This weekend the Blancpain GT Series reaches the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, with a bumper grid of GT3 cars set to take on the 7km Belgian track for Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Under the stewardship of Stephane Ratel and his eponymous race promoting organisation the famous endurance date amongst the Ardennes Forest has grown, regularly attracting competive fields of over 60 cars split across the three classes of the Blancpain Endurance Series. The race has also been lent new importance as part of the SRO’s duel Endurance and Sprint GT series, with the points awarded pivotal in the year’s search for both the champions of both the Endurance and combined GT series.
In the combined series Belgian Audi Club Team WRT hold a commanding lead helped by Laurens Vanthoor and Robin Frijn’s Sprint Series victories at both Brands Hatch and Zolder and the second places the pair took at the three hour races in Italy and at Silverstone assisted by Jean-Karl Vernay.
However, for this weekend the double winning duo have been split up. Vanthoor joins up with Rene Rast and Markus Winkelhock, the trio hoping to be the first crew to repeat as winners since 1980. Single-seater convert Frijns, meanwhile, will team up with Vernay and Stephane Richelmi in the third of the Team WRT Audi R8 at the top of the Pro Cup entry list.
In the Endurance Championship Bentley M-Sport hold the lead in terms of the teams’ championship, though it is the Nissan GT Academy Team RJN crew of Katsumasa Chiyo, Wolfgang Reip and Alex Buncombe that lead by a single point. Unlike their overall championship chasing rivals both Bentley and Nissan teams keep their top crews together – Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane leading the Continental GT3 charge for the weekend.
The Bentley teams – bolstered for a second season by the HTP outfit – have had a quieter season than in 2014, the lack of a barnstorming win at Silverstone, keeping the team out of the pre-race headlines.
Arguably their thunder has been stolen by the teams running the McLaren 650S. The Woking company’s second tilt at a GT3 car has already notched up a first Endurance Series win, Von Ryan Racing taking victory at Silverstone. The same driving line up – Rob Bell, Kevin Estre and Shane van Gisbergen reconvene in Belgium, the Kiwi making a second pilgrimage to roads between Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. He will, though, be hoping for better results that twelve months ago when he never raced the car he was entered with after Tim Mullen’s crash – one of a number of large accidents that ended with the race suspended under a red flag for an hour.
Only a week after VonRyan’s Blancpain win at Silverstone the squad took a first British GT Championship win at the same track. Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, who shared the domestic win with Gilles Vannelet slots into the middle of a driver line-up this weekend with Bruno Senna and Alvaro Parente hoping to support the Brit to another McLaren win.
As ever a number of British GT teams have opted to make the short cross-channel hop into Belgium.
The notable exception this year are Beechdean AMR. Winners when the British series took on Spa for two hours earlier this month the blue and white Aston Martin will be missing when the race grid forms up on the slope pointing at Eau Rouge on the floor of the valley.
Beechdean regular Jonny Adam instead makes the trip to Spa with British GT rivals Oman Racing Team, the Aston Martin Racing works driver supporting Ahmad Al Harthy and Daniel Lloyd in their search for success.
Team Russia by Barwell, second to Beechdean AMR when the British championship came to Belgium, are part of the Spa 24 Hours entry list, Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw joined by Jonny Cocker and Leo Matchitski to compete in the Pro-Am Cup class of the race.
In total four of the top five from a fortnight ago return to Spa. Leonard Motorsport also take a place in the Pro-Am Cup, team leader Stuart Leonard supported by Michael Meadows, Tom Onslow-Cole and works pilot Stefan Mucke, who put Beechdean’s Vantage GT3 on 24 Hours pole position two years ago. Ecurie Ecosse field an all British line-up with Oliver Bryant, Devon Modell, Alasdair McCaig joining Alexander Sims in the BMW Z4 GT3 that will carry the team’s familiar #79.
Also racing with a familiar – and far more self-explanatory number – are Triple Eight, the squad attracting BMW works support in the form of driver Dirk Muller. Lee Mowle, Joe Osborne and development driver Ryan Ratcliffe complete the team’s pilot roster.
www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will have full coverage of the Total 24 Hours of Spa with reports from every session as well as updates throughout the race itself.
You can view the full entry list of the 2015 Total 24 Hours of Spa here.