Marc van der Straten’s team have a storied history at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, with Marc VDS’ BMWs so often among the front runners of the race, so often among the favourites to lift the trophy, but never succeeding; falling at the final hurdle due to a minor problem or incident.
But 2015 added a new chapter to the Belgian team’s story at the race in the Ardennes, with the driving trio of Nick Catsburg, Markus Palttala and Lucas Luhr giving the team – under the guise of BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS – the victory they’ve always sought.
The trio completed 526 laps of the 7km circuit during the 24 hours, their total just one more than the Audi Sport Team WRT car driven by Frank Stippler, Stephane Ortelli and Nico Mueller.
But, while the race may form a new chapter in Marc VDS’ history, the event provided enough action, enough twists and turns to fill an entire book.
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Firtly, there was the torrential downpour than left the race to start in sodden conditions. The rain caught several teams out, with two cars crashing in the opening hours in similar circumstances at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Pro-Am Cup runner Karim A. Ojjeh launched in the air when his Boutsen Ginion BMW speared hard right into an already damaged length of Armco.
The rain cleared just long enough for some teams – including the #46 crew who would go on to win – to take a chance and swap onto slick Pirelli tyres, before returning with all the vigour it had shown before the green flag, sending cars back into the pits and strategists scratching their heads as they watched their charges plummet down the order on the wrong rubber.
The first safety car of the race, coming after Gilles Duqueine crashed his Ferrari under braking for Les Combes, split the early leaders of the race from the rest of the field (the #1 Audi of the defending champions and the two Von Ryan Racing McLarens).
The pair of 650S’ cameos at the front were short-lived – hastened by the fleeting change in weather – but the defending champions (Rene Rast, Markus Winkelhock and Laurens Vanthoor) remained at the front, starting to take a grip on the lead that was increasing difficult for other teams to challenge.
The team’s start to the race looked likely to win them the first spoils on offer; the championship points doled out after six hours. However, only minutes before the first quarter of the race, frustration got the better of Vanthoor after several laps trailing a backmarker, and he crashed the #1 car at Courbe Paul Frere, losing several minutes before he was able to limp the damaged car out of the darkness and back to the pits.
In the champions’ stead, the #99 ROWE Racing team of Nico Bastian, Stef Dusseldorp and Daniel Juncadella collected the 12 points on offer after six hours. The Mercedes trio took the full complement of points again at half distance trailed by the #2 WRT Audi and the #45 Marc VDS BMW.
Both, along with the #46 crew who had gradually recovered up the order with Catsburg taking a starring role on the climb, would push the ROWE trio down the order when their team took longer than others to perform a brake change.
They would start the final hour in third place, but in another episode in a 24 Hours that provided fans with a multitude of dramas, a broken water pump would leave their overheating SLS steaming in the pits as the chequered flag approached, lifting the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi team of Christian Mamerow, Christopher Mies and Nicki Thiim onto the third step of the podium.
The #99 car’s late heartbreak was not the only late twist in the race. ROAL Motorsport’s run to a top ten finish for drivers Timo Glock, Bruno Spengler and Alex Zanardi ended in smoke at the side of the road similarly almost within sight of the end of the race.
However, the biggest twist was reserved for the Marc VDS BMWs.
With the ROWE Mercedes’ dropping down the order after the slow brake change, it was the #45 BMW Z4 GT3 of Maxime Martin, Augusto Farfus and Dirk Werner that established itself in the lead.
With six hours to go the crew had a lap’s lead – the end of the squad’s long Spa-Francorchamps drought starting to loom into view. However, 20 minutes later with Werner at the wheel on the hill down towards the Bruxelles hairpin, the transmission locked leaving the BMW stranded as Stephane Ortelli slipped by into the lead.
Was 2015 to be another race lost by the team? Nick Catsburg had other ideas, closing down the gap to a struggling Ortelli before taking the lead at La Source only 20 minutes after Werner had abandoned the #45 entry.
Catsburg reprised his leading role from the charge up the leaderboard, building a lead that reached 40 seconds before Ortelli pitted to hand over the car to Mueller. Though their advantage shrunk during the pitstops, the lead continued to grow until the BMW squad had the lap advantage the history books will preserve.
The Pro-Am battle climbed to fourth overall in the final reckoning, led by AF Ferrari drivers Pasin Lathouras, Stephane Lemeret, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Gianmaria Bruni in their 458. Sixth place overall and second in class were their team-mates Davide Rigon, Matt Griffin, Duncan Cameron and Francisco Guedes.
The rest of the order at the top of the Pro-Am class was a tour de force for British teams, drivers and cars.
The pair of Barwell Motorsport run BMWs – one under the Ecurie Ecosse banner, the other entered as Team Russia – finished third and fourth in the class, while the all-British team in the former entry (Devon Modell, Oliver Bryant, Alasdair McCaig and Alexander Sims) took the final step on the podium.
Leonard Motorsport AMR completed the top five in Pro-Am and the top ten overall, behind Bentley Team HTP #84 that was fifth in the Pro order.
The strong British showing continued in the Am Cup where Ian Loggie, Callum MacLeod, Julian Westwood and Benny Simonsen won by two laps for Team Parker Racing.
1. BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS (M.Palttala, N.Catsburg, L.Luhr)[Pro]
2. Audi Sport Team WRT (F.Stippler, S.Ortelspan, N.Muller)[Pro] +1 Lap
3. Audi Sport Team Phoenix (C.Mamerow, C.Mies, N.Thiim) [Pro] +2 Laps
4. AF Corse Ferrari (S.Lemeret, P.Lathouras, A.P.Guidi, G.Bruni) [Pro-Am] +5 Laps
5. Audi Sport Team Phoenix (A.Lotterer, M.Fassler, M.Rockenfeller) [Pro] +6 Laps
6. AF Corse Ferrari (F.Guedes, D.Cameron, M.Griffin, D.Rigon)[Pro-Am] +7 Laps
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Words:James Broomhead and Kevin Mc Glone.
Pictures:Kevin Mc Glone(Red Square Images)