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Spa: 24 hours preview

And so to Spa, for what is undoubtedly the longest, most spectacular and most important race of the season. With double points on offer, extra drivers in most cars and additional entrants, the 24-hour race plays a determining role in ...

And so to Spa, for what is undoubtedly the longest, most spectacular and most important race of the season. With double points on offer, extra drivers in most cars and additional entrants, the 24-hour race plays a determining role in the Championship, to the point that the winning team in the past events has always gone on to win the title.

With four different winners in the first five races of the 2005 season, it is almost impossible to predict who will climb to the top of the podium on Sunday July 31st, at 16:00.

Will it be an Aston Martin, returning for a second race as a manufacturer entry ? Or a Corvette C5R, already victorious in Imola, and entered by GLPK or SRT ? Or a Maserati MC 12 - one of the four cars with excellent driver line-ups entered by German team Vitaphone or Monaco-based JMB Racing ? Last year, a Ferrari 550 Maranello was victorious, and with two wins so far this season, Larbre Competition is determined to continue their winning ways. And then there is the Russian Age Racing Ferrari 550, already having put in a fine performance in trying conditions in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The GPC Ferrari 575 M Maranello finished second last year, and recent races have proved its competitivity. Not forgetting the Lister and Saleen cars, both of whom could create a surprise. Another surprise could be the weather : torrential rain like in 2003 or heat and sun like 2004 ? Or something in between ? Wet weather could favour the Porsche cars, already certain of victory in GT2. And GruppeM's two fine trios of drivers would dearly love to get on the overall podium.

WHAT THE DRIVERS THINK ...

"Spa is a real reference point. Like many drivers, I really appreciate it, but the extremely precarious weather can often make things difficult. But when the sky is clear and the road is free ahead, Spa can give you driving thrills as nowhere else "
Christophe Bouchut, Russian Age Racing / Larbre Competition

"Spa is the most important race for the championship. Really fast, difficult but attractive like no other circuit. Eau Rouge is the last real corner that can still impress a driver. I have great memories of this track..."
Gabriele Gardel, Larbre Competition

"The highlight of the circuit is the steep uphill section out of Eau Rouge. Drivers fly through at about 300 km/h, steering right in the lowest point and then hard left right after the hilll."
Michael Bartels, Vitaphone Racing

BOUCHUT REJOINS LARBRE COMPETITION FOR SPA

It has been announced today that Russian Age Racing driver Christophe Bouchut will be making a one-race return to Larbre Competition for next weekend's Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. On loan from Cirtek, the move is aimed at strengthening the French team's driver line-up in their bid for success, both in Belgium and in the FIA GT Championship, and shows great support and co-operation between the two Care Racing supported teams. Triple FIA GT Champion Bouchut won the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa with Larbre in both 2001 and 2002. Larbre team principal Jack Leconte said : "I am extremely grateful to Rob Schirle and Cirtek Motorsport for their co-operation with this issue, and I am confident we now have a driver line-up which will allow us to challenge for maximum Championship points." Bouchut will share the nr 11 Ferrari 550 Maranello with Championship leader Gabriele Gardel and leading Belgian drivers Vincent Vosse and Kurt Mollekens. Vosse was part of the winning line-up with Bouchut in 2002. Larbre is the only team to have won two races so far this season, and is currently lying third, just nine points behind second-placed JMB Racing. With double points on offer, a good performance at Spa is vital. Bouchut, driving for Russian Age Racing this year, has put in some stirling performances in the nr 17 Ferrari 550 Maranello, leading the race on many occasions and claiming pole position at Magny-Cours. He also has plenty of experience in the Larbre Competition Ferrari 550 cars, as he won the GTS title in the inaugural season of the Le Mans Endurance Season with the team, alongside Steve Zacchia, who will be in the nr 12 Larbre Ferrari at Spa, and with Pedro Lamy, Gardel's partner for his Monza and Brno wins.

Gardel is delighted to have Bouchut join the line-up. "I am really happy," the Swiss driver said. "Bouchut, Vosse and Mollekens are some of the best drivers we could have for a 24 hour race. But it will be tough this year. There are at least eight cars which can win, all with professional drivers behind the wheel. We have a good car, a good set-up ... but there is always an element of luck as well. We'll do our best."

CIRTEK GET A CREATIVE COLLABORATION FOR SPA

LMES front-runner Creation Autosportif, which previously ran a Lister Storm in the FIA GT Championship,has agreed a deal with Cirtek Motorsport which will see Jamie Campbell-Walter and Nicolas Minassian race the nr 17 Ferrari 550 Maranello in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa.

The Anglo-French duo, who normally share the bright blue DBA-Judd sports prototype in the Le Mans Endurance Series, will partner Russian drivers Alexei Vasiliev and Nikolai Fomenko for the Spa race. Creation team director, Michael Jankowski, is looking forward to seeing how his drivers perform in one of the most successful GT cars in recent years. "I'm pleased for Nic and Jamie's sake that we've been able to reach an agreement for this to happen.

The car has a proven track record, Cirtek has been one of the consistent front runners in all their races so far this year, and we know just how good the drivers are. It will be fun to see how they get on!" Jamie Campbell-Walter was one of the leading FIA GT Championship drivers between 2000, when he won the Drivers title with Julian Bailey, and 2004. He has claimed 12 wins and 6 pole positions. However, this will be the first time since 1997 that he has driven anything but a Lister Storm in the Championship. Nicolas Minassian, a former F3000 and Champ Car driver, will be making his FIA GT debut.

CHAMPIONSHIP LEADERS LOOK FORWARD TO SPA

Vitaphone Racing Team has led the Teams classification since the start of the season, although they are being chased closely by JMB Racing and Larbre Competition. "The 24 hours of Spa will be a very important highlight of the 2005 FIA GT Championship," Michael Bartels explained. "It is not only a question of prestige but also a matter of scoring double points. In the last three years the winner of Spa was also the winner of the team classification in this championship. To race the 24 hours is very special because of the atmosphere and the wonderful but difficult track. All six of our drivers know the circuit very well and we are sure that our team is well prepared for the 24 hours. For our sponsors it will be also a big event because with Vitaphone and ALD we invited nearly 600 guests to show them the fantastic feeling of the FIA GT in Spa." The two Maserati cars will be driven by Bartels / Scheider / van de Poele, and Babini / Biagi / Davies.

THE FORCE ONE VIPER RETURNS

Force One Racing will be taking part in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa for the fourth time. The team is currently competing in the French GT Championship, and claimed two podiums in the last round at Val de Vienne. Under the watchful eye of team owner Philippe Alliot, the Chrysler Viper will be in the hands of four competitive drivers : Richard Virenque, Didier de Radiguès, Philippe Prette and François Labhardt. Richard Virenque, a renowned international cyclist, who is currently providing the commentary on Eurosport for the Tour de France, has already tested the car at Spa and Magny-Cours. Didier de Radiguès also came to fame on two wheels, as a biker, claiming 14 podiums and four wins, including one at Spa-Francorchamps.

Since 1994, he has successfully moved to four wheels, with wins at Spa and in the American Le Mans Series, where he won the title. Philippe Prette has plenty of endurance and GT experience, while François Labhart, who already took part at Spa with Force One last year, finished in 5th position in the Ferrari Challenge in 2002.

GRUPPE M LOOK STRONG FOR SPA

British team GruppeM has put in an amazing performance this year, winning all five rounds so far. Their domination is such that, should they finish first and second at Spa - and all their nearest rivals fail to score - they could mathematically claim the title after the double-scoring event. With Lieb and Rockenfeller joined by 2004 N-GT Champion Lucas Luhr, and Collard and Sugden sharing the nr 88 car with three-times overall podium finisher Stephane Ortelli, anything is possible.

VONKA AND PROTON READY

Regular competitors Vonka Racing and Proton Competition have announced their driver line-ups for Spa. The nr 56 Vonka Porsche will be shared by Jan Vonka, Miro Konopka and Antonio De Castro, who previously drove with the team at Imola. As for Proton, the nr 69 Porsche will be shared by two father-and-son duos. Regulars Gerold and Christian Ried, currently second in the Teams GT2 classification, will drive with Austrian duo Horst Felbermayr and Horst Felbermayr Jr.

A LAP OF SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS ... with GLPK Carsport's Anthony Kumpen

Spa definitely is one of the best tracks in Europe. It's one of the few circuits where you still have some challenging corners.

The first corner after the start/finish, "Raidillon/Eau Rouge", is maybe the most difficult one on the track. It's a 5th gear left/right corner where you brake only very briefly before climbing towards the straight. Because it's very steep, the exit is blind, so it's very important to find the right apex.

The apex in this corner can change during a stint because of the tire wear. In a GT car, in a qualifying lap the minimum speed should be just above 220 km/h.

After the long straight we come to "Les Combes" a triple corner, first a chicane and then a right-hander. The chicane should be sacrificed a bit to have a good exit from the right-hander which is more important.

From "Les Combes" there is a little straight downhill towards "Bruxelles". The braking is downhill, so finding the right braking point is quite difficult. It's very easy to create flatspots in this slow corner. Almost every car has understeer in "Bruxelles". Immediately after "Bruxelles" there is a small left-hander which is quite important because of the following long straight.

Now we come in the "Double Gauche". This fast 4th gear double left-hander, should be taken as one corner. The right entry, is the most important aspect of this corner. "Pif-Paf" is quite a fast chicane. Here you must keep the car balanced in the exit because the braking for the first "Stavelot" is not far away. The first "Stavelot" is less fast then you would think as it is quite closed at the exit. On the other hand, the second "Stavelot" opens up towards the end and is very important, because of the straight afterwards.

Now we come at "Blanchimont", the first part is easy flat, the second part is a very fast and challenging 6th gear corner. With a good setup and a light GT car, lifting off or just a little brakîng can be sufficient. With a GT car it's more challenging then with a formula car, because with a GT car you just can't make it flat out, while with a formula car it's easy.

The "Bustop" chicane changed last year. It's a very slow chicane, where you don't have the car straight in the braking zone. It's easy to make a mistake under braking there. Now we come in "La Source", the slowest corner on the track (2nd gear). An ideal place to pass a car, just before crossing the finish line.

-fia-

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