Rain, rain and more rain. After a dry night, the conditions grew significantly worse in the morning, with the rain intensity varying between a light drizzle, showers and heavy rain. Tyre choice was at once something of a gamble and absolutely...
Rain, rain and more rain. After a dry night, the conditions grew significantly worse in the morning, with the rain intensity varying between a light drizzle, showers and heavy rain. Tyre choice was at once something of a gamble and absolutely vital for the race positions. Despite the conditions, the cars continued to lap at a steady rhythm, and by midday, after a fifth safety car period due to heavy rain, the rain stopped and the sun started to shine over Spa Francorchamps.
As the race moved into its final four hours, the nr 7 Larbre Chéreau Chrysler Viper GTS-R was in the lead, having covered 443 laps of the track, a total distance of 3086.8 km. They were followed by the nr 3 Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper, currently driven by 4-times winner Thierry Tassin, and the nr 17 Larbre Viper, which had just survived a spin on the drying track. The N-GT class is being led, after 20 hours, by the nr 77 RWS Porsche 996 GT3-R, with Norman Simon currently at the wheel. The car has completed 428 laps, fourteen laps behind the overall leader. The nr 57 Freisinger Porsche is in second place, with the nr 55 Perspective Racing Porsche in third. Category 2 is still being led by the nr 78 PSI Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-R of de Groodt, Tollenaire and Palttala, with the nr 94 Land Motorsport Porsche Carrera 996 leading category 3.
The rain, which had started shortly before 07:30, lasted an hour. The track then started to dry, and times came down. The nr 3 Carsport Holland Viper was still in command at this point, with a 44 second lead over the two Larbre Competition Chéreau Chrysler Vipers, the nr 7 ahead of the nr 17. However, it was F3000 race winner Sebastien Bourdais, sharing the nr 17 with Patrice Goueslard and Sebastien Dumez, who was setting the pace on the damp track. He stayed in for a triple stint, getting close to the maximum of three hours consecutive driving allowed by the regulations.
With 17 hours down and seven to go, Luca Riccitelli, at the wheel of the nr 77 RWS Motorsport Porsche, had a six lap lead over the nr 57 Freisinger Porsche. The Freisinger was in its turn being chased by the Perspective Racing, only 42 seconds behind. Overall, the nr 3 and nr 7 Vipers were on similar strategies at this point, pitting at the same time and the gap between them remaining relatively constant.
However, when the next shower started, Jeroen Bleekemolen, in the Carsport Viper, stayed out on slicks, whereas the Larbre car made a stop for intermediate tyres. As the track grew wetter, Jeroen was losing around ten seconds a lap, giving the nr 7 Larbre Chéreau Chrysler Viper the advantage once more.
Mike Hezemans took over the nr 3 Carsport Viper again, and started to close the gap on the leading Larbre Viper. It lost more time when the car made a trip through the pit lane without stopping, the team not being ready due to a communication problem. But they were still only a lap behind, with everything still to play for. Goueslard took over the nr 17 Larbre Viper, but could not equal the pace set by Bourdais, and the car fell back slightly. In fourth place, the all-Belgian Silver Racing Chrylser Viper was putting in their best performance so far in the FIA GT Championship. A stop and go for failing to stop at the red light after missing the bus stop chicane did not change matters, as they had a three lap buffer in hand over the fourth placed nr 12 Paul Belmondo Racing Chrylser Viper of Vosse, Helary and Clérico.
The RWS Motorsport Porsche continued to lead the N-GT class in the rain, despite a slight worry concerning rising water temperatures. Their great rivals in the Championship, the JMB Ferrari 360 Modena, had more serious problems, with the start of a fire in the wheel hub meaning another lengthy stop. The car rejoined the race, but was lying seventh in the class, out of the points. Worse was still to come, when just before midday the car stopped on the track, retiring minutes later with engine failure.
Paul Belmondo - nr 10 Belmondo Viper– "The cars which have spent the least time in the pits are now in the lead. But there is still a long way to go. A lot can still happen– we’ve got nearly the length of three normal FIA GT races to run…"
Vincent Vosse– nr 12 Belmondo Viper– "After problems in the night with the bonnet clasps, we also lost three laps with a problem with a piston. It’s a shame, because we had very few mechanical problems up until now. We also had a problem with tyre choice when it started to rain. We have two different types, and as we didn’t know it was raining quite so hard, so we came back in after two laps to swap for tyres with deeper grooves. Now we’ve got to attack until the end." Clérico added : "We have to try and catch up the others, but the conditions are very difficult. Generally, we have heat problems in the Viper, but here, when it’s wet, we have problems with fog on the windscreen. When it’s hot, it’s our helmets that fog up. So it doesn’t make much difference."
Boris Derichebourg– nr 11 Belmondo Viper– The car retired after a heavy impact with the wall at Eau Rouge : "I really thought this was going to be my first successful 24-hour race." The team had put a little Audi symbol, crossed out, over Boris’ name on the door, referring to his Audi-destroying exploits in the European Le Mans Series round of Estoril. "Now I think we should put a Chrysler symbol over Didier’s name !" The team has definitely had fun with the car since it has been stuck in the pits. It now bears a label on the front windscreen, announcing : "Artistic compression– designed by Defourny and Co– an unlimited series."
Luca Riccitelli– nr 77 RWS Porsche– the car had a 5-minute pit stop while handing over to Antonio Garcia. "The water temperature is much too high," Riccitelli explained. "The team decided to check everything and discovered a problem with the top of the water tank. They fixed it, and now the car is running smoothly." Garcia then handed over to Simon.
Thierry Perrier– nr 55 Perspective Porsche– "We’re following a very safe rhythm, because we know we can’t go as fast as Luca Riccitelli and Stephane Ortelli. We’ve got a comfortable lead over the car in fourth. It was a nice night, with a beautiful moon, and no major problems. We’re trying to take care of the car– and the drivers– we are all very tired." Shortly afterwards, Kurt Thiers went off the track but retained the third place in N-GT. Michel Neugarten explained that when Thiers was breaking, he spun off and hit the back of the car. When the marshals tried to take them out of the gravel trap, they broke the towing hook, so it took a while. "We’ve just got two more FIA GT races to do," he said.
David Terrien– nr 62 JMB Ferrari– "During the night, we had a broken alternator belt, which also commands the power steering. Without that, Andrea Garbagnati went into the gravel. So we changed the belt, losing 15 laps. Since then, it hadn’t been going too badly, and we gained time with a good tyre choice for intermediates just as it started to rain. But then, suddenly, the car started to feel strange. I came in for rain tyres, but that didn’t help. The car wasn’t going fast, and the brake pedal was moving a lot. I came in, thinking there was a problem with the front left wheel. The team couldn’t find anything. But after two laps, the car became absolutely undriveable. I came in, put it in the garage, and suddenly a fire started. They are changing the wheel hub, and then we’ll go again."
Sebastien Bourdais– nr 17 Larbre Viper– "I’m collecting three-hour stints. On my own I have already driven for eight hours. It’s very difficult for everyone. We chose the wrong tyres, putting intermediates on when we should have gone for wets. I will also finish the race, going back in the car at around 1:30, and doing the last two and a half hours."
Thierry Tassin– nr 3 Carsport Viper– "We have quite a few problems– no radio for me or Bleekemolen, the cooling suit is not working any more, and there are problems with the dashboard. Mike came in but the team was not ready, so he did just one more lap before pitting again."
Robert Dierick– nr 26 Silver Viper– "We have no problems at all. Seeing the difficult weather conditions, we are very happy. We are also the first amateur team. In comparison with the teams ahead of us, who have 2 to 3 seasons of experience with the Viper, we are doing well."
Jack Leconte– team manager, Larbre Competition Chéreau : "We have little technical problems, and the changing weather conditions have leveled our strategy. At the start, the drivers were requested to keep a steady rhythm. We came to the front, but then we lost a wheel. The drivers made little mistakes, and some of them are less quick in the rain. So you have to adapt, and of course choose the right set of tyres at the right moment."