For the second successive season, BMW claimed victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa as ROWE Racing followed in the footsteps of Marc VDS Racing at the Belgian venue.
The trio of Phillipp Eng, Maxime Martin and Alexander Sims were a fixture at the front of the race for almost all of the twice-round-the-clock challenge, eventually winning by nearly two minutes ahead of two teams who had to come back from significant delays.
Neither of the teams that joined them on the podium, however, provided the German teams’ main opposition for much of the race. That honour went to the #8 Bentley Team M-Sport line-up of Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet and Wolfgang Reip. Both emerged at the front of the race after a lengthy Safety Car period in the opening hours to allow for barrier repairs after a heavy crash on the Kemmel Straight, and neither looked like giving up their podium spots for much of the race.
For the Bentley squad, that was despite a weighty rap sheet of penalties for a variety of offences. They remained part of the lead battle until the very final hours when they were caught out by the time restrictions governing pitstops. What should have been a quick stop to make sure they made it to the end was prolonged by a miscalculation of the minimum pitstop time. While their Bentley stewed stationary in the pits, the BMW – pitting at the same time – was able to make a clean getaway.
The #8 Bentley would finish the race in fourth, promoted a place when the #86 AMG Team HTP Mercedes also copped a late race penalty.
Their race, along with five other of the new-for-2016 SLS AMGs had also started with a penalty. The last of the qualifying sessions had ended with the front three rows filled with Stuttgart’s finest. However, failing technical scrutineering after the session would see the times of all six deleted – dropping them to the tail of the top 20 – and handed a five minute penalty to be served inside the first half hour of racing.
Decisively, four of those penalised came in to serve that penalty at the end of the opening lap. Fortunately for them, their time on the stopwatch coincided with the first full course caution of the race, triggered when the #333 Ferrari of Marco Seefried became beached in the gravel.
Still, the penalty lost them more than a lap, and though the Safety Car (the result of Kevin Estre and Ishikawa Motoaki’s coming together as the former exited the pits after his second penalty for exceeding track limits) aided them by closing up the gaps, the entire race was a comeback story for the top line Mercedes crews.
The entry that made the best of the comeback, however, was a surprise. Not the #86 crew of Gary Paffett, Maximilian Buhk and Thomas Jaeger who finished fifth aboard their bright yellow machine. Nor the Linkin Park supported #00 Black Falcon entry of Nurburgring 24 star Maro Engel, Yelmer Buurman and Mercedes legend Bernd Schneider.
Instead the AKKA ASP run #88 of Tristan Vautier, Felix Rosenqvist and Renger van der Zande were closest to the victors by the end of the race.
Third went to the #28 Audi Sport Team WRT team of Rene Rast, Laurens Vanthoor and Nico Mueller. Their challenge for the meaningful places seemed to have ended shortly after nightfall when the car collected damage in a skirmish with the #114 Emil Frey Jaguar at Fagnes.
That team, boasting former F1 and works LMP1 drier Christian Klien and defending race winner Markus Palttala among its drivers, was one of several teams to grab a share of the Saturday evening limelight by leading laps as the race settled into a rhythm. Also in that category were the #16 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini, the Pro-Am class #50 Ferrari from the AF Corse stable and best of Garage 59’s three McLaren 650S, the #58.
The #6 Audi of Christopher Mies, Frank Stippler and Markus Winkelhock was another to take a share of the lead. However, they failed to achieve victory due to the infamously fickle Spa weather. As is almost expected the rain showers dared teams to second guess Mother Nature for almost the entire race. During one flurry the Audi Sport Team Phoenix blinked and put wet tyres on for Mies. But, the rain blew through, leaving him nursing the tyres on a dry track, hoping rain would return before it was too late.
The left-rear tyre blew, tearing apart the relevant corner of the car, starting a fire that had Mies bailing out on the exit of Pouhon, beating out the – thankfully only – perceived flames on his back as he ran from the car.
The rain was not quite finished, with heavier rain falling in the final hours, at one point reducing the braking area for the Bus Stop to a skid pan that accounted for several teams’ races with just half an hour to go.
The IMSA Performance Porsche of Raymond Narac, Maxime Jousse, Patrick Pilet and Thierry Cornac finished tenth overall, collecting Pro-Am Cup honours by a full lap over the #74 ISR Audi. Barwell Motorsport’s Demon Tweeks liveried Lamborghini Huracan stood as the top British entry. The all British crew of Jon Minshaw, Phil Keen, Joe Osborne and Oliver Gavin finished third in Pro-Am.
Unsurprisingly, given the marque’s numerical dominance in the class, a Ferrari won the Pro Cup – the winning car being a 458 GT3 run by Kessel Racing for Marco Zanuttini, Vadim Gitlin, Liam Talbot and Nicola Cadei.
As always though, the Spa 24 Hours was a testament to the best endurance racers on the planet and a joy to watch, provided you found shelter from the inevitable Ardennes weather.
1st – #99 ROWE Racing BMW F13 M6 GT3 (Alexander Sims, Philipp Eng, Maxime Martin)
2nd – #88 Akka ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Tristan Vautier, Felix Rosenqvist, Renger Van der Zande)
3rd – #28 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS (Laurens Vanthoor, Rene Rast, Nico Müller)
4th – #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 (Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek, Wolfgang Reip)
5th – #86 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Thomas Jäger, Gary Paffett, Maximilian Götz)
6th – #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Dominik Baumann, Jazeman Jaafar, Maximilian Buhk)
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Pictures:Kevin Mc Glone(Red Square Images), BMW Motorsport, Audi Media.