> Stolz, Gounon, Habul and Konrad reign supreme at Mount Panorama
> Result: LIQUI MOLY Bathurst 12 Hour
Mercedes-AMG swept the LIQUI MOLY Bathurst 12 Hour podium at Mount Panorama earlier today after SunEnergy1's Luca Stolz, Jules Gounon, Kenny Habul and Martin Konrad beat Craft-Bamboo and Triple Eight in the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli season opener Down Under.
Gounon took the chequered flag 8.7 seconds clear of Maro Engel, who shared the runner-up entry with Daniel Juncadella and Kevin Tse, while Shane van Gisbergen, Broc Feeney and Jefri Ibrahim completed the rostrum.
It was Mercedes-AMG’s second IGTC victory in as many events after AKKA ASP triumphed at the Kyalami 9 Hour in February as well as the manufacturer’s first at Mount Panorama since the SLS GT3 won in 2013. What’s more, no brand had previously locked out the podium at Australia's International Enduro.
But there was disappointment for Audi Sport whose standout factory-backed Team Valvoline entry driven by Kelvin van der Linde, Nathanael Berthon and Brad Schumacher lost the lead in the ninth hour after serving a two-minute penalty. The trio ultimately finished fourth, one lap adrift of SunEnergy1.
Behind, Lamborghini enjoyed its strongest-ever IGTC outing at Bathurst thanks to Wall Racing's Tony D'Alberto, David Wall, Adrian Deitz and Grant Denyer who went under the radar en route to fifth overall.
GOUNON GOES BACK-TO-BACK AT BATHURST DESPITE LATE PRESSURE FROM ENGEL
Gounon’s second win in as many starts at Mount Panorama, albeit 830 days apart and with different manufacturers, was made possible by Team Valvoline’s driver time miscalculation, Stolz’s immaculate contribution during his five hours behind the wheel, and a proxy war with fellow factory ace Engel during the final two stints.
Fog over the mountain necessitated a Safety Car start in pitch darkness at 05:15 local time before racing began in earnest two laps later. The opening stint was all about Pole Shootout rivals Chaz Mostert and Kelvin van der Linde who matched each other lap for lap out front while pulling clear of a chasing pack headed by Stolz, Markus Winkelhock (Audi Sport Team Valvoline) and Feeney.
But a flurry of further Safety Cars, as well as heavy rain, were about to bring a sleeping giant back into play. An engine change had prevented Craft-Bamboo's Mercedes-AMG from completing any laps on Saturday and left Engel starting from the back row. The German was soon running 12th but, bottled up in traffic, unable to make further progress. Cue the unusual strategy of serving compulsory pitstops during and then immediately after the Safety Car periods to burn through the nine longer two-minute stops before their rivals, which would then allow for faster driver changes later in the race.
Meanwhile, Team Valvoline also took an alternative approach to #74's stints by prioritising the entry's Am driver, Schumacher, over Van der Linde and Berthon. By completing his bulk of total drive time amongst the early Safety Car periods Audi's Pros could make up the time over rival Ams under green flag conditions as the race progressed.
That strategy looked to have paid off when Van der Linde took the lead on merit, albeit with one compulsory pitstop remaining, by passing Ibrahim and Tse late in the eighth hour. Stolz, whose SunEnergy1 team ran a more conventional strategy and had already completed their nine CPSs, followed suit a little while later to set up what should have been an exciting finish between the Mercedes-AMG and Audi.
But it never came to pass after Team Valvoline's victory chances were effectively ended in hour nine by a two-minute penalty for exceeding Schumacher's maximum continuous stint time, which dropped the car off the lead lap.
SunEnergy1 thus inherited the lead, while Craft-Bamboo and Triple Eight completed the top-three as the race ticked into its final quarter. And in the damp but drying conditions it was Stolz who managed to eke out a near-20s lead over Juncadella before switching to slicks and handing over to Gounon.
Engel, who'd climbed aboard Craft-Bamboo's entry the lap before, survived a trip through Hell Corner's gravel trap and potential splitter damage to gap Van Gisbergen and reduce some of Gounon's advantage. The pair underlined their factory status by matching each other lap for lap and maintaining a 13s difference leading up to the final round of pitstops.
Both crews, as well as Triple Eight, elected to take a new set of Pirelli slicks for the last hour. But it was Craft-Bamboo who turned their Mercedes-AMG around faster to reduce Engel's deficit to eight seconds.
However, that sniff of a chance was thwarted by Gounon who, having maintained his advantage to the chequered flag, became the 12 Hour's first back-to-back winner since Craft-Bamboo's team owner Darryl O'Young achieved the same feat in 2011 and '12.
Triple Eight were there or thereabouts all day but couldn’t quite match the pace of their Mercedes-AMG stablemates – a fact underlined by Supercars and Bathurst great Van Gisbergen losing touch with the top-two.
Audi Sport were left pondering what might have been after Van der Linde set a flurry of blistering lap times, as well as the day's fastest of all, in the final two hours. #74 finished a lap off the lead in fourth, three places clear of the sister Team Valvoline car that failed to challenge after falling off the lead lap early on.
Meanwhile, the pole-winning Coinspot-entered R8 LMS Evo II GT3 endured several issues despite Mostert's obvious pace before retiring for good after clouting the wall approaching Skyline.
The same stretch of race track also accounted for Grove Racing’s Porsche, which appeared odds-on to finish fifth. Instead, Wall Racing’s measured approach helped Lamborghini to score its best-ever Bathurst finish in fifth overall.
Hallmarc’s Audi, shared by Lee Holdsworth, Dean Fiore and Marc Cini, enjoyed a similarly trouble-free run to complete the top-six ahead of Team Valvoline’s second R8 featuring Winkelhock, Ricardo Feller and Yasser Shahin.
Team BRM can be pleased with their eighth place after the car was repaired on Saturday. Nick Percat and Joey Mawson made the most of the wet conditions to spend time in the lead early on before time spent fixing a broken rain light dropped the car that also included Mark Rosser down the order.
Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli points will only be awarded just before the championship’s second round at the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa, which takes place on July 28-31.