Frank Stippler led that most familiar of formats at the end of an endurance race – an Audi formation finish – as the German manufacturer notched up yet another victory with the Phoenix Audi R8 LMS, this time a second consecutive success in GT racing at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Stippler, sharing the car with Porsche Supercup champion Rene Rast and Andrea Piccini, led an Audi 1-2 with Stephane Ortelli responsible for bringing home the second placed Team WRT car at the end of duel that lasted most of the second half of the race.
The two cars – Stippler’s No.16 and Ortelli’s No.1 – were running in tandem until the final half hour of the race when a safety car period was called. Both teams opted to take their final stops under the safety car but pitting second, Ortelli was held at the end of the pit lane, giving Stippler a lead that only increased when Ortelli was awarded a stop-go penalty for an unsafe pit entry.
With so little time remaining, the error all but confirmed he and co-drivers Christopher Mies and Christopher Haase would finish second.
Behind the leading Audis, taking the final step of the podium was the Vita4One Racing Team BMW Z4 team of Frank Kechele, Greg Franchi and Mathias Lauda.
With the Super Pole session on Friday afternoon an early casualty of the weather (more of which later) Kechele started the race from pole position on Saturday afternoon, but found himself out dragged and out driven by Maxime Martin, the Belgian piloting the Marc VDS No.3 Z4 from second on the grid.
The two BMWs dived into Eau Rouge for the first time in a wheel-to-wheel battle for a lead, hardly appropriate for the opening lap of a 24 hour endurance race. Running briefly off track at Radillion, Martin took the lead, with both BMWs pulling away at the front during this early part of the race.
Then came the rain (again).
For the second time during the 24 hours the race was run under full-course yellows, as conditions deteriorated and the heavy Belgian clouds reduced the Francorchamps circuit to little more than a picturesque skid pan.
In total 16 safety car periods were packed into the 24 hours, although 12 of the neutral periods fell within the first half on the race, including two long safety car periods for rain and a third longer period of non-racing when Phillipe Salini crashed his Cup class Porsche heavily in the slippery conditions at Blanchimont.
The staccato nature of the racing prevented the Marc VDS team from building the lead they perhaps deserved, with the Audis keeping close attention, even taking the lead at times. Martin made his passes out on the track, leading at quarter distance and adding the 12 Blancpain Endurance Series points on offer to the championship leading tally enjoyed with his teammates Bas Leinders and Markus Palttala.
The winning ambitions of the Belgian team – victors already this year in the Blancpain Series races at Monza and Silverstone – were further hampered by being delayed in the pit lane with a persistent clutch problem which added precious time to each of their pit stops.
Their challenge was further exacerbated by collisions received while lapping slower cars. Leinders was lucky to survive a brush with Filip Salaquarda’s Ferrari while leading – the Czech driver spearing into the wall under braking for the Bus Stop shortly before 1:00am, pushing Leinders into a spin through the tarmac run off area. Leinders continued after a quick precautionary visit to the pits, however Salaquarda’s race was over.
The Marc VDS team dropped from the lead battle shortly before half way after another pit lane hold-up – the 24H race needs both F1 and endurance garages to house the race’s 66 entrants and Palttala’s first stint in the cockpit cost the team further time after the Finn was forced to serve a penalty incurred during qualifying.
The team had kept him out of the cockpit for the opening half of the race in search of maximum points at both the six and 12 hour marks, although they were only credited with fourth at the half way point.
With their nearest challengers the better part of a lap behind, the second half of the race was a battle between the Audis. Both cars ran near faultless races – only a few punctures apiece stalling the metronomic runs that went all the way to the chequered flag.
The sister cars in both Audi teams didn’t fare quite as well.
Team Phoenix’s No.6 R8 LMS, driven by Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Tom Kristensen, was put out of the running early on when Adam Christodoulou in the McLaren MP4-12C dived for the pit lane entrance across Lotterer’s bow. The resulting contact damaged the R8’s suspension costing 25 minutes in the pits and leaving the car outside the Top 50 runners.
It was Kristensen’s first drive in the Spa 24 Hours since it became a sportscar event and the Le Mans winners eventually finished a creditable sixth after a near faultless drive, taking advantage of the many mechanical retirements and accidents that befell their competitors due to the persistent tricky conditions.
One of the few incident not caused by the conditions, knocked the fourth works Audi out of the race. Edward Sandstrom and the No.2 Team WRT car had been podium contenders early in the race – passing Stephane Lemeret’s #35 DB Motorsport BMW through Eau Rouge and battling hard within the lower half of the top ten.
But it was the infamous uphill sweep that caught the Swede out with just four hours to go, Sandstrom taking too much kerb through the right hand element of the corner, spinning over the crest and into the tyre wall.
Amongst the Pro-Cup contenders, finishing in fifth overall, were the Pro-Am Cup winners Niek Hommerson, Louis Machiels, Andrea Bertolini and Alessandro Pier Giudi driving the AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia.
Even more than in the premier class, the story of the Pro-Am race was one of attrition.
The victorious crew were the only one of three AF Corse cars to finish the race, even though one of the team’s cars ran tenth overall on Sunday morning, before technical maladies reversed their fortunes.
Even before this point, mechanical problems and greasy conditions whittled down the number of cars capable of winning the class. That allowed the Haribo Racing Team Porsche into second in class, with the SOFREV ASP Ferrari – featuring former French international goalkeeper Fabien Barthez – reaching third.
Porsche squad First Motorsport won the Gentlemen Trophy class, with Bull Fight Racing’s Dodge Viper in second and Sainteloc Racing in third.
Further down the class Jose Close and the VDS Racing Adventures Mustang provided one of the more enduring memories of the race. In the final few yards before the chequered flag the Belgian driver was reduced to physically pushing the car across the line, completing the team’s 334th and final lap.
Only the SpeedLover run No.95 Porsche survived from the Cup class, finishing 25th overall, after completing 455 laps.
It was a race of attrition, where even the winners felt more like survivors.
Next Race: Nurburgring, 22 September, 2012.
Words: James Broomhead
Pictures: Kevin Mc Glone (Red Square Images)