is being run by just two organisations (Britain’s Sumo Power and Belgium’s Marc VDS Racing), which is not a healthy situation no matter which way you cut it.

So GT1’s present is looking a little unsteady, if not totally disastrous. But what about its future? Well, that’s where GT3 comes in. Originally, it was hoped that other manufacturers would line up to compete with Nissan and build their own new-spec GT1 cars. But internet rumours of the involvement of brands like Lexus (with its LF-A) and Ferrari (with a 599) turned out to be just that, rumours, and with the 2012 cutoff for the ‘grandfathered’ cars fast approaching, there are no new-generation GT1 cars in sight. But what is in sight are grids bulging with cars from multiple manufacturers, including Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Lamborghini, Ford and (shortly) McLaren – in both Ratel’s GT3 European Championship and his new Blancpain Endurance Series of long-distance events for GT3 and GT4 machinery.

GT3 has helped revitalise national-level GT racing in Europe as well, as I witnessed recently when I attended the opening round of the 2011 British GT Championship at the sweeping Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire. For some years, British GT persevered with GT2 as its top category, but as costs escalated and available budgets shrunk, the number of cars in the top class reduced to low single figures. There were homologation wranglings that resulted in the Mosler MT900 being disqualified from the 2009 championship and British GT became, to an even greater extent than is the case with sportscar racing in general, very much a gentleman amateur’s series.

But the 2011 grid on display at Oulton was healthier and more vibrant than it has been for some time. New-for-2011 chassis from Ferrari (458) and Mercedes (SLS AMG) made their debut. World-class drivers like Denmark’s Alan Simonsen and Britain’s Richard Westbrook, as well as touring-car veterans such as Anthony Reid and John Bintcliffe, have found seats in the series. It also showcases the talents of some very quick British up-and-comers like Glynn Geddie, Alex Mortimer, Matt Bell, Jonathan Adam and Tim Bridgman. After years of being seen as something you did after a lacklustre Formula 1 career, sportscar racing is fashionable among young drivers again.

So GT3 is working well on a national level right now, but beyond that, GT3 is where Ratel will have to look to in order to ensure the future of his World Championship. It may still be called the GT1 World Championship in a few years’ time, but at the moment, logic suggests that from 2012 onwards, the grid of this series will be made up of GT3 cars brought up to near-GT1 spec with upgrade kits, probably consisting of revised aerodynamics and less restricted engines. This is the formula Matech used to create the GT1-spec Ford GT out of a GT3 car, and there’s no reason it can’t be repeated by any of the other manufacturers currently building GT3 cars.

Should this prediction prove accurate, the end result may not be quite what Ratel had in mind when he first conceived of expanding the European-based FIA GT Championship onto the world stage. But the championship looks verly likely to hold an American round in 2012, possibly at the new Austin Grand Prix circuit, and the GT3 European Championship will be despatched on an exploratory mission to the new Smolensk track in Russia later this year, with the World Championship likely to follow before long. While it may not be true GT1, it will still be a bevy of recognisable supercars racing at high-profile locations around the globe, hopefully in front of large crowds. Let’s remember that almost everyone has had to re-evaluate or scale down their plans during the last two or three years of global financial turmoil, so if things do proceed as outlined here, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a failure on Ratel’s part – merely a pragmatic re-adjustment that delivers the best possible product given the circumstances. And going by the quality of racing on show at Oulton Park, GT3 is a very good product indeed.

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