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March 31, 2020

Five things we learned from the 24 Hours of Spa

Five things we learned from the 24 Hours of Spa
Photo Credit To Gary Parravani/www.Xynamic.com

Part of the job description when reporting on 24 hour endurance races is to keep an open mind and expect the unexpected, but even Claudio Ranieri would have raised an eyebrow if you had predicted after Superpole that the 2016 24 Hours of Spa winner would be the No.99 ROWE Racing BMW M6 GT3 of Alexander Sims, Philipp Eng and Maxime Martin. Quite how it happened is the subject of this week’s Things We Learned, as Bentley tripped up, ignition timing became a buzz word and Emil Frey made a memorable cameo at the front.

1. Preparation pays off for ROWE…

Make no mistake, this was not a race that BMW expected to win. One year after the Z4’s final hurrah with Marc VDS, the M6 GT3 has had a mixed first season, with a lone win in IMSA’s GTD class at Mosport and the Nürburgring 24 Qualifying race all they have to show for their efforts so far.

However, when mistakes and unscheduled pit visits are punished as heavily as they are at Spa, preparation and execution takes priority over outright pace, which played straight into ROWE’s hands after their extensive VLN and full-season Blancpain GT Series programmes.

Their fifth place finish at a Nürburgring 24 Hours dominated by Mercedes laid all the foundations for success at Spa, as every cog in the machine did its job efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. With no penalties, clever strategy and clean pitstops, Sims, Eng and Martin worked their way to the front by one-quarter distance and resisted Bentley’s challenge to win, despite a second precautionary brake change under FCY in the final few hours.

Having come so close on so many occasions, it was an emotional first win for Martin, whose family are so closely associated with the event, but it was an equally special one for Eng, who took his first win with the brand on the very biggest stage in GT racing.

“We didn’t get any warning from race control, we didn’t get any penalties, the team always sent us out and called us in at exactly the right time and we were always on the right tyres, which is how you win the race even if you don’t have the last tenth of outright pace,” said Eng. “I’m over the moon and happy to have such awesome team-mates that I absolutely trust and can take a nap without thinking about anyone crashing the car.

“I can tell you everyone from BMW is working their hearts and their asses off to make the car go quicker. Everyone was really emotional which was really nice to see and in such situations, you just see how much effort goes into such a programme. I hope that we can still move forward and make the car go quicker in the next couple of weekends.”

2. …But small mistakes tally up for M-Sport

Much like Paul Ricard, this was M-Sport’s race to loose, yet somehow they again contrived to drop the ball when it counted. After the No. 7 Continental GT3 fell by the wayside with power steering problems, Bentley’s hopes were pinned on the No. 8 car driven by Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek and Wolfgang Reip, which alternated the lead with the No. 99 BMW throughout the night and early morning.

But whilst the Bentley had no problems with pace – Soulet was one of only two drivers to dip under the 2m20 marker – they opened the door for BMW with numerous small errors that once tallied up, cost the best part of five minutes. Whereas ROWE made just 24 visits to the pits, M-Sport made 29, including an untimely puncture which caused Soucek to pit out of sequence with an hour and a half to go and four drive-through penalties (twice for exceeding their maximum driver time, once for a pitlane infringement and once for speeding under a Full Course Yellow).

However, the real kick in the teeth was to come in the final half an hour, when Spa’s inclement weather made its customary appearance. Bentley quickly spotted the incoming downpour and brought Soucek in for wets, but held the Spaniard for an agonizing forty additional seconds while the track remained green, due to concerns that he wouldn’t make it out of the long pitlane under the 1:55 minimum delta time.

It was to prove a costly misjudgement when several cars crashed at the Bus Stop and brought out a FCY, which swung the pendulum the way of the yet-to-stop No. 88 AKKA-ASP Mercedes and No. 28 WRT Audi. To their disbelief, not only had they lost any chance of victory, but Bentley had been bumped off the podium altogether and crossed the line fourth.

Now in their third year of the Continental GT3 programme, Bentley have still yet to find that golden bullet and this latest “missed opportunity”, as motorsport director Brian Gush described it, will no doubt lead to plenty of soul-searching back at Crewe.

3. Ignition timing is a big deal

The big elephant in the room was of course Mercedes-AMG, who were painted as the villains after the six cars which had qualified 1-6 in the Superpole were found to be running non-homologated ignition timing maps. Each duly had their times deleted and were slapped with a five minute penalty for presenting a car “with a technical non-conformity of which the competitor should have been aware.”

As the assembled media furiously googled ‘ignition timing for dummies’, Mercedes attempted to lodge a protest, but ran out of time.

‘Rules are rules’ was the response from the rest of the paddock, but Mercedes themselves were rocked, feeling that their only crime had been to show their hand too early. Indeed, Maro Engel was quick to notice that Laurens Vanthoor’s fastest lap of the race, a 2:18.793, was just two tenths shy of his Superpole lap.

Taking into account their penalty, the No. 88 AKKA ASP squad could be more than delighted with finishing second after a tidy run from Felix Rosenqvist, Renger van der Zande and Tristan Vautier. Despite the enormity of the task facing them at the start, Rosenqvist never stopped believing that they could make the time back, but had to leave it late to claim second, capitalising on the late downpour to jump ahead of the No. 8 Bentley and No. 86 HTP Mercedes.

“To be honest yes, it’s an endurance race and I’ve seen so many times watching on TV that if you’re lucky with a Safety Car, you can catch up a lap,” said the Swede. “But I don’t think I’ve ever pushed as hard in a race as in that last stint. I was going flat out because I wasn’t happy with P4, I just wanted to have that podium spot. I didn’t have a drinks bottle, I was so tired and dehydrated, I was really in fighting mode in the car and it’s always fun when it pays off like that.”

Had they started where they qualified and not had to serve the penalty, Jerome Policand’s team may even have troubled ROWE for the victory. The ramifications from this one could rumble on and on…

4. Podium can’t keep Vanthoor in the fight

Whilst finishing on the podium in a 24 hour race is supposed to be a joyous occasion, Laurens Vanthoor was deeply conflicted on Sunday afternoon.

Alongside Rene Rast and Nico Mueller, Vanthoor led the fightback from three laps down to finish third after Rast was hit by Jonathan Hirschi’s Jaguar just before the six hour mark. But having started from pole once the Mercedes were removed from the equation and set the fastest lap of the race by over a second, third spot on the rostrum was a somewhat bittersweet result.

Following a Paul Ricard that was ruined by contact with the race-winning McLaren of Shane van Gisbergen, Rob Bell and Come Ledogar, it was vital that Vanthoor took full advantage of a rare off-weekend for Garage 59 and kept himself in the picture heading into the final Blancpain Endurance Cup round at the Nürburgring.

However, the timing of the collision with Hirschi was to prove crucial, ensuring the No. 28 car failed to collect any points at one quarter distance and, despite fighting back from another puncture to collect 20 points in the final reckoning, compared to McLaren’s two, Vanthoor sits 27 points behind with only 25 still to play for.

“After what happened yesterday evening, all of us never thought that we would still be up here,” he said. “But we were on pole, we have the fastest lap of the race and we recovered from three or four laps down to a podium, so that means something very nice would have been possible.”

Fortune didn’t shine on Vanthoor’s season-long team-mate Frederic Vervisch and his younger brother Dries either. Joined by Will Stevens in the No. 1 car for the event, they could only finish 29th after multiple issues during the night, which has also ruled them out of Endurance Cup title contention.

5. Time to stop underestimating Emil Frey

Having only completed half a day of testing prior to the event, few thought the brand new Emil Frey Jaguar stood a chance of surviving the 24 Hours, not least the team themselves. Yet not only did it make the finish, but the No. 114 shared by Jonathan Hirschi, Christian Klien and Markus Palttala was a regular fixture in the top ten and even took a turn in the lead after the team elected to stay out under a lengthy Safety Car to repair the barriers crunched by Kevin Estre’s Attempto Porsche.

They were on course to score healthy points when Hirschi tangled with Rast and got stuck in the gravel with right-front suspension damage. With nothing to fight for after resuming thirty laps down, the remainder of the race became an extended test session, but against all odds, the G3’s new electronics worked without a hitch and the car reached the end with only minor braking issues and a wheelnut problem to report.

Palttala told Racing.GT that Emil Frey had exceeded all expectations with such a short time frame and believes that the Swiss privateers have a bright future ahead of them.

“Okay the leading was about the pit cycles and how it unfolded behind the FCY and Safety Car, but after two or three hours of green when I got back in the car I was running P4, so that was proof that we were able to play with the big boys on pace,” said the Finn.

“Of course it’s a shame that the incident happened because at that stage we were closing in on the six hour mark where you get points, but despite not having a result, I’m happy because we started from zero and made a lot of progress on to make the car handle better and with managing the tyres. The electronics pretty much worked faultlessly through a 24 hour race, which is in a way a miracle and in another way its proof of the people working behind it.

“I think Emil Frey are going to put themselves on the map after that weekend because this is the biggest GT race in the world, a 24 hour race with all the factories there and we were in the mix. Maybe they are underestimated a bit, but there are a lot of very talented guys working behind it and it can grow into a very competitive package.”

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.