Each year the city of St. Petersburg, Florida hosts the opening round of the IZOD Indy Car series on their temporary 1.8-mile street circuit. The SCCA provides a support race with the opening round of the Pirelli World Challenge series. Corvettes have always been very competitive on this tight, twisty street circuit and two were entered this year. The big news for the 2013 World Challenge was the inclusion of European GT3 spec racecars. The US sanctioning bodies (ALMS, Grand Am, and SCCA) have been reluctant in welcoming GT3 cars to their races. This is puzzling because GT3 racing has been a huge success in Europe and around the world. GT3 began in 2006 and is organized by the SRO (Stephane Ratel Organization) and regulated by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile). It provides a championship for racecars that closely resemble their production equivalents. Each must be sold at or below 330,000 Euros. The FIA requires that a GT3 car must be constructed from streetcars and must include the complete production structure. Lightweight body panels are added and must duplicate the original production parts. Safety roll cages, fuel cells and fire suppression systems are mandatory. Fender flares are allowed to accommodate larger wheels. Engines must match what is available in the production cars. Four-wheel drive is not allowed for any GT3 car. Currently thirteen brands compete in GT3 championships including Corvette.
In 2012 the Grand Am series invited “adjusted” GT3 cars to compete for the season. Audi and Ferrari took up the invitation and Ferrari won the 2012 GT championship. This opened the door for the SCCA to consider bringing GT3 to the 2013 World Challenge. The SCCA did not adopt the GT3 rules, though, instead they “adjusted” the GT3 cars to the World Challenge format. This included an engine restrictor, less aero, and smaller tires. Five Audi R8 GT3’s and two Mercedes AMG SLS GT3 were entered at St. Pete. One Audi R8, expertly driven by former Porsche driver James Sofronas, qualified fourth for Race 1 and first for Race 2. The #14 Audi was the quickest GT3 entry. The two Corvettes that were entered were adjusted to reduce the airflow into their LS2 engines to slow them down. It worked. The Hawk Brake Corvette #2 driven by Mike Skeen was .935 of a second slower than his 2012 St. Pete pole position of 1:14.700. Mike qualified at 1:15.635, 7th for Race 1. Tommy Drissi drove Corvette #4 that was crewed by LG Motorsports. Tommy was 15th (last) in GT for Race 1 due to a technical issue.
Race 1 was held under bright clear skies with no threat of rain. When the green flag fell the all-wheel drive #9 and #6 Volvo 4-door sedans took 1st and 2nd positions. These highly-modified door slammers are powered by a tiny 5-cylinder 157ci turbocharged engine. The #46 Porsche and #14 Audi were close behind. Mike Skeen started behind the two #3 and #8 Cadillacs in 7th. Mike was able to pass Andy Pilgrim in the #8 Cadillac for 6th position. The #9 Volvo held the lead until lap 31 when he was passed by the #46 Porsche. At the end of 34 laps, the #46 Porsche took the victory, #9 Volvo 2nd, #14 Audi 3rd, #3 Cadillac 4th, #8 Cadillac 5th, #2 Skeen Corvette 7th and the Drissi Corvette was 9th. The winning Porsche was disqualified for a technical issue giving the victory to the #9 Volvo driven by Alex Figge. Everyone moved up one position. Audi finished 2nd, 7th, 12th, 13th and 14th. Mercedes finished 9th and 11th.
The starting grid for race two was determined by the fastest lap time set by the competitors during Race 1. The #14 Audi was the quickest in Race 1 and started on the pole. The two Volvos were 2nd and 3rd quickest. At the start, both Volvos and the disqualified Porsche from Race 1 blew by the Audi pushing it down to 4th. On the 28th lap everything changed when the third place #6 Volvo and the second place #46 Porsche had punctures. The Audi moved to second and on lap 29 passed the leading #9 Volvo and took the victory. Johnny O’Connell was 3rd and Mike Skeen finished 4th closely followed by Andy Pilgrim in 5th position. Drissi finished 9th in his battered #4 Corvette after contacting a slower car during the race. Audi finished 1st, 7th, 9th, 11th and 12th. Mercedes finished 8th and 16th. The overall race was very exciting and the fans were standing during much of the competition. With the right driver, the Audi seems to be the best GT3 entry to take on the World Challenge veterans. Hopefully World Challenge will return some of the Corvettes’ lost performance to even the playing field. It’s a long season and it will be interesting to see how this GT3 invasion shakes out as the year progresses. We think the Audi has a lot more to play with based on our observations of this car in Europe. Stay tuned.