With this, GT4 has become the perfect platform for drivers wishing to take the next step in their career. There is the chance to gain experience of the same circuits used in the premier categories, drive comparable machinery and – perhaps most importantly - impress the right people.
This has certainly proven to be the case in 2019, with a trio of drivers on this year's Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe grid coming directly from last term's GT4 European Series field. Among them is the reigning champion – Milan Dontje – who has graduated from a title-winning assault aboard an Audi R8 LMS GT4 to drive a GT3 version of the same car for Attempto Racing.
This weekend, the 24-year-old Dutchman will compete on home turf at Zandvoort. With his local track returning to the calendar this year, the newcomer could not have timed his arrival better.
Born into racing
Dontje was always bound to end up at the circuit. As he puts it himself: "We are really a racing family. My dad is crazy about it." Based a little over half an hour from Zandvoort in a country known for its love of racing, it was inevitable that his future would involve four wheels and an engine.
Indeed, Milan is not the first Dontje to participate in the Blancpain GT Series. His elder brother Indy competed in the Endurance Cup between 2015 and 2017 and remains active in the sport. Indy will be back on the grid at this month's Total 24 Hours of Spa, joining the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari crew.
The elder Dontje served an apprenticeship in single-seaters, but this was never really an option for Milan. At 1.89m (6ft 2in) he is taller than most racing drivers and was unsure about how to take the next step. This led to him remaining in karting beyond his 18th birthday – later than the majority of his peers – and to a spell racing in the U.S. Eventually, however, he found a home.
"I drove a GT4 Corvette for Day-V-Tec in the Supercar Challenge,” Dontje explains. “I came second that year and found that I really liked GT cars."
A brief spell racing LMPs followed, before Dontje made two guest appearances in the Audi Sport TT Cup at the back end of 2016. A fifth-place finish in his final outing suggested that the single-make series could be a good fit.
"I didn't really know what to do at that time, but the TT Cup suited me well and Audi wanted me to drive there because I had been quick as a guest driver. So, in 2017 I did TT Cup and had quite a good season. I made some mistakes as well though, so I ended up fourth rather than third or second."
Dontje had shown definite signs of progress during 2017. Nevertheless, few would predicted the step up he would take during the following 12 months.
GT4 champion after epic finale
For the 2018 campaign Dontje moved to the GT4 European Series with Phoenix Racing, a team with serious credentials at the highest level of the sport. Despite this advantage, he was still a rookie jumping from a single-make cup to a hugely competitive championship that features grids of more than 40 cars from a wide variety of manufacturers.
Instant success would clearly be difficult to come by, but Dontje backed himself from the word go.
"I knew I could be quick and, when I spoke to Phoenix, our goal was to become champions," he says. "I had Nicolaj Moller Madsen alongside me and he already had quite a lot of experience. The team felt I could learn while also being quick and be on the podium at the beginning. Then, later in the season, maybe we could be winning.”
In fact, the #5 Phoenix Audi pairing won the season-opening race at Zolder and picked up further victories at Brands Hatch and Spa, establishing themselves as favourites for the title.
"The car really suited me; there's not really any aerodynamics on the GT4 and this is more natural for me," Dontje reflects. "It went quite well and after a while I was even quicker than Nicolaj, which was a surprise for the team. We just had a really good season – and some luck."
The "luck" Dontje refers to came at the season finale. Having won three times in the opening four events, the #5 crew could not match these results at the final two rounds. The title seemed to have slipped away, but a dramatic final race saw Dontje’s two main rivals fail to finish. The Phoenix Audi took fifth, placing all three crews level on points – but Dontje and Moller Madsen clinched the crown with more race wins. It was an almost unbelievable way in which to conclude the season.
"The racing in GT4 is really competitive,” says Dontje. “This is the main way that it prepared me for GT3. The car is also really similar. The difference is just in the aerodynamics, so I know the car and have an idea how it behaves. For me, this has all been really good preparation."
Making the step up to GT3
Having clinched the GT4 title the only way was up for Dontje, which meant a switch to GT3 racing. Initially he had planned to contest Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia with the Phoenix squad, but when that deal did not come to fruition he found a new home with Attempto Racing. As such, he has retained his links with Audi for a third season in as many different championships.
The Dutchman is currently contesting the Silver Cup class in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe alongside fellow rookie Mattia Drudi, and is also set to make his Total 24 Hours of Spa debut with Attempto later this month. Ahead of the trip to Zandvoort, the Dontje-Drudi pairing has taken two runner-up finishes from the opening rounds, placing them second in the Silver Cup standings. That is a good sign considering that Dontje does not believe he is fully at ease with his car yet.
"You really feel that you're at a higher level [with the GT3], which is difficult. It's a different beast. For me, it's important to have confidence with the car but at the moment I don't really have that feeling. When you don't have full confidence, it's tough to drive fast lap times."
This suggests that there is still plenty more to come from the Dutchman as he gets fully acquainted with the Audi R8 LMS GT3.
"Mattia is doing really, really well. We've had two overall top-10 finishes and been P2 twice in Silver Cup, so that's good. We're quick in the races, but the qualifying pace isn't there yet. I'm still happy with the progress and hopefully we can keep this up and get a few wins in Silver Cup.
“The goal is to be in the overall top-10 all the time and by the end of the season hopefully the top-five. But this will be difficult, because we are up against some of the best drivers in the world.”
Homecoming at Zandvoort
This weekend at Zandvoort, Dontje will be part of a capacity grid contesting the season's third double-header event. It marks the Dutch track's return to the calendar after a four-year absence – which is particularly convenient for local racer Dontje.
"The circuit is a half-hour away, 40 minutes max, so I'll be staying at home this weekend! I started my career there in testing, so for me it has a special feeling. I love the fans as well, so it's always a nice place to drive.”
For now at least, Zandvoort retains the kind of retro characteristics that are disappearing from European circuits. Like many of the drivers who will compete there this weekend, Dontje is a fan of the venue.
“It's an old-school track and it's really fast,” he says. "You have the quick corners like Slotermaker, then it's uphill and downhill, which I think will be incredible with the downforce in a GT3 car. Tarzan is another good one – there's lots of action and it's quite narrow.
“In general I really like the circuit because there are elevation changes, it's quite quick, and there are a few places where you can overtake. I think for the fans it's a good one to watch and for drivers it's great to drive because it's so fast.”
The event will take Dontje past the halfway point in his maiden season at the top level of GT racing. With his Spa debut on the horizon it promises to be a busy few weeks, but he’s making the most of the opportunity.
"I'm definitely enjoying what I do,” he concludes. “To be driving an Audi R8 at these tracks, I'm just really lucky to do all of this stuff.”