GT World Challenge Europe finally gets underway this weekend a whole 298 days after the chequered flag fell at the final race of 2019 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain. No one on that sunny Catalan evening would have had any thoughts about what 2020 would have in store, instead many would be preparing to race in Kyalami and Bathurst before re-grouping again at Monza in April.
With the title sponsor, Blancpain, bringing their relationship to an end, the series was rebranded as the GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS and all seemed well as we counted down to the first round.
As global events unfolded, calendars were redrawn and plans reset and now at the end of July on the weekend originally scheduled for the 24 Hours of Spa, the season finally gets underway, not at Spa but at Imola where a field of 46 cars will take the green flag on Sunday afternoon.
Inevitably there have been casualties, however, with all recent events considered, a grid of 46 cars is remarkable and is only two fewer than the 2019 season opener at Monza. In fact the full season endurance entry is down by 11 cars from 2019, a not insignificant number and one that is repeated in the Sprint championship which leaves that reduced to just 23 entries.
For the endurance cup that represents a total of ten manufacturers with the Germans out in front with Mercedes-AMG providing nine cars, seven from Audi, six from Porsche and one BMW.
In amongst those 23 German cars will be championship favourites Luca Stolz, Maro Engel and Vincent Abril who has moved from AKKA ASP to take the seat vacated by Yelmer Buurman. The Dutchman – champion in 2018 with Stolz and Engel – was let go from the GT World Challenge Europe program for budgetary reasons but will be making a welcome return to the British GT Championship while continuing to race for Haupt Racing Team in the VLN Nürburgring Endurance Series and the Nürburgring 24 Hours. The trio are entered in the #4 Haupt Racing Team Mercedes-AMG GT3.
The other surprise is that the Black Falcon name does not appear on the entry list. The same crew of people that formerly ran the Black Falcon Mercedes-AMGs has moved on to continue to run the same cars in the GT World Challenge Europe for newly established Haupt Racing Team.
French squad AKKA ASP bring three Mercedes AMG GT3s to the fight with a Pro-Am entry consisting of Jim Pla, Jean-Luc Beaubelique and Fabien Barthez. Raffaele Marciello stays in the #88 car but with new teammates Timur Boguslavskiy and Felipe Fraga.
Former Grasser Racing, WRT and AF Corse driver Ezequiel Pérez Companc established his own team over winter, naming it Madpanda Motorsport. The Catalunya-based team races under an Argentinian flag to represent Pérez Companc’s home country and enters a sole Mercedes-AMG GT3 for both Endurance and Sprint races. Its #90 car is driven by Pérez Companc, GT4 race winner Jose Cabezas Catalan and last year’s Silver Cup runner-up Patrick Assenheimer
Audi is always well represented and this year is no exception despite a couple of withdrawals. Belgian Audi Club Team WRT will be leading the line with a three-car entry, one car down from last year. Kelvin van der Linde, Mirko Bortolotti and Matthieu Vaxivière will certainly be at the sharp end of things in the #31 car whilst the #32 of Dries Vanthoor, Christopher Mies and Charles Weerts will be well up to challenge of keeping their team mates on their toes. Saintéloc Racing have also dropped one of their cars from last year so with Attempto Racing bringing two cars apiece putting the Audi entry up to seven cars.
Filling the void left by Grasser Racing Team as one of Squadra Corse’s anchor teams is Emil Frey Racing. The Swiss team has said farewell to its Jaguar and Lexus GT3s in favour of the brand from Bolognese. 2019 was spent in the International GT Open championship where Emil Frey Racing claimed a 1-2 championship title. Champions Giacomo Altoè and Albert Costa are joined by Franck Perera who comes over from FFF Racing in the #163 Lamborghini. Runner-ups Norbert Siedler and Mikäel Grenier team up with Ricardo Feller in the #14 machine. Imperiale Racing and Barwell Racing also bring Lambos.
The grid isn’t entirely berift of Lexus GT3s with a single entry from Tech 1 Racing in the Silver Cup whilst a solitary BMW M6 GT3 will take part in Pro-Am with Karim Ojjeh, Gilles Vannelet and Nick Yelloly turning out for Boutsen Ginion
The 2019 Spa 24 Hours winners, GPX Racing return in 2020 with a strong two-car line-up fielding Patrick Pilet, Mathieu Jaminet and Matt Campbell in the #12 Porsche 991.2 GT3R and Romain Dumas, Louis Delétraz and Thomas Preining in the #40 car.
Another Porsche team increasing its presence are 2019 Monza winners, Dinamic Motorsport. The Italian squad brings two silver entries and a gold line up of Sven Müller, Matteo Cairoli and 2017 Blancpain GT champion Christian Engelhart. One team cutting its entry is Rowe Racing who this year will field a single Porsche but with the formidable line up of Julien Andlauer, Klaus Bachler and Dirk Werner.
Noticeable absences in 2020 include R-Motorsport who took the decision to pull out of this season but with plans in place for a return in 2021. The withdrawal leaves just two Aston Martins on the grid, both from the Garage 59 stable. The #188 car is a Pro-Am Cup entry with Alexander West, Chris Goodwin and Jonny Adam and the #159 car sporting a Silver Cup entry of Valentin Hasse-Clot, Andrew Watson and a third to be confirmed driver.
Despite pulling back on its factory effort, Bentley still manages to field five cars with the American K-PAX team leading the charge with Rodrigo Baptista, Maxime Soulet and Jules Gounon in the #3 and Andy Soucek, Jordan Pepper and Álvaro Parente in the #6 car. French squad CMR, who most recently brought the Alpine A110 GT4 to the international race tracks to much success, is stepping up into GT3 with last year’s Alpine racers Pierre Alexandre Jean and Stéphane Tribaudini staying on board for CMR’s new adventure.
Ferrari bring five cars with AF Corse dropping their entry to three cars instead of four. AF Corse-run SMP Racing return after initial doubts about their programme. Driving the #72 car will be Miguel Molina, Davide Rigon and Sergey Sirotkin who takes over from Mikhail Aleshin. 2019 overall Pro-Am champion duo Andrea Bertolini and Louis Machiels are back for another go alongside Endurance co-driver Niek Hommerson. Four-time FIA GT and GT1 World Champion Bertolini last year stated 2020 could be his final year in motorsport should he win the tenth championship title of his career.
Rinaldi Racing will only bring one car this year following an injury to Rinat Salikhov which forced the team to withdraw the #888 car. Pierre Ehret, Rino Mastronardi and Daniel Keilwitz will contest the Pro-Am Cup in the #488 car.
New to the grid in 2020 is McLaren whose 720s GT3 debuts in the series with a Pro and Silver entry from Optimum Motorsport and 59Racing respectively. The Pro crew racing for Optimum will be Oliver Wilkinson, Rob Bell and Joe Osborne whilst Ben Barnicoat, Lewis Williamson and Martin Kodrić pilot the car entered by Team 59Racing. Both Kodrić and Barnicoat already represented the Australian team in February at the Bathurst 12 Hour where Barnicoat finished second whilst Kodrić took Silver Cup honours in the team’s sister car.
Racing gets underway at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola on Sunday at 13:30 CET.