If you thought GT racing in Australia starts and ends with the Bathurst 12 Hour, then think again. The CAMS Australian GT Championship gets underway this weekend at Adelaide in support of the Clipsal 500, but without either of last year’s title protagonists among the 27-strong grid.
With neither reigning champion Klark Quinn nor his great rival Nathan Morcom returning and 2015 champion Christopher Mies kept away by other commitments, the 2017 championship is set to be the most open in years.
One newcomer hoping to take Australian GT by storm is Audi factory driver Kelvin van der Linde, who has a point to prove after a trying 2016.
The 20-year-old South African won the ADAC GT Masters championship as a rookie in 2014, but only managed a single top 10 finish last season before Car Collection pulled their entry mid-season.
2017 = Australian GT
European Programmes to be announces in the coming weeks! See you all on track next week for the Clipsal 500! pic.twitter.com/1h6FNq5GIM
— Kelvin van der Linde (@KelvinvdLinde) February 23, 2017
On his first time Down Under, van der Linde will drive the No. 74 Jamec Pem Audi R8 LMS with Geoff Emery, who is making his comeback from a back injury sustained in a crash at Barbagallo last year.
“Honestly I’m super stoked because last year was a very difficult year for me with the team pulling out due to financial issues,” van der Linde told Racing.GT.
“At that time in the season, it was difficult for Audi to put me somewhere else because all of their line-ups had already been confirmed, but luckily the RS3 [TCR] programme came along, that was super cool to be involved in that from the beginning.
“This year I’ve got 21 race weekends planned, which is a massive step from last year when I only did eight. It’s obviously a racing drivers’ dream to be in the car every weekend and now I get to do that finally, so that’s super cool.”
With limited track time before the three 40 minute races, preparation will be key and Van der Linde, whose race engineer Paul Ceprnich also engineered his father Shaun in the 90s, revealed that he had consulted with Mies before heading to Australia.
“I asked him all the basic stuff like how early he travelled to races, but at the end of the day I’ve got to be the one sitting in the seat and driving, so I’ve got to do all that myself,” he said.
“I’ll be there a few days earlier to check out the team, meet everybody there and just settle in before the weekend because the race weekends are very tight. We only have 20 minutes of free practice before the first qualifying, which is very little time, especially if you have to share it with your team-mate. It’s going to be very tough, but there are a lot of cars in the same positon.”
— Kelvin van der Linde (@KelvinvdLinde) February 27, 2017
In Australian GT, performance is balanced not only between cars but between drivers too, with compulsory pitstop times used to equalise the field.
As one of two factory drivers on the grid, along with Blancpain Endurance champion Come Ledogar in the Tekno Autosport McLaren, Van der Linde carries the highest PRO 1 driver rating and expects to receive a longer pitstop time, which could impact heavily on his race in the event of a safety car.
As a result, gentleman racers driving solo with shorter pitstops can sometimes beat the Pro-driven cars, as Objective Racing’s Tony Walls managed at Clipsal last year, but van der Linde is pragmatic about his prospects.
“There’s some drivers that drive alone on the car and then for me, I’m sharing the car, so it’s very difficult to figure out where you’re going to be,” he said. “If there is a Safety Car and you’re one of the unlucky ones with a long pitstop time, then you’ve got no chance.
“I’m ranked as a Pro and also Geoff has quite a high rating, so we’re going to have quite long pitstops, but I’m taking it all as we go. It will be cool if we can get some good qualifying results and in the race we’ve just got to be up there for the fight.
“If we’re in a position for a win then we’re going to take it, but if we’re not then I won’t be overly upset, I’ll just do my job to support everyone and do the best I can when I’m in the car. Everything else can take its own course. There are a lot more variables in endurance racing general than if you just go straight out sprint racing like in DTM, so I’m excited, it’s going to be a different challenge.”
As for the rest…
There are plenty of recognisable names on this year’s grid, headlined by veteran Kiwi Craig Baird in the Scott Taylor Mercedes. The 46-year-old took three wins in Australian GT last year and should be a force once again alongside car owner Taylor, with Max Twigg switching from Steven Richards Motorsport to drive solo in a second car.
After showing a strong turn of pace at Bathurst, Richards will continue to drive his BMW M6 GT3 alongside Australian GT newcomer James Bergmuller, while Bentley are represented for the first time by Heretic Autosport, with veteran Tasmanian John Bowe and Melinda Price due to drive.
Audi are well-represented with six entries run out of the Melborne Performance Centre stable. Ash Walsh qualified an excellent fourth at the Bathurst in the Miedecke/Stone Aston Martin and will have another shot to impress in the Supabarn Supermarkets R8 with James Koundouris, a winner at Adelaide last year, while Nathan Antunes switches from McLaren to join GT Motorsports’ Greg Taylor. Steven McLaughlin will campaign a second Valvoline-livered Jamec Pem R8, with Ash Samadi and Marc Cini steering solo entries.
Roger Lago came within a lap of taking two wins at Adelaide last year and will be a competitive force again in his JBS Australia Lamborghini Gallardo R-EX, one of seven in the field, while Liam Talbot will hope to back up his fourth place at Bathurst in a Walkinshaw-run Porsche 911 GT3-R.
Despite a much reduced presence on this year’s grid, McLaren are still in strong shape with three cars. After an impressive debut at Highlands Motorsport Park last year, Come Ledogar joins Fraser Ross in a single-car Tekno Autosport entry, while Tony Quinn makes a late switch from Aston Martin to run last year’s title-winning car with Darrell Lea. Tony Walls completes the trio in his solo-driven Objective Racing 650S GT3.
— AustralianGT (@AustralianGT) February 22, 2017