A month after Carsport Holland's victory in Budapest, the FIA GT Championship is facing its longest race ever : the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, round the beautiful, challenging Belgian track of Spa-Francorchamps. The 24 Hours of Spa is one of the oldest motor-races still in existance. It was first held in 1924, and this will be the 53rd edition. In 1964 changes saw the race exclusively reserved for touring cars, and it soon became the leading event for that category. Recently, due to the increasing success of the FIA GT Championship, a decision was made to include this prestigious event in the Championship's calendar. The FIA GT Championship last raced at the Spa-Francorchamps track in 1997, with victory in the four hour event going to the BMW Motorsport McLaren F1 GTR driven by JJ Lehto and Steve Soper. The GT2 category win went to the Oreca Chrysler Viper GTS-R of Justin Bell and Marc Duez. The track, with its challenging corners such as Raidillon, Eau Rouge and Blanchimont, is a great favourite with teams and drivers alike. Fast and demanding, it will be a tough race. "Although we have air conditioning in our cars, the race will be physically difficult," Paul Belmondo Racing's Boris Derichebourg explained. "There are less straights than at Le Mans, and the track is very hard on the gear-box. It's more repetitive, and will be hard on the drivers. And the weather can be extremely changeable -- we could have rain, sun, mist! If the conditions are bad, anything could happen."
Three categories will be taking part, category 1 being the cars corresponding to the FIA GT and FIA N-GT regulations, category two for cars from national GT Championships such as those in France, Belgium, Great Britain and Spain, and category three for cars from single-make trophies and cups. Double points will be awarded in the FIA GT Championship. Four drivers can be entered on any one car. The car must be qualified by one of its definitive drivers. All drivers must set a time within 125% of the average time set by the three best cars of different makes, and within 110% of the best time set in its group. The maximum consecutive time that any driver can stay at the wheel is three hours, followed by two hours of rest. Over the 24 hours, no driver can spend more than 12 hours at the wheel. To be classified, a car must have completed at least 70% of the distance completed by the winning car. No handicap weight will be applied for this event.
After six rounds, Larbre Competition Chéreau has a 17-point lead in the GT Teams classification, with drivers Christophe Bouchut and Jean-Philippe Belloc leading the Drivers points table by 25 points. However, with 20 points on offer at Spa and four 500 km races remaining in the season, the Championship is still wide open. Team Carsport Holland is currently in second place, with Lister Storm Racing, absent from Spa, and Paul Belmondo Racing close behind. In the N-GT field, JMB Competition's David Terrien and Christian Pescatori moved into the lead at the previous round, ahead of RWS Red Bull Racing's Luca Riccitelli. Art Engineering's Luigi Moccia and Fabio Babini are lying in third place.
Larbre Compétition (1st, 48 pts) with two Vipers
Larbre Competition Chereau is planning an all-out assault on the GT category, entering two Chrysler Viper GTS-Rs for the first time. Marc Duez will join Christophe Bouchut and Jean-Philippe Belloc in the nr. 7 car, while the brand-new nr. 17 Chrysler Viper will be driven by usual N-GT drivers Patrice Goueslard, Sébastien Dumez and Jean-Luc Chéreau, along with F3000 star Sébastien Bourdais. "We are aiming to make the most of the double points for Spa," team-owner Jack Leconte said. "We lost our chance of winning the N-GT Championship with Patrice's crash in Zolder, and so now we are concentrating on our main goal, the overall title. As soon as I knew Rafanelli would only be running one car, I got Duez under contract. Bouchut and Belloc want to win the Championship, and Duez wants to win Spa, so they should be able to work well together. As for Bourdais, I have supported his career in the past, and he has often tested with us." Larbre will be testing at their local track of Val de Vienne before the race.
Carsport Holland (2nd, 31 pts) on a high
After finishing in first and third places in Budapest, the Dutch team has moved into second place in the GT Teams Classification. For Spa, Belgian drivers Thierry Tassin and Jean-Michel Martin will join the usual line-ups of Mike Hezemans and Jeroen Bleekemolen in the nr. 3 Chrysler Viper GTS-R and Michael and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen in the nr. 4 car. "Physically, it will be a very difficult race, as it will be very hot in the car," said Hezemans, who finished on the podium in Spa back in 1991. Tassin, a former winner in the 24 Hours, is getting used to the Viper. "I was rather worried the first time I drove the car, but when I tested it at the end of June, I found it to be excellent. The Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper is very fast, with an enormous, powerful engine. The car's grip in the Raidillon or Blanchimont is incredible."
Paul Belmondo Racing (4th, 24 pts) aiming to win
The Proximus 24 Hours of Spa will see Paul Belmondo's regular drivers reinforced by Brno pole-setter Emmanuel Clérico, former Viper driver Eric Hélary and Belgian touring car specialist Frédéric Bouvy, to form three strong line-ups in the Chrysler Viper GTS-R cars. "We've taken very good drivers who know the track and the car," Belmondo said. "We have very high hopes for this race -- it's very important, for the Championship, for the team, for the drivers. With Belgian drivers and a major Belgian partner, it's a race where we have to do the maximum. If we don't win, at least we'll know that we've done all we possibly could to prepare ourselves." Boris Derichebourg, currently lying joint seventh with team-mate Vincent Vosse, will be driving with Bouvy and Defourny. "I'm pleased with the line-up," he said. "I always knew that Vincent and I would be split up to maximize the chance of championship points. Both Bouvy and Defourny are previous winners at Spa, and they know the peculiarities of the race, such as the mist in the early morning, and that could be an advantage. I know Spa quite well, and I've always gone well there -- I finished on the podium in F3000."
Rafanelli (5th, 14 pts) : Ferrari against the Vipers
Only one Rafanelli Ferrari 550 Maranello will be at Spa, but team owner Gabriele Rafanelli is confident that the car can be competitive. "We have never done a 24 hour test with the car, but we know that our engine is reliable and can last the distance," he explained. "Additionally, our team benefits from solid experience in Le Mans, Spa and American endurance races. We're not going to Spa to watch the others." The driver line-up will include Emanuele Naspetti, and Belgian drivers Eric van de Poele and Philippe Steveny, with a fourth driver still to be determined. Former Formula One driver Naspetti is looking forward to the race. "The Ferrari is a dream car to look at and to drive. The chassis and the engine are great. I've driven at Spa in F3000, F1 and Super Touring, and I can't wait to drive it in a GT. I am sure that the car will be reliable."
GLPK Racing : hoping for home advantage
Regular GLPK driver Wim Daems will be joined for Spa by fellow-Belgian Bert Longin, who last drove in the Championship at Zolder in 2000, finishing 4th in the Freisinger Porsche 911 GT2 alongside Wolfgang Kaufmann. "I chose to drive with GLPK Racing because the team won the 24 Hours of Zolder in 2000 after dominating a very difficult race. The third driver for Spa is not yet fixed. This is the first time I'll be driving a Viper -- it'll be a brand new experience for me, as I've never driven in the 24 Hours of Spa before. But preparations are going well."
JMB Competition (1st, 38 pts) : new Championship leaders
With their Ferrari 360 Modena taking a third win of the season, David Terrien and Christian Pescatori moved into the lead of the N-GT Championship at Budapest. Terrien finished on the podium at Spa in 1998 in the Group N category. "I hope we won't have too many parts to change during the race," he said. "The longest race we've ever done in this car is the 6 Hours of Vallelunga. At Spa, we're not aiming for victory, but for the maximum points. In general, the N-GT cars are reliable and need less fuel stops than the GT cars -- we can do 90 minutes on a tank. At Le Mans the leading N-GT car was ahead of the first GT, but in normal conditions, overall victory isn't really within our sights."
RWS Motorsport (2nd, 32 pts) : a strong line-up
RWS Red Bull Racing is only entering one Porsche 996 GT3-R in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, but the team is hoping that this car will be the one to take the win. "We want to go in with the best possible driver line-up," leading driver Luca Riccitelli said. "I think we have a really good chance to win. The team is very experienced, and the car is very reliable for this sort of race. It's going to be hard on the car and the drivers, but we want to start with the best possible conditions." Riccitelli will be driving with Austrian Dieter Quester and Spaniard Antonio Garcia, while the fourth driver is yet to be determined. "We lost our championship lead in Budapest, and it is very important for the rest of the season that we do well at Spa", Riccitelli explained. "From now on, we should be able to complete the races on only one pit-stop, so we should be able to fight. But if we lose here, it's going to be very difficult." Luca sees his main opposition coming from the Art Engineering Porsche -- "They have a very strong line-up," and from the Championship-leading Ferrari 360 Modena - "But it's the first time they are going to do a 24 hour race, and it might be difficult for them. However, you can never tell in endurance races. Anything can happen."
Art Engineering (3rd, 25 pts) : mergers behind the wheel
As Fabio Babini will be without his usual team-mate Luigi Moccia for Spa, he will be joined by Redolfi Orlando driver Phillip Peter, Jirko Malcharek and Gianni Collini. "It's very important for the team, not only for the Championship, but because it's their first 24-hour race," Babini explained. "This opportunity came about through Pirelli," Peter explained. "As my team is not competing at Spa, they decided to put me together with Babini. On paper, we have a very good line-up -- good, fast, reliable drivers, a good team, so we should have a good chance -- it'll be up to us to make it work -- I'm pretty excited."
Perspective Racing (5th, 12 pts) : good knowledge
"Our main objective is to finish this event, which should be a beautiful race," team owner Thierry Perrier explained. "But like at Le Mans, we don't know what surprises the weather will be holding for us. We want to put a beautiful, solid car out on the track, and hope it will take us through to the end." Perrier and Michel Neugarten will be joined for the longer race by Belcar driver Kurt Thiers, and British FIA GT regular Nigel Smith, who already drove for the team at Le Mans. Perrier knows the track well, having driven twice in the 24 Hours of Spa in 1982/83, finishing second in his category.
Freisinger Motorsport (7th, 11 pts) with Vanina Ickx
Vanina Ickx, daughter of leading Belgian racing driver Jacky Ickx, will be joining German team Freisinger Motorsport for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. "I am really looking forward to it," she said. "It was only decided a week ago. I had originally planned to drive one of the JMB Ferraris." Vanina has little experience of the Porsche. "I did a couple of laps in the Supercup car, but the race was cancelled, so it was not enough to get used to it. However, I know the track very well -- since I began racing, I have mainly done Belgian Championships, so I have raced at Spa a lot. The most intense sections are Blanchimont and Eau Rouge. For the 24 Hours, we have been really lucky with the weather over the past three years, with no rain." Freisinger are entering three cars, with Stephane Ortelli, Xavier Pompidou and Christophe Tinseau among the other drivers.
Marino Franchitti makes FIA GT debut
Scottish driver Marino Franchitti, currently leading his category in the British GT Championship, will be driving the German-entered DD Racing Porsche 996GT3-RS at Spa, in the N-GT category. "It'll be my first 24 hour race, and I can't wait," he said. "It's a fantastic circuit and a fantastic car !" Marino, the younger brother of CART star Dario Franchitti, has made rapid progress since moving to GT cars this season. "It was definitely the right decision, and I hope to be doing GTs for the next few years. This weekend will be a good opportunity to gain some more experience." <pre> Circuit Length : 6.968 km/4.330 miles
Support races : New Procar Renault Sport Clio Cup Elf International
Websites : http://www.fia.com; http://www.gtracing.net; http://www.spa24hours.com
1997 Results : Pole : 1:50.780, Beretta/Gache, Chrysler Viper GTS-R Race : Duez/Bell (Chrysler Viper GTS-R) - 93 laps in 4 :03 :45.101