World Challenge GT has a new name and a new format as the 2019 season launches at Circuit of the Americas this weekend. Now known as Blancpain GT World Challenge America – a naming convention adopted across SRO’s GT3 series worldwide – it features seven weekends with two 90-minute races and two drivers. That’s a big departure from the series’ origins as a single-driver sprint series, and a shift from last year’s mix of Sprint and 60-minute SprintX races. That format was becoming necessary due to the cost of GT3 racing and the SprintX format’s ability to spread the costs to two drivers.
“We chose 90 minutes because of feedback from the team owners,” says SRO principal Stephane Ratel. “We wanted a specialty format for America. We defined, together with the key teams, the format they wanted. In GT3 it was clear they wanted the same thing – they wanted more track time and a product that was different from GT4.”
The cost sharing is less of a concern in the Pro ranks, and for the first time in several years, the series has the champions returning with the same team and same car that they won the title with the year prior. Toni Vilander, the overall champ, and Miguel Molina, SprintX winner with Vilander, come back to race R. Ferri Motorsports’ Ferrari 488. The pair won six SprintX races last year, which does not bode well for their competitors within the new format.
But the field challenging them is among the strongest the series has seen in several years. Starting with former champions, Wright Motorsports has come back to World Challenge with Patrick Long, the 2017 series champion, and paired him with last year’s Sprint champion, Scott Hargrove in its 911 GT3 R. Long has a ton of multi-driver racing experience, and Hargrove proved his speed with a pair of wins in last year’s season openers. The 2016 champion, Alvaro Parente, returns for another year with K-PAX Racing partnered with Andy Soucek. Switching to Bentley last year, K-PAX had more than its share of trouble, often not of its own making, but still managed to pull off several wins. Now armed with the latest Bentley Continental GT GT3, the team should be up to its former strength.
The other half of the K-PAX equation is Rodrigo Baptista and Maxime Soulet. Baptista, in his first year of GT and starting out as an Am until he lost that status by winning overall with Soulet at VIR, had a strong season minus some issues and wrapped up the year with a double victory at Watkins Glen. If the trend continues, Baptista and Soulet could be primed for a championship run. The other two-car Pro team besides K-PAX is the Alegra Motorsports Porsche team. Daniel Morad returns to the series to partner with Michael De Quesada. Team principal Carlos De Quesada was slated to partner with Morad in a Pro/Am entry, but a late decision was made to put Michael in the car and move to Pro. The other entry from Alegra features a pair of seasoned Porsche veterans, Wolf Henzler and Marco Holzer.
The Pro/Am field is varied and deep, with some strong teams and drivers. Acura is represented in the series again, with two different teams. Kyle Marcelli is teaming with Martin Barkey in an NSX fielded by Racers Edge, and Ryan Eversley and Till Bechtolsheimer were a late addition to the field for Gradient Racing. Jeff Segal and Wei Lu were strong in SprintX races last year in the TR3 Racing Ferrari 488, and are back again in that car for the season.
There are some championship-capable entries representing Mercedes-AMG. Former GTSA champ George Kurtz is partnering with Colin Braun in a DXDT Racing car, and Ryan Dalziel and David Askew are in the other. Dalziel helped Parker Chase to the Am title last year, and raced a Mercedes-AMG for CRP two years ago. Finally, Mercedes ace Maxi Buhk, a former champion in Blancpain GT in Europe, joins JC Perez in the P1 Motorsports entry.
There is a BMW in the series for the first time in several years, an M6 fielded by Stephen Cameron Racing. Like the team itself, Henry Schmitt and Gregory Liefooghe are stepping up from success in Touring Car and GT4. Porsche’s strongest Pro/Am entry comes from Wright; Anthony Imperato will have rotating partners in Matt Campbell and Romain Dumas. One11 Competition is a new team to the series, bringing a Ferrari for Alfred Caiola and Matt Plumb.
Two teams stand out in the Am category. The first is Martin Fuentes and Caesar Bacarella in a Squadra Corse Garage Italia Ferrari. Fuentes has been a force in the Am category for several years, winning the Sprint title in 2018. But James Sofronas is moving back to GT3 after taking the GT Am title two years ago and the GTS title last year. Brent Holden will be his partner in the GMG Porsche.
Blancpain GT World Challenge America races will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network, with the majority of them broadcast live. In addition, the races will be viewable around the world on a variety of streaming platforms, including at www.world-challenge.com. For fans at the track, following the action will be a little easier thanks to the introduction of the LUMIRANK three-digit LED display that was seen at the Intercontinental GT Challenge at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last October. The display, mounted behind the windshield, not only shows the position of the car in the field, it also identifies which driver is in the car at the time.
GT World Challenge has a long break after COTA, but many teams will participate in the Intercontinental GT Challenge at Laguna Seca in the interim before the series resumes at VIR in late April. Five more dual-race weekends are on the schedule – at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International, Road America and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.