After a sprinting start to the 2019 CAMS Australian GT Championship, the opening round of the endurance season has arrived with a return to Phillip Island for the annual early winter three-hour dance around the popular Grand Prix circuit.
Traditionally the round has seen some unpredictable racing, providing results which have often had a significant bearing on both the Australian GT and Australian Endurance Championship titles.
As has been the case in past seasons, the Phillip Island event has attracted some big names in Australian motorsport, and 2019 is no different; Jamie Whincup, Garth Tander, Tony D’Alberto, Tim Blanchard, Luke Youlden, Cameron McConville and Craig Baird amongst the drivers expected to run at the front of the field, but with a Pro-Am driver format, their performances will be balanced by their team-mates, all of whom have their own experience to weigh into the equation.
Amongst the favourites will be the 2018 CAMS Australian Endurance Championship [AEC] winning combination of Max Twigg and Tony D’Alberto in the Scott Taylor Motorsport run Mercedes-AMG GT3. Twigg leads the Australian GT standings after an impressive run at Albert Park to kick off the new season, whilst the pair carry the mantel of reigning champions, although like 2017 AEC title holders Peter Hackett and Dom Storey, they have history against them at ‘The Island’.
Since 2016, Audi have enjoyed great success during the annual Phillip Island event; Tim Miles and Jaxon Evans claimed the win in 2017, whilst last year, Tony Bates and Dan Gaunt claimed victory in the safety car plagued race – giving the brand with the four rings their own level of favouritism coming into the 2019 event.
Bates will make a surprise return this weekend alongside one of the 2018 pace-setters; John Martin, the former LMP2 front-runner changing marques after leading for much of last year’s race alongside Liam Talbot in a Porsche GT3 R.
They won’t be the only Audi challenge for the winners trophy, with reigning Australian GT champion Geoff Emery back alongside Garth Tander for the event, the pair having claimed victory in the final round of the 2018 Australian Endurance Championship at Hampton Downs, in the process handing Emery his second consecutive GT3 title.
With Luke Youlden alongside Vince Muriti in a third R8 LMS GT3, Audi are well placed to keep their winning streak alive, although they will face four competitive Mercedes-AMG GT3 bahnstormers, all of whom could be capable of taking the win.
Seven-time Supercars champion Jamie Whincup comes in as an Australian GT rookie, but a Bathurst 12 Hour campaign this year in a Mercedes-AMG GT alongside fellow Red Bull Racing Holden team-mates Craig Lowndes and Shane Van Gisbergen will see the Supercars star ready for action. Likewise team-mate Yasser Shahin who is a former AGT sprint race winner at Phillip Island, he is also race ready having campaigned an Audi R8 GT3 at Shanghai last weekend alongside Tony Bates in the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup series.
They will form the third tier in the Scott Taylor Motorsport entry alongside the #8 Twigg/D’Alberto AMG and the#222 entry of team-boss Scott Taylor and sportscar specialist Craig Baird, whilst Eggleston Motorsport’s Hackett and Storey will be looking to build on their past successes as Endurance champions and claim their first win together at ‘The Island’ to stake their claim on a second AEC title.
Whilst the German machines have the runs on the board, not too long ago, the Phillip Island round was the domain of McLaren, a situation which could be revisited this weekend with the return of Fraser Ross in the stunning McLaren 720S GT3.
Ross debuted the new car with immediate success, crossing the line first during the opening race of the season at the Australian Grand Prix to give the car it’s maiden international victory, and despite missing the Barbagallo round due to the late arrival of their own car (the AGP entry was on loan from the factory ahead of the arrival of the 59Racing machine), Ross comes into the weekend off the back of a Phillip Island test day with a real chance of mixing up the order.
Former Phillip Island 101 winner Tony Quinn will be back in action in his trusty V12 Aston Martin Vantage, possibly the last time we will see the naturally-aspirated British-built supercar ahead of the arrival of the new twin-turbo V8 powered 2019 edition which is due in the country in the coming weeks, Quinn joined by 2018 Phillip Island winner Dan Gaunt.
Adrian Deitz and Cameron McConville return in the hypnotic Lamborghini Huracan GT3, the pair having contested the 2018 running of the event, as well as the 2019 Bathurst 12 Hour with Tony D’Alberto alongside, but they won’t be the only Lamborghini in the field with the recent announcement that V8 Supercar team owner Tim Blanchard will make his Australian GT debut in the #129 Trofeo Motorsport Huracan GT3.
Blanchard is keen to investigate options beyond his time in Supercars, and alongside AGT trophy Series regular Joseph Ensabella – who comes across to the outright class for the first time – they will be on a steep learning curve, but no doubt equal to the challenge ahead.
Reigning AGT Trophy Series champion Nick Kelly also joins the opening round of the CAMS Australian Endurance Championship in his title winning Audi R8 LMS GT3 ultra, the Sydney-sider joined by Barton Mawer, the pair looking to put their ‘Generation 1’ R8 to good use, taking stock from the performance of Ryan How in his Gen 1 car at Barbagallo. The Trophy class team though will be competing for outright GT3 honours as neither Trophy Class nor Trofeo Challenge are eligible for championship points in the AEC.
It may be the opening round of the 2019 CAMS Australian Endurance Championship, but the event – like The Bend and Sandown in September – forms part of the Australian GT Championship pointscore for both GT3 and GT4 teams, providing the two mighty M-Motorsport KTM X-Bow GT4s with a chance to build some valuable points over their rivals across the three-hour race journey.
Favourites going in will be reigning Bathurst 12 Hour winners Justin McMillan and Glen Wood, the pair looking to cement their championship points lead, although they will have some stiff competition with team-mates David Crampton and Trent Harrison who come off a podium finish at Phillip Island 12 months ago.
As for a prediction about who the likely GT3 and GT4 winners will be, that’s a tough one to judge, especially as only 2016 has seen Phillip Island provide an indication as to who would be champion of the Endurance series that year, Nathan Morcom and Grant Denyer taking their McLaren 650S GT3 to the title at seasons end after a narrow victory at Phillip Island- since then it has been a lottery, and with Victoria’s wintery conditions expected again this weekend, anything could happen..!
The Australian GT teams will be in action on Friday, 7 June with the option of testing laps in two 20-minute sessions, before official practice and qualifying on Saturday, whilst the three-hour enduro will begin at 9:45am on Sunday, 9 June
SCHEDULE (times AEST – GMT+10):
Friday, 7 June, 2019
11:35am – Unofficial Practice#1 (20-minutes)
2:00pm – Unofficial Practice#2 (20-minutes)
Saturday, 8 June, 2019
10:00am – Practice#1 (40-minutes)
12:40pm – Qualifying#1 (20-minutes)
1:10pm – Qualifying#2 (20-minutes)
Sunday, 9 June, 2019
9:45am – Race (3-hours)
Source. Ignition Media