While the pair of BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS Z4 GT3 started the Total 24 Hours of Spa’s competitive running by leading the pair of Thursday qualifying sessions. However, the team were realistic looking towards the race itself.
“It was really a great day for us yesterday,” driver Markus Palttala told www.thecheckeredflag.co.uk before the Friday night Superpole session, “but what keeps our feet on the ground is that we don’t know what the others did because when you are in that top group it was just enough to be in the top 20 because that part of the grid is decided today. Then that is still only for the grid.”
Team manager Bas Leinders adds; “The goal was only to get into the top 20 for the SuperPole which is Friday, not Thursday so that’s not most important thing but the cars are running well, the drivers are feeling well and we haven’t had any major issues so all in all we have to say we’re quite happy.”
The Thursday sessions, where the #77 Palttala shares with Lucas Luhr and Dirk Werner, was fastest of all before the sister #66 entry paced the night session, did however confirm the Belgian based team’s position as chief amongst the teams making a flying visit to the Blancpain Endurance Series grid of the championship’s biggest race of the year. Instead of the full season BES campaigns that have been the basis of the team’s years since the series’ introduction the squad have focussed their 2014 around the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
Even with the test day under their belts the team had to overcome a slight disadvantage of having done most their 2014 running on Michelin tyres – as opposed to the Pirelli tyres used the Blancpain Series.
“We struggled a little bit with the set-up,” admitted Leinders, “and with knowledge of the tyres as some of the drivers have never driven on Pirelli before. We did the test day, but that wasn’t a lot so that’s a bit of a disadvantage but in the end I think the engineers did a really good job getting it right. First the drivers gave some good feedback on the car which gave the engineers the opportunity to make a really good car.”
Despite the strong start the team are realistic on how much their apparent single lap means for the potential of a strong race result, Palttala comparing endurance motor racing to the differing lengths of athletics event.
“It would be the same as to say that Usain Bolt is the favourite to win the marathon because he’d be the fastest for the first 100 metres,” he explains. “It means nothing, it’s not going to matter if there are the other dudes who will keep going for 42 kilometres and it’s exactly the same here.”
He switches to what he believes will be the keys to the race; “We need to have the pace for the full stint, work well on your tyres and have a reliable car and a comfortable to avoid mistakes. You have to be fast enough, of course, but the pace of just one lap is a really small detail and that’s the only thing we have achieved so far.”
To that list of factors Maxime Martin, who shares the #66 with Augusto Farfis and Joerg Muller adds traffic management “especially during the night because there are quite a lot of gentlemen drivers out there.”
Contact with traffic during the night has already spoilt one 24 hour race for the Marc VDS crew, when both of their cars fell out of the ADAC Nurburgring 24 Hours under the cover of darkness. While the all-GT3 grid at Spa-Francorchamps does not feature the same ballistic closing speeds as are seen between the classes on the Nordschleife that each of the 60 cars on this weekend’s grid is capable of roughly the same speed presents a different set of challenges when passing through traffic.
Those small differences can promote greater risk taking. However, though they have none of the ‘long game’ concerns over points that may play on the minds of the teams entered for the full season there are no plans for extravagant risk taking during the race, even one that Leinders admits is the highest pressure race for the team.
“You simply have to finish a 24 hour race and that remains the same,” Palttala says. He does, concede though that their role as interlopers among the 2014 Blancpain grid will allow them to focus solely on their own race, without having to factor in the positions of teams they would otherwise need to take points from. The Finn looks back to the 2012 race when the team did exactly that, postponing his first stint in the car until after the half way mark in order to take the largest possible haul of points from the intermediate marks at six and twelve hours before he had to serve a penalty for exceeding track limits during the practice session.
Thankfully any repeat of that situation was avoided by running problems free through the pre-race sessions, but Martin suggests that a timely safety car period could still allow the team to make strategy calls that other teams would shy away from, mindful of the additional championship points the race offers up.
Palttala’s 2012 penalty is one of a number of near miss stories the team have suffered at the Spa 24 in recent years. The delay for the penalty was compounded by a starter issue that slowed the car through the pitstops, limiting the team to finish only fourth when they “should have been on podium”, to use Leinders’ words.
Last year each of the squad’s three cars retired, two having led the race. Asked whether he feels the race that has been so cruel in the past owes his team a victory Leinders is diplomatic; “Yes,” he says, “but then it doesn’t work that way. It’s about today, it’s about tomorrow and not yesterday.”
For the team’s two cars, starting from 11th (#66) and 14th (#77) after a SuperPole session in which neither driver said pole was the realistic aim the first step to any finish, let alone a winning one, is, according to Leinders “to stay out of trouble for the first two hours and then calm down and get into a rhythm.”
Palttala adds; “If you are up front there is a small advantage but any small incident can change that.”
Palttala, meanwhile, makes an addition to his own list of potential keys to victory. “We need just a little bit more luck here because the preparation has been great the years when we’ve come here,” he says. “It’s been great again this year but it’s a race where a lot of things can happen so you need a bit of luck.”