Championships shouldn’t just expect to race at Spa, they should earn that spot on the calendar. The European Le Mans Series has certainly done that since its 2012 annus horribilis and didn’t waste their opportunity to put on a good show at one of the world’s greatest circuits.
There was an obvious sense all teams and drivers were excited to get that opportunity too. You don’t just compete at Spa, you compete against Spa. The circuit is your first and greatest challenger, never mind your competitors.
A huge crown of fans and great motorsport event at Spa today for the best continental sportscars series: ELMS. 👍🏁 pic.twitter.com/9UdWkDRshJ
— GerardNeveuWEC (@GerardNeveuWEC) September 25, 2016
On the warm-up lap, we were treated to what has become a new tradition, race director Eduardo Freitas’ catchphrase ‘the line is too long!’ (not quite ‘I’m free’ or ‘shut that door’ admittedly). True to form, the endurance race car drivers were dragging things out – this is why they are never invited to parties, as they ruin Conga lines. They need to remember that it should be like a line of coke at a seedy Hollywood party – short and squat.
Once Freitas followed up with his strict nanny routine, “shorten the line or I’ll put you on the naughty step and chop the plug off your Xbox” (of course that is verbatim!), the little darlings got in place and we were go.
Rory Butcher in the No. 66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari whizzed from fourth on the grid to the lead within the first lap, with the pole sitting Alexander Talkanitsa’s No. 56 AT Racing behind him and a very spritely Duncan Cameron third in the No. 55 AF Corse.
Prototypes, GTs and Spa mean the first lap is never going to be straightforward and so with less than three minutes gone the safety car was out, to the utter astonishment of no-one. Most events over the weekend can be explained by simply suffixing ‘because it’s Spa’.
Why is the safety car out again? …because it’s Spa. Why is the weather being temperamental? …because it’s Spa. Why is Bulky Bob the mechanic spewing after eating 10 portions of fries lathered in sun-curdled mayo? You know the answer.
The GT action was all behind JMW, who just ran and ran with the lead. The tenacious trio of Butcher, Smith and Bertolini had a near perfect weekend, so whatever rabbit’s foot, four leaf clover or sacrifice to the Gods they’d engaged certainly worked – even a safety car period saw them increase their lead to a lap.
For others it was sweat, tears and a fantastic WWE style, straight to camera throw-down. After Piergiuseppe Perazzini’s No. 51 AF Corse had its run scuppered by a clash with a prototype, the watching Marco Cioci was rather displeased. The Italian had been lined up to do the next stint and didn’t know who the culprit was that had spoilt their day, but made it abundantly clear in a TV interview that he would find them and make them pay. Rumour has it the interview made Liam Neeson quake and Chuck Norris locked himself in the bathroom.
As JMW glided home for their third win in as many races and the AT Racing Ferrari crashed out, the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche of Gianluca Roda, Christian Ried and Matteo Cairoli took a well-deserved second place ahead of a superb tussle for third between Matt Griffin’s No. 55 Ferrari and the No. 77 Proton Competition Porsche of Marco Seefried. Fifth was a decent salvage job from what was a pretty torrid day for the No. 99 Beechdean Aston Martin of Andrew Howard, Darren Turner and Alex MacDowall, who were always on the back foot after a pitlane start.
After calculators and abacuses were consulted, it was confirmed that JMW Motorsport can finish no lower than second in the championship and so book themselves an automatic ticket to Le Mans 2017. Having been left out of the party in 2016, that was more than welcome news for Jim McWhirter’s long-standing team, but their eyes are on an even bigger prize – the ELMS 2016 title, with just Estoril to go and Beechdean still chomping at their heels.
It all sounds rather exciting for the big finale, doesn’t it? I think we should meet up again for it.