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FIA GT Series 2013 Preview

2012 was a difficult year for Stephane Ratel’s headline series, undergoing what would transpire to be the final hurrah for the concept of the World GT1 Championship. First mooted in 2009, the first two years of the series saw grandfathered versions of the cars that had been around since the middle of the previous decade, but produced some spectacular racing nonetheless, before being supplanted by the successful GT3 formula last year, but SRO have worked hard to ensure their flagship championship will move on.

2013 sees a return to more familiar contexts. The name reverts to FIA GT and gone are the unpopular decisions to restrict the number of cars per manufacturer and race-by-race entries, whilst the two-tiered sprint race format is retained along with the GT3 ruleset.

The calendar has been stripped down to its bones too, with the lessons learned from the success of the Blancpain Endurance Series being taken on board. Distant rounds in Asia and South America have been replaced by a shorter schedule based in northern Europe, completed by trips to Spain’s Navarra and a Middle Eastern round, likely to be held in Abu Dhabi, in November. This has allowed teams to sign up in tandem with running programmes in other series in Europe, as shown by the number of GT Open, VLN and ADAC GT Masters entries that join the series this year.

Another concept carried across from the Endurance series is the introduction of classes according to driver rankings. Three prizes are now on offer at each event, in the Pro Cup, Pro-Am Cup and Gentlemen's Trophy competitions.

After struggling to attract car numbers into the teens at several rounds in 2012, the series looks to have found a healthy footing for this year and will not reliant on the supplementary entries engineered by the organisers that were prevalent last season.

In total, 24 cars will race for the season opener, with 10 each in the Pro and Pro-Am categories and a further four in the Gentlemen’s Trophy class. Somewhat ironically, the removal on the two car per manufacturer rule has had little effect, with 8 different brands represented on the initial grid.

#1, #2 & #3 - HTP Gravity Charouz
Reigning European GT3 Championship champions, Gravity Charouz Racing, have joined forces with the team formerly known as HEICO Motorsports to form a formidable looking assault on each of the three classes. No team will feel more familiar with the Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 and the team can be expected to feature strongly on the circuits at which the powerful but heavy car is more at home.

In the team’s Pro Cup entry, Israeli youngster Alon Day will be a decisive factor on the outcome of the season. Consistent, if not spectacular, in Formula 3, last year saw Day spend time in the USA in the Firestone Indy Lights championship and his ability to quickly transition to a first season in a GT car will determine the car’s competitiveness. Maximilian Buhk returns after being half of the title-winning pair of 2012 and his pace and consistency is in little doubt.

The #2 car looks to be a highly competitive entry in the Pro-Am ranks, with both Russian Sergei Afanasiev and Swede Andreas Simonsen being experienced with the car and the duo will look to hit the ground running and expect to see them feature strongly at Nogaro.

The third entry from the team, entered in the Gentlemen’s Trophy, has a distinctly Czech flavour, with brother of Jan, Petr Charouz, teaming up with team stalwart Jan Stovicek. Stovicek featured strongly alongside fellow Czech Erik Janis in last year’s ADAC GT Masters and, in a class with no professional drivers, could be one of the faster drivers in class.

#5 - Phoenix Racing
A team that requires little introduction, the reigning Nurburgring 24 Hours and Spa 24 Hours champions take on an expanded schedule in 2013 that will see them competing in both of the international SRO GT championships, albeit with funded drivers and not the works pilots that ensured their victories in last season’s enduros.

The FIA GT Series sees a single R8 LMS Ultra for Belgians Enzo Ide and Anthony Kumpen. Whilst youngster Ide has less experience than his compatriot, his GT racing palmeras already includes wins in the 2010 GT3 European Championship and a full season in the World GT1 Championship at the helm of a Ferrari. Kumpen has been a mainstay of top-flight GT racing for the last decade and the duo, combined with the focus of Ernst Moser’s team, will be one of the quicker entries in the Pro Cup class.

#6 - BMW Sports Trophy Team India
Whilst the name may sound unfamiliar, the crew running the BMW Z4 GT3 will consist of the vastly experienced Sunred Engineering team with support from several Vita4One staff and so should be up to speed with the car early in the season. That said, the team’s first experience with the car was only last week and the latter stages of the season could be a more realistic timeframe to challenge for class honours.

Indian driver Armaan Ebrahim will be of instant media interest as he follows the likes of compatriots Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok into sportscar racing, but his pace in his first GT experience remains to be seen. Without a win in three years of the FIA Formula Two Championship, Ebrahim will likely be reliant on the experience of teammate Matteo Cressoni, replaced at Nogaro by Julien Jousse, to help him get up to speed.

#7 & #8 – ACL by Rodrive
Supported by the car’s developers, Lambda Performance, Rodrive bring two Ford GTs to bear for the season with one of two quartets of Brazilian drivers that will feature in the series this year. Direct assistance from Lambda will be of great benefit to the squad, but this is a big step up for the team and a car that hasn’t proven to be a frontrunner in recent years, as factory support for other cars has pushed other manufacturer's offerings to the front of grids.

In the team’s lead car, two-time Brazilian GT3 champion Matheus Stumpf will likely be the quickest driver but Claudio Ricci should prove an able partner if the pair are able to adapt to a selection of circuits that will be new to both.

In the #8 entry, Felipe Tozzo and Raijan Mascarello find themselves thrown in at the deep end in their first experience racing outside of their native Brazil. Unfamiliarity could prove beneficial, however, as two bronze ratings ensure that they may be able to compete for Gentlemen’s Trophy honours come the end of the season.

#9 & #10 Sébastian Loeb Racing
Despite 2012 being the team’s first foray into the world of GT3 racing, the team of nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastian Loeb heads into the 2013 FIA GT Series as clear favourites for the overall title. Two strong lineups and a team with experience gained in the FFSA French GT Championship last year combine to produce a lineup that could prove unrivalled provided the reliability issues that dogged the McLaren teams early last year are avoided.

Undoubted title favourites are the pairing of Loeb himself with McLaren GT works driver Alvaro Parente. Despite being new to the team, the Portuguese driver was heavily involved in the MP4-12C GT3’s development and, combined with the speed of Loeb, will assist the rest of the team in being up to speed.

The drivers of the #10 machine could be legitimate title pretenders but for their sister car’s lineup, but expect Andreas Zuber and Mike Parisy to feature strongly in some races this season, and could upstage their more famous teammates upon occasion. Look for Parisy in particular to shine on circuits that are to his liking.

#11, #12 & #13 - Belgian Audi Club Team WRT
Two-time Blancpain Endurance Series champions, WRT return to the sprint race championship after 2012’s disappointing campaign. With two years of experience and factory support, expect Vincent Vosse’s men to be title contenders and favourites in the opening round after their domination of the Easter Monday Nogaro race in torrential conditions last year.

Former Le Mans winner Stephane Ortelli and Belgian youngster Laurens Vanthoor team up once again in the entry most likely to challenge for overall championship honours. After joining the team last year as somewhat of an unknown quantity, Vanthoor immediately demonstrated his abilities in the rain by upstaging his far more illustrious teammates in Nogaro and Silverstone.

Charismatic Austrian Niki Meyer-Meinhof will be hoping his partnership with Rene Rast will result in class wins and the duo are likely to be the pre-season favourites for the Pro-Am category. Expect three-time Porsche Supercup winner Rast to be amongst the quickest in the field after switching from Phoenix Racing to the Belgian team for 2013.

The team’s third car will likely compete for race wins this season and in Frank Stippler they have last year’s Nurburgring and Spa 24 Hour race winner. Fast and consistent, Stippler will be joined by Swede Edward Sandstrom, who has shown speed in both BMWs and Audis over the past couple of seasons.

#14 - Novadriver
After competing in the full series of FIA European GT3 Championship last year, the Portuguese outfit continue their continental competition in the newly combined series and will now find themselves up against a new level of competition.

Cesar Campanico continues for this season but with a new co-driver; Ni Amorim having been replaced with by Carlos Vieira. With experience in the Iberian GT scene, the team will be hoping their new pilot will be up to speed in order to give them a chance of strong finishes in the Pro-Am class.

#16 & #17 - Dörr Motorsport
The perennial VLN and Nurburgring 24 entrants are venturing into international competition for the first time and were a surprise on the entry list. As with many teams, they struggled with the McLaren last season and this, combined with a schedule of circuits entirely new to the squad, means 2013 may be a steep learning curve. In their favour are a year’s experience, McLaren’s desire to restore their reputation and having a year’s experience as a Pirelli partner, the spec tyres for the FIA GT Series.

Two ADAC GT Masters graduates will team up in the team’s lead car, a Pro Cup entry, but both Niclas Kentenich and the highly rated Daniel Keilwitz will both be racing the McLaren MP4/12 GT3 for the first time in Nogaro.

The partner of ‘Paul Green’ for the first round is yet to be announced (Arne Hoffmeister has been confirmed now - MtC), but the car is entered in the Gentlemen’s Trophy and, with only four cars entered, will be targeting consistency and reliability in an effort to upstage their more experienced competitors.

#0 & #21 - BMW Team Brazil
One of the more trumpeted arrivals to the series this year is a team well known to the Brazilian GT3 Championship. Expanding internationally for the first time, expect both the team and all-Brazilian driver lineups to require some time to acclimatise to European circuits and racing.

Somewhat of a legend in his native country, five-time Brazilian Stock Car champion Cacá Bueno has decided to prove himself overseas for the first time and will team up with former stock car rival Allam Khodair. The Lebanese descendant will give little away, however, being a former stock car and Brazilian GT3 race winner.

The #21 car brings former-Formula 1 driver Ricardo Zonta back to Europe for the first time since competing in the series’ former life as the World GT1 Championship. His knowledge of European racing could prove crucial in assisting teammate Sergio Jiminez, the latter entering the series full-time for the first time after completing three times in SRO events since 2009.

#25 - Grasser Racing Team
After a disappointing 2012 ADAC GT Masters campaign, the Austrian team has decided to try their hand at continental competition for the first time in the FIA GT Series. With a not-unfamiliar format, they will be hoping to benefit from a year’s experience with the Lamborghini, now upgraded to LP600+ spec.

Dominik Baumann was one of the fastest drivers from last year’s European GT3 Championship and will be joined by regular ADAC GT Masters teammate Hari Proczyk. Together, the pair piloted a Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 in the German championship last year and, despite the change of marque, could prove challengers for the Pro-Am category this season.

#28 - Seyffarth Motorsports
The Seyffarth family team enter the FIA GT Series, dovetailing their campaign with a full calendar of GT Open, after a strong season of ADAC GT Masters last year. Expect the team to be familiar with the car and to get off to a strong start.

Jan Seyffarth continues and is joined by Indian ex-Formula 1 driver Karun Chandhok in one of the surprise coups of the off-season. Much will depend on Chandhok’s transition into his first experience of GTs, with the heavy Mercedes on a twisty Nogaro circuit seeming, on paper at least, like a baptism of fire. If he is able to do so with ease, then the entry will be a strong competitor in the Pro Cup.

#30 & #31 - SOFREV ASP
At the moment, SOFREV are committed only to the opening round of the series as they prepare for FFSA GT and Blancpain Endurance Series campaigns with their two Ferrari 458 GT3s. The French team surprised several with their results in international competition last year, but could challenge in qualifying and their respective classes at their home circuit.

In the #30 Pro-Am entry, Jean-Luc Beaubelique runs as the amateur driver, but proved himself more than capable at that level in 2012, and is paired with the always-fast Soheil Ayari. Expect the duo to compete for the Pro-Am class.

Former French national football team goalkeeper Fabien Barthez continues his new passion for GT racing in 2013 and is using the opening round of the FIA GT Series to plan for his twin campaigns in SOFREV’s two targeted series. Not expected to run as a front runner, but with four cars entered in the Gentlemen’s Trophy class and unpredictable weather likely, anything could happen for Barthez and co-driver Gérard Tonelli.

#32 & #35 - Nissan GT Academy Team RJN
Having being controversially rejected from the 2013 British GT Series due to having drivers deemed too fast for amateur rankings, Nissan’s GT Academy squad finds refuge in one of SRO’s other championships; one that arguably benefits from their participation more. Much has been written about the success of Nissan’s innovative ‘couch-to-racing driver’ programme and it shows no sign of abating. Two cars will line up for the full campaign sporting a new livery in the branding of new partner YouTube.

In the #32 car, two of the latest graduates will compete together. Russia’s Mark Shulzhitskiy and Belgium’s Wolfgang Reip both stood out at Dubai for their impressively consistent performance and much will be expected of them after the success of Jann Mardenborough last season. Competing in the Pro-Am ranks, expect the due to come on strong towards the end of the season as their coaching and newfound experience will come to fruition.

The #35 car sees a lineup that is arguably stronger than several Pro Cup cars. Inexplicably grouped in the Pro-Am category for the FIA GT Series, original GT Academy star Lucas Ordonez will compete with RJN stalwart Alex Buncombe in a car that ranks amongst the favourites.

#51 - AF Corse
A late entry for Nogaro, and potentially for the full season, Amato Ferrari’s team return with a single car. Not much more can be written about the de-facto works Ferrari team, but last year’s World GT1 Championship campaign fell short of expectations, with only a solitary win for the team leaving them well adrift in the championship standings.

With Toni Vilander not forming part of the squad for the FIA GT Series, the onus falls upon GP2 graduate Fabio Odini to partner Czech driver Filip Salaquarda. The Ferrari is always quick and often qualifies well, but its consistency and race pace in GT3 have been found wanting on occasion.

Thanks to Rodger Davies for this preview - MtC