When it comes to choosing a potential winner of the 68th Spa 24 Hours, there are several obvious candidates that spring to mind. But such is the strength in depth in this year’s field that there are plenty more who will fancy their chances of a result against the established favourites.
Chief among them is Jerome Policand’s AKKA ASP squad, which has been awarded AMG Performance Team status for the Blancpain GT Series’ biggest event. The no. 88 Mercedes-AMG GT3 will be driven by regular Sprint Cup team-mates Tristan Vautier and Felix Rosenqvist – fresh from testing a Chip Ganassi IndyCar last week – with AMG ace Renger van der Zande completing the line-up.
All have a point to prove, not least Policand himself. A former racer in his own right, Policand’s team has enjoyed success aplenty in the Am Cup and Pro-Am divisions at Spa – winning the former in 2013 and twice finishing on the podium in Pro-Am – but are still finding their way as a newcomers in the Pro ranks.
Despite this, early signs have been encouraging. On their first outing at Misano, Rosenqvist and Vautier were denied a podium by a late technical issue and showed further potential by coming through from 27th to tenth at the Nürburgring.
— Felix Rosenqvist (@FRosenqvist) July 27, 2016
But while their promotion to an AMG Performance Team certainly vindicates Policand’s decision to switch from Ferrari to Mercedes over the winter, he knows AKKA ASP still have a lot of work ahead of them.
“The drivers will be not a problem, so it’s in our hands now!” the Frenchman told Racing.GT at Paul Ricard. “The team knows this race quite well, but most of our results have come from Amateur drivers and Pro-Am line-ups, in Pro everything is new for us.
“When you go with a Pro-Am or an Am line-up, you don’t care about the [overall] order and you just fight with yourself, but when you are in Pro, you have to race, it’s a different story. Every time we did Pro-Am or Am, it’s about being steady, doing good pitstops and the main goal is to survive. Sometimes a guy spins, he loses thirty seconds and it’s not a big consequence, every time you finish on the podium. In Pro, doing that, you can be P11 or P12.”
Vautier knows exactly the job Policand expects from him, having driven for the team at Spa in 2012 and 2014 while balancing his commitments in the United States, where he won the Indy Lights title on his way to IndyCar. Now having turned his attentions fully towards GTs, after two top-six finishes in a part-season with Dale Coyne’s underfunded team failed to yield a ride for this year, the 26-year-old is eager to remind IndyCar bosses what they’re missing in the biggest event on the GT racing calendar.
“When you do Blancpain it’s all about Spa and it’s the one race also where you have to be a very complete driver, because you run into some conditions that you can’t imagine,” he said. “It’s the one race where because the competition is so high, if you manage to put it all together, you know you really achieved something.
“[Jerome and I] have known each other a long time and this year he gave me the trust to renew me and put me on the Pro car. Before I was going back and forward between open-wheel so it was always an interesting exercise, but this year it’s a different approach. I’m doing all the testing, all the races, so I’m becoming more and more a GT driver now and I’m really enjoying it.”
— Renger van der Zande (@Rengervdz) July 27, 2016
Remarkably, this will be van der Zande’s first crack at the Spa 24 and a first shot at redemption after being on the wrong side of the closest 24 Hours of Nürburgring finish in history when Maro Engel passed Christian Hohenadel on the final lap. The affable Dutchman hasn’t had much time to assess his new surroundings after the team’s Paul Ricard 1000km was curtailed by radiator damage, but found that relative to AMG heavyweights HTP and Black Falcon, AKKA-ASP have all the foundations in place to challenge.
“From what I can see of the team here, the basics are all there, in fact the basics are really good,” he said. “The mechanics are working in a calm way, they are on-time, they know what they are doing and they don’t make crucial mistakes. Everything is on a good level and now with three Pro guys in the team, that will also push the team forward to get the last details out of it.
“You saw at Nürburgring on the last lap it was within one and a half tenths from P1 to P2 and I think P3 was forty seconds behind, so over 24 hours losing forty seconds will make all the difference; it really is all about the details. There’s always 11 cars that get the message from the team boss, ‘push to the maximum’ and if there’s three guys who crash, two guys who run into trouble, that leaves five guys who get away with all the shit and one of them wins, so you need to be one of those!”
Mercedes struggled across the board for outright pace at Paul Ricard, with their lack of straightline speed a chief concern. With no changes made to the BOP ahead of Spa, Policand is wary of making any bold predictions, but quietly confident that his charges will be firmly in the reckoning.
“Due to the BOP, we cannot say today that the Mercedes will be the quickest car at Spa, but for sure it will be fast enough to finish in the top five,” Policand continues. “For sure there are some details we have to improve on, I think we are close but not yet at the same level of [HTP and Black Falcon] because they are running Pro drivers every weekend in VLN and in Sprint, but I will be disappointed if we are not fighting in the top ten from the beginning of the race.”