Blancpain GT Series stars in 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge opener

Blancpain GT Series stars in 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge opener

The second season of the Intercontinental GT Challenge will get underway next weekend, with the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour. The 2017 edition of the Australian endurance classic arguably has the best entry list of its existence, with some of the best GT drivers in the world racing on the epic Mount Panorama circuit.

With the Intercontinental GT Challenge dropping the separate entry rule and opening up to all GT3 teams and drivers and GT4 teams holding an international licence, the number of possible points-scoring entrants for the 2017 season has increased significantly.

In addition, the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour also had a major rule change this year and that for the first time in the history of the race, GT cars will be able to compete without an unseeded driver. This means that there is now room for a full-Pro line-ups within Class A, resulting in the presence of a even larger number of experienced and top-level GT drivers.

Reigning Intercontinental GT Challenge champion Laurens Vanthoor has switched from Audi to Porsche over the winter and the Belgian will start his title defence by trying to get his first Bathurst win with the #911 Walkinshaw GT3 Porsche he will be sharing with Kevin Estre and former Le Mans-winner Earl Bamber. There are more Porsche factory drivers at the wheel of the Competition Motorsports 911 GT3R, with Marc Lieb and Patrick Long sharing the car with David Calvert-Jones.

Shane Van Gisbergen, third in last year’s Intercontinental GT Challenge and reigning Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup champion, has switched manufacturers as well. The Kiwi will try to repeat his 2016 Bathurst win, then at the wheel of a McLaren, with the STM Mercedes-AMG GT3. ‘The Giz’ shares the car with fellow New Zealander (and 2007 Bathurst winner) Craig Baird and German ace Maro Engel.

Van Gisbergen’s fellow Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup champions, Rob Bell and Côme Ledogar are spearheading McLaren’s Bathurst title defence, in the company of one the 2016 winners and reigning Pirelli World Challenge champion Alvaro Parente. The second 650S GT3 of the Tekno Autosports team is in the hands of Jonny Kane, Will Davison and new McLaren Junior driver Ben Barnicoat, who made his GT debut at the Nürburgring round of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup last year.

Nissan also has its share of former Bathurst winners in its ranks, with 2015 winner Katsumasa Chiyo sharing the car with Michael Caruso and former Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup winner Alex Buncombe. Florian Strauss, another member of the winning 2015 Bathurst winning trio, is at the wheel of the second GT-R Nismo GT3 of the Nissan Motorsports team, together with Jann Mardenborough and Todd Kelly.

Back in 2011, Christopher Mies was one of the drivers that won the first GT3 edition of the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, a feat that the German repeated a year later. Now Mies is back at the wheel of one of the Jamec Pem Racing Audi R8’s, sharing the #74 car with Garth Tander and the winner of the most recent edition of the Motul Sepang 12 Hours, Christopher Haase. The line-up of the other Jamec Pem Racing car is just as impressive: 2015 Blancpain GT champion Robin Frijns joins former Total 24 Hours of Spa winners Markus Winkelhock and Frank Stippler.

More Bathurst stars are in the Ferrari corner: V8 Supercars heroes Craig Lowndes (Bathurst 12 Hour winner in 2014) and Jamie Whincup will be joined by former FIA GT2 champion and Ferrari factory driver Toni Vilander. The trio will give the Maranello Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 its Bathurst debut.

Another Bathurst first comes in the shape of the BMW Team SRM M6 GT3. The squad will enter two cars, and each one will have a BMW factory driver a the wheel: double and reigning DTM Champion Marco Wittmann shares the #25 car with Steve Richards and Mark Winterbottom, while former F1 driver Timo Glock has Tony Longhurst, Mark Skaife and Russell Ingall as his team-mates on the #7.

The Bentley Continental GT3 is a familiar sight on Mount Panorama, having been among the frontrunners for the last two editions. Last year’s podium finishers Steven Kane and Guy Smith get the company of new Bentley recruit Oliver Jarvis, with Blancpain GT Series aces Maxime Soulet, Vincent Abril and Andy Soucek sharing the second of the Bentley Team M-Sport cars.

The Lago Racing Lamborghini is one of the Intercontinental GT Challenge point-scoring contenders as well, even though they have an all Am line-up with Roger Lago, Steve Owen and David Russell. Liam Talbot is another Am driver with serious ambitions; the reigning Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup Am champion is at the wheel of the #912 Walkinshaw Porsche.

New for the 2017 Intercontinental GT Challenge is the GT4 manufacturers’ title. With that championship only taking place over three rounds – GT4 cars are not eligible to race in the Total 24 Hours of Spa – a good result on Mount Panorama might be crucial. Porsche seems to have the best chances, with the German PROSport Performance and British Brookspeed squads each entering two Porsche Caymans.

With teams still adding drivers to their line-up, a definitive list of Intercontinental GT Challenge participants will be published later this week. Action at Mount Panorama starts on Friday February 3rd, with four practice sessions. Saturday sees a final practice session, the qualifying session and the top-10 shootout. The race on Sunday starts at 5.45am local time. The top-10 shootout and the race will be streamed live on the Intercontinental GT Challenge website .