GT TO THE FOUR?
GT4 is booming, but GT3 will still have its place . By Rob Ladbrook
We could be witnessing a changing of the guard within British GT this season, and in more ways than one.
By far the biggest talking point ahead of the championship’s 24th campaign is the growth of the GT4 division. Ahead of the season opener at Brands Hatch this weekend, British GT boasts 18 GT4 entries against 15 in GT3.
Is GT3 about to give up its long-held slot as Britain’s predominant sportscar class? Not quite yet.
The rise of GT4 has been driven by two factors – appeal and cost. It coincides with a stream of younger drivers switching to GT racing instead of pursuing single-seater careers. The cost of graduating up from the base formula categories has proven prohibitive for some and, with few career options at the top – except for the very lucky or very well funded – the appeal has dried up for many.
GT4 was established in 2008 and designed to be a feeder category for GT3, where drivers could learn at a lower budget, but struggled for numbers. The early problem in the UK was limited car selection as few competitors were keen to go up against Ginetta’s G50, seen as being too rapid by some. GT3 budgets at the time also weren’t too dissimilar.
However, over time GT3 budgets have risen as the racing has become more professional and competitive.
Constant new cars and upgrade kits (all of which have also forced the pace up), along with bigger outfits opting for additional staff and spares, such as new brake pads every session, have contributed to GT3 budgets growing.
With GT3 costs rising, manufacturers have woken up to GT4. The cars are largely road-going sportscars with homologated race parts, so are easy to produce and the growing number of young drivers means there’s an expanding market. Seven brands – Aston Martin, Ginetta, Lotus, Porsche, Toyota, Maserati and Mclaren – make up this year’s grid, meaning the variety is there in a way that simply wasn’t seen in the early days of British GT4.
Among the single-seater drivers to have converted are Walter Hayes Trophy winners Scott Malvern and Joey Foster, BRDC Formula 4 graduates Jordan Albert, Jack Bartholomew, Matthew Graham and Ciaran Haggerty, and MSA Formula racer Sandy Mitchell.
In recent years some teams have called for a split in the grid to give GT3 and GT4 separate races. That won’t happen while British GT is filling a grid and attracting just a handful of reserves. There is also a danger that GT3 could be phased out of British GT altogether if costs continue to rise, with GT4 becoming a more appealing national option and GT3 to operate mostly in international classes like the Blancpain GT Series.
SRO head Stephane Ratel says he’s happy with the GT4 growth, but insists GT3 will always have its place in Britain. He told Motorsport News: “If you look at last year we had around a 50/50 split between GT3 and GT4, but to have GT4 the bigger class this year is very satisfying.
“GT racing has changed. It is now where young drivers go because it is where talent gets noticed and where they can chase manufacturer deals. With GT3 getting more expensive there is a gap for a lower cost category and GT4 has filled it. It allows drivers to race real GT cars in front of manufacturers and gain experience.
“But British GT will always have GT3, I believe that. GT3 racing has maybe become more international in recent years, with big events like the Nurburgring 24 Hours, Dubai 24 Hours, Abu Dhabi, Bathurst all using GT3. You can race anywhere in the world on any weekend if you own a car. There will always be people that want to race those cars in Britain, if only to learn before going to something like Blancpain.”
One of the most interesting GT4 entries will be the new Mclaren, which both promises, and threatens, to redefine the class.
The 570S GT4 is the first car in the class to run a carbonfibre chassis as it is based on the road-going baby Mclaren. CRS GT, which has co-developed the car, has had its work cut out to get the 3.8-litre twin-turbo machine down to GT4 pace. The car will likely carry a load of ballast and small engine restrictors for equalisation. Haggerty and Mitchell will handle the car for its development year. Priced at a whopping £159,000 it is one of the most expensive GT4 cars around – weighing in about £30,000 more than the all-conquering Vantage.
The 570S has great race potential, and marketing potential for Mclaren, so expect it to go well. Let’s just hope it doesn’t kick-start a GT4 arms race.
Only two new models – the Lamborghini Huracan and Audi R8 LMS – will appear on the grid this term, thanks to Barwell and Optimum Motorsport respectively.
Barwell’s deal to move from BMW to Lamborghini was clinched by the promise of factory support from Squadra Corse, so expect the Huracans to be running well right from the off. The team has racked up the miles in Italy and Spain over the winter, before heading to Brands, and other examples have already proved rapid in North America.
“The Huracans are a big step forwards over the old-generation GT3 cars,” says Barwell head Mark Lemmer. “First thing we did was strip the chassis down to learn about them and they are superbly put-together products in every area.
“The biggest strength of the new cars won’t be outright lap time, we’re not expecting to smash records – it’s in their consistency. A lot more consideration has been given to making them accessible to the amateur drivers, making them easier to drive on the limit. That breeds confidence, which is key. The cars are still hugely challenging to find that final few tenths from, so the Pro drivers still have a lot of work to do, but the Ams should be closer to them in the new cars.”
One of the biggest changes comes from the reigning champions, with Andrew Howard and Jonathan Adam parting ways for the first time in five years. Together they have been frontrunners, twice taking the title, once together (2015) and once (2013) for Howard on his own after Adam picked up a penalty.
This year Howard will line-up alongside GT4 champion Ross Gunn in the Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage GT3, while Adam moves to AMR customer team TF Sport to partner Derek Johnston.
“It’s like a divorce, but I’ve got all the kids,” jokes Howard. “It will be weird not sharing with Jonny, but as a team Beechdean has to help young talent come through. I’m not expecting to win the championship, or even races, this year, and I don’t care. This year is about helping Ross adapt and learn as a driver. The step between GT4 and GT3 is still quite big and there are new things to learn and he’s only 19 with not a huge amount of experience.”
In contrast, Adam is in prime position to fight for a second title. Johnston is one of the most proven Ams on the grid, and TF Sport showed last year how good its balance with the Vantage was with two straight poles and a maiden win. Together with Adam’s experience from the AMR factory squad, more pace will undoubtedly be unlocked.
After a difficult few years, Mclaren is also back with a promising new programme. The Ecurie Ecosse entry this year will be a genuine contender. Its 650S GT3 is run by the Garage 59 factory squad and has works driver Rob Bell and Alasdair Mccaig at the wheel. Mccaig nearly won the British GT title at the first attempt back in 2012 and has since gained experience in the Blancpain classes.
While there are no new BMW M6s, AMD Tuning has taken over the running of Lee Mowle and Joe Osborne’s Z4 GT3 following the withdrawal of Triple Eight. A selection of technical staff – including multi-title winning chief engineer Keith Cheetham – have moved across to help AMD get up and running, and Mowle and Osborne have more than enough experience to fight at the front.
There may be a changing of the guard in terms of the construction of the grid and the title contenders on it, but British GT has a golden chance this season to prove that change is good. ■