A field of the GT racing teams in Europe will all descend on the otherwise unremarkable town of Francorchamps in Belgium this weekend for the 2012 edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Already having gone through several changes in its history – both in series and car competing and the track they raced on – the race entered the most recent chapter of its own story last year when it was taken in as part of the then new Blancpain Endurance Series, becoming the first major 24 Hour event with GT3 cars filling the premier class.
For 2012 the race remains part of the Blancpain Endurance Series – the fourth round of the SRO promoted championship normally comprised of three hour races – and with it a field of 60 cars will start the weekend on the 7km Ardennes track.
While the SRO recently announced they were withdrawing their promotion of the GT1 and GT3 series the Blancpain Endurance Series in its first two seasons has been a success story, attracting a varied grid of the different cars eligible under the current GT3 regulations, itself something of a success story under the SRO's stewardship.
As such the field includes teams representing 11 different brands including Nissan, Jaguar, BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes, Aston Martin and Audi.
In recent years, thanks to their exploits at Le Mans the four rings of Audi have become almost synonymous with endurance racing in Europe. Their phenomenal success in the hardest challenges of GT and sportscar racing has only been added to by their official customer teams, winning the 24 Hour of Nurburgring for the first time earlier this year and returning to Spa-Francorchamps as defending champions after Greg Franchi, Timo Scheider and Mattias Ekstrom won for Belgian Audi Team WRT.
The team field a two car team on home soil, once again representing Audi with a six driver line-up that includes 2012 Le Mans debutant Marco Bonanomi and Christopher Haase – one of the drivers who secured Nordschleife victory for Audi Sport Team Phoenix in May. The team have a single car on the entry list at Spa, but with a truly stellar line-up that must make them among the pre-race favourites.
How else would you describe a team that combines eight time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen with recently anointed double winners Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer?
Another Audi – entered under the Audi Sport Performance Cars Team Phoenix banner – is another potential winner with Frank Stippler joining Andrea Piccini and Porsche Supercup standout Rene Rast.
The overall winner will almost certainly come from the 15 teams contesting the Pro Cup category of the race, Marc VDS Racing – twice victors in the three rounds of the BES held so far this season, and another team on home territory – are represented by two BMW Z4, Maxime Martin, Bas Leinders and Markus Palttala leading the challenge from the top of the Blancpain Endurance Series points' standings.
The bulk of the field is comprised of the Pro-Am Cup competitors, Vita4one Team Italy driver Eugenio Amos, Giacomo Petrobelli, Alessandro Bonacini currently enjoying a healthy lead in the points after podium finishes at all three BES races held thus far. The Italian team, fielding Ferrari 458 have a second car on the grid, featuring British driver Michael Lyons. AF Corse – the great name of Ferrari GT racing in Europe – have a total of four but the honour of starting the race as defending class champions in the Ardennes.
This year the SOFREV ASP Ferrari, however, this year will likely attract attention for another reason with both former F1 driver Olivier Panis and World Cup winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez part of the four man team in the #10 Ferrari. The Blancpain-Reiter Lamborghini squad will be hoping to have a more successful – and longer – run than they had from class pole in 2011 when their engine expired on the run to Eau Rouge in the opening hours of the race.
Further Belgian interest is provided by a pair of McLaren MP4-12C entered by Boutsen Ginion Racing. However, the class also contains names that should be familiar of fans of British GT racing, despite the thinning of the UK contingent with the withdrawal of Ecurie Ecosse and United Autosports' McLarens (though a lone Audi from the Anglo-American team survives on the entry).
Twelve months on from narrowly missing on class victory The Jones brothers and the Preci-Spark Mercedes SLS return with a line-up bolstered by Mercedes legend Bernd Schneider, the multi-DTM champion joining the Jones' and Mike Jordan in the silver car. British GT Championship rivals Alex Buncombe and Jann Mardenborough are part of the RJN Motorsport run GT Academy Team, with Chris Ward and Lucas Ordonez, the man one year further down the route of GT Academy winners in the midst of a FIA World Endurance Championship campaign.
After being split by only two hundredths of a second in the most recent British GT round the Pro-Am class pitches RJN once more against Beechdean Racing who also make the short trip to Belgium. With Andrew Howard and Jonny Adam – the man whose charge through the field came up thrillingly short at Brands Hatch – the team is completed by John Gaw – the managing director of Aston Martin Racing – and Phil Dryburgh, long time co-driver of Gaw in his pre-AMR exploits including victory in the Britcar 24 Hours in 2010.
Phil Keen – one of the men who succeeded Gaw and Dryburgh as Britcar 24 champions – joins a GT3 Racing line-up made up of a quartet of British champions. Reigning British Endurance Championship winners Aaron Smith and Craig Wilkins share their black Audi R8 LMS with Keen and Peter Belshaw, part of the British GT4 winning team last season.
With the promise of the Emil Frey Jaguar XK once more the full mix of machinery on show is completed by the Gentlemen Trophy runners, adding a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, Dodge Viper and Ford Mustang to the mix.
The race starts at 3pm UK time on Saturday July 28, the winner completing their final lap, of course, 24 hours later.