BMW M Team WRT has adapted quickly to the BMW M4 GT3, after years of racing with Audi. The Belgian squad won their first race with the car in Dubai in January (a 24-hour race no less), finished fourth and sixth in the Bathurst 12 Hour earlier this month, then capped the month off with a fantastic one-two finish in the Kyalami 9 Hour race in South Africa this past weekend.
The Bathurst and Kyalami races were the first two rounds of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, a five-race championship that features GT3 cars only and doesn’t run any races shorter than eight hours. The series typically doesn’t get a high number of entries (there were only thirteen at Kyalami), but they are high quality, with factory-backed teams from Mercedes and Audi in addition to BMW competing in South Africa.
BMW M Team WRT had a cadre of works drivers in their pair of M4 GT3s at Kyalami. South African native Sheldon van der Linde shared the #32 car with Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts, and the #33 car was driven by Augusto Farfus, Maxime Martin, and Phillipp Eng, who was filling in for Valentino Rossi. The BMWs were benefited from a BoP adjustment before the event, including a 10-kg weight reduction along with increased turbo boost levels, after the cars were clearly off the pace of the Mercedes-AMG cars at Bathurst.
The #999 GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG took the pole in qualifying, but the BMWs were right behind in second and third, just three-tenths off the pole. Nevertheless, the series saw fit to make another BoP adjustment right before the race, giving the BMWs an additional 5-kg weight break and adding 15-kg to the Mercedes-AMG cars. The lone Porsche in the field was also given a 5-kg weight reduction and the Audis were given a larger air restrictor.
At the start, it was clear that the BMWs were willing to race each other as well as the other cars, as Farfus pushed by van der Linde on the first lap in an aggressive move, but van der Linde then got by Farfus about nine minutes into the race after Farfus hit a curb a little too hard and lost the balance of the car for a split second. Van der Linde quickly caught up to Maro Engel in the Mercedes-AMG and took the lead, with Farfus getting by Engel a few laps later. The BMWs than ran in a one-two formation for the entire race that had only one caution period with twenty minutes left, with the only real challenge coming from one of the Audis in the battle for second place. The win went to van der Linde, Vanthoor, and Weerts in the #32 car, followed in second by the #33 car of Martin, Eng, and Farfus. The #66 Audi finished in third.
According to the commentators, the BMWs were eight kmh (five mph) faster than the Mercedes-AMG cars on the straights. It probably would have been a better fight if the series had not made the second round of BoP adjustments to the BMW and Mercedes-AMG right before the race, though it was hard to tell the outright performance of the Mercedes-AMG cars over the course of the race, as they experienced some electrical and gearbox issues. The fastest lap set by a Mercedes-AMG was less than two-tenths off the fastest lap set by a BMW, and the fastest Audi lap was within just a few hundredths of the BMW.
The win at Kyalami was the first series victory since Farfus and van der Linde won with an M6 GT3 at Kyalami four years ago and the first win for WRT in the series since 2019 Suzuka 10 Hour race in Japan. “Every time I race in my home country, it seems to go fantastically well,” said van der Linde after the race. “I have been here three times now and have finished on the podium each time – and won twice. The first victory was very special, but this was even more emotional, as I had a lot of friends and family at the track. I really had goosebumps on the podium. Thank you to BMW M Motorsport and compliments to WRT for that performance in only the third race with BMW.”
The Intercontinental GT Challenge series doesn’t race again until June, with the 24 Hour of Spa race, which is usually the single biggest GT3 race in the world. You can watch the Kyalami race on the series YouTube channel. The best action of the race took place in the first half-hour, with the BMWs battling each other as well as the pole-sitting Mercedes. —David Haueter
[Photos by SRO]