Bathurst 12 Hour lures top Mercedes driver

German ace Berndt Schneider in a Mercedes C-Klasse.
German ace Berndt Schneider in a Mercedes C-Klasse.

It is a measure of the growing international importance of the Bathurst 12 Hour endurance race for GT sports cars that Mercedes-Benz is sending its most experienced and successful driver to spearhead a two-car assault.

German veteran Bernd Schneider is coming to help the local Erebus Motorsport team's bid to stop Mercedes' GT racing arch rival Audi completing a hat trick of victories at Mount Panorama.

Schneider, winner of a record five German touring car championships, heads an expanded list of leading internationals and V8 Supercar drivers contesting next Sunday's lesser known of the two Bathurst long-distance races.

Although in the shadow of V8's Bathurst 1000 classic, which captures the nation's attention every October, the 12 Hour has become an increasingly important event on the world GT sports car stage.

Since Audi sent a factory-backed team to conquer the minor Mountain marathon in 2011, it has joined the long-established 24-hour races at Spa- Francorchamps in Belgium and the Nurburgring in Germany – two of the most revered tracks in the world – and the much newer twice-around-the-clock enduro in Dubai as one of the premier events in international GT racing.

The Bathurst 12 Hour's main attraction for overseas entrants and drivers, as it is for the growing number of V8 stars taking part, is the 6.3 km hillside circuit, an old-style public road course rated as one of the world's greatest tracks.

As well as Mercedes-Benz and Audi, this year's 51-car entry – a mixture of exotic GT racers and production cars – features famous makes and models like Ferrari, Porsche 911, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, BMW and Chevrolet Corvette.

Even French mainstream maker Peugeot has entered a two-car team of factory prepared coupes in pursuit of class honours, crewed by Franco- Australian driver combinations.

It is a variety of cars that, even under V8 Supercars' new more liberal Car Of The Future eligibility rules, will never be seen among the sedans in the Bathurst 1000.

While the Bathurst 12 Hour will attract only a fraction of the crowd and coverage, it has drawn a healthy field of visiting drivers that includes several well-known and highly accomplished names in international motor sport.

Fresh from his victory in last month's Dubai 24 Hours in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG similar to the locally run version he'll race at Bathurst, Schneider is joined by compatriot Thomas Jaeger – the GT world team champion – in Erebus's six-man squad, which also includes two of the drivers from its new Mercedes V8 team, Tim Slade and Lee Holdsworth.

Other high-profile internationals are Britain's world touring car champion Rob Huff, new Aston Martin GT factory driver and regular Bathurst 1000 co-driver Allan Simonsen of Denmark, and former F1 drivers Ivan Capelli of Italy and Mika Salo of Finland.

Although Audi hasn't dispatched a factory-backed team to defend its back-to-back 12 Hour victories, seven high-calibre privately run R8s are entered.

Billed as "The Ultimate Aussie Endurance Race", the 12 Hour's fast-rising status is underlined by how many current or part-time V8 drivers are moonlighting at the event, which is just six days before the V8 Supercars pre-season test at Sydney Motorsport Park on February 16.

More than a dozen have been drafted, including Craig Lowndes, Greg Murphy, Jason Bright, Steven Johnson, Alex Davison, Steven Richards, Warren Luff and controversial Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen (who announced his "comeback" during the week after quitting V8s at the end of last season), plus Slade and Holdsworth.

Lowndes and Luff are reprising their third-place Bathurst 1000 partnership, sharing an Audi R8 LMS with 2009 co-winner Rod Salmon.

Murphy is co-driving a Corvette, while Johnson is partnering beleaguered mining magnate billionaire Nathan Tinkler in a Porsche.

Bright is the lead local in one of the factory Peugeot RCZs, while Davison is sharing a Porsche with his American-based cousin James and team owner David Calvert-Jones, the son of Rupert Murdoch's sister Janet.

Van Gisbergen is joining father and son team Tony and Klark Quinn in an outright contending Porsche 911 GT3-R, an offshoot of the Quinns' VIP Petfoods backing his unpopular V8 switch from Ford to Holden.

Schneider, 48, will fulfill one of his few remaining racing ambitions by competing in the Bathurst 12 Hour.

"I really wanted to a race at Bathurst once in my life because this is one of the big races missing from my career," he said. "It's considered one of the world's greatest tracks.

"It's a fantastic challenge for any driver and I'm really happy to have the chance to do the 12-hour race." Schneider, described as "the Peter Brock of Germany" because of his notoriety and success in Germany's popular DTM touring car series, works for Mercedes-Benz's performance car and racing division AMG as a development driver, ambassador and driving instructor.

Although retired from full-time racing, he is still in top form, running at the front in his occasional GT outings with teams supported by AMG's Customer Sport program.

As well as winning the recent Dubai 24 Hours, Schneider dominated the GT support races at the Sydney 500 V8 event last December, guest driving a Mercedes SLS for the ambitious Erebus squad.

This story Bathurst 12 Hour lures top Mercedes driver first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.