Audi takes the crown, followed by Bentley and Mercedes-AMG

The 69th running of the epic Spa 24 Hours was as much a battle between the world’s top brands as it was one between top teams in a race that was marked, like last year, by multiple penalties which shaped the finishing order as well as some scary shunts. The Spa 24 Hours, a staple in the world of endurance racing, has been around for just about as much as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, in recent years, it has seen a constant growth since becoming the blue riband event of the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup. The SRO-sanctioned series is also flourishing and now, the Spa 24 Hours, is also part of the Intercontinental GT Cup (alongside the Bathurst 12 Hours and others) and the Blancpain GT combined leaderboard which brings together the Endurance Cup and the Sprint Cup leaderboards.

This meant that none was fazed when a 63-strong entry list was presented, which comprised of Pro entries, Pro-Am, Am, and National entries. The designations are basically using the FIA-approved driver licensing system where the Pros are the Platinum and Gold-rated drivers while the Ams are the Silver and Bronze-rated ones. The National category is an addition to the usual GT3-only classes which aims to bring lower tier machinery to Spa, such as the Porsche 991 Cup, the Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo or the Ferrari 488 Challenge. This year, only two Porsches made up the National class.

Continue reading for the full story.

The Setup

BMW were coming to Spa as last year’s champions.

Going back to the sharp end of the field, BMW were coming to Spa as last year’s champions through their factory-blessed ROWE Racing outfit. The German brand was one of many to bring semi-works cars, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Lamborghini, McLaren, Audi and Ferrari doing much the same while Bentley continued with its fully works M-Sport-run program. For the first time in a few years, Porsche also featured in the Pro class with a factory-backed entry, that of Team 75 Bernhard managed by Timo Bernhard himself, Porsche works LMP1 driver.

The entry list was like a collection of the world’s top GT drivers.

Besides the top teams, including the likes of Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, HTP Motorsport, AKKA ASP, Sainteloc Racing, Spirit of Race, Barwell Motorsport, Strakka Racing or RJN Motorsport, the entry list was like a collection of the world’s top GT drivers, so many that I could just keep writing all of their names and end up with a long enough article without adding anything else!

There were past winners on the list, as well as winners of the Nurburgring 24 Hours, Le Mans 24 Hours, Daytona 24 Hours, Bathurst 12 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours winners – all in almost equal machinery. That’s all because of the Balance of Performance but it worked. 36 (Thirty Six) cars were within one second of the quickest man after qualifying, while the Top 20 which went into Friday’s SuperPole session were within a few tenths.

The Qualifying

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Qualifying was not kind with everybody, as a couple of the 63 cars had it all wrong on Thursday.

For those not following the event, it’s worth taking a moment to explain: the Spa 24 Hours qualifying is divided into three sessions: there are two sessions on Thursday, the second being hosted during the night so that first-time drivers dial in their mandatory night laps, and a SuperPole session on Friday which decides the pole-sitter from the fastest 20 during Thursday’s sessions. This year’s fastest car after Thursday was the No. 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-Benz driven by Raffaele Marciello to a storming 2:18.675, which just piped Frederic Vervisch’s best effort in the No. 2 Audi Sport Team WRT.

Beyond the minuscule margins, there was the variety: seven brands in the top 10 and only McLaren missing from the Top 20 shootout on Friday (Strakka blaming their inability to bring the new Pirelli good-for-all compound into temperature).

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The order at the sharp end was reshuffled on Friday as a Ferrari was the quickest.

The order at the sharp end was reshuffled on Friday as a Ferrari was the quickest, namely No. 55 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by James Calado to a 2:17.390, just 0,057 seconds quicker than championship leader Mirko Bortolotti’s fastest lap. The No. 63 Lamborghini was followed by the No. 2 Audi of Vervisch, the No. 117 Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (the Team 75 Bernhard car), the No. 1 Audi Sport Team WRT (featuring Corvette Racing’s Antonio Garcia) and, on sixth, Mercedes’ best-placed car, the No. 84 Mercedes-AMG Team HTP Motorsport driven by Franck Perera. The Pro-Am pole sitter was just behind, Johnny Adam’s Aston-Martin No. 97 entered by Oman Racing being the only car from its category that made it into the SuperPole – it was also the only car of its kind.

Qualifying was not kind with everybody, as a couple of the 63 cars had it all wrong on Thursday. Both the No. 00 Goodsmile Racing with Team Ukyo Mercedes-Benz and the No. 22 Motul Team RJN Nissan suffered heavy hits in the Eau Rouge-Raidillon uphill section which ended in chassis damages for both cars. The No. 00 was a special entry from Japan, Goodsmile Racing being Super GT regulars for a decade and, with such a CV, they were able to get Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi to drive for them in this race. Sadly, it was Kobayashi who got it all wrong in Eau Rouge while, in the Nissan’s case, it was a tire failure that put Mat Parry into the wall. Luckily, both Ram Racing – who ran the No. 00 car for Goodsmile – had a backup chassis as did RJN. It was, though, in the case of Bob Neville’s tea, an antiquated car which had last year’s Nurburgring 24 Hours under its belt and was described as “tired” by the drivers.

The Racing

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Lamborghini’s No. 63 and Ferrari’s No. 55 went head to head in the early stages.

Sure enough, it proved how tired it was as, on the opening lap of the race, which otherwise was uneventful, it stopped at the side of the track before managing to get going again and limp to the pits. This wasn’t as bad of a situation as that of the No. 77 Barwell Lamborghini, the British team’s best lineup which were hoping to make it three in a row for Barwell. The car, which featured another Corvette Racing man, Oliver Gavin, had a gearbox failure on the grid and lost five laps in the pits due to repairs.

Due to how the rules are made – in a bid to make things more equal – losing a lap (or more) at Spa is almost a death trap. That’s because a drive stint’s length is limited to 65 minutes and, also, you get delta times for stops. That means that you have a bracket of time for a “short” stop and one for a “long” stop. If you exceed the time for a short stop, you can’t leave until you’ve entered the one for the long stop, thus losing time. The whole idea is for the teams to not be encouraged to come up with sophisticated pit lane equipment designed to speed up pit stops which are not affordable for the smaller outfits and, as such, will possibly ignite an “arms race” which could drive costs up.

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The drive-through for the No. 117 entry was caused by an infringement was watched very closely by the stewards: exceeding track limits.

As positive as the intention was, it still means that much of the strategy in pit work goes out through the window since you must respect these delta times anyway. Still, in spite of this, the winning car did manage to claw back a two-lap deficit but that was more down to being at the right place at the right time during the safety car periods.

Going back to the beginning, Lamborghini’s No. 63 and Ferrari’s No. 55 went head to head in the early stages. Grasser Racing’s Mirko Bortolotti did the first couple of hours, as did Kaspersky’s James Calado – the latter shared the car with Giancarlo Fisichella and Marco Cioci. Both lineups, though, would never see the finish line at 16:30 PM local time. First out was the white Ferrari which hit the barriers in Eau Rouge after trading paint with the No. 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-Benz with which it was battling for the lead. Apparently, the contact in La Source caused a steering failure, making Marco Cioci a passenger in the doomed 488 GT3.

A couple of hours later it was the turn of the No. 63 Lamborghini to make a shock exit from the event. The car, which was in the lead after six hours and on P2 after 12 – thus scoring valuable points (in this race, crews get points at the six-hour mark, the 12-hour mark, the 18-hour mark and at the end) in the Blancpain Endurance Cup championship) – was out after an ABS failure in the tricky Pif Paf sequence of bends.

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Team WRT had the worst Spa weekend since 2010, as it was the first which they did not finish at least on the podium.

Both of these retirements were predated by that of the No. 84 HTP Mercedes-Benz which was the favorite from the German manufacturer’s camp. The car, entered as a semi-works effort, went out before half-distance after a crash at the ever-elusive Eau Rouge. Jimmy Ericksson was behind the wheel at the time and, happily, he escaped unharmed. Also in one piece was Pasin Lathouras who ruined his No. 50 Ferrari with less than two hours gone from the event after a crash in the same place, but much more fierce.

This left a host of Audi’s in the lead – the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 25 R8s – a Bentley, the No. 8 and the No. 117 Porsche which was executing a great comeback race. The latter could well have walked away with the trophy if it hadn’t been for a tediously-long three-minute stop-and-go penalty for an incident in the pits where the Porsche 991 GT3-R hit a mechanic from another team. The penalty, which came with 20 hours left to run, was later followed by a drive-through penalty, the team losing over four minutes in total (they finished less than two minutes behind the overall winner after 24 hours).

The drive-through for the No. 117 Team 75 Bernhard entry was caused by an infringement was watched very closely by the stewards: exceeding track limits. Multiple teams received similar penalties during the race and it also hurt other frunt-runners, such as the No. 1 Audi. Team WRT had the worst Spa weekend since 2010, as it was the first which they did not finish at least on the podium – and suffered retirements for the No. 5 and No. 6 entries.

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Kessel Racing again proved unbeatable in the Am class, although Rinaldi Racing’s own Ferraris were quick.

All of that left the No. 25 Sainteloc Racing Audi driven by Jules Gounon, Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase as the only R8 with chances for a victory ahead of the No. 90 Mercedes-Benz and the No. 8 Bentley. The No. 90 survived both the coming together with the No. 55 as well as a second incident involving Rene Rast’s Audi in Les Combes which caused both cars to skid off the track. This wasn’t, however, the undoing of the French outfit. What hit them was a sluggish final pit stop, as opposed to that of the No. 8 works Bentley.

As mentioned before, the teams had to follow a set of pit stop delta times. The No. 90 crew was unable to turn the car around at the final stop within the time allocated for a “short” stop so they had to wait an additional 43 seconds to enter in the “long” pit stop bracket which essentially lost them the race. That is, in spite of Marciello’s iron man 14-hour drive time in the race. They had to settle for third behind Bentley which came home second, rebounding from early damage to the front end. Due to the misfortune of Grasser Racing, the second-placed crew also takes over the top position in the championship.

The other Bentley was less fortunate, finishing a lowly P14 overall after losing both TC and steering assistance after colliding with a slower car. Also unfortunate was the four-car McLaren Strakka team. The 650S GT3s either took penalties, stopped on track or crashed out. The BMWs were also marred by penalties and, despite leading early on Saturday morning, had to settle for a finish at the bottom of the Top 10. Barwell’s bid for a third consecutive Pro-Am win was also trashed by problems to both of their Lamborghinis, the resurging No. 77s day ending with a crash which prompted the car to catch fire. Also, the sister Grasser Lamborghini (No. 19) finished down the order after collecting a number of penalties.

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Up next there’s only one race left in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup and, already, the Pro-Am title is decided.

Emil Frey’s two Jaguars developed in-house also showed promise, running within the top 10 but none of them made it past the seventh hour. Aston-Martin’s only car, however, managed a clean run and finished second in Pro-Am, despite leading portions of the event. The Oman Racing crew were second to the Black Falcon Racing No. 16 Mercedes-Benz of Oliver Morley, Miguel Toril, Maxi Goetz and Marvin Kirchhoefer. Nic Minassian and Toni Vilander’s Ferrari finished third in Pro-Am.

Kessel Racing again proved unbeatable in the Am class, although Rinaldi Racing’s own Ferraris were quick. The latter, though, had to spend more time in the pits with both mechanical trouble and penalties and, as such, the winner was the No. 888 488 GT3 of Marco Zanuttini, Jacque Duyver, David Perel and Niki Cadei. The Belgian SpeedLover outfit meanwhile won the National class with their all-Belgian crew and their Smurf-covered Porsche 991 Cup.

Up next there’s only one race left in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup and, already, the Pro-Am title is decided. The winners are Johnny Adam and Ahmad Al-Harthy, part of the No. 97 Oman Racing crew who have over 40 points advantage after their P2 at Spa. The other crowns are, however, still up for grabs in the Barcelona 3 Hours finale.

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The other crowns are, however, still up for grabs in the Barcelona 3 Hours finale.

Now, I feel I must explain why, in spite of the abundance of cars and brands present at the Spa 24 Hours, none of them are American. Yes, there were multiple American drivers, but no American cars. And that’s been the case for a few years now. Sure, there’s not really a shortage of American GT3 cars so, then, what’s the matter? Why don’t American cars show up at what must be the biggest GT3-only(ish) race in the world?

Well, let’s run down our suspects: Chevrolet is present via two European-built cars. One is the Reiter-built Camaro GT3 which is already considered mostly outdated and has only been seen racing in Australia recently while the other is Callaway Competition’s Corvette C7.R GT3. This car has not been, as of yet, homologated by the FIA and runs under a German-homologation in the ADAC GT Masters only. It will make, however, its North-American debut in the end-of-the-year COTA 24 Hours race which is part of the Creventic-organized 24H SERIES. There is, however, little to suggest that we will see any in Blancpain competition. The last Corvette to show up at the Spa 24 Hours was in 2011 in the first year of the championship but that was a C6 Z06 GT3 and it was a one-time only occurrence. Also from GM, we’ve got Cadillac with their Pratt&Miller-developed AXR.V GT3. That car’s been racing successfully but only in the Pirelli World Challenge and only with the works Cadillac team, which has no intentions to sell any chassis. This goes against the ethos of the whole formula, but there’s no rule which pushes them to sell their cars to customers so, for now, no Caddies anywhere else.

Finally, we’ve got the – by now – defunct Viper. Riley Technologies also built a GT3 version of the SRT Viper and it did run great in IMSA’s GT-D class but was all but ignored in Europe. There was one chassis purchased by a Dutch team to run in their National series with plans of running the Dubai 24 Hours but those never came to fruition and, by now, the car is probably considered outdated as Riley has moved on to other projects. This leaves us to Ford. Surely, you’d think looking at their GTE car, there must be a GT3 car on the way under the GT banner, right? Well, nope. Not for now, at least. There was a GT3 car based on the older GT and it did campaign in Europe for a few years but even Lambda Performance’s Germany-bound updated car has been retired for a couple of years. So, that’s why we haven’t seen any American car on the grid this year and one there’s little to suggest we’ll see one any time soon…

Top 10 Results

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Pos No. Drivers Team Car Laps
1 25 Haase/Gounon/Winkelhock Audi Sport Team Sainteloc Audi R8 LMS 546
2 8 Soulet/Abril/Soucek Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 546
3 90 Mortara/Meadows/Marciello AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 546
4 117 Estre/Christensen/Vanthoor KUS Team75 Bernhard Porsche 991 GT3 R 546
5 2 de Philippi/Mies/Vervisch Audi Sport Team WRT Audi R8 LMS 546
6 1 Garcia/Muller/Rast Audi Sport Team WRT Audi R8 LMS 546
7 85 Sandstrom/Schiller/Baumann HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 545
8 4 Stolz/Christodoulou/Buurman Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3 545
9 76 Kaffer/Stippler/van de Linde Audi Sport Team ISR Audi R8 LMS 543
10 98 Blombqvist/Catsburg/Spengler Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3 542

Full Results

Check out the full on the Blancpain GT Series official website.

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