This weekend’s Total 24 Hours of Spa comes with the Blancpain Endurance Series (BES) standings finely poised with race winners ART Grand Prix and M-Sport Bentley leading the championship’s regulars into the longest race of the season.
It is the French team, fielding McLaren MP4-12C GT3 that lead the Pro Cup teams’ title by a single point over their British rivals. Meanwhile, after posting victories in both the Silverstone and Paul Ricard rounds of the championship M-Sport’s Andy Meyrick, Steven Kane and Guy Smith lead the drivers’ championship over their McLaren wheeling counterparts.
However, with this weekend’s race not only offering points – as normal – at the end of the event but at the six and 12 hour marks during the race the seven kilometres of Ardennes tarmac will have a large role to play in deciding the identity of the 2014 champions.
Even given the domination of the BES season so far the 24 hour race is a significant test for both teams and their machinery. The McLaren has a checkered history in the longest of endurance races while the Bentley Continental GT3 will be starting its first 24 hours when the green flag falls at 4:30pm local time (3:30pm UK) on Saturday. The car’s longest race to date is only 12 hours and that – the Gulf 12 hours at the very end of 2013 – was actually two six hour races added together.
That could play into the hands of the teams with the more established endurance racers, such as Audi and Mercedes.
It is an Audi team, in the form of Sainteloc Racing, that will start the weekend third in the Pro Cup points and the leading Mercedes team, HTP Motorsport come to the race with three cars in the premier class as they seek to repeat as Spa 24 champions. With all three of the 2013 winners – Maximilian Gotz, Maximilian Buhk and Bernd Schneider – back with the team, though in different cars they are part of another championship fight that where the Spa weekend will play a crucial part.
They currently lead the Blancpain GT teams’ championship, formed by the combined points from the Blancpain Sprint and Blancpain Endurance races, by just two points over Belgian Audi Club WRT who themselves bring three cars to Spa, including a #1 entry filled with a trio of Audi’s GT3 regulars (Rene Rast, Laurens Vanthoor and Markus Winkelhock) and a #2 staffed by the now three time 24 Hours of Le Mans winners Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer).
The BES grid is split into three classes, with the Pro-Am Cup and Gentlemen Trophy category leaders entered for the race, the GT Corse by Rinaldi team aiming to continue a perfect run of victories in 2014.
In the Pro-Am Cup the lead is held by the Nissan GT Academy Team RJN squad. However, if they are to add a third consecutive race win they will have to beat the largest class on the grid, including a number of entries bolstered by drivers drafted in to complete the four man teams permitted in the class.
These extra men include BMW works driver Alexander Sims who completes the team at Ecurie Ecosse and Aston Martin Racing men Stefan Mucke, Darren Turner and Pedro Lamy at Beechdean AMR, MP Motorsport AMR and Leonard Motorsport AMR respectively, the Leonard Motorsport team also including Porsche Carrera Cup GB front runner Michael Meadows.
The class also includes a number of Antipodean visitors. Lago Racing have the lone Lamborghini in the race with the all-Antipodean crew of Roger Lago, Steven Richards, Steve Owen and David Russell hoping for better luck than February’s Bathurst 12 Hour when an unfortunate encounter with a kangaroo ended their race in the opening hour of the race.
Two of the drivers who starred at Mount Panorama earlier in the year are set to make their Spa-Francorchamps debut. Australian racing legend Craig Lowndes, part of the Maranello Motorsport who won the 12 Hour is back behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 as part of AF Corse’s four car Pro-Am cup line-up alongside countryman Steve Wyatt and Italians Michele Rugolo and Andrea Piccini.
Kiwi Shane van Gisbergen, who pulled off some of the ore audacious moves of the race will be part of the Von Ryan Racing line-up in the Pro Cup class with McLaren works drivers Tim Mullen and Rob Bell.
Perhaps the two more high profile visitors amongst the grid are two teams who challenged for the victory twelve months ago.
After pushing the HTP Motorsport entry all the way into the closing hours last year Manthey Racing once again cross the border from their German homeland. However, with Porsche concentrating their focus on the FIA World Endurance Championship, their Pro-Am Cup line-up is unlikely to put one of the relatively few Porsches in the race back at the top of the race.
BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS’s 2013 run at Spa fell apart during after a litany of mechanical failures, including an exploding fire extinguisher. They bowed out of the Blancpain Endurance Series after winning the Pro Cup teams’ title but missing out on taking their drivers to title to complete the championship double but return to the series on home soil with a two car team in the top class. Both their BMW Z4 GT3, #66 and #77, should be amongst those fighting for victory with BMW works pilots and regulars sharing both machines, the combination of Maxime Martin, Augusto Farfus and Joerg Muller in the #66 perhaps marginally the favourite of the pair.
The on-track activity at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps begins on Thursday July 24 with practice sessions before a pair of qualifying sessions that run into the hours of darkness where those Spa rookies will get their first experience of the track at night. Qualifying reaches its climax on Friday night with the Superpole session with the race start at 4:30pm Saturday.