With more than sixty GT3 cars representing 11 manufacturers set to do battle for 24 Hours around the majestic 7km Spa-Francorchamps circuit, we should be in for a classic this weekend. But how do the drivers go about tackling the poker game that is a 24 Hour race? We asked an expert panel for their top tips.
Panel: Joe Osborne (BMW), Martin Plowman (Nissan), Marco Seefried (Ferrari), Mirko Bortolotti (Lamborghini), Lewis Plato (Mercedes), Stuart Leonard (Aston Martin).
As the jewel in the crown of the Blancpain Endurance Series calendar and with double-points to boot, it pays to be prepared for the Spa 24 Hours.
In their first season of GT3 with the new Huracán, the Grasser Racing Lamborghini squad have been testing extensively to be ready for Spa, with Paul Ricard pole-sitter Mirko Bortolotti, 25, heavily involved.
“Everything needs to work very close to perfection, it’s the ultimate challenge for the man and also for the machine,” says the Italian. “As everyone knows, the Spa 24 hours is a special race and it’s not necessarily going to be won by the fastest car. It’s going to be very tough, you have to be physically fit and mentally ready as well, but it’s the same for everyone.”
For rookie Lewis Plato, 22, this weekend will be a step largely into the unknown, making good preparation all the more valuable.
“I’ve never had any experience in a 24 hour race, not even in a 12 hour race; the longest I’ve ever done in the car is an hour and a half, so I’ve been trying to make sure I’m as fit and as prepared as I possibly can,” he said. “I’ve been doing two to three hour cardio-vascular sessions each day and also wrapping up in warm clothing, because if you’re in the car for a two or even three hour stint then it can get quite hot and you want to be prepared for it.”
“I don’t do a lot differently from a driving point of view – making sure you’re hydrated is the main thing, because as any sportsman will tell you, a loss of hydration means a loss of concentration,” adds Triple Eight Racing’s Joe Osborne, 26. “Spa is quite an easy one to prep for because you get so much track-time in the build-up, which it gives you a chance to work through all of the procedures, where you’re going to overtake cars, what gear you’re going to be in, where you’re going to speak to the team on the radio and all the mundane stuff like that.”
The old adage ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ is never more apt than in a 24 hour race, where everything can change in a matter of moments. MRS Nissan driver Martin Plowman, 27, knows this fact as well as anybody; the Briton took LMP2 class honours in the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours, but only after a late scare when team-mate Bertrand Baguette spun in monsoon conditions less than an hour from the finish.
“I remember that like it was yesterday, it was pretty terrifying!” Plowman recalls. “It was torrential rain, the cars were on slick tyres and all we could see was our car sideways to the camera, backed up against the wall, the car behind was missing its front end and we thought for sure our race was done. It just goes to show that the race isn’t over until you cross the line.”
One overtaking move is highly unlikely to win you the race, but can quite easily lose it and it is the ability to guard against poor decision-making during the night and early morning which can separate the best from the rest.
“The biggest thing that I try to hammer home to my co-drivers is the kind of mentality you need to have and how that differentiates from a two hour or a six hour race,” says Plowman. “You have to modulate the risks you take – if you’re racing someone for position in the fourth hour and the level of risk to pass them is at a point where you might crash, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it just to gain one place, when that same guy might be in the pits with a gearbox failure in a few hours’ time. You always have to bear in mind that the people you’re racing in the 20th or the 24th hour will be completely different than the ones you’re racing now.”
“You have to have the mentality that no-one has got mirrors and no-one has seen you,” agrees Osborne. “Each move I do is calculated. If you’re going to overtake, you have to get fully past before the turning point, because if they turn in on you, it’s as much their fault as yours.”
But whilst it is true that thinking drivers may prosper, that doesn’t mean the pace is in any way reduced.
“Put simply, Spa is pretty much 24 one-hour sprint races and the amount of cars on the grid mean if you have to pit outside your window, it’s pretty hard to come back from,” Osborne says. “It’s a tough race to get a result at; there’s no other 24 hour race in the world with that calibre of driver all in the same machinery, so you have to make sure you’re well and truly on it.”
Fashioning the optimum setup for more than one driver is one of the peculiar quirks of endurance racing, but all the more vital for Pro-Am entries where each driver has very different requirements. Finding a compromise between a consistent, predictable car which gentlemen drivers can handle and the Pros can still compete with is a delicate balancing act and one which Rinaldi Racing’s Marco Seefried, 39, is well accustomed to.
“By the fact that we are driving in a Pro-Am car, the most important factor for me is that we have a not too difficult car to drive,” says Seefried, who also finished second in GTE-Am class at Le Mans alongside actor Patrick Dempsey. “But at the same time, it still it needs to be competitive; you can’t sacrifice everything for the driveability, because an easy-driving car is not always fast!”
Leonard Motorsport AMR owner-driver Stuart Leonard, 24, learned this the hard way last year, but is confident that his team is better positioned to compete this time around, with a confidence-boosting first Pro-Am win at Silverstone now under their belts.
“There were a lot of mistakes made on our side last year, we just didn’t have the setup for the car quite right,” says Leonard, whose challenge will be bolstered by the addition of 2013 pole-sitter Stefan Mücke. “We had to learn what we could and take that forward for this year, which we’ve done. We have potential for sure, but whether it will actually happen, we’ll have to see.”
It’s when the lights go down and the day turns to night that the men are separated from the boys. Where a confident, experienced driver can make up for lost time and begin to pull a gap, others enter survival mode.
“Personally I do enjoy it, there’s an inner calm and peacefulness about driving at night where it’s just you and the car. I find it quite romantic!” says Plowman. “Things tend to speed up because your point of reference is so much shorter than in the daylight, so things start coming at you two or three times faster. You’ll see laptimes drop off by a couple of seconds for a guy that isn’t used to night driving, but a veteran driving at night will be more consistent. It’s something that you’ve just got to get used to.”
With only one class of car, one would expect closing speeds would pose less of a problem than at Le Mans or Daytona. But with such a wide range of abilities among the drivers – sometimes within one car – it can make for some nasty surprises.
“Spa is pretty extreme in that respect because it’s so dark. It can be quite surreal because you can’t see anything but the track, there’s no other distractions,” agrees Osborne. “The headlights are so good on these cars, the only negative is the guys behind you their headlights are blindingly bright, which can make it quite hard to judge where the car is behind you, all you can see is a wall of light, that could be five metres away or five hundred metres away.”
Bortolotti is a relative newcomer to night racing, but is ready to meet the challenge head on.
“I haven’t driven so much in the dark, but we have a good lighting system in the Lambo so I will get used to it – I have no other choice!”
Seefried considers Spa to be the “most exhausting” of all the 24 hour races he’s been a part of due to the combination of sheer number and the circuit’s unrelenting nature, making it all the more imperative to get rested up when not in the car. But as you might expect, that’s no easy feat.
“It is very hard – the first race I did at Le Mans I couldn’t switch off at all and stayed awake for the entire 36 hours,” confesses Plowman. “Trying to sleep was impossible, because you’re on that high and when you’re out of the car you just want to keep up with what’s happening on-track. You just have to learn to distract yourself and almost force yourself not care about the race because there’s nothing you can do to change what’s going on.”
Letting go is harder still when it’s your name above the door.
“Last year was terribly difficult, my adrenaline was buzzing until around 4 AM but I was still in and out of the car until 9 and I eventually crashed around 10 sat in the chair with the engineers,” says Leonard. “We had this big caravan thing booked, but the company we were renting it from went bust on the eve of the race and the only option we had was to put air-beds where the car normally is in the lorry; there was very little sound-proofing or anything like that, so you could hear the droning of the engines going round and round. Fortunately though we seem to have got it sorted for this year!”
The Spa 24 Hours begins Saturday at 3:30 (BST).