Like many other of the endurance races, the Total 24 Hours of Spa is a major draw to teams, drivers and car makers from around the world. However, unlike some twice-around-the-clock challenges, like the Nurburgring or Dubai 24 Hours, this weekend’s race is potentially a decisive part of the championship season.
The race around the 7km Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is the fourth and longest round of the Blancpain Endurance Series with 60-plus cars due to start the race at 4:30pm local time on Saturday.
A strong run at Spa is almost essential to any would-be champions’ campaign, with rewards not only waiting at the end of the race come Sunday afternoon, but at the six and twelve hour marks as well.
Thus far the season has been dominated by two teams with ART Grand Prix and M-Sport Bentley sharing the three wins of the year so far, with the Bentley crew of Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane leading the drivers championship after victories at both the British and French rounds of the championship.
However, the battle for the overall win is just a small, but admittedly major, part of a race that will play out on several levels.
The splits begin within the teams running the full Blancpain Endurance Series campaign, with the series divided into three categories. The most likely overall victors, including the two car teams from ART Grand Prix and M-Sport, run in the Pro Cup class, with cars shared by three professional drivers. The next step ‘down’ is the Pro-Am Cup, with up to four drivers permitted to share a car with the teams blending professional and ‘amateur’ drivers – the approximate definition of which is drivers who do not make their living through racing.
The ruling that these ‘amateur’ drivers must complete a minimum time in the cars during the race will almost certainly mean they drop behind the Pro Cup entrants during the race. However, with teams including the talents of – in three different cars – Aston Martin Racing works drivers Pedro Lamy, Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke some of the Pro-Am teams will have the ability to run at the front through the early hours, as well as challenge for pole position in the Superpole session that brings the pre-race running to a climax on Friday evening.
Last season the front row was shared by two Pro-Am teams, Stefan Mucke claiming pole with the same Beechdean AMR team he will support this year.
The Pro-Am teams’ title is led by Nissan GT Academy Team RJN, who have a pair of Nissan GT-R GT3 NISMO cars in the race, the #80 of Alex Buncombe, Florian Strauss and Nick McMillen trying to wrestle back the drivers’ points’ lead after problems at the most recent round.
At Spa the trio will be joined by GT Academy alumni Wolfgang Reip, who stood on the Spa podium a fortnight ago with the team’s British GT entry.
The final class in the series is the Gentlemen Trophy, designed for teams made up of all ‘amateur’ drivers.
Each class has their own championship, so the race will comprise what could be considered three separate races. However, with the three classes all on track at the same time, the events in one class are almost guaranteed to have an impact upon the outcome of the others.
Further complicating matters for those teams intent on championship success are those teams attracted to the event by the opportunity to test themselves against one of the world’s greatest racing tracks.
Chief amongst these visitors are a handful who could challenge for overall victory.
These include a pair of BMW Z4 GT3 from Belgian based team BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS. The squad were contenders for the win last year as part of a full season BES campaign that they ended as Pro Cup teams’ champions. For 2014 a change in focus for the GT3 has seen them focus on the VLN series at the Nurburgring, but they have returned to Belgian tarmac for the weekend to lead BMW’s attempts to take the overall win.
The Pro Cup entry also includes a McLaren from Von Ryan Racing due to be shared by McLaren GT works drivers Tim Mullen, Rob Bell and Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen. Van Gisbergen starred on his GT racing bow at February’s Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour in a succession of nail-biting fights for the lead aboard a VIP Petfoods sponsored MP4-12C.
He is only one part of a mini-invasion by names familiar to Australian racing fans.
Roger Lago’s eponymous team make the trip to enter the race’s only Lamborghini in the Pro-Am class for an all Australian crew, the team missing the services of Peter Kox who raced the car at Bathurst. Also in the Pro-Am class is an AF Corse Ferrari 458 where Italians Michele Rugolo and Andrea Piccini will share with Aussies Steve Wyatt and Craig Lowndes, the multiple V8 Supercars champion and Bathurst 12 Hour winner expanding his GT racing exploits with a first Spa 24 Hours.
But while the arrival of van Gisbergen and Lowndes is just another step in GT racing’s increasing draw upon the stars of other racing disciplines they will have to cede position to perhaps the biggest fight on track – over the biggest championship.
Both Belgian Audi Club WRT and HTP Motorsport are not only full season entries in the Blancpain Endurance Series, but also in the sister Sprint Series, and while both championships offer titles on their own, their standings are combined to form the Blancpain GT Series.
The two teams enter Spa with only two points between them and both have three car Pro-Cup teams on the grid to try and snatch that extra pit of ground over their points rivals.
HTP are the defending Spa 24 winners and the three men who took the win – Maximilian Gotz, Maximilian Buhk and Bernd Schneider – are all back with the team, though they are split between two of the team’s Mercedes SLS AMG GT3.
Their Audi rivals, meanwhile, can call on a trio of the regular drivers in the R8 LMS ultra – Rene Rast, Laurens Vanthoor and Markus Winkelhock – as well as the three drivers who won their third 24 Hours of Le Mans last month with Andre Lotterer, Marcel Faessler and Benoit Treluyer reunited in the #2 car.
Past success though is no guarantee of victory at Spa. Though they may arrive at Spa by different means; full season entrants, one-off visitors, Spa debutants all of the teams and drivers have the same target in mind – victory – and the same obstacle ahead of them – 24 hours around one the most challenging circuits in racing.
Words:James Broomhead and Kevin Mc Glone
Pictures:Kevin Mc Glone(Red Square Images)