The Belgian Audi Club Team WRT line-up of Laurens Vanthoor, Rene Rast and Markus Winkelhock continued Audi’s impressive form in 24 Hour races this summer, adding Total 24 Hours of Spa victory to those the marque claimed at Le Mans and the Nurburgring.
For both Rast and Winkelhock it was their second endurance win in a little over a month, both having been part of the Phoenix Racing line-up that won in Germany.
Their Belgian win came at the end of a strategic battle with the #77 BMW Sports Team Trophy Team Marc VDS entry, shared by Lucas Luhr, Markus Paltalla and Dirk Werner. In the Z4 GT3 the trio increasingly found themselves alone, battling against a quartet of Audis as the three Team WRT entries were joined by the #26 Sainteloc Racing R8 in the top five for most the race, the four four-ringers only split by a late incident.
Despite their numerical disadvantage the BMW team seemed to have the measure of the Audis. Once the race was able to settle into following a first six hours disrupted by a succession of accidents the BMW team was able to move up the order to take a solid hold of second place. Their progress forward took them past both the #2 Team WRT Audi driven by the Le Mans winning trio and the #3 entry which Dirk Werner passed shortly before the nine hour mark of the race.
The remainder of the race boiled down to a battle between the #77 and #1 teams, though it was never wheel to wheel. Instead, the leaders remained split on track, and in terms of strategy. Though both were limited by the 65 minutes maximum stint length their stops came at opposite ends of the hour, the BMW team almost always able to extent their stints a lap longer than their rivals. That advantage should have paid out with victory. However, as the crucial hours at the end of the race approached it was the BMW team suffering with brake problems. With their times dropping away the battle for the lead became a battle for position on track – all too briefly. Such was their speed disadvantage that the Audi team were able to make their pitstop from the lead, returning Rast to the track only ten second behind the BMW, rather than the minute that had been the trend through most of the race.
Rast was then able to catch and pass Luhr in the BMW, simply driving around the #77 on the Kemmel Straight, a move he repeated to knock them off the lead lap once the Marc VDS team had completed their pitstop.
The final hour was made closer than it perhaps should have been. As had been the story of the race between the two teams they entered the final stint of the race with wildly different strategies, though their pitstop schedules had converged. Pitting from the lead, with the knowledge of the performance edge, the Audi team chose to spend an extra 30 seconds in the pits to complete a second brake change of the race. When the BMW’s final stop of the race came just a lap later they chose to gamble, double stinting the Pirelli tyres. The move gave them back the lead, but with Rast in the Audi gaining fast.
Rast quickly ate into the lead, but Werner in the BMW fought hard to keep the lead, preventing a repeat of the move on the Kemmel Straight and fending off Rast through the middle sector of the lap, forcing the Audi man to take an outside line around Pouhon. However, the cumulative disadvantage of the brake problem, traced back to electronics issue affecting the ABS, and the worn tyres showed at the end of the lap. Werner lost time slowing for the Bus Stop chicane, them struggled to get the power down onto the pit straight, allowing Rast the better run that allowed him to complete a cut back move out of La Source to take the lead on the way to victory by a margin of seven seconds.
The podium was completed by the #3 Audi team of Christopher Mies, Frank Stippler and James Nash with Sainteloc Racing’s #26 and HTP Motorsport’s Maximilian Buhk, Maximilian Gotz and Jazeman Jaafar.
Buhk maintains the Blancpain GT Series drivers’ points lead, though Vanthoor’s win allowed him to both close in on the Mercedes driver in the GT Series points and take the lead in the Blancpain Endurance Series standings, with Sainteloc’s trio of Edward Sandstrom, Gregory Guilvert and Stephane Ortelli sharing second ahead of the drivers of the #7 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3.
Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane finished a battling 13th overall after twice suffering setbacks. First, they were collateral damage in one of the early accidents, picking up damage as a result of running over debris from one of the early accidents. After fighting back to the fringes of the top ten overall they were then delayed as the team had to fix a damaged floor on their car, keeping them to ninth place among the pro cup runners, one place behind the #2 Team WRT Audi that lost time after contact with a Black Falcon Mercedes at La Source.
The Bentley team’s race was similar – if more successful – to their season-long rivals in the ART Grand Prix McLarens. Alvaro Parente started the #98 from the rear of the gird after the team had repaired the car following his heavy crash in practice. At the start of the race he made progress through the Gentlemen Trophy field and the rear half of the Pro-Am Cup order before a punctured tyre dropped him back down the order. The sister car would hold its place in the top ten from the start in the hands of Kevin Estre until the Frenchman had to pull into the pits with a minor electrics problems. It was minor enough that Estre himself could begin the fix (once pushed into the pitlane) before the team arrived at the car from the furthest reaches of the pitlane.
Both car would recommence their move up the order before more problems would take them out of the race for good, the #98 losing a wheel at high speed, while the #99 ended the race in flames.
AF Corse’s team of Neik Hommerson, Louis Machiels, Andrea Bertolini and Marco Cioci finished sixth overall to win the Pro-Am Cup class, 30 seconds ahead of the Ecurie Ecosse BMW (Andrew Smith, Alasdair McCaig, Oliver Bryant and Alexander Sims) and a lap ahead of the AF Corse line-up of Australians Steve Wyatt and Craig Lowndes sharing with Michele Rugolo and Andrea Piccini. The class had been, for three quarters of the race, dominated by the Scuderia Villorba Corse team of Andrea Montermini, Stefano Gai, Andrea Rizzoli and Francesco Castellacci. However, a stop in the garage for the team to replace the starter motor dropped them back in the order.
Similarly falling by the wayside after strong runs were the TDS Racing BMWs, the best of which – the #12 – ended its race in the barriers after 15 hours of racing.
The strong British contingent at the front of the class led by Ecurie Ecosse was continued by MP Motorsport AMR, who finished fourth in class and completed the top ten behind the Pro Cup HTP Mercedes of Bernd Schneider, Harold Primat and Nico Verdonck.
The Pro-Am polesitter and early leaders were one of those knocked out of the race during the chaotic opening hours. Taking the green flag after a safety car period Andrew Danyliw understeered wide up Eau Rouge, the #50 AF Corse Ferrari spinning back on the track at the very crest of the famous corner. That served as a trigger for melee which left Andrew Howard’s Beechdean AMR Aston aflame, put the GT Corse by Rinaldi team that had won the Gentlemen Trophy class at every race of the season into the tyre barriers and tore the front-right corner off of Xavier Maassen’s #85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes that Stef Dusseldorp had held in the top five though the opening stint.
The accident was the fourth of those that blighted the opening hours. First Vlacheslav Maleev crashed his Ferrari at Eau Rouge triggering the first safety car period. Immediately after the race returned to green flag running Tim Mullen crashed the Von Ryan Racing McLaren very heavily at Blanchimont. Another safety car followed and once it returned the pits it was called out within minutes after Karim Ojjeh crashed his Boutsen Ginion Racing McLaren at the top of Eau Rouge.
The most frightening of the accidents involved the Kessel Racing Ferrari of Markus Mahy and Vadim Kogay in the #333 GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari. The pair crash exiting Blanchimont, Kogay’s green machine embedded in the tyre barriers on fire while Mahy’s #111 was left in the middle of the track.
The safety car was scrambled, but came to half for the red flag to allow Mahy to be airlifted out of the circuit to hospital in Liege.
The victory in Gentlemen Trophy went to the AF Corse run team of Alexander Talkanitsa, Peter Mann, Francisco Guedes and Cedric Mezard, five laps ahead of the Team Parker Racing team that finished second in the class.
Only one race remains in the Blancpain Endurance Series season, with the Nurburgring 1000k set to decide the champions.