2023’s Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli campaign continues this weekend in South Africa where some of the world’s best sports car teams and drivers have assembled for the Kyalami 9 Hour (February 23-25).
This year’s event is the 36th edition of the South African Nine Hour Endurance Race, which was first staged at Grand Central in 1958. However, its duration, distance and location have all altered over the last 65 years.
So, too, has the machinery and championships that contest Africa’s longest running race. Production-based sports cars of varying degrees were gradually replaced by prototypes before SRO Motorsports Group helped to revive the event in 2019 when it joined IGTC’s globe-trotting GT3 series. Further events were held in 2020 and 2022.
The dust has barely settled on Intercontinental’s season opener in Australia three weeks ago when SunEnergy1 Racing’s Kenny Habul, Jules Gounon and Luca Stolz defied the odds to clinch back-to-back LIQUI MOLY Bathurst 12 Hour victories. All three now have an opportunity to extend their IGTC drivers’ championship lead, as well as Mercedes-AMG’s manufacturers’ advantage, this Saturday.
The trio has been partially split at Kyalami – Habul and Gounon remain with SunEnergy1 while Stolz joins SPS automotive performance – where they’ll face stiff opposition from elsewhere within Mercedes-AMG, BMW and Intercontinental’s other full-season manufacturer, Porsche. Audi Sport’s entries are not eligible to score IGTC points but are bound to feature prominently.
The 9 Hour also includes a race within a race – the Kyalami Supercup – for several local entries, which will take the start at 13:00 local time on Saturday before peeling off after 60 minutes.
MERCEDES-AMG AIMING TO CONTINUE IGTC HOT STREAK
The reigning manufacturers’ and drivers’ champions have been on a roll since Gounon, Raffaele Marciello and Timur Boguslavskiy won at Kyalami a little over 12 months ago. Four further victories at Bathurst, Spa, Indianapolis and then again Down Under at the start of February ensure that Mercedes-AMG arrives in South Africa as the marque to beat.
However, the odds are, for once, stacked against it. Just one Pro entry versus two from both BMW and Audi leaves Affalterbach with no room for error.
Fortunately for them, GruppeM Racing’s all-factory crew – Maro Engel, Mikael Grenier and Marciello – is one of the best in the business. Marciello needs no introduction while DTM driver Grenier was standout quick at Kyalami last year. Engel also arrives fresh from his qualifying heroics at Bathurst where he set the 12 Hour’s fastest-ever lap during a Pole Shootout session that will live long in the memory.
Third place in the race didn’t reflect their collective pace, though, and there can be no doubt that all three drivers as well as the team are highly motivated to make amends this weekend.
Theirs is one of four Mercedes-AMG GT3s nominated to score IGTC points. All will score drivers’ points if they are classified but only the two best finishers will contribute towards their manufacturer’s championship total.
The second Mercedes-AMG includes two thirds of the crew that secured a famous win at Bathurst: Habul and Gounon. They’re joined by Yannick Mettler at Kyalami where SunEnergy1, whose car is overseen by SPS, switches back to the Pro-Am class. That suggests it won’t be an overall victory contender, but the team has defied the odds before and in Gounon boasts one of the world’s best amongst its roster. Indeed, the French-Andorran has won four of IGTC’s last six races.
Switching classes also allows Habul to go hunting for his first IGTC Independent Cup points of the season. The reigning class champion was ineligible at Bathurst where Jonathan Hui instead scored the maximum 25 points. But with the Hong Kong racer missing this weekend, his Australian rivals – who also include Stephen Grove – have a golden opportunity to make up ground.
Habul and Gounon’s Bathurst co-driver, Stolz, could lead the standings on his own after Kyalami if results go his and SPS’s way. However, just like his winning 12 Hour co-drivers, the German is part of a Pro-Am crew that also features Reece Barr and Miguel Ramos. Class honours will be their first and foremost priority.
Mercedes-AMG’s IGTC picks are completed by local team Stradale Motorsport, which has three South Africans amongst its line-up: Clint Weston as well as Arnold Neveling and Charl Arangies who both raced the team’s Lamborghini last year.
There’s also a local lad amongst BMW’s two international crews, although his CV extends beyond South Africa. Step forward Sheldon van der Linde.
The younger brother of another factory ace, Kelvin, last contested the 9 Hour in 2020 when he won the race and helped Nicky Catsburg and Augusto Farfus to clinch that year’s Intercontinental drivers’ title. Now he returns home as DTM’s reigning champion and armed with BMW’s latest GT3 weapon, the M4.
Fourth place at Bathurst was about the best Van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts could have managed given the circumstances. But that won’t be sufficient at Kyalami where Team WRT’s two entries will be hunting for their first IGTC wins.
The second car again sees Farfus and Maxime Martin join forces, albeit alongside another factory driver – Philipp Eng – who stands in for Valentino Rossi. The same car finished fifth at Bathurst to leave BMW 18 points behind Mercedes-AMG in the early manufacturers’ standings.
Porsche’s sole entry comes courtesy of IGTC Independent Cup squad Grove Racing which, like SunEnergy1, didn’t score class points at Bathurst. Father-son duo Stephen and Brenton Grove will be keen to put that right on Saturday when they team up with Earl Bamber – a driver with plenty of previous 911 GT3 R experience at Kyalami.
Mercedes-AMG, BMW and Porsche have all taken a victory apiece in the 9 Hour’s GT3 era. But the same cannot be said for IGTC’s most successful manufacturer, Audi Sport, which isn’t eligible to score Intercontinental points this year. Nevertheless, the manufacturer has underlined its commitment to Africa’s only international endurance race by entering two factory supported R8 LMS GT3s.
Both are run by Tresor Attempto Racing, which can call on the experience and speed of Mattia Drudi, Ricardo Feller and Patric Niederhauser plus Markus Winkelhock, Dennis Marschall and Alex Aka.
Another Audi contesting all nine hours is the local MJR Motorsport entry shared by Marius Jackson, Mo Mia and Kwanda Makoena, two of whom raced a GT4-spec R8 last year.
Elsewhere, just one driver per car will contest the opening hour’s Kyalami Supercup. They include Mikaeel Pitamber who competed at last year’s 9 Hour before venturing overseas and racing in the DTM Trophy. He drives NGK Pablo Clark Racing’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 this time around.
Meanwhile, 68-year-old local legend Sun Moodley is the oldest driver on this year’s entry and, quite probably, in 9 Hour history! BigFoot Express Racing’s owner/driver has enjoyed a competitive career spanning three decades and several continents.
At the other end of the experience scale is Joseph Ellerine who follows in the footsteps of the Van der Lindes and Jordan Pepper by swapping Volkswagen Cup South Africa for GT machinery. The 18-year-old campaigns MJR Motorsport’s Audi R8.
In previous editions Kyalami’s grid order has been determined by a Pole Shootout. But that won’t be the case this year when the average time of each car set by its drivers across three 15-minute sessions will decide the qualifying result.
HOW TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
SRO’s GT World YouTube channel will broadcast live coverage of pre-qualifying, qualifying and the race this Friday and Saturday, while live timing from every session is available on intercontinentalgtchallenge.com from Thursday.
KYALAMI 9 HOUR TIMETABLE – SAST (GMT +2)
10:25 – 12:25: Paid Test Session 1
14:55 – 16:55: Paid Test Session 2
18:40 – 20:10: Free Practice/Night Practice
10:30 – 12:15: Pre-Qualifying
15:00 – 15:15: Qualifying 1
15:22 – 15:37: Qualifying 2
15:45 – 16:00: Qualifying 3
13:00 – 22:00: Kyalami 9 Hour
Source. SRO Motorsports Group
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