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2016 Bathurst 12 Hour preview

Mix the Mountain with GT3 action — and a stellar show of exotics is lured to Bathurst.

Australia's fastest new-car showroom is open for action again at Mt Panorama this weekend.

The exotic line-up at Bathurst has Audi, BMW, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and a bunch of other high-priced high-flyers vying for bragging rights in the newest classic on the global motorsports scene.

The Bathurst 12 Hour contest has gained traction by combining the challenge of tackling one of the world's great circuits with the pace, appeal and variety of production-based GT3 sports cars.

Nissan won last year with its hot rod GT-R, after successes for Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari and Audi. The 12-hour showroom showdown, first run in 1991 for cars that were basically showroom stock, has hit the big time.

The unique appeal of the 21st-century Bathurst classic, which echoes the early days of production car racing on the mountain, is drawing a growing crowd of motorsport spectators and car owners keen to support their brands.

"It's as important as the Australian Grand Prix," says Ferrari Australia CEO Herbert Appleroth. "In our region, the No. 1 event is the Bathurst 12 Hour. Endurance racing around the world ... is the ultimate proof of our engineering and performance excellence."

But, even after the Ferrari 458 won with Craig Lowndes heading the driving roster, this year the Audi R8 supercar is the pre-race favourite.

We have 40 cars. It's a very high-quality field, with more than half the field in GT3 cars

It's a recent winner in similar GT3 endurance contests, including a 24-hour race in Dubai and former V8 Supercars champion Garth Tander is among the R8 pilots.

Touring car heavyweights are participating more and more. Last year a date clash precluded V8 Supercars drivers but now the 12 Hour has joined the calendar — V8 racers in the field include Will Davison and Rick Kelly.

Spectators love the variety in the 12 Hour field and GT3 rules level the field for cars as varied as the GT-R and Bentley Continental. Some entrants are quicker on the straights and others, like the McLaren and Audi, are stronger across the mountain.

The race cars differ dramatically in looks and sound. There is the engine scream of the Lamborghini Gallardo, then there's the hulking bodywork of the Bentley.

The only disappointment for this weekend's event is the absence of some of the newest GT3 racers, including the Ferrari 488 and the BMW M6 that Steven Richards will race in Australia later in the year. They are not eligible as their performance testing is in France next month.

Even so, the organisers are confident. "We have 40 cars. It's a very high-quality field, with more than half the field in GT3 cars," says 12 Hour spokesman John Casey.

"It's an event that both teams and drivers want to participate in. Each manufacturer has their own reasons for participating in motorsport but I think the GT3 category gives them an opportunity to showcase their product."

For Audi, the R8 program has meant more than 150 sales of competition cars over recent years. There is also the inevitable "halo effect" on road cars.

Nissan Australia is so happy with its GT3 program with the GT-R it has bought a car to stay in Australia after the 12-hour.

CEO Richard Emery says: "The GT-R's racing success both here and overseas is extensive and its place in Australian motorsport folklore is well-known and widely documented.

"We're obviously keen to repeat our 2015 success at this year's event and Nissan Motorsports has sent us a brand-new GT-R NISMO GT3 to defend our title."

Who do you think will take out the 2016 Bathurst 12 Hour? Let us know in the comments below.