A 39-car field has assembled at Mount Panorama for this weekend’s Bathurst 12 Hour. As part of the promotional build-up to the race, the race cars were driven on public roads from the circuit to the town of Bathurst, where the teams and drivers spent the afternoon in the town center mixing with the locals before track action gets under way tomorrow.
This year’s entry features a slew of all-star driver crews spread across the record 11 manufacturers entered in the race. This year’s edition has a different feel, with 33 of the 39 entries in the GT3 ranks. In previous years Porsche Cup cars, GT4s and invitational specials have fleshed out the grid, but the growth in GT3 interest from the various manufacturers has made for a very top-heavy list.
Bathurst is a circuit which in multi-class racing is all about traffic management, so this new-look grid is a real talking point. There’s a mix of views from the pool of drivers about how this change will affect the race. Some drivers feel it’s a positive and will make for a tighter, flat-out battle up front, others wonder whether or not having so few slower cars will detract from the spectacle.
“For us purely as pro drivers it’s not negative, because there’s less traffic and issues on the hill, which makes life easier for us,” Laurens Vanthoor — who will drive with his regular IMSA driving partner Earl Bamber and Supercars star Craig Lowndes in the No. 1 EBM Porsche — told RACER. “In the past, it used to be part of the nature of the race. At one point a couple years ago, it was maybe a little bit too much for the amount of pro cars we would have; it started to be dangerous. But they still need to be there.”
Beyond the intrigue surrounding the class split, this race features plenty of GT3 machinery new to the race, entered by customer teams and manufacturers all keen to make a good impression.
The newest car present is the 2020-spec Mercedes AMG GT3. Here, Triple Eight Engineering, Gruppe M and Craft-Bamboo Black Falcon are running the new Mercedes for the first time in Australia.
Maro Engel is set to race with Craft-Bamboo Black Falcon (in the No. 77), and tells RACER that the new AMG GT3, while an evolution rather than a revolution, should be suited to this circuit and the searing heat expected all weekend. Because of its position on the international calendar, it’s usually not possible for a manufacturer to race a new car here, as the homologation process in the past has finished following the Bathurst 12 Hour. However, Mercedes has become the first brand to homologate a car early, enabling it to take on ’The Mountain’ in its maiden season of competition.
“It’s fantastic for us to be able to race the new AMG GT3 here,” Engel said. “I have to say a big thank you to everyone who got the homologation process completed in time. This is the first time it’s been done. It’s a massive effort from Mercedes, SRO and the FIA. We’ve done a strong test programme with it, but as a driver the first real race in a new car is always something special, I’m excited. We have strong a strong team here.
“The new car is more of an evolution than revolution. We’ve had a great car with the previous generation AMG GT3 — we had a strong base to work with and looked at all aspects that could be refined. The cooling is a big issue here with the temperatures we see here, and that’s been refined, so that’ll be big for us in the race. ABS and traction control too has been improved, as have the front splitter and rear wing. It’s easier to make adjustments with this car, and repair it if it gets damaged.”
The 2019 evo-spec Audi R8 LMS GT3 is also present, the ‘Four Rings’ searching for a fourth overall win with a slew of factory drivers competing for multiple teams. The three Valvoline cars in particular catch the eye with their driver trios that feature the likes of Dries Vanthoor, Garth Tander and Kelvin Van der Linde.
Current generation GT3 cars, not new to customer racing in 2020, are also making their first appearances at Mount Panorama this weekend. Notably the current Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Porsche 911 GT3 R and McLaren 720S GT3 all carry the weight of expectation.
Aston Martin customer teams R-Motorsport and Garage 59 have two Vantages apiece in this one, the standout entry here the Castrol-backed No. 76 entry from the former, with 2019 standout Jake Dennis, Supercars driver Rick Kelly and newly crowned Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon, making his Bathurst debut this weekend.
McLaren, meanwhile, has just two cars in this fight, and only one in the Class A Pro category. Both 720S GT3s are entered by 59Racing, with support from the brand. There’s an air of expectation surrounding 59Racing’s effort this year, as the team has plenty of experience racing the car from its 2019 Australian GT campaign. Its No. 60 example is set to be driven by Ben Barnicoat, BMW refugee Tom Blomqvist and the ever-rapid Alvaro Parente, who won at Bathurst with the McLaren 650S GT3 back in 2016.
The No. 60 is a brand-new chassis, which was shaken down at Phillip Island ahead of this race. The 720S GT3 has run on Mount Panorama in anger, but not raced yet as 59Racing came close to breaking the all-time lap record at the end of last year in the AGT SuperSprint trial event. Barnicoat and Blomqvist both drove during that event, and were able to get a base setup sorted ahead of race week.
Then there’s Porsche, which is the defending champion after Earl Bamber Motorsport (in its first attempt) stormed to victory last year, handing Porsche its first overall win in the event. Porsche’s 2020 effort with the current 911 is a serious one; five cars across three customer teams (Absolute Racing and Grove Racing the other two), a record number for the brand in the GT3 ranks of this one.
These are just a few storylines for this weekend’s race. There are plenty more, with Lamborghini, Bentley, Honda, BMW, Nissan and Ferrari all represented with quality teams. Intercontinental GT Challenge points are up for grabs too, for select drivers and nine full-season manufacturers.
There are three days of track action at the 12 Hour event. Tomorrow the cars will hit the track for the first time, with four Free Practice sessions. Qualifying is Saturday with the race starting before sunrise on Sunday.