The streets of Saint Petersburg were alive with excitement during the opening round of the 2014 World Challenge Grand Touring (GT) race. For the first time European spec Grand Touring racecars called GT3 were invited to compete unaltered in the United States. Two factory Cadillac World Challenge CTS-V.R’s, one Hawk Brake World Challenge Nissan GTR and 21 GT3 racecars were entered at this year’s Saint Petersburg race event. Twelve of these GT3 cars raced in the GT-A (amateur) class. The only difference between GT and GT-A was driver experience. The GT3 teams included Sportscars manufactured by Lamborghini, Audi, Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche and Mercedes. Aston Martin, Jaguar and Callaway Competition (Corvette) also build GT3 cars but were not represented in Saint Petersburg.
So what is GT3? It is a concept developed by a branch of the FIA called the SRO (Stephane Ratel Organization). It began in 2006 and provides a championship for racecars that resemble their production equivalents. Each must be sold at or below 330,000 Euros. The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) requires that a GT3 car must be constructed from streetcars and include the complete production structure. Lightweight body panels are added and closely resemble 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 be production based. Aero includes a large rear wing, front splitters and other aids to improve downforce. Four-wheel drive is not allowed for any GT3 car. Each year European GT3 cars undergo a lengthy and expensive FIA Balance of Performance (BOP) process to ensure that no one brand dominants. Classic GT3 races are one hour in length and two races are held per weekend. Driver changes are mandatory in these one-hour races. GT3 cars are now approved to race in many endurance races around the world including the 24 Hours of Spa, the 24 Hours of Dubai, and the 24 Hours of Nurburgring.
In the past, GT3 cars have not been welcomed in the United States because each major sanctioning body (American Le Mans Series (ALMS), Grand Am & World Challenge) set their own GT rules. This made it almost impossible for GT3 competitors to race in the US without making expensive adjustments to their racecars. A 2014 merger between Grand Am and ALMS incorporated two GT classes, Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM) and Grand Touring Daytona (GTD), but not GT3. This is puzzling because GT3 racing has been a huge success in Europe and around the world except in the United States. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) saw this decision as a way to enhance their Pirelli World Challenge series. They decided to approve GT3 cars to compete in World Challenge under the FIA BOP rules. World Challenge cars would be “adjusted” so they could compete with GT3. The factory Cadillacs are based on the CTS-V coupe, but radically altered to reduce frontal area and lower their overall profile. A Corvette inspired LS3 engine powers them and driver Johnny O’Connell won the World Challenge GT Championship in 2013 in one of these hot rods. For 2014 the SCCA is allowing the Cadillacs to get additional horsepower and some aero adjustments to keep them competitive. Would it work? Qualifying would provide the answer.
Veteran international racing driver Tomas Enge won the pole position in his Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 GT3 with a time of 1:13.429. A Ferrari Italia GT3 was a tick behind at 1:13.691 and a BMW Z4 was third with a 1:13860. Andy Pilgrim was fourth in his Cadillac CTS-V.R at 1:14.621 and Johnny O’Connell was fifth at 1:14.686. The top nine GT cars qualified within 1.51 seconds of each other. Two races were scheduled for the weekend, but severe weather on Saturday caused the first race to be cancelled.
Sunday’s race started under clear blue skies, but not without drama. Pole setter Tomas Enge did not see the green flag at the standing start and cars went streaming by him when the flag fell. He dropped to 11th position while rookie Andrew Palmer moved from ninth to second in his Audi R8 LM. Andy Pilgrim was in third and closing. O’Connell was hit on the first lap in Turn 1 by a Lamborghini and had to pit for five laps to make repairs. On the fourth lap Pilgrim passed the No.61 Ferrari Italia GT3 and built up a 10 second lead that lasted until a caution came out on lap 13. Enge was fifth when the race resumed on lap 18 and moved to third by the next lap. He was clearly on a charge and catching the leaders. By lap 23 he was second behind Pilgrim who was still in the lead. Finally on lap 29 Enge made a pass on the Cadillac on the inside of Turn 1 and took the race lead, which he held until the checkered flag fell on lap 32. Pilgrim was second .775 of a second behind of the flying Lamborghini and O’Connell was 10th in GT.
The shift in direction for the World Challenge looks like a winner and as the year progresses hopefully more of the top GT3 teams will make their way across the pond to race head to head with our Cadillac CTS-V.R. It should prove to be a very entertaining year of GT racing, stay tuned. For more information on this exciting series go to www.world-challenge.com.