The opening round of the 2020 Australian GT season came as part of the annual Bathurst 12 Hour with the Endurance Championship entries carding points in their respective classes relative to their title rivals ahead of the two dedicated 4-Hour endurance rounds scheduled for Phillip Island through March and August.
Typically the racing was world class, with Bathurst providing the intrigue we’ve come to expect across many seasons of competition in Australia, the Australian GT regulars relishing their first of three opportunities to compete on the country's most famous mountain this year - and like their 12-Hour rivals, they had to contend with everything the circuit would throw at them, including the intense heat.
From the driver parade on Thursday morning to the chequered flag on Sunday afternoon, Bathurst became the epicentre of world motorsport across the weekend with no shortage of action from opening practice as teams and drivers dialled themselves in - many of them for the first time in 2020.
Ultimately Fraser Ross and Dominic Storey (Silver) emerged as winners of the opening round of Australian GT, from the ‘Invitational’ class entry of Aaron Cameron and Broc Feeney with Marc Cini, Lee Holdsworth and Dean Fiore third overall and winners of the Pro-Am category.
Practice and Qualifying
Yasser Shahin impressed during the first 30-minute timed session which saw all but the Pro drivers turning laps, the Mercedes-AMG driver carding the third fastest time of 2 minutes 07.8290 seconds in the #777 Pro-Am entry, whilst Tony D’Alberto achieved a 2 minutes 09 seconds in the updated Adrian Deitz Lamborghini Huracan EVO to be quickest in the Silver category. The pair were marginally clear of new McLaren recruit - 2017 Australian Endurance Champion - Dominic Storey.
Reigning Australian Endurance champion Geoff Emery had the #24 Bostik Audi of Tony Bates into the 2:10s alongside new team-mate Dylan O’Keeffe, whilst Adam Hargraves was quickest in the ‘Invitational’ category (#20 MARC II Mustang) ahead of rising stars Aaron Cameron and Broc Feeney in the #91 entry, whilst Harrison Newey had Mark Griffith’s new Mercedes-AMG in top spot for the GT4 class.
By Friday afternoon’s fourth practice session the teams had all but dialled themselves in, giving a stronger indication of who would be competitive across Sunday’s 12 Hour journey around Mount Panorama.
The #777 ‘The Bend Motorsport Park’ Mercedes-AMG was second fastest, just two tenths of a second slower than their Triple Eight team-mates van Gisbergen/Whincup/Goetz, Anton De Pasquale settling in nicely with the Shahin team, whilst Lee Holdsworth had Marc Cini’s ‘Hallmark’ Audi into third in Pro-Am ahead of the top Silver entry of Cameron McConville.
Nick Percat had the #91 MARC II Mustang comfortably on top of his ‘Invitational’ class rivals, whilst Mark Griffith was embroiled in a terrific battle with the BMW M4 for top honours in the GT4 category.
After five relatively trouble-free practice sessions drivers were ready for qualifying, but almost immediately - once the timing sheets became official - they struck trouble.
Coming across Skyline a hard charging Cameron McConville caught Sam Shahin in the #777 Mercedes-AMG, the Lamborghini driver tagging Shahin as the Mercedes tried to allow him space, although at speed and with little margin to move, McConville made contact with the rear of the Mercedes forcing him into the barriers.
Unfortunately for Shahin, the resulting dust saw the following cars blind to his position, Tyler Everingham in the #92 ‘Skandia MARC Cars’ Mustang making heavy contact, forcing a red flag and the recovery of both vehicles.
Both drivers were able to extract themselves from their cars, but both affected teams were immediate retirements, whilst damage to the #6 Deitz Lamborghini of McConville was light, allowing them to continue to press on.
By the close of qualifying #1, it was Dominic Storey (Silver) who led the way for the Australian GT teams with the top spot (seventh overall), his 2:04.7799 just four tenths slower than his factory McLaren team-mates, whilst McConville (Silver) was able to extract a 2:05.4408 to be just fractions of a second quicker than Nick Percat in the #91 ‘Skandia MARC Cars’ Mustang, with Dirk Muller helping Mark Griffith to P2 in GT4.
With the second qualifying session set for Class A cars only, and without the Shahin AMG, the Griffith GT4 or the three remaining MARC Cars, the fight for position in Pro-Am and Silver classes provided an entertaining battle.
Ultimately 2019 Bathurst 12 Hour winner Matt Campbell claimed top outright honours with a stunning lap time of 2:03.4336 to usurp former Australian GT race winner Maro Engel, whilst for the Australian GT teams, Dominic Storey continued his outstanding McLaren debut to take the top spot with a 2:04.3883 in the #59 Silver class McLaren.
Lee Holdsworth grabbed the top spot in Pro-Am with a best of 2:04.6804 in the #9 ‘Hallmarc’ Audi ahead of Dean Canto (2:05.4162) in the #29 Trofeo Motorsport Lamborghini.
Sadly the experienced Canto also found drama with a big off on the run into Skyline, an incident that saw the former Supercars regular skating across the gravel trap before launching into the tyre barriers and ultimately over them, in the end stopping on top of the tyres on the outside of the circuit.
Recovery became the toughest task, but once the car had returned to the garage, the team discovered that the damage was repairable - although they would be faced with an all-nighter to be ready for the big race - the frustrated Canto admitting that he was surprised by the incident but that apart from a heavy knock when the car landed, that he was okay.
Canto’s lap though had ‘jumped’ the Trofeo Huracan ahead of the recently upgraded Deitz Huracan of McConville, with Dylan O’Keeffe in the ‘Bostik’ Audi and Kurt Kostecki in the #96 Hobson Motorsport Nissan (Silver) rounding out the starting order for the Class A entries of Australian GT.
Race (12 Hours)
With the #29 Trofeo Motorsport Lamborghini completed just minutes ahead of the 5:45am race start, the 10-car Australian GT field were set for the opening round of the endurance season.
Despite the dark conditions and the impressive pace right through the field, the opening hour of the race ran without trouble, Australian GT race winner Fraser Ross impressing with his performance in the #59 McLaren, the Australian driver faster than the factory drivers in the sister car at the front of the field, although he was comfortably holding position in the lead of the Silver category just off the tail of the top ten.
Sadly two of the MARC Cars stars suffered trouble early - the #20 car of Daniel Jilesen making contact with the wall at the top of the mountain, forcing the team back into pit lane for repairs, whilst the #95 Geoff Taunton entry with Warren Luff at the wheel suffered an engine issue during their first pit stop, an issue which saw an engine fire and ultimately a complete engine change thereafter..
Not long after Julian Westwood in the Adrian Deitz-owned Lamborghini glanced the barriers on the run into the Dipper forcing it across into the outside wall and ultimately to a stop mid track, bringing out the Safety Car as the vehicle was recovered and ultimately retired.
By that stage the #59 McLaren held a comfortable lead in the Silver category over the Tony Bates Audi and the Trofeo Lamborghini, whilst Dean Fiore had the ‘Hallmarc’ Audi holding down the top spot in Pro-Am, the car also within striking distance of the 12 Hour class podium.
Unfortunately for Tony Bates - his high profile ‘Bostik’ entry was the next retirement, the car owner failing to turn a race lap after a technical issue sidelined team-mate Max Twigg on the run up Mountain Straight in the closing stages of his opening leg, the team forced to watch the field circulate before recovering the car during a safety car period some hours later.
Despite threatening weather and a growing list of retirements, the Fraser Ross/Dominic Storey/Martin Kodric McLaren 720S GT3 continued to punch out impressive lap times to stay on the lead lap until the final hour, Kodric the fastest driver on the circuit for much of the second half of the race on their way to an eighth placed finish and victory in the Silver class for both the Bathurst 12 Hour, and Australian GT.
Supercars star Nick Percat teamed with rising stars Aaron Cameron and Broc Feeney took an impressive 15th outright with top honours in the ‘Invitational’ category for MARC Cars Australia, with the ‘Hallmarc’ Audi claiming top honours for Pro-Am in Australian GT and third overall, their result may perhaps have been better if not for contact early in the race for Cini after a touch from Jamie Whincup on top of the mountain.
The impressive Trofeo Motorsport team - who had endured a marathon effort to repair the car after Canto’s qualifying drama - crossed the line fourth in Silver class, in the process claiming second in the category for Australian GT, with the Brett Hobson Nissan GT-R - which had suffered from brake issues over much of the closing stages of the race - third in class.
Unfortunately - despite a marathon effort from the MARC Cars Australia team - only the #91 Skandia entry was classified, despite the #20 Hargraves and #95 Taunton cars greeting the chequered flag, they both fell short of the minimum laps for the category, although they arguably deserved to be one of the teams of the event after and incredible effort to repair and return the cars to the race when many others would have opted for retirement.
For Mark Griffith his maiden event in the new Mercedes-AMG GT4 saw a great run through to a second-placed finish - joined by international stars Dirk Muller and Harrison Newey, the laconic Queenslander was all smiles after the race having put a strong haul of championship points on the board, he will now turn his focus to the Australian GT ‘Sprint’ Championships which begins at Phillip Island on March 21.
For the Australian GT teams, focus now turns to round two of the Australian Endurance Championship at Phillip Island on 20-22 March with the inaugural ‘GT Sportcar Festival’ a 4-Hour journey around one of the most popular circuits on the annual calendar.