At the tail end of last month, International GT Open’s sanctioning body GT Sport Organización announced that it will be hosting a standalone 1000km race at the end of the season in Valencia. The race will happen in December (before the Gulf 12 Hours), after the conclusion of most championships. It’ll therefore give teams and drivers another chance to race before 2019 rolls around, in warm weather, and with a good amount of track time, as a finale to the current season, or preparation for the next.
But there’s plenty of competition nowadays in the off season between standalone races and races which are treated as one-offs by many. As it stands the Gulf 12 Hours in Abu Dhabi, Bathurst 12 Hour, 24H CoTA, the Dubai 24 Hours and even the Britcar night race are all held between November and February. And of course, there’s also winter series like the Asian Le Mans Series which attract a wide variety of aspirant teams and drivers when the calendar congestion is at its lowest.
So to get an idea of where the GT Open 1000 could stack up in its first year, DSC spoke to Johnny Mowlem, Matt Griffin, Shaun Balfe, Rob Bell and Chris Needell, members of the GT Open paddock in the past, the present and in the future.
When asked about the dates which the event will be held on, there was a mixed reaction. Barwell Motorsport’s commercial director Chris Needell was openly supportive of it being an early December race. As a team which is seriously considering a full-season of GT Open next year, the 1000 provides the team with an excellent opportunity to try out prospective drivers prior to its 2018 campaign.
“We committed to racing with GT Open in two races this year, Barcelona and Silverstone, and almost straight after they came out and announced the GT Open 1000,” he explained. “I think it’s a really good idea, we’re definitely looking at it.
“For us it means we get to put another race for our drivers, and race with GT Open, on the Michelin tyres which suit our Lamborghinis better. We’re considering a full-season in GT Open next year, so it suits us.
“For a team like Barwell, in the winter months, we love to be racing, because as a company, when we’re not racing we’re not making money, so we like the idea of having so many options to get out and race.”
Balfe – who runs Balfe Motorsport, and drives for his team in the GT Open’s Pro/Am class – also echoed Needel’s thoughts about the time of year which it’s being held.
“I think it’s good that GT Open is pushing into new territory, riding from a high level of GT3 interest,” he said. “It’s a good time of the season for European teams to extend their programme and try new line-ups. If there were pay drivers who took two seats we’d consider it.”
Mowlem, meanwhile, who races with FF Corse in GT Open, mentoring his Red River Sport client Ivor Dunbar, feels it’s too late in the year for him to jump at, especially in 2017.
“Would we go at the end of this year, probably not, at the end of next year though, potentially yes. This year we’re doing the full GT Open season, and next year we’re going to be cherry-picking a few longer races to put Bon (Grimes) and Ivor, so we can take it up a notch with double stints, getting in a car a second time after a first stint.
“At that point, a longer race will be what we’re looking at. We like Jesús Pareja (CEO of GT Sport Organización), we like how GT Sport run things, so this will be something which we will seriously look at for 2018.
“To be quite honest, December in Valencia could be great, but you’ll be up against people who are going to Abu Dhabi for the Gulf 12 Hours for example. If they did it in the middle of November though, I would definitely be up for that. The date is the only think that could make it not a ‘go-er’. I would make the last GT Open race middle of October and then have the 1000 race three weeks after the end of the season, maximum a month.”
Then there’s the venue and the race length. Valencia is a circuit which is rarely used for GT racing these days. In fact, the last prominent series which DSC covered that visited Valencia was the Le Mans Series back in 2007 (below). Having a 1000km race also makes it stand out, as most of the races it’s going head-to-head with at that time of year are much longer, and therefore more expensive to compete in.
Balfe feels the idea of a GT Open standalone race is good, but feels it’s not a great circuit to race at, while Mowlem, Bell and Griffin were both excited by the prospect of racing on one of Spain’s premier circuits at that time of year and in an endurance race shorter than most.
“It’s not really for us,” Balfe told DSC. “It’s simply not a great track for GT cars to run closely on without rubbing or worse.”
Whereas Balfe’s teammate in GT Open – McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell – who raced there in 2007 at the aforementioned Le Mans Series race, enjoys driving on the circuit.
“It’s a nice circuit to drive, the facilities are good and the weather is better than a lot of places in Europe,” he said. “The only issue is that it’s a bike track, so it’s not necessarily suited to GT racing.
“The other thing is that when you’re looking at potential venues, the GT Open has already done Hungaroring, Barcelona, Estoril. So would you rather race at somewhere like Snetterton in December, or Valencia? There’s not as much choice in Europe, in places with a good climate. Though I suppose there’s a case for Portimao, which is great for cars to race on.”
Mowlem also disagrees with Balfe, citing the location as a great place to race.
“Valencia is a fantastic city and I love the circuit. It’s a bit mickey mouse, but I think it’s a very good track,” he told DSC. “Also, 1000km in my experience is the perfect length for me, it allows me if I have two clients, I can double stint them, give them the experience of looking after tyres, or start them, take them out, and get them back in again.”
Matt Griffin meanwhile, who is another driver that likes racing at Valencia, stressed that the format as much as the circuit could be key to this succeeding. He races in SRO and ACO series regularly, feels in the same way as Mowlem, that what makes the GT Open 1000 appealing straight away is the distance of the race.
“From a budget point of view with the GT3 cars, I think there’s too many 24 hour races, if they decided to do that, I don’t think people would have taken it up,” Griffin said. “You’ve got Dubai in the winter, so I’m not sure there’s space for another 24. I think that there’s a gap for those sort of GT3 races, as there’s only one 1000km race really, which is the Blancpain race at Paul Ricard.”
Having good dates, a viable format and a circuit which people want to race on is one thing. But attracting teams to actually commit is another. Then reputation of the organisers and sporting regulations are therefore key, especially when trying to get an event off the ground in a market where there are so many other options.
Speaking specifically about the sporting regulations for the race – which have yet to be revealed – DSC asked whether it should be a GT3-only race, or a multi-class event which would incorporated anything from GT4 to TCR or LMP3. The consensus was that mixed grids would suit it, though LMP3 wouldn’t be the most popular choice.
“I would be perfectly fine with them adding in GT4 to GT3, as GT4 seems to be the future, it’s GT3 from 10 years ago,” Mowlem told DSC. “If that’s what they needed to get a big grid then why not? I would also welcome that because it would allow my drivers to be in a position to experience traffic, which is something they’ll have to get used to if they go to Le Mans.”
Griffin also thinks that GT4 would be a good addition to the race, while LMP3 could potentially put people off.
“I don’t think they should allow LMP3, but they should look at GT4,” he said. “If you’re having a 1000km race with the GT Open, it’ll be a 20-car entry, but if you open it to GT4, suddenly it could be a 35/40 car entry. If I was them it would be smart to open it up.
“I’m not a big fan of LMP3 mixed with GT3, it doesn’t fit in because the lap times are too close and the way they make the lap times are so different, so it can cause a issues racing wise when you have an amateur in a GT3 car and a pro in an LMP3 car.
“From my side, I’ve raced at least once each year in GT Open, it’s an amazing championship, it’s so well run, it’s mega. They still have to be careful, but this has a lot of potential.
“It’s something they needed to do to compete with other championships, so I hope it’s successful, I hope I’ll be doing it.”
Le Mans cup image courtesy of Michelin Le Mans Cup, Matt Griffin image courtesy of Jakob Ebrey Photography & GT Open images courtesy of PHOTOSPEEDY