BMW and Porsche aiming to topple reigning champions Mercedes-AMG
Independent Cup replaces Pro-Am Challenge
Season eight of Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli gets underway Down Under this weekend when the globe-trotting GT3 series visits Mount Panorama and the LIQUI MOLY Bathurst 12 Hour (February 3-5).
Reigning champions Mercedes-AMG and Dani Juncadella are both eligible to score points in the first of this year’s five IGTC-counting events, which also include the Kyalami 9 Hour, CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa, Indianapolis 8 Hour Presented by AWS and Gulf 12 Hours. The five races on as many continents represent Intercontinental’s biggest calendar since its last pre-pandemic season in 2019.
Two more of the series’ former champions – Porsche and BMW – can also nominate up to four entries at each of IGTC’s events excluding Spa, where a fifth car is eligible. All nominated entries at Bathurst are identifiable by their white LIQUI MOLY windscreen banners and IGTC logos present on the bonnet and flanks.
Amongst those IGTC nominations are some of the world’s very best GT drivers and previous 12 Hour winners, as well as multiple reigning and former champions, plus a MotoGP legend making his Mount Panorama debut.
Unlike 2022, when an exceptional drop-round criteria was applied, all five Intercontinental races count towards this year’s overall manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships. Drivers will score points as per their IGTC finishing position but only the best two finishers per brand will score points for their manufacturer.
Meanwhile, there have been several changes to the IGTC class formerly known as Pro-Am Challenge. The renamed Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli Independent Cup now only counts the four best results across five races. This is especially pertinent at Bathurst where reigning Pro-Am Challenge champion Kenny Habul is part of a Pro line-up and therefore unable to score Independent Cup points.
BMW | 2x Pro
This weekend sees BMW return to IGTC competition as a full-season manufacturer for the first time since 2020 when victories at Indianapolis and Kyalami helped Augusto Farfus and Nicky Catsburg clinch the drivers’ title. The previous generation M6 also has a Bathurst pole to its name but failed to win at Mount Panorama despite several factory supported attempts.
Now the manufacturer returns to Australia and Intercontinental with a new car, new team and several new drivers eager to prove the M4’s credentials as an endurance specialist.
And it’s hoping to do so with a global motorsport icon: seven-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi. The Italian has raced and won Down Under before but never anywhere like Mount Panorama, which is likely to provide the biggest test of his fledging GT career so far.
Fortunately, his WRT squad were regular visitors when one of Audi’s crack factory squads, and won the 12 Hour in 2018, while his co-drivers Farfus and Maxime Martin have also raced there previously.
But while much fanfare will centre around the #46 entry, it’s perhaps the sister M4 – with three young but experienced drivers – that holds the key to BMW’s hopes. Sheldon van der Linde partnered Farfus and Catsburg at Kyalami three years ago and became DTM champion in 2022, while former Audi factory drivers Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts won multiple Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe titles together before joining the BMW ranks soon after WRT announced its switch. Vanthoor was also part of WRT’s victorious Bathurst line-up in 2018.
MERCEDES-AMG | 3x Pro & 1x Pro-Am
Three victories in four events helped Mercedes-AMG win 2022’s overall manufacturers’ and drivers’ titles in style, while Habul’s Pro-Am Challenge triumph completed the first clean sweep in IGTC history.
A repeat won’t be easy but it’s a challenge that Affalterbach has wholeheartedly embraced judging by its Bathurst commitment, which features more factory-backed Pro cars than it can nominate.
The manufacturer also locked out Mount Panorama’s podium last May when three Pro-Am crews headed by Habul, Martin Konrad, Jules Gounon and Luca Stolz took centre stage. The same winning line-up, albeit without Konrad, returns with the IGTC-nominated SunEnergy1 entry that could clinch a record-equalling third 12 Hour win for Mercedes-AMG and first back-to-back victory for any manufacturer since 2011-12.
What’s more, Gounon is targeting a third consecutive victory after also winning Bathurst with Bentley in 2020. No driver has achieved more than two. Overall victory would be an almighty feat given Habul’s bronze grading, and especially so when considering the other Pro options not just at Mercedes-AMG’s disposal but beyond.
Indeed, GruppeM Racing – which has already announced its full-season IGTC participation – boasts arguably this year’s strongest line-up in the form of last weekend’s Daytona 24 Hours winner Maro Engel, DTM driver Mikael Grenier and reigning Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS champion Raffaele Marciello. Engel also finished second at Mount Panorama last season while Marciello won at Spa and Indianapolis.
Craft-Bamboo can’t be discounted either after fighting through from last to second in 2022. That result set up Juncadella’s successful title run, which also included wins at Spa and Indianapolis – the latter with Craft-Bamboo. And his co-drivers this weekend are also out of the top drawer: Catsburg, surely one of the world’s most adaptable GT drivers, won the IGTC drivers’ crown with BMW in 2020, while Philip Ellis – who stands in for the injured Lucas Auer – isn’t part of Mercedes-AMG’s factory driver roster for nothing.
Such is its strength that Mercedes-AMG has no room amongst its IGTC nominations for the SuperCheap Auto Racing-badged, Triple Eight-run trio of Maxi Goetz, Broc Feeney and reigning Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen. Instead, its final pick goes to one of this year’s top Pro-Am crews: Makita Volante Rosso Motorsport’s Tony Bates, Jordan Love and David Reynolds.
PORSCHE | 1x Pro & 1x Pro-Am
Aussie fans will have to wait until 2023 before Porsche’s new 992-spec 911 GT3 R tackles the mountain, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t life in the old dog yet. And one of them stands a very good chance of battling for outright victory this weekend.
The partnership between Porsche specialist Manthey Racing and EMA Motorsport is certainly promising. No team has scored more Nurburgring 24 Hours victories than the German team, while EMA finished second overall and won the Silver class the last time Bathurst welcomed international teams and drivers in 2020.
But now throw in three Porsche factory drivers – one of which happens to be a local lad made Bathurst legend – and suddenly that promise switches to serious victory contender.
Matt Campbell’s daring pass on Jake Dennis won the race for Porsche in 2019 before the Australian clinched a commanding pole position a year later. He’s joined by regular IMSA co-driver Mathieu Jaminet and Porsche’s best placed DTM driver from last year, Thomas Preining, in the iconic ‘Grello’ liveried Porsche.
Grove Racing’s local Pro-Am entry is the only other 911 GT3 R present this year. Father/son duo Stephen and Brenton Grove are scheduled to contest all five IGTC rounds and are accompanied at Bathurst by one of Supercars’ fastest drivers, Anton De Pasquale.
INDEPENDENT CUP | 2x entries
Three drivers are currently signed up to contest this year’s Independent Cup. But while all of them are racing at Bathurst, only two can score points.
Habul has effectively chosen this weekend as his drop round because Pro entries – like the one he’s sharing with Gounon and Stolz – do not mandate a bronze driver. His first Independent Cup points-scoring opportunity will therefore come at Kyalami when SunEnergy1 reverts to its traditional Pro-Am crew.
Instead, the battle for Independent Cup honours will be fought between Stephen Grove and Jonathan Hui, who is racing for Harrolds Volante Rosso Motorsport this weekend. The latter is part of a four-driver Silver crew comprising Josh Hunt, Ross Poulakis and last year’s overall runner-up Kevin Tse.
HOW TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
Fans can follow all six practice sessions via Radio Le Mans before 12 Hour Qualifying, support series, the Red Bull F1 demo and Pirelli Top-10 Pole Shootout kick off the weekend’s live streaming and TV coverage on Saturday afternoon. The race itself goes green before dawn at 05:45 AEDT (GMT +11) on Sunday.
Australia: Fox Sports, Kayo Sports, Seven Network, 7plus
New Zealand: Sky Sports NZ
All other territories: SRO’s GT World YouTube channel
LIQUI MOLY BATHURST 12 HOUR TIMETABLE – AEDT (GMT +11)
10:30 – 13:00: Town to Track Parade
09:45 – 10:25: Practice 1
11:05 – 11:45: Practice 2 (Bronze drivers only)
14:00 – 14:40: Practice 3 (Bronze drivers only)
16:10 – 16:50: Practice 4
08:35 – 09:35: Practice 5
10:50 – 11:50: Practice 6
12:45 – 13:10: Qualifying 1
13:25 – 13:45: RBR F1 demo
13:55 – 14:35: Qualifying 2
16:10 – 16:50: Pirelli Pole Shootout
05:45 – 17:45: LIQUI MOLY Bathurst 12 Hour