It would be an understatement to say the anticipation is rising. It is only two days before the green flag will wave to signal the start of the 69th edition of the 24 Hours of Spa, the pinnacle of GT3 racing. 40 cars will be battling it out in the pro class trying to win over an incredibly strong field of competitors.
Such is the strength of the field at Spa in the past few years that the race has evolved into 24, exhilarating one hour sprint races (strategically that is, not literally). As a consequence, every team needs an experienced team with rapid yet consistent drivers.
Weather plays a part in almost every edition of the Spa 24H. Last year, it affected the field in the most dramatic of fashions. A downpour caught out cars on slick tyres, and it ended with a colossal pileup of cars which had aquaplaned off at the bus stop chicane. The forecast looks no different this year. throughout the 24 hours of the race the chance of the rain is never below 20%, although it is never above 50% either. However, if there is one track with unpredictable weather, it is Spa. Expect a couple of sudden, unexpected deluges.
Despite this, the quickest car tends to win, and the race will doubtlessly be action packed and filled with drama – hopefully the right type. The sprint-like nature of the race makes planning for it a complex proposition at best. Factory backed teams tend to be at an advantage at Spa. They benefit from the fact they have 24 hours to assert their superiority over private teams, who have much lower budgets. They tend to have the best pit crew as well.
As the defending champions, who better to start off with than BMW? There will only be two M6s from the Bavarian marque racing in the Ardennes, but both look very competitive indeed. Unlike last year, the lineup who won the previous iteration of the race will drive together. That means in the #99 car we will see Phillip Eng, Maxime Martin and Alexander Sims have another assault at winning the race. Rowe’s #98 car will be driven by DTM stars Bruno Spengler and Tom Blomqvist, joined by Nick Catsburg who won the race back in 2015.
Mercedes looked set to dominate last year’s Spa 24 hours when they locked out the first three rows of the grid. However, the entire sextet was hammered by a five-minute stop/go penalty for a homologation issue. This effectively meant each Mercedes started the race two laps down on the leaders. The AKKA ASP Mercedes utilised excellent strategy and quick driving to fight back to second place against all odds.
Last year AKKA ASP had entered just a single car for Felix Rosenqvist, Tristan Vautier and Renger Van Der Zande. This year they enter a duo in the Pro class.. Edo Mortara, who is another DTM racer, will be joined by Micheal Meadows and Rafaele Marciello. The other car, the #88, receives factory backing. Vautier returns and he will be joined by Daniel Juncadella, a DTM alumnus, and Felix Seralles, the only Puerta Rican on the grid. Both of AKKA’s cars have shown pace this season, so they could be frontrunners.
HTP will enter three cars. There are no changes in the factory-backed #84, which will be driven by Maxi Buhk, Franck Perera and Jimmy Eriksson. This car is a perennial challenger at the sharp end of the field and this should not change. The #85 car will be driven by Edward Sandstrom, Fabian Schiller and Dominik Baumann. The trio have never raced together but all three are very capable drivers. So far the #48 car of Kenneth Heyer, Patrick Assenheimer and Indy Dontje has been unspectacular. This may well help at Spa.
Black Falcon bring 4 cars to Belgium, but only one will be in the Pro cup. Luca Stolz, Yelmer Buurman and Adam Christodoulou carry on their partnership from earlier in the season. The car was very fast indeed at the last race at Paul Ricard, but poor strategy and reliability hampered the car’s chances of a victory. We will also see a one-off entry from Team Goodsmile, coming over from Japan. Former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi will be joined by Tatsuya Kataoka and Nobuteru Taniguchi. both are stars in Japan, particularly the latter.
a lot of significant drivers appear to be missing. While Jeroen Bleekemolen and Maxime Götz will drive Pro-Am cars, Maro Engel and Jules Szymkowiak have seemingly been left hing out to dry.
As always, Audi will go for a massive, all guns blazing assault at Spa with 8 cars entering the pro cup. Audi will have to cope without Laurens Vanthoor for the first time, so the #1 WRT car will be driven this year by Antonio Garcia, Rene Rast and Nico Muller. This car always runs well at Spa and it still should, even with Corvette ace Garcia replacing Vanthoor. The #2 car will be driven by Connor De Phillipi, Christopher Mies and Frederic Vervisch. The #5 car will be driven by Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Dries Vanthoor – three Le Mans winners! This lineup sounds formidable, but neither Fassler nor Lotterer have much experience in the R8, so the starlet Vanthoor may be the quickest of the trio.
Ben Treluyer will also be racing, but in the #6 car alongside, Stephane Richelmi and Nethanael Berthon. Treluyer has the same problem as Fassler, but Richelmi and Berthon both know the Audi well. Completing the WRT quintet is the #17 car, driven by the all-British trio of Stewart Leonard, Jake Dennis and Jamie Green.
There are more, factory efforts though. ISR’s #76 car receives factory support from Audi and it has a driver lineup to match. Pierre Kaffer and Franck Stippler will join Kelvin Van Der Linde. The other ISR entry is not bad either. Clemens Schmid and Filip Salaquarda will be joined by Filipe Albuquerque. The Coimbra native replaces Stippler in a one-off cameo for the team. Sainteloc, or should I say Audi Sport Team Sainteloc, will run the #25 car, which will be driven by Jules Gounon, Christopher Haase and Markus Winkelhock. It seems Audi have done a better job than Mercedes at accommodating all of their best drivers.
Bentley were in the fight for the win last year but some sloppy driving leading to penalties demoted the Crewe-based manufacturer to 4th. Bentley actually bring three cars this year. This is because team Abt will be racing at Spa. Their car, the #9, will be driven by Jordan Pepper, Christer Jöns and Nico Verdonck. They have had success at the Nurburgring, and the car has a good blend of pace and experience.
Of course, M-Sport still have two entries. The lineups are unchanged with Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek and Vincent Abril lining up in the #8 and Steven Kane, Guy Smith and Oliver Jarvis driving the #7. Both cars are among the favourites for victory.
Despite poor form recently the #63 car still leads the Blancpain GT Series. Grasser’s cars remain unchanged with Mirko Bortolotti, Andrea Calderelli and Christian Engelhart in the #63 and Rolf Ineichen, Ezequiel Perez Companc and Raffaele Giammaria in the #19. The #63 was surprisingly slow at Paul Ricard, prompting inevitable claims of sandbagging. The #63 actually led the first hour of last year’s race at Spa in the hands of Bortolotti so they do have pedigree. Whether the fragile Lamorghini can survive 24 gruelling hours is another question.
There are other Lamborghinis. Jaap Van Lagen makes his first start in a Lambo in the #66 attempto car alongside Mikael Grenier and Max Van Splunteren. Luca Fillipi teams up with Nici Pohler and Fabrizio Crestani in the Orange 1 Lazarus car, and Ombra retain their all-Italian lineup of Michele Beretta, Stefano Gattuso and Adrea Piccini.
Mclaren enter two cars at Spa, and will hope to finally have some luck at a track at which they have struggled in the past. The flagship #58 remains unchanged with Rob Bell, Côme Ledogar and Ben Barnicoat driving. The #59 will now be driven by Jazeman Jafaar, Andrew Watson and Pieter Schothorst, who moves over from Audi. Both cars have strong lineups, but the #58 will be expected to be near the front.
For the first time we will see all-pro Ferraris compete. There are no changes to the line-ups which have shown a lot of pace so far this season. The 488 may be quicker than the Ferrari 458, which was quick in a straight line but cumbersome through corners. This may allow the Italian Marque to be more competitive.
The underdog story of the rise of the Emil Frey team continues. The Jaguars designed by the team look very competitive indeed such to the extent the #14 led relatively comfortably at Paul Ricard at one point. The #14 car will be driven by Albert Costa, Stephane Ortelli and Lorenz Frey and the #114 has a driver lineup which is just as illustrious. Marco Seefried joins Christian Klien and Jonathan Hirschi in that car.
Nissan have not had a great time in motorsport recently. The GTR is never particularly strong at Spa but the cars do have a strong lineup so we could see a Nissan near the sharp end. Katsumasa Chiyo, Alex Buncome and Lucas Ordonez race in the #23, and the the #22 will be driven by Matt Simmons, Matt Parry, and Struan Moore. The#23 looks particularly strong, but has suffered from bad luck this season.
Porsche also enters a car in the pro cup, which is detailed in this article.