GRR

Sportscar success story: how GT3 made its mark

19th June 2017
Gary Watkins

The sheer number of GT3 cars built, many of which you’ll see in action in a class on the hill at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, underlines the success story of a sportscar class launched back in 2006.

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So many, in fact, that it is impossible to come up with an accurate total. Suffice to say, it is over 1000 and almost certainly nearer 1500.

A total of 23 manufacturers have been represented in GT3 – some with cars developed themselves, others with machinery built by so-called special tuners – over the past 12 seasons. That’s the beauty of GT3 racing. Any manufacturer with something approaching a sportscar can come and play. 

There’s not a rule book in the conventional sense. Cars are built to achieve a specified performance and then balanced with each other to create a level playing field. The so-called ‘Balance of Performance’ explains why cars as diverse as the Bentley Continental and the Morgan Aero 8 have raced and won in GT3. And why some of the cars aren't quite recognisable as their road-going counterparts for sale in your local showroom. BMW, for example, put a V8 engine in its Z3 GT3, something it was perfectly entitled to do. 

Most manufacturers have a model that can be developed into a GT3 contender in their range, and it can be raced just about anywhere. The category has spread around the globe since it was launched with the creation of the FIA GT3 European Championship in ’06. 

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The sun never sets on the world of GT3 racing. There are or have been championships for these cars on five continents in its short history.

GT3 has become the default class for national GT racing, but just as important has been its adoption by a raft of important endurance races. Victory in the long-running Nürburgring and Spa 24-hour blue ribands is these days fought out by GT3 cars, as it is in more modern endurance classics such as the Dubai 24 Hours and the Bathurst 12 Hours.

GT3 is characterised by its inclusiveness. It is inclusive because it is open to so many manufacturers, but also because the cars are relatively cheap to develop, buy and run. They are also relatively easy to drive. The electronic gizmos, traction- and stability-control systems, found on the road cars can be carried over to the racing versions. 

Factory-supported teams fight it out in the big races and the high-level championships such as the Blancpain GT Series in Europe, but even more important in the phenomenal success of the category are the scores of amateur drivers who race these cars all over the world. 

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The category has made GT racing more accessible for teams, as well as drivers. “A team can buy a car that is homologated, they know it will be competitive because of the BoP and the car comes with a base set-up,” says Bentley Motorsport boss Brian Gush, who leads the Continental GT3 programme. “The teams know how much they cost to run per kilometre because they are told, so they can hit the ground running. Buying a GT3 car is like booking a room at a Holiday Inn: you know exactly what you are going to get.”

The origins of the class that has democratised GT racing can be traced back to the mid-1990s and the Lamborghini Diablo GTR racer built for a one-make series launched by Stéphane Ratel, the most important figure in GT racing over the past 20-plus years and the architect of the GT3 category. 

The Lambo was essentially a souped-up road car, built on the production line, with a standard six-litre V12 engine. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was quick thanks to a power output of 600bhp that was as much as the high-tech and low-mileage race engines powering the GT1 machinery that competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours, as well as in the FIA GT Championship. Ratel thought that if Lamborghini could build a cheap car that was also fast, then so could other manufacturers. 

“That car was extremely fast and strong, and cost nothing to run,” he recalls. “I remember some of my clients went up to 20,000km on those cars without opening the engine. Next to that, we had FIA GTs with very expensive cars that required an engine rebuild every 5000km.”

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Ironically, the most extreme GT racing car of its generation provided another building block that allowed for the creation of GT3. The Maserati MC12, which was based on the chassis and engine from the Ferrari Enzo, was built for FIA GTs. Ratel was convinced that a car that first raced in 2004 was a sledgehammer to crack a nut and would destroy a series that was the domain of less exotic cars, such as the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R and the Ferrari 550 Maranello.

Max Mosley, then the FIA’s president, came up with an alternative to banning the Maserati. 

“I wanted to forbid the MC12,” explains Ratel. "But Max said, ‘Listen, refusing it will create such a storm. We are going to balance it and then everyone will realise that there is no point doing this kind of car because it will be no faster than a conventional car'.”

And so the concept that we know now as the BoP was born. The Maserati, quite literally, had its wings clipped and happily raced against the likes of the Corvette and the Ferrari. 

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The same principle is at the heart of GT3 and explains why such a diverse range of machinery – front-engined and mid-engined, turbo and normally aspirated, carbon chassis and steel chassis – can compete against each other on equal terms.

The success of GT3 shows no signs of abating, even though it now has a successful baby brother in GT4 based on the same principles. Manufacturers are still queuing up to join the party. Toyota and Honda, represented by their Lexus and Acura brands, are the latest newcomers. 

The established manufacturers in GT3 are still selling cars in large numbers. Audi, BMW, Ferrari and Mercedes have all introduced new models over the past two seasons. Combined sales for their latest GT3 racers are somewhere in the region of 250 cars. And still rising.

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

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