Gounon and Mercedes-AMG seal Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli titles
Hui crowned IGTC Independent Cup champion
Mercedes-AMG and Jules Gounon are the 2023 Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli champions after GruppeM Racing won the globe-trotting GT3 series’ finale at the Lenovo Gulf 12 Hours.
The #99 Mercedes-AMG driven by Maro Engel, Luca Stolz and Mikael Grenier started from pole but forged an unusual path to victory over Valentino Rossi, Dries Vanthoor and Nick Yelloly whose Team WRT BMW finished 13 seconds adrift.
Gounon, meanwhile, was content to complete the podium with his 2 Seas co-drivers Fabian Schiller and Maximilian Goetz. First and third was also enough for Mercedes-AMG to turn its nine-point starting deficit into a five-point winning margin over BMW in the manufacturers’ standings.
Its cause was undoubtedly helped by WRT’s other M4 encountering an exhaust issue in the fourth hour that cost the entry shared by Sheldon van der Linde, Charles Weerts and Gounon’s main title rival Philipp Eng six laps. The car was still classified sixth in IGTC’s manufacturers’ rankings but that wasn’t enough to prevent Mercedes-AMG from retaining its crown.
Further back, Sky Tempesta’s Jonathan Hui clinched the Independent Cup title by finishing second in class behind Antares Au (Herberth Motorsport) who couldn’t quite overturn his rival’s advantage despite taking a third straight victory.
Kenny Habul had looked set to win on the road until a late issue dropped SunEnergy1’s Mercedes-AMG to third.
GRUPPEM SETS UP MERCEDES-AMG’S CORONATION
Just like last year, Gulf 12 Hours’ unusual pitstop regulation gave the five Pro entries an opportunity to play with strategy. So although GruppeM started from pole, Engel and Vanthoor were both in for the first time at the end of lap one, while their overall rivals followed suit inside the first 10 minutes.
Two lengthy Full Course Yellow periods followed soon after when first Shaun Balfe and then Stephen Grove crashed heavily. Between them, the Pro entries continued to stop at regular intervals, which left Am and Pro-Am cars out front until the start of the fifth hour.
Indeed, it was Herberth’s Am crewed Porsche that led overall and IGTC’s classification until Goetz – who earlier passed Rossi on track and GruppeM through strategy – finally restored a semblance of order.
His 2 Seas car was able to steadily pull clear of the BMW but had made one fewer imposed stop than GruppeM, which remained a threat despite running a lap down. And when Grenier wheel-banged his way past Schiller just before half-distance, the Mann Filter-backed Mercedes-AMG was suddenly a serious contender again.
Still, it was 2 Seas’ decision to change brakes under another long FCY period that helped WRT and GruppeM move ahead. Rossi sprinted clear of Stolz when racing resumed to give BMW a chance of winning the manufacturers’ title. Those hopes faded at the next driver change, however, when a jammed pedal box cost the car time and, crucially, first place to GruppeM.
Yelloly, who then had to drive in an awkward seating position, was in physical discomfort after making way for Vanthoor who, like his co-driver, was unable to make serious inroads into Engel’s lead. The gap briefly reduced to around eight seconds but went back out to 13 when the Belgian picked up a five-second penalty for multiple track limits infringements.
From there, Engel completed the final stint with relative ease to collect his and GruppeM’s first IGTC wins since Suzuka 2018. First place also helped Stolz finish runner-up in the drivers’ standings behind Gounon who – like Engel – celebrated his title with donuts on the in-lap.
GruppeM’s second factory entry finished fourth but never recovered from making a pitstop under the first FCY period that didn’t count towards its mandatory 10. Nevertheless, the result marked solid first factory outings for Mercedes-AMG Young Driver Test winners Frank Bird and Lorenzo Ferrari who joined Lucas Auer in the #77 car.
Three non-IGTC teams – Car Collection, Optimum and Kessel – were next up in the overall classification, while Herberth’s Independent Cup-winning trio of Au, Tim Heinemann and Matteo Cairoli scored fourth place Intercontinental points for Porsche in eighth. Likewise the sister 911 of Daniel Allemann, Ralf Bohn and Alfred Renauer who sensationally led outright during the first two hours.
But there was disappointment for Eng, WRT and BMW who saw the chequered flag despite their earlier exhaust issue. The Austrian also ultimately slipped behind Stolz and Vanthoor in the final drivers’ standings as a consequence.
Intercontinental returns for a ninth season in a little over two months’ time when the 2024 campaign begins Down Under at the Repco Bathurst 12 Hour on February 16-18.