The fourth World Tour event of the FIA Gran Turismo Championships 2019 Series kicked off today at the spectacular Red Bull Hangar-7 amidst the backdrop of exotic planes and race cars. Day One featured the Manufacturer Series, where 36 drivers representing 12 teams vied for glory. In the end, it was Mercedes-Benz that reigned supreme in Salzburg, taking home its second consecutive World Tour victory of the 2019 season.
The Manufacturer Series adopted a new format for the Red Bull Hangar-7 venue, featuring only two races, including a double-points grand final. Each race required a stint by all three drivers and the use of all three different-compound tires for at least one lap (soft, medium and hard), except in wet conditions when each team was free to use just wet tires.
A qualifying session in the morning determined who would fill spots seven to twelve on the grid and who would take part in the live Top 6 Qualifier. It was the Audi R8 LMS with Martin Grady (UK) behind the wheel who emerged on pole, with the Porsche 911 RSR and Tatsuya Sugawara (Japan) sitting in the number-two spot, and Lewis Bentley (UK) in the Peugeot RCZ Gr. 3 rounding out the top three. The venue: 17 laps around the challenging Red Bull Ring in heavy wet conditions.
The race began without incident after all 12 cars made it clearly through the first corner after the rolling start. Tire selection would not play a role here, as all the teams ran the entire race on wet tires. The running order stayed consistent for the first few laps, with much of the drama taking place in the middle of the pack as the front-engine/rear-drive cars struggled to find traction on the slippery surface.
On Lap 5, the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 began finding its groove, after previously relinquishing its fourth overall position to the Ford GT of Adam Wilk (Australia), but reclaiming it with a nice move through Turn four by driver Tom Lartilleux (France), making his FIA Certified Gran Turismo Championship debut. The following lap, Porsche decided to pit to take on a fresh set of tires with Brazil’s Daniel Carmo jumping into the driver’s seat. The 911 re-entered the race in 4th position, only four seconds off the lead.
With the Audi R8 LMS maintaining its advantage over the Peugeot RCZ and Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 through the first half of the race, Team Mercedes-Benz dove into the pits on Lap 8 to get a fresh set of Michelins and put its ace driver, Cody Latkovsky (Australia), behind the wheel. Perhaps in response to this, race-leader Audi came in for a driver and tire change the following lap, with New Zealand’s Hayden Hunter jumping into the driver’s seat. After a lightning quick pitstop, Audi re-entered the race in 2nd place, only 0.5 sec. behind the Peugeot, which had yet to pit. Lap 11 saw Peugeot make its first pit stop as Takuya Okamoto of Japan took over the driving duties, followed closely by Porsche’s second pitstop, giving anchor driver Tristan Bayless (USA) a clear run to the finish. Audi employed the same strategy, pitting the following lap, tasking Zach Pettinicchi, also from the USA, to complete the race.
The best action came on Lap 13, when Latkovsky in the Mercedes-Benz set up the second-place Peugeot through turns five and six, before making the pass through the turn seven exit, with the Audi right on their tails. By lap 15, it seemed like four-horse race, but it was really between Team Audi and Team Porsche as the Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot had one more pitstop remaining. Once they were out of the way, it was the Audi R8 LMS that crossed the finish line first with a jubilant Martin Grady behind the wheel. The Audi team, scoring 12 points, were followed closely by the Porsche 911 RSR with 10. Mercedes-Benz came in third, good enough for eight points.
With the previous race deciding the starting order for the Grand Final, the Audi R8 LMS started from pole for the 17-lap contest around the legendary Spa-Francorchamps racetrack under early evening blue skies and dry conditions. With the points in the final worth double, it was still anybody’s championship to claim.
The race began with a bang, as the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 of Lartilleux, on soft-compound tires, got around Bayless in the Porsche, which were on the mediums, through the first corner. Then, a few seconds later Lewis Bentley lost control of his Peugeot RCZ Gr. 3 through Eau Rouge and plowed the car’s nose into the wall, dropping to the very back of the pack. Meanwhile, Lartilleux made a bold move on the Kemmel Straight to take the lead away from the Audi R8 LMS, with Bayless in the Porsche following suit. So, at the end of Lap one, the running order was Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi and Aston Martin representing the top four.
As Mercedes-Benz gradually pulled away from the pack, building up a lead of more than six seconds by the sixth lap, a vicious battle for third place was brewing. Pettinicchi in the Audi was doing all he could to hold off a quartet of cars led by Fabian Portilla (Chile) in the Aston Martin Vantage, followed by the Ford GT of Wilk and the Chevrolet Corvette, driven by Michael Avansino (USA). Audi finally surrendered its position when it dove into the pits at the end of lap six, going to soft-compound tires with Hunter tasked with the driving duties. The Audi re-entered the race in sixth place.
At the halfway point,, under darkening skies, race-leader Mercedes-Benz made its first pitstop, topping off its fuel tank and taking on hard-compound tires (which proved about a second a lap slower than the softs), with Anthony Felix (USA) in the driver’s seat. The pit stop changed the running order to Porsche in 1st place with a lead of more than 19 seconds over the Audi and Aston Martin, while Mercedes-Benz was another 1.5 seconds behind in fourth place. Meanwhile, Team BMW, with Coque Lopez behind the wheel, worked its way the up to fifth place after starting the race in 11th position.
On the ninth lap, Porsche dove into the pits for the first time, taking on fuel and swapping its mediums for hard-compound tires. Mercedes-Benz also pitted, going to the slightly quicker medium-compound tires as Latkovsky took the wheel, now free and clear to go the finish without any more stops. Porsche re-entered the race in the lead, but pitted the next lap, fulfilling the one-lap minimum rule for using each tire. Now, like Mercedes-Benz, it was a dash to finish, with Sugawara driving. While this was going on, Aston Martin claimed the race lead, but after a slew of cars made their required pit stops, it was Mercedes-Benz that found itself at the top of the leaderboard.
On Lap 14, a heated battle for fourth place was unfolded between Tomoaki Yamanaka (Japan) in the Toyota Supra Racing Concept, which started the race in eighth position, and Kenny Conomos (Australia) in the Jaguar F-Type Gr. 3. As they went side by side through most of the latter half of the racetrack, the Toyota finally got past the Jag at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Yamanaka then set his sights on his countryman, Sugawara in the Porsche, and ultimately ran him down a lap later to take over second place.
The race ended with Team Mercedes-Benz cruising to the checkered flag with an eight-second cushion, and a total of 32 points giving them the overall title. Surprising everyone was Team Toyota’s second-place finish, which was enough to give the Japanese manufacturer third-place overall at Hangar-7 (23 points). Porsche’s third-place finish in the Grand Final earned it a second-place overall finish (26 points). But the story of the day was the Mercedes-Benz team that made it back-to-back after also taking last month’s victory at Word Tour-New York.
“We all did out part. There’s nothing more I can say. We did everything to the letter, we never missed an opportunity, we took every chance and risk, and it came out in flying colors in the end. I think the new structure is interesting as it allows us to race as a team more, but I also feel that having individual races is important,” Latkovsky of Team Mercedes-Benz said after the race.
For those yet to qualify, time is running out as only one more event remains on the 2019 calendar: World Tour-Tokyo in October. The World Tour-Red Bull Hangar-7 event will wrap up tomorrow with the Nations Cup, where 24 of the best drivers on the world, representing their respective home countries, will battle head-to-head to claim a coveted spot at the World Finals – Nations Cup.
Credit: Bryn Lennon, Jack Thomas / Gran Turismo – Getty Images