Mercedes-AMG vs BMW vs Porsche battle set to resume at 24 Hours of Spa

Mercedes-AMG vs BMW vs Porsche battle set to resume at 24 Hours of Spa

All square atop the manufacturers’ and Independent Cup standings as globe-trotting campaign hits half-distance
Five points separate drivers’ championship top-three

 
Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli 2023 hits its halfway stage this weekend when it joins the world’s biggest GT3 race: the CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa.


15 nominated entries split equally between BMW, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche are battling for drivers’ and manufacturers’ points, while four contest IGTC’s Independent Cup. 


It could not be closer at the top of the manufacturers’ standings after a one-two finish at Kyalami drew BMW level on points with reigning champions and Bathurst winners Mercedes-AMG. And the drivers’ championship will also evolve at Spa where joint leaders Jules Gounon and Kenny Habul are split for the first time this year.


Sheldon van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts are just three points further back thanks to their victory in South Africa, and Luca Stolz rounds out a current top-three covered by just five points.


Each IGTC manufacturer has nominated the maximum of five cars, three of which can be drawn from the Pro class. However, only the two highest placed entries will score points towards their manufacturer’s tally. All nominated drivers, on the other hand, will collect points if they finish inside Intercontinental’s top-10.


The Independent Cup is slightly different in that it’s the Bronze-graded driver regardless of marque or class who scores points on their own behalf. Each entrant is permitted a drop score across the five rounds, and all four contenders have effectively done so already.
 

Meanwhile, the globe-trotting GT3 series will record a milestone at some point on Saturday or Sunday. Spa’s 152nd lap will be the 10,000th in IGTC’s 29-race history. Lap #1 was completed at Bathurst in 2016. 


As always, Intercontinental entries are easily identified by their white Fanatec windscreen banners and IGTC roundels that appear on the bonnet and each flank. And unlike Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS entries, championship points are only awarded at the chequered flag, regardless of classification.


All 24 hours, as well as pre-qualifying, qualifying and Super Pole, are live, free and uninterrupted on SRO’s GT World YouTube channel from this Thursday onwards.


NOTHING TO CHOSE BETWEEN CHAMPION AND CHALLENGER


Mercedes-AMG began its title defence by claiming a second-straight victory Down Under in February but was pegged back in South Africa by BMW which now occupies joint top spot with the reigning champions as Intercontinental approaches half-distance.


Gounon and Habul have been excellent thus far, their victory with Stolz at Bathurst defying the odds of what a crew with an amateur should be able to achieve against world-class opposition. But their partnership will come to an end in Belgium where Gounon is paired with his Fanatec GT Europe co-drivers Timur Boguslavskiy and Raffaele Marciello in a Akkodis ASP entry that reprises most of 2022’s winning Spa combination.


Marciello is also bidding for a record-extending fourth successive Super Pole success this Friday. The previous three also came with ASP and Mercedes-AMG, while the manufacturer is chasing a fifth after Maro Engel triumphed in 2019.


Speaking of Engel, the German again lines up alongside Mikael Grenier at GruppeM whose factory trio is completed by reigning Intercontinental champion and 2022 Spa winner Daniel Juncadella. Engel claimed a sensational record-breaking pole at Bathurst and added another – albeit via the crew’s average – at Kyalami. Could he make it three in a row this weekend?


Al Manar’s entry is also packed with Mercedes-AMG works talent in the shape of Lucas Auer, Fabian Schiller and Luca Stolz who remains a serious title contender five points behind leaders Gounon and Habul. He also finished second at Spa last year.


Habul’s SunEnergy1 entry will be a leading Pro-Am class and IGTC Independent Cup contender, but could also score significant overall points given the quality of its professional drivers. Former IGTC champion Nicky Catsburg has won the 24 Hours – and just about everything else in GT racing – before, but it’s Supercars ace Chaz Mostert who could steal the headlines if his previous Mount Panorama exploits are anything to go by.


Winward Racing’s Gold class combination of Russell Ward, Indy Dontje and Philip Ellis completes Mercedes-AMG’s nominations.


BMW’s IGTC contingent is no less potent though, featuring as it does three full-season Fanatec GT Europe Pro crews.

One of them, Team WRT’s #32 trio of Van der Linde, Vanthoor and Weerts, lies second in the Intercontinental drivers’ standings after largely dominating Kyalami in late February, while two of their team-mates in the sister #46 entry – Augusto Farfus and Maxime Martin – sit 12 points behind the leaders after completing BMW’s one-two. Valentino Rossi, who joined them at Bathurst, returns for his second IGTC outing.


But perhaps it’s ROWE’s Fanatec GT Europe Endurance championship-leading entry that poses the greatest threat at Spa. Nick Yelloly, Marco Wittmann and Philipp Eng – who won the 24 Hours with BMW back in 2016 and ‘18 – complete Bavaria’s cast of Pro nominations.


The other two are filled by WRT’s remaining entries. Jean Baptiste Simmenauer, Calan Williams and Niklas Krütten were Gold class podium finishers at Monza, while former A1GP champion Adam Carroll heads up a Bronze crew featuring Lewis Proctor and recent Road to Le Mans winner Tim Whale.


Porsche isn’t out of contention in either overall championship but can really bounce back into play with a significant points haul in Belgium. And its three Pro entries certainly have the potential to score big with the latest version of the 911 GT3 R.


Just 0.3s came between Manthey EMA and victory at Bathurst. Now the Nurburgring 24 Hours specialists and their Grello-liveried 911 are back for another crack at Intercontinental glory, albeit just over the border from their spiritual home. Laurens Vanthoor and Kevin Estre know what it takes it to win at Spa and are joined by fellow factory driver Julien Andlauer.


Dinamic GT Huber Racing’s crew, which comprises Ayhancan Güven, Sven Müller and Christian Engelhardt, should also be thereabouts. After all, the Dinamic half of the team started second last year.


There’s also factory representation in Rutronik’s entry, which pairs former IGTC champion Dennis Olsen with Thomas Preining who was part of Manthey EMA’s Bathurst line-up. He’s also Porsche’s highest placed Intercontinental driver to be nominated at Spa.


Like Kenny Habul and SunEnergy1, Stephen Grove’s eponymous entry has been nominated to score points on behalf of its manufacturer but is also chasing Independent Cup honours at Spa. His son Brenton plus Supercars driver Anton De Pasquale and former 24 Hours winner Earl Bamber also feature on the roster.


Porsche’s IGTC nominations are completed by American squad GMG Racing, which is receiving support from Car Collection Motorsport. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Patrick Long feature in a crew that also includes Fanatec GT America regular James Sofronas who has previously contested all three Indianapolis 8 Hour races.


INDEPENDENT CUP


This year’s championship enters a crucial phase at Spa where all three full-time competitors race against each other for the first time, and a fourth entry joins the grid.


A quirk of Bathurst’s regulations meant Habul’s entry was considered to be Pro at Round 1. And while that allowed him to win overall, it also prevented the reigning class champion from scoring Independent Cup points. Step forward Jonathan Hui who collected maximum points driving a Mercedes-AMG after Grove failed to finish. 


But Hui didn’t compete at Kyalami, which gave Habul and Grove the chance to claw back some of their deficit. 


Habul and Hui – who is racing his Fanatec GT Europe-entered Sky Tempesta McLaren this weekend – therefore start level on 25 points, with Grove seven further back. All three have already dropped a score in Australia or South Africa, which makes it a straight fight from Spa through Indianapolis and Abu Dhabi.


But the trio could yet be beaten to the crown by Antares Au who makes his first Independent Cup appearance this weekend. The Hong Kong driver is joined by Porsche factory ace Matteo Cairoli and Jannes Fittje in Huber Motorsport’s 911. 


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