The world’s foremost GT racing competitors will descend on the Belgian Ardennes this week in preparation for their biggest challenge of the season; the 70th edition Total 24 Hours of Spa (26-29 July).
With its history stretching back to 1924, the long-distance endurance contest has built its reputation on close competition, unpredictable weather conditions, and a breathtaking track that pushes man and machine to the very limit.
Now firmly established as the gold standard in GT racing, this year’s event will feature thirteen different automotive brands represented by sixty-five cars across five classes, with over two-hundred drivers testing themselves on the undulating seven kilometre circuit.
No fewer than thirty of those cars will contest the top-tier Pro category, where teams and drivers alike represent the established benchmark in global GT racing.
Many are considered strong contenders for overall victory, while every Pro entrant has a legitimate chance of taking at least a podium finish in the Belgian Ardennes. Several will enjoy manufacturer support, be it through technical co-operation or the use of factory drivers, highlighting the importance placed on securing victory at the 24 Hours of Spa.
Having triumphed in last year’s race, Audi returns in 2018 with seven Pro class entries, more than any other brand in the top class. Three of their R8 LMS machines will race with manufacturer support, including defending winners Audi Sport Team Sainteloc.
In Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase, the French effort has two of the drivers who took victory last year returning to its line-up. They will be joined by experienced Belgian racer Frederic Vervisch to complete a formidable crew.
But back-to-back team victories at Spa are rare, the last having occurred in 2005/2006, and there will be no shortage of challengers looking to take Sainteloc’s crown.
Among the protagonists will be a pair of Audi Sport Team WRT entries. The #1 crew of Christopher Mies, Dries Vanthoor and Alex Riberas has shown impressive form in 2018 and heads to Spa on top of the drivers’ standings, while the sister #2 R8 LMS features a crack one-off line-up of Robin Frijns, Nico Mueller and Rene Rast.
There is further quality spread across the other four Audi entries at this year’s race, suggesting another strong assault from the Ingolstadt brand.
Audi’s biggest Pro class rival is Mercedes-AMG. The German marque is represented by six Pro entries at Spa, four of which will race with official backing.
AKKA ASP Team will field two cars, with their #88 machine supported by Mercedes-AMG and the #35 running under the SMP Racing banner. Factory ace Raffaele Marciello will lead the line, after securing a third-place finish for AKKA ASP in 2017
British squad Strakka Racing will also field a two-car Pro effort, one of which will be the manufacturer-supported #43 entry for Maxi Buhk, Maxi Goetz and Alvaro Parente. The sister #44 will feature Brazilian motorsport legend Rubens Barrichello, who is set to make his maiden appearance at the 24 Hours.
There are additional Mercedes-AMG-backed entries from Black Falcon and Mann Filter HTP Motorsport, with the latter including Gary Paffett and Edoardo Mortara.
Lamborghini has once again placed its faith in Grasser Racing Team. The accomplished Austrian squad will field a trio of Huracan GT3s at Spa, led by the #63 machine of reigning Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup champions Mirko Bortolotti, Christian Engelhart and Andrea Caldarelli.
Aston Martin’s top-tier representation comes from Swiss outfit R-Motorsport, which has clinched two pole positions and a race victory from three Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup rounds this season. The team will field a pair of V12 Vantage machines for an impressive crew of drivers, which includes 2016 Spa winner Maxime Martin.
Porsche will be present with a pair of cars, one for the full-season Manthey Racing squad and another fielded by one-off entrants KUS Team 75 Bernhard. Both crews consist of all-Platinum driver line-ups, with a past Spa winner aboard each 911 GT3 R. Indeed, Manthey ace Romain Dumas has conquered Spa twice, first in 2003 and again in 2010.
Bentley is also represented by two Pro class cars as the British marque looks to go one better than the runner-up finish it secured in 2017. It will do so with a pair of 2018-spec Continental GT3s run by the M-Sport squad, while the driving talent is bolstered by Jules Gounon, who was part of the crew that narrowly defeated Bentley 12 months ago.
Bentley is not the only manufacturer set to give a new car its first taste of the Total 24 Hours of Spa this year. Nissan’s 2018-spec GT-R Nismo GT3 is managed by GT Sport Motul Team RJN, which has vast experience of running the Japanese brand’s machinery at the race.
Lexus will be giving its new car its first run at Spa, working in partnership with Emil Frey Racing. The Swiss squad currently tops the Endurance Cup teams’ standings and will take a pair of RC F GT3s to the Belgian race. There is no shortage of experience on the driver front either, with past Spa winners Stephane Ortelli and Markus Palttala among the impressive six-man crew.
There will be just one Ferrari in the Pro category, though, with its line-up of Mikhail Aleshin and factory drivers Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina; the #72 SMP Racing entry has some serious talent to call on. The Italian brand is well equipped to hunt for its first Spa victory since 2004.
A single McLaren 650S GT3 is being run by the Garage 59 squad in the Pro class. The crew has been tweaked slightly for Spa, with international endurance racing star Olivier Pla joining Come Ledogar and Ben Barnicoat. Regular driver Andrew Watson remains with Garage 59, switching to its Am Cup programme for the 24 Hours.
Last but by no means least, BMW will seek to add to its record 23 wins at Spa with a three-car assault on the race. Two of these entries come from Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup squad ROWE Racing, which will include past Spa winners Alexander Sims and Nicky Catsburg. Double DTM champion Marco Wittmann will make his debut at the race, having contested a previous Blancpain GT Series event for ROWE at Monza.
The third Pro class M6 GT3 will come from Am Cup regular Walkenhorst Motorsport, which expands its effort to encompass a top-tier entry for the 24 Hours. The German squad will field an impressive crew for the occasion, with 2016 Total 24 Hours of Spa winner Philipp Eng anchoring its line-up.