The Sandown GT Classic saw the finale of the 2007 Australian GT Championship in what was a watershed year for the Series.
2007 saw the FIA GT3 rules making their mark on the Series along with relaunching of the Australian Tourist Trophy and seeing sportscar endurance racing return to Australia.
Australia has a rich sportscar past with Sir Stirling Moss winning the inaugural Australian Tourist Trophy in 1956 but with the turn of the new century, times have been tough for this style of motorsport, despite certain highlights.
The late 1980s saw the World Sportscar Championship make a trip to Australia and the early 2000s saw the Bathurst 24 Hours.
The latter race was part of the Procar Series – a popular Series but due to the rules which allowed for one-off specials and spiralling costs, the show could not go on.
So in 2005, the Australian GT was born and in 2007, it started to find its feet.
Despite the major leaps forward in 2007, Terry Little, Director of the Australian GT Championship is well grounded on the aspirations of the Series and where it currently stands in the context of Australian Motorsport.
“There is a need for a good national championship Series – back to where Procar was – we need another Procar. Where we are at the moment, we are a national championship but there are state rounds that are better – a lot better,” Little said at Sandown.
Back to where Procar was – i.e. drawing the crowds and the media.
But of particular interest is the comparison to State rounds. As a national championship, it is important to be the most organised and to be the most desirable place to be.
There is a need for a good national championship Series – back to where Procar was – we need another Procar. Where we are at the moment, we are a national championship but there are state rounds that are better – a lot better
That was not always the case in 2007 – as evidenced by the Tasmanian round which conflicted with a state based round. This race saw depleted grids as many drivers decided to race the state event.
“There needs to be more focus on having proper national Australian Championships, national Series for the guys who want to do it and get the locals at each state and we need the state tracks to promote events,” Little said.
With such a focus and adequate marketing, the Series could take off.
But such things are not as easy as they seem – a prime example of how difficult promotion can be is the Le Mans Series where promoters can struggle to pull crowds despite full grids and exotic machinery.
Despite this, however, other aspects of the Series are thriving with increased interest from manufacturers and drivers alike.
“Aston Martin and Lotus are really starting to get behind the Series. Hans Reiter from Lamborghini in Europe is right behind us, Kessel Racing with Ferrari,” Little said.
It is generally agreed that such manufacturer support is important to any national frontline Series.
That is why the Australian GT Championship has prohibited the use of homologated Ascaris and not-quite-homologated Moslers.
The Series has no interest in what could become one-off specials and cars that have no manufacturer presence in Australia.
This also aids the series in cost and rule book stability as the Series plans to take the current pace and rules as a benchmark into the future to prevent people from modifying their cars to beyond a 2007 Porsche 997 GT3 level.
This has the additional function of allowing state and marque based series stability in their rules into the future.
Despite this stability and the interest from manufacturers and suppliers like Michelin, the road is not as smooth as it could be with one important sportscar make.
Speaking of the 2007 season, Little said “we have seen a bit of frustration with an issue we have with CAMS with the 997 Porsche…CAMS have an agreement with Cup Car [organisers of the Carrera Cup] over chassis and chassis number”
This has meant that the Series cannot accept entries from those running FIA GT3 spec Porsche 997s despite their makeup being different from a 997 Cup Car.
As other countries can have both Series running side by side without issue, the GT Championship may seek legal action if this unfair practice is not stopped.
“There are obviously some restriction of trade questions and other issues so we are certainly going to fight on for it. We have a category management agreement with FIA GT3 and we believe we should be able to run FIA GT3 cars,” Little said.
Should this disagreement be solved in favour of the Australian GT Championship, the payoff could be quite substantial with a prediction of 10 Porsche 997 GT3 cars hitting Australian shores.
There is the possibility of other GT3 spec machines being bought to Australian once this situation has been resolved and car owners can have a clearer idea of who they will be racing against.
There are obviously some restriction of trade questions and other issues so we are certainly going to fight on for it. We have a category management agreement with FIA GT3 and we believe we should be able to run FIA GT3 cars
In addition to that, the series have plans to increase the number of Porsche 996 Cup Cars and Ferrari 360 in a separate class that will see grid numbers boosted.
If all possibilities become reality, there will be a lot to look forward to in the 2008 season. This is also reflected with the calendar for 2008.
Along with a couple staple rounds with the Shannons Nationals, a return to Clipsal 500 (as support to the Australian V8 Supercars) the Series will also run as support to the F1 in Melbourne and a second shot at the Sandown GT Classic.
Interestingly however, there is to be a new race in “in a capital city” that could take place on a Saturday night.
All of this could be brought to the fans through an exciting and innovative TV package for the Series.
After running on three television stations in 2008, the Series could streamline into one channel.
It was found that most positive response was from pay TV provider Foxtel in 2007 and the Series could start a magazine style show and race highlights package with that organisation for 2008.
Importantly however, the Series are in negotiation with Sony to utilise their technology to broadcast with the Playstation.
The Series are also looking to deliver increased online content and increased print media content with the goal of increased interaction with the fans and allowing the growing fan base to learn about the drivers and where they came from.
Interestingly, the Australian GT Championship are not interested in poaching stars from other series – rather they are focused on creating a series for the amateur driver – and allowing the fans to connect with those people.
“We are not focused on big name drivers. We are focused on good amateur drivers who want to run a good series at a national level,” Little said.
And that is where the future lies for the Series. It is, therefore important to give the drivers their track time and really consider who they support as a series.
This means they plan to keep the current format of three short races and two practice sessions and one qualify sessions for the majority of races in the season.
This also fits in with the budgets of the teams, which means any thoughts of running a 24 hour event is not possible at this time.
We are not focused on big name drivers. We are focused on good amateur drivers who want to run a good series at a national level
In 2003 PHR Scuderia spent an additional $300 000 per car to race at the Bathurst 24 Hours. This is a budget constraint which the Australian GT Championship competitors can’t afford.
“We know our guys want to spend between $100 000 to $150 000 a year and that is it. The investment in the car is ok as you can sell it later on and recover part of it but they certainly don’t want to spend $2 or $300 000 a year on racing because to most of them, it is just their fun,” Little said.
With the Sandown GT Classic, the teams have their blue-ribbon event without that kind of major expense. The race is due to continue over the next few years at least and after a positive race in 2007, the organisers plan for improvements in 2008 and beyond.
“With this event here, we have put a lot of work in…with programs, tickets, advertising, marketing and we want to push that further for next year and we have learnt a lot doing this one and know we can do better,” Little said.
Little also knew car counts were down compared to early forecasts but that is partly down to the Porsche/Cup Car issue and partly down to drivers teaming up with each other rather than running separately and bringing outside drivers.
There is also a wish to separate this race from the Championship as a whole – to make it a stand alone event. This could increase the appeal of the title and will ensure that any mistakes on the part of an inexperienced co-driver will not result in the loss of a Championship.
This ultimately did not affect the 2007 crown but there was understandable nervousness before the event.
Creating a separate blue-ribbon event will have an added bonus as well – the drivers will fight for this race without the worry of a Championship, hence creating a special atmosphere for the event.
As good as the 2007 Sandown GT Classic and the season was, the 2008 season could be that much better.
There may be a lot of hard work ahead for the Series, but after a long time away, the return of top-line sportscar racing to Australia seems to be here.
Interview and article by Sam Tickell on 17 December 2007