Touring Cars may dominate the national racing scene in UK as far as public attention goes, but in terms of variety of machinery on track it is impossible to beat the Avon Tyres British GT Championship.
As many as a dozen different manufacturers are to be represented on the series' grid this year as more and more teams, and more and more brands are attracted into the burgeoning championship.
2011 was a stellar year for the championship – a six way battle for the title being decided at the finale at Silverstone, with Jim and Glynn Geddie taking the championship despite not being among the seven different winners during the season. That fact alone should point at the level of competition the season hosted.
Several, but not all of those winning teams will return for another season, but the season will start without the involvement of the champions. CRS Racing's decision to pull out of racing in favour of developing and building the McLaren MP4-12C racers left the Geddies without a team. One of the new GT3 racers – which made its British GT debut as an invitation entry at Spa-Francorchamps last season – will appear with Jim Geddie at the wheel during the season, but his late start realistically rules out a successful title defence.
So who could follow Jim and his son on the British GT roll of honours?
Former champion David Ashburn leads a three-strong Porsche team from the Trackspeed garage, with the promise of sportscar star Richard Westbrook as co-driver when international commitments do not take priority. All three Trackspeed cars are potential race winners. Former GT4 champion Joe Osborne partners Steve Tandy in one car, former BTCC and Carrera Cup champion Tim Harvey partners experienced historic racer Jon Minshaw in the third car, which carries the colours of Minshaw's Demon Tweeks business.
Harvey spoke about the difference between the sprint race based Carrera Cup and his new home in British GT; “you sit in the cockpit and you think it's a Cup car but as soon as you leave the pitlane you know it's very different. I'm very impressed with the car, obviously it's got more technology with the paddle shift, ABS and traction control. It's got a lot more power as well and much more suspension. It feels much more like a racing car than the Cup car but there's still the same Porsche genetics in the car.”
“[In British GT] it's more about a team effort on the two hours, three hours however long it is. It's not so much about you as an individual making a difference, you can't win the race on your own so the team work element and coaching John is a big part of it.”
While Trackspeed increase their involvement in the championship United Autosports – who led the championship for much of 2011 through Matt Bell and Michael Guasch – scale back to just a single Audi R8 for Bell and Charles Bateman, twice a winner with Scuderia Vittoria last season.
Bateman's departure from the Scuderia Vittoria squad has allowed Aaron Scott and John Dhillon to move from MTECH and switch from the GT3B class up to the main GT3 category in a Ferrari 458.
With MTECH the off-season musical chairs stops. Matt Griffin and Duncan Cameron remain at the team for another year. Now starting their fourth year as a stable partnership professional driver Griffin and ever-improving 'gentleman' racer Cameron are typical of a British GT driver line-up.
More than once poor luck cost the Anglo-Irish pairing points. A crash with a backmarker while leading at Snetterton knocked them out of the race and an almost unavoidable infraction behind a slow GT4 car during a safety car saw them demoted from second to third at the end of the three hour race at Donington Park – both cost vital points.
However, the look of the grid has undergone several changes over the winter, not least the addition of the two new Trackspeed crews.
Double winners last season Beechdean bring a new GT3 Vantage – replacing the aging DBRS9 that drivers Jonny Adam and Andrew Howard drove to victory at Rockingham and Silverstone last season.
“Last season we had a reasonable season with the DBRS9 but we needed to move forward with a new car and with the new Aston we think we've got that,” said Adam. “It's a lot easier drive, there's a massive difference in the style you have to have but we reckon over a long run the car should be a lot better for both the Pro and the Am driver. We struggled in qualifying last year and at low speed corners but with this car and the advantages it had we should have made them up.”
The new Aston is just one of the new cars joining the grid for 2012. After success in European GT3 racing the BMW Z4 enters the British championship for the first time under the famed Ecurie Ecosse banner, run by Mark Lemmer's experienced Barwell Motorsport concern.
Like several teams and drivers Ecurie Ecosse will split their season – running parallel campaigns in British GT and the Blancpain Endurance Series. Of the four men who joined the team for the Spa 24 Hours last year two – Oliver Bryant and Alasdair McCaig – will pilot the team's BMW in the British series, the remaining pair – Andrew Smith and Joe Twyman forming two-thirds of their international squad.
“The four of us have been working since the beginning of last year to bring the team back starting off with Spa,” Bryant – an experience GT driver in his own right – told The Checkered Flag. “We've all done a great job putting it all together and getting the sponsors on board. There is a certain pressure I think because the team is so famous and its always done so well as whatever its done – winning the World Sportscar Championship, winning Le Mans. The British GT Championship has to be next on the list.”
Perhaps the newest GT3 car is also set to embark on a full season in British GT. The new Nissan GT-R GT3 was unveiled in its final form at the Autosport Show in January after six months of on track development work, including a troubled outing at Donington Park at the end of September. Now, shifting out of the GT Cup JMH Motorsport bring one of the new cars to the championship with former Ginetta and Porsche driver Benji Hetherington confirmed as the first driver for the team.
However, perhaps the most headline grabbing addition to the championship over the off-season is a pair of Porsches from the Kent-based Motorbase Performance team. More familiar for running first BMWs, now Fords in the aforementioned Touring Cars and a fleet of Porsches in the single make Carrera Cup GB David Bartrum's team take on a new challenge in entering British GT, but do so not just with familiar Porsches, but with familiar names in the car.
The three men named as full season driver have all followed the Motorbase name from Carrera Cup to British GT. Michael Caine returns to British GT for the first time since 2005 as the Pro driver alongside Swiss Daniele Perfetti. As well as that car – a potential race winner if Caine's stints in the car can be productive – Motorbase added a second a car with Steve Parish as the first named driver. No announcement has been made on a second driver for the full season, but the fan at Oulton Park for the first two races of the campaign will be treated to Nick Tandy driving for the team. After stints in single-seaters Tandy moved into a top team in the Porsche Supercup, also racing a Porsche at Le Mans last year. For the final two rounds of last season Tandy joined Motorbase's Carrera Cup GB line-up – effectively filling the void left as Caine stepped out of the car – and only a puncture prevented him from dominating both events.
Often forgotten behind the bulging GT3 ranks the GT4 class has undergone a major change of its own for this season, with Supersport cars such as the championship winning KTM X-Bow no longer eligible.
Marcus Clutton and Peter Belshaw stole the lead of the GT4 in the early races of last season in open-top Dutch car but successive rounds of performance balancing swung in favour of the Ginetta G50 and Lotus Evora.
Both brands are once more well represented – Ginetta G50s joining the new-look GT3 spec G55. The two Lotus cars – featuring a much changed driver line-up from that which ended last season – are run by CM Consolidated under the Lotus Sport UK banner while Ginetta are represented by a number of experienced privateer teams including Century Motorsport and Team WFR, the latter representing Ginetta in both the GT3 and GT4 classes with a quality quartet of professional drivers including Jody Fannin and Warren Hughes.
The title battle will be between those two marques – most likely in favour of one of the Ginetta pairings – but a third manufacturer will enter the class over the course of the season with their own works backed program.
After completing a full season in the British Endurance Championship in 2011 Mazda will step into British GT with a hard-top MX-5, bringing driver Owen Mildenhall and Mike Ticehurst across from their BEC efforts.
The MX-5 – eye-catching in its bright green livery – will miss the opening rounds at Oulton Park on the Easter weekend but the team are hopeful of debuting in the coming races. Several other teams are likely to make fleeting appearances during the season – the European round at Nurburgring in support of the 24 Hours and endurance races at Donington Park and Silverstone to close the season likely to prove the most attractive.
The Checkered Flag will follow the Avon Tyres British GT Championship throughout the 2012 season with full race reports of every round of the championship.