The FIA’s decision to give all full-time V8 Supercar drivers a Gold ranking will have enormous ramifications for the Bathurst 12 Hour race this weekend, with far greater emphasis placed on Silver-ranked drivers to pull their weight.
Under event regulations, teams are permitted to run no more than two seeded drivers (rated Platinum or Gold), with the rest unseeded (either Silver or Bronze). 2014 winners Maranello Motorsport had circumvented this by fielding Team Penske V8 Supercar driver Scott Pye as one of their two allotted Silvers, alongside V8 co-driver Tony d’Alberto and the Platinum-rated Toni Vilander and Mika Salo.
However, the decision to upgrade Pye to Gold, along with the rest of the full-time V8 Supercar grid, has effectively forced him onto the sidelines, and given other teams pause for thought when deciding their final line-ups.
With little separating the Platinum and Gold drivers in outright pace and temperament, it is often the unseeded driver’s stints that dictate whether or not a team will still be in the running by hour 12 – less than perfect decision-making in traffic can result in damage necessitating a stay in the pits, and too many inconsistent times will invariably come at the price of falling off the lead lap.
Had the rankings remained as they were, a quick and reliable V8 Supercar driver like Pye, with good circuit knowledge, would have proven a useful commodity to have in reserve as an unseeded pick, but the choice is no longer quite so straight forward. Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought; stick with the locals – established V8 co-drivers such as Jack Perkins, Karl Reindler or Dean Canto remain eligible – or gamble on an international driver with proven pedigree in GT3 racing, but lacking experience on the mountain.
Silver drivers who fit both categories are in short supply, so Bentley’s signing of David Russell could prove to be an inspired decision. The versatile 34-year-old put his local knowledge to good use by qualifying on the front row in Roger Lago’s Lamborghini at last year’s 12 Hour and proved he’s no one trick pony by winning a round of the ADAC GT Masters championship in a guest appearance for Reiter at the Red Bull Ring.
Russell can be expected to contribute his fair share alongside factory drivers Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek in the no. 31 car, and will be determined to seize his big chance to impress a manufacturer. The Continental GT3 was a very competitive package on its first appearance at the mountain last year – particularly in the hands of the returning Steven Kane, Guy Smith and Matt Bell, who was shunted down to fourth after contact with Stefan Mucke at the final corner – and could be in a position to spring a surprise.
Likewise, returning to Bathurst after a year away, Nico Bastian could be another Silver to feature strongly in Erebus Motorsport’s no. 36 SLS AMG. Whilst Bastian, V8 Supercar racer David Reynolds and Thomas Jaeger – a Bathurst winner with Erebus in 2013 – may not have the one lap pace of their sister car, which features inaugural Allan Simonsen Trophy winner Maro Engel and DTM legend Bernd Schneider, they certainly shouldn’t be discounted over 12 Hours.
Indeed, 25-year-old Bastian was a key part of ROWE Racing’s strong Blancpain Endurance Series campaign last season and has plenty of mileage in the SLS under his belt, which is more than can be said for stablemate Austin Cindric, a very talented but raw 17-year-old, who quietly impressed on his first visit to the mountain last year. If the Mercedes can steer clear of trouble, it should be there or there abouts come the finish.
Nissan will hope to defend their crown with 2006 V8 Supercar champion Rick Kelly returning to the 12 Hour after a year away alongside reigning Blancpain Endurance Series champion Katsumasa Chiyo and Silver-rated Florian Strauss. The 2013 GT Academy Germany winner was about as surprised as anyone to find himself on the top step of the podium last year, having only held a racing license for 18 months and been parachuted in as a last-minute stand-in for father-to-be Alex Buncombe, but the German didn’t disgrace himself and won many plaudits for his performance.
At 31, Strauss has a few years on most of his GT Academy contemporaries, and after an indifferent ADAC GT Masters campaign will be eager to demonstrate that he can kick on in 2016, with the likes of Gaetan Paletou and Ricardo Sanchez snapping at his heels.
McLaren will provide factory support for Jonathon Webb’s Tekno Autosport squad, which will give the latest-specification 650S its debut on the mountain. Still only 32, Webb will resume his successful partnership with Shane van Gisbergen for one last time before the Kiwi departs for Red Bull Racing Australia, with Alvaro Parente completing the lineup in no. 59, while the sister car will be shared between Rob Bell, Will Davison and McLaren GT Driver Academy prospect Andrew Watson, who is eager to repay Andrew Kirkaldy’s faith with a good result on his first visit to the mountain.
As for Audi, with Bathurst lap record holder Laurens Vanthoor and Markus Winkelhock at the helm of a 2015-spec R8 LMS, 2012 winners Phoenix will again be expected to shine. Alex Davison, who finished fourth in the Bathurst 1000 alongside brother Will in 2014, will do a tidy job as the team’s Silver driver, although with much of his experience coming in Porsches, some adaption time can be expected before he can extract the most from the car.
Phoenix won’t be the only Audi on show however, with Steve McLaughlan’s Jamec Pem Racing team entering two new models of their own. Headline acts Rene Rast and Garth Tander in the no. 75 will undoubtedly have race-winning pace, but it remains to be seen whether McLaughlan – who had originally signed Craig Lowndes before a motorcycle accident forced the six-time Bathurst 1000 winner to miss the race – can keep the car in contention during his stints.
For that reason, the no.74 car which Italian GT runner-up Marco Mapelli will share with factory drivers Christopher Haase and Christopher Mies could well be the one to keep an eye on, with Mies searching for a record third victory on the mountain. Mapelli has flown largely under the radar in the last few years, but then it’s not every Silver-ranked driver who has lapped the Nürburgring Nordschleife in under seven minutes in a Lamborghini Aventador SV. The Italian was part of the Phoenix lineup last year and will have picked up a trick or two from Vanthoor, so watch this space…
All photos by Christian Hartung Photography.