A stellar 26-car field will make the charge up to the famous Paddock Hill Bend next weekend (4/5 May) when Brands Hatch plays host to the opening round of Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe.
The British contest represents the dawn of a new era for what was formerly the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup. While the successful on-track programme has been retained, the championship is now part of the global Blancpain GT World Challenge, bringing it into line with similar sprint-format series in Asia and America.
Though the concept is new, the event that will launch its European schedule comes with significant history. This will be the sixth time that the sprint-format series has raced at Brands Hatch since its maiden appearance in 2014, placing it ahead of every other circuit on the calendar.
A firmly established spot over the Bank Holiday weekend ensures extensive activity both on and off the track, making the event particularly popular with families. It is equally beloved by drivers, many of whom count Brands Hatch among their favourite places to go racing. The circuit features elevation changes and limited run-off zones, making its 3.9km layout a true test of bravery and skill.
With a field of 26 entrants ready to tackle the event, as well as significant support action and off-track entertainment, a highly entertaining weekend is in prospect.
All-star cast confirmed for season-opening contest
The standard of competition has risen for the first campaign under the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe banner, with established squads from the Sprint Cup era competing alongside high-calibre newcomers. The entry list is led by Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, which has secured six successive teams' titles since 2013 and amassed five race victories at Brands Hatch, including clean sweeps in 2015 and 2018.
WRT will field two Pro efforts this term. In the #1 Audi R8 LMS, Dries Vanthoor is joined by Ezequiel Perez Companc, while the #2 machine sees the vastly experienced Christopher Mies paired with talented teenager Charles Weerts.
It is a measure of the 2019 grid that neither WRT pairing is the automatic favourite for this year's drivers' crown. That status belongs to the AKKA ASP pairing of reigning champion Raffaele Marciello and new recruit Vincent Abril, who will pilot the #88 Mercedes-AMG.
There is no suggestion that they will dominate, however, with stiff opposition coming from a variety of outfits. Fellow Mercedes-AMG squad Black Falcon will contest Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe with reigning Endurance Cup champions Luca Stolz and Maro Engel, forming a partnership that is entirely capable of a title assault this term.
There is also plenty of Audi firepower from beyond the WRT garage. Sainteloc Racing will field Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet in its #25 R8 LMS, while Markus Winkelhock is joined by Steven Palette in the #26. Attempto Racing will rely on Kelvin van der Linde and Clemens Schmid in its #66 effort, while Steijn Schothorst and Nick Foster handle the #55. There are two further Audi machines from Phoenix Racing, where Finally Hutchinson pairs with Frederic Vervisch in the #11 car and Kim-Luis Schramm is joined by Frank Stippler in the #5.
It would be no surprise to see a Lamborghini crew on the top step this weekend. Grasser Racing will once again put its faith in the proven line-up of Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart aboard the #63 Huracan, while newcomer Orange1 FFF Racing will field team principal Andrea Caldarelli alongside fellow countryman Marco Mapelli in the #563 effort.
Another newcomer will fly the flag for Aston Martin this term as R-Motorsport expands its efforts into Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe. Full-season driver Marvin Kirchhöfer will be joined by British ace Ricky Collard for the sprint-format series, completing a hugely competitive Pro class.
Competitive grids set to battle for class honours
A seven-car Silver Cup grid will provide the main class battle this weekend, with each crew capable of contending for victory. AKKA ASP Team can call upon reigning champion Nico Bastian, who spearheads the #89 effort alongside Thomas Neubauer, while 2017 Silver title-winner Fabian Schiller shares the #89 Mercedes-AMG with Timur Bogulavskiy.
Belgian Audi Club Team WRT will bring its formidable expertise to the class this season, with Oscar Tunjo and Rik Breukers handling the #10 R8 LMS and Shae Davies sharing the #17 machine with Tom Gamble. Attempto Racing adds a further entry from the Ingolstadt marque, with its #56 machine featuring reigning GT4 European Series champion Milan Dontje alongside Audi factory ace Mattia Drudi.
R-Motorsport will bring its #62 Aston Martin Vantage AMR for Aaro Vainio and Hugo de Sadeleer, while youngsters Taylor Proto and Diego Menchaca complete the Silver Cup field with their #555 FFF Racing Lamborghini.
The Pro-Am class also looks set to be hotly contested this year, with the entry list led by reigning champions Nyls Stievenart and Sainteloc Racing. The French squad have added a superstar teammate for the youngster, with the vastly experienced Stephane Ortelli returning to the series in the #24 Audi R8 LMS.
They will face a stern test from Pro-Am experts Andrea Bertolini and Louis Machiels aboard the #52 AF Corse Ferrari 488. The Italian marque is also the weapon of choice for Rinaldi Racing, which will field Rinat Salikhov alongside David Perel.
AKKA ASP Team will add a fourth Mercedes-AMG to the grid, with Jean-Luc Beaubelique and Jim Pla sharing the #87 machine. Finally, local ace Phil Keen will partner reigning Blancpain GT Series Asia champion Hiroshi Hamaguchi aboard the #519 FFF Racing machine. In addition to this, HB Racing (Ferrari 488) will field an Am Cup effort at Brands Hatch, with further class rivals set to join the grid later in the season.
Busy weekend in prospect
The Brands Hatch event takes place over two action-packed days, with practice and qualifying scheduled for Saturday and both races taking place on Sunday. Each 60-minute run will pay equal points and feature a mid-race driver swap, with the first getting underway at 12.10 and the second at 16.35.
In addition to the headlining Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe contests, there will be support action from the GT4 European Series and domestic offerings from the Porsche Club Championship and 7 Race Series. Yet more entertainment will be found off-track, with supercar displays and family activities taking place across the Brands Hatch venue.
The battle for the Blancpain GT World Challenge crown will add an extra dimension to proceedings, with Ferrari and Mercedes-AMG doing battle in the global customer racing championship. Brands Hatch will represent the fourth of 18 global contests following two American outings and one in Asia.
In preparation for the British event, both manufacturers have named their quartet of nominated drivers for the European programme. Ferrari has put its faith in Bertolini, Perel, Salikhov and Machiels, while Mercedes-AMG will rely on Marciello, Stolz, Neubauer and Beaubelique.
With significant action in prospect at a fantastic racing venue, Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe is ready to launch in style.