GOUNON, ENG, VANTHOOR AND STOLZ VYING FOR INTERCONTINENTAL GT CHALLENGE POWERED BY PIRELLI CROWN AT GULF 12 HOURS
BMW and Mercedes-AMG gunning for manufacturers’ championship
Hui leads three-way IGTC Independent Cup title battle
The fight for all three Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli titles boils down to a duel in the dunes this weekend at Circuit Yas Marina where the Gulf 12 Hours closes out 2023’s five-race campaign.
Jules Gounon, Philipp Eng, Dries Vanthoor and Luca Stolz are all vying for their first IGTC drivers’ crowns, while Mercedes-AMG must overturn BMW’s nine-point advantage if it is to retain the manufacturers’ title. And there’s also Intercontinental’s Independent Cup, which features three championship contenders in the shape of Jonathan Hui, Antares Au and Stephen Grove.
Ferrari won the same race 12 months ago when Dani Juncadella and Mercedes-AMG wrapped up their respective titles. Now the iconic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix venue is poised to host the Gulf 12 Hours for a 10th time and welcome IGTC for a second.
GOUNON AND ENG’S SEASON-LONG RIVALRY SET TO BE RESOLVED
The championship’s top two drivers have spent 2023 locked in battle across Europe and beyond, and now have one final opportunity to win championship silverware at the other’s expense when the Gulf 12 Hours goes green this Sunday.
The score is currently one-one between Gounon and Eng who finished this year’s Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Endurance Cup in the same order. But while the Mercedes-AMG ace clinched the title, he was beaten to GT3’s biggest individual prize – the CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa – by the BMW driver who then added a second IGTC victory to his season’s tally at Indianapolis.
That result cut the gap to Bathurst winner Gounon, who heads to Gulf eight points clear. However, with seven points the difference between finishing first and second, the Andorran can afford to take the chequered flag one place behind Eng. And that means even a third win in as many races might not be enough to secure BMW its first drivers’ crown since 2020.
Eng’s Team WRT M4 also features factory talent in the shape of Charles Weerts and Sheldon van der Linde whose own IGTC title chances have been annulled by BMW’s decision to pair him with its leading contender.
Instead, it’s Vanthoor – currently joint-third overall with SVDL after also winning at Bathurst and Kyalami – who is Bavaria’s second in line to the throne. He’s 14 points behind Gounon, a deficit only potentially bridgeable if the #46 M4 – which also features Valentino Rossi and Nick Yelloly – finishes on IGTC’s podium.
Overturning that deficit also relies on Gounon saving his season’s worst IGTC result for the finale. There might only have been one victory but his 100% podium record has helped maintain the advantage he first built on the opening weekend Down Under.
This time he’s with 2 Seas, the Anglo-Bahraini team with whom he contested 2023’s Intelligent Money British GT Championship and which has twice won the Gulf 12 Hours outright. Maximilian Goetz and Fabian Schiller join him behind the wheel.
Fellow Mercedes-AMG star and Bathurst winner Stolz completes IGTC’s cast of title contenders in GruppeM’s full-season Mann Filter-backed entry, which also features Maro Engel and Mikael Grenier.
However, the German’s championship chances are slim. An 18-point deficit and inferior count back results mean he must win first and foremost, but also rely on Gounon to finish seventh or lower in IGTC’s classification. Eng would also have to finish fourth at best.
POINTS ON THE BOARD VS STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
On paper, at least, BMW heads to the finale primed to win its first Intercontinental manufacturers’ crown thanks to a nine-point cushion over Mercedes-AMG.
Its two works entries are also of the highest quality. However, they are the only M4s competing, whereas Mercedes-AMG has filled its quota of four cars split 3-1 across Pro and Pro-Am, respectively.
Yes, only each brand’s two best placed nominations will score manufacturers’ points, but Mercedes-AMG’s strength in numbers means neither BMW can afford to slip up.
Indeed, a one-two or even one-three finish would be enough for Mercedes-AMG to overturn its deficit regardless of where either BMW finishes.
Mercedes-AMG’s IGTC list includes GruppeM’s second Pro entry crewed by DTM driver Lucas Auer – who was part of last year’s pole-winning trio that also featured Engel and Goetz – as well as Frank Bird and Lorenzo Ferrari. Those two earned their chance in a factory entry by impressing at the recent Mercedes-AMG Young Driver Test in Valencia.
SunEnergy1’s Kenny Habul, Martin Konrad, Dominik Baumann and Philip Ellis complete the Three Pointed Star’s IGTC contingent in what will be Habul’s first competitive appearance since injuring his back at Spa. The Australian – a Bathurst winner with Gounon and Stolz in February – cannot win IGTC’s Independent Cup title but is eligible to score class points.
Elsewhere, Porsche’s four IGTC entries are unlikely to win outright given their Pro-Am and Am nature. However, they do include two Independent Cup championship contenders – Antares Au and Stephen Grove – plus the team that clinched overall pole positions at Indy and Spa: Herberth Motorsport.
HUI-SY DOES IT?!
Hui and Sky Tempesta were crowned Fanatec GT Europe Endurance Cup Bronze champions back in October. Now they are chasing another title together as the IGTC Independent Cup draws to a close in Abu Dhabi.
Hui – who shares the McLaren with Kevin Tse, Chris Froggatt and Eddie Cheever – won the season opener in Bathurst and dropped his mandatory round at Kyalami before finishing second at both Spa and Indy to enter the finale nine points clear of Au.
The latter has won twice in quick succession, and also saw his car take pole at Spa and Indy. However, his points deficit means even another win won’t be enough to pinch the championship if Hui finishes second again. His chances are aided by factory driver Matteo Cairoli and Tim Heinemann who helped Au score his two Independent Cup victories this year.
Stephen Grove is also a mathematical contender. But with only four drivers eligible to score Independent Cup points at the Gulf 12 Hours, his deficit of 16 will be difficult to overcome. Indeed, Hui must retire for the Earl Bamber Motorsport driver to have a chance, which also relies on him finishing first or second. He shares the 911 GT3 R with son Brenton and Supercars ace Richie Stanaway.
WHAT, WHERE AND WHEN?
The Gulf 12 Hours takes place on December 8-10, albeit with the first test session scheduled for Thursday night.
GT World’s live YouTube coverage begins with Saturday evening’s four-part qualifying session before the race itself is streamed for free and uninterrupted on Sunday.
Thursday 7 December
19:30 – 20:30 Open Practice 1
Friday 8 December
13:15 – 14:15 Open Practice 2
15:15 – 16:15 Open Practice 3
17:30 – 19:30 Open Practice 4
Saturday 9 December
11:15 – 12:15 Free Practice 1
14:20 – 15:20 Free Practice 2
18:00 – 18:15 Qualifying 1 – LIVE
18:25 – 18:40 Qualifying 2 – LIVE
18:50 – 19:05 Qualifying 3 – LIVE
19:15 – 19:30 Qualifying 4 – LIVE
Sunday 10 December
10:00 – 22:00 Gulf 12 Hours – LIVE