Spa: 24 hours race report

Round six of the FIA GT Championship, the 24 Hours of Spa, in Belgium, provided a great race; lots of incidents, hard racing and battles for the lead in both GT1 and GT2. And what made it great was the famously unpredictable Ardennes weather. A...

Round six of the FIA GT Championship, the 24 Hours of Spa, in Belgium, provided a great race; lots of incidents, hard racing and battles for the lead in both GT1 and GT2. And what made it great was the famously unpredictable Ardennes weather. A record year, 2005 saw a totally safety-car free race, during which the winning car completed 576 laps - 18 more than last year - and the best race lap, 2:15.598, set by the nr 10 Vitaphone Maserati, was significantly faster than last year's best time of 2:18.111.

Claiming a victory that could not be guaranteed until the last couple of hours was the nr 9 Vitaphone Maserati MC12 squad of van de Poele, Bartels and Scheider, finishing two laps ahead of the nr 15 JMB Racing Maserati of Bertolini, Wendlinger and Peter. The final podium place went to Vosse, Mollekens, Bouchut and Gardel in the nr 11 Larbre Ferrari 550 Maranello. The nr 66 GruppeM Porsche 996 GT3 RSR, driven by Lieb, Rockenfeller and Luhr, took a comfortable GT2 win; they led the class for almost the entire race, apart from two periods following incidents. Second was the nr 67 Autorlando Porsche squad of Moccia, Groppi and Camathias, with the nr 69 Proton Porsche team of Ried, Ried, Felbermayr and Felbermayr Jr third. G2 was won by Penders, Lamat and Couwbeaghs in the nr 191 Porsche, while G3 was claimed by the nr 124 Porsche of Mattheus, Vanbellingen, Fumal and Geoffroy.

VITAPHONE RACING STRENGTHENS ITS LEAD

Michael Bartels was clearly delighted when his nr 9 Maserati MC 12 crossed the finish line, bringing not only additional points for him and his team-mate Timo Scheider, but a first win of the season for his team and strengthening the team's lead in the GT1 Teams' Classification. "It's not so easy to find the right words, because to be here now after this race is like a dream," Bartels said. The race went really well for us, because we didn't have a lot of problems. It was always a close fight for the lead, with different cars challenging us, so we could never rest or make any mistakes; the other teams, especially JMB, were always chasing us. For this, the whole team worked in a fantastic way; we had no major problems that we had to repair, all the pit-stops went well, it was-- unbelievable, I just can't find the words."

Vitaphone now have a 15 point lead over JMB Racing, with Larbre Competition a further six points behind. With five rounds remaining, nothing is settled yet !

BERTOLINI AND WENDLINGER LEAD DRIVERS' CLASSIFICATION

Gabriele Gardel came into Spa with a slender lead in the classification; he is now lying two points behind joint leaders, JMB drivers Andrea Bertolini and Karl Wendlinger, who scored a total of 14 points at Spa. Gardel is one point ahead of Scheider and Bartels, whose excellent performance allowed them to recover to joint fourth. It is quite exceptional to have the top five drivers, from three teams and two different makes of cars, separated by just 3 points after Spa - which, with its double points, has traditionally seen the eventual Champions take a strong lead in the classifications. The rest of the season promises to be extremely interesting ! " I have to thank all my team-mates, who did a great job, and kept me in the championship fight," Gardel said. "They did a really good job. I think we did everything we could today; even without the small problems at the beginning, we couldn't have caught the Maserati today. There's still five races to go, so I think it's a bit early to think about the championship, but I think this is the first year when there have still been two or three teams who could win the title after the 24 Hours of Spa."

GT1 - MASERATI ONE-TWO IN FIRST 24 HOURS

The race started in heavy rain, conditions that appeared to favour the two Aston Martin DBR9 entries, which soon took an early lead. However many runners had opted for intermediate tyres, expecting the rain to ease; when it did, the Astons were quickly reeled in as their full wet tyres overheated.

Another shower just over an hour into the race kept conditions difficult, but the rain then went away - and stayed away for over eighteen hours. As the track dried the two Vitaphone entries traded the lead as each came in for routine pit-stops, the nr 9 car appearing to have a slight advantage over the sister nr 10 crew of Babini, Biagi and Davies.

Their main pursuer was the nr 28 Aston Martin, driven by Brabham, Turner and Sarrazin. Shortly before midnight the Aston took the lead, but then lost it when it pitted. This pattern repeated for the next couple of hours, with the Aston closing the gap - until Turner collided with another car, and repairs cost them 20 minutes. That resulted in a Maserati 1-2-3, the nr 15 JMB Racing crew joining the Vitaphone duo in the podium places.

But with over half the race still to go, nothing was settled. First, an off-track excursion cost the nr 10 Maserati ten laps in resetting the geometry, dropping them to fifth; that allowed the nr 28 Aston to go back up to third. Four hours later, with seven hours remaining, nr 28 needed a lengthy pit-stop, allowing nr 10 back into the top three - but only minutes later their race was over, the MC12 coming to a halt out on the circuit, due to a gear-box problem. This handed third to the nr 11 Ferrari.

From there to the finish, there were no changes in the podium positions; however, the rain returned with five hours remaining, just to give the teams a final test. For a while it was showery, which made the decision on whether to fit slicks, inters or wets almost a lottery, but in the final hour the rain set in with a vengeance. Conditions were so bad in the last twenty minutes that the Aston Martin team opted to hold both cars in the pits until the final lap, so as not to risk a last-minute accident.

The nr 6 Corvette finished fourth, recovering well after early-race problems, and putting in a steady performance. However, they were excluded from the race, due to the data recording device not being connected. Last year's winners Bryner and Calderari, originally fifth in the nr 12 Larbre Ferrari, inherited fourth, ahead of the two Aston Martin DBR9 cars The Renstal Excelsior Corvette, which had run really strongly early on, crossed the line in 8th, inheriting 7th position. The remaining cars classified - which scored the final points - were the Graham Nash Saleen, with an excellent performance, and the GPC Ferrari 575 M Maranello of Lemeret, Deman, Belloc and Livio.

LIEB AND ROCKENFELLER STRENGTHEN GT2 LEAD

With their fourth win of the year, and the maximum 20 points at Spa, the GruppeM Racing duo of Marc Lieb and Mike Rockenfeller (ably assisted by 2004 Champion Lucas Luhr) have further extended the lead they already held over their unlucky team-mates Emmanuel Collard and Tim Sudgen. "It was a very difficult race for us, and it seems unbelievable that we finished on the top of the podium," Marc Lieb said. "It was lucky for us that the other car had even bigger problems. It was really good for us, and we now have to focus on the remaining five races as we lead the championship."

This year brought an end to Porsche's run of Spa overall podium finishes; despite some rain and strong performances, the Porsche cars never looked like being in a position to finish in the top three this year, due to the exceptional strength of the GT1 category. With 30 points separating the top two pairs, Luigi Moccia, with second place at Spa, is now lying 5th, followed by Gerold and Christian Ried. Lucas Luhr, after just one race, is eighth.

As for GruppeM, they have now a total of 102 points, 74 ahead of Proton Motorsport. With a maximum of 90 points to be scored by a two car team, the British team is closing on the title.

GT2 : GRUPPEM DOMINATES DESPITE PROBLEMS

Right from the start the nr 66 Porsche dominated GT2, all three drivers able to put in extremely fast laps. Their sister car, the nr 88, which had started from pole, was unable to avoid a spinning GPC Ferrari, causing damage which kept the car in the pits for many laps, although the car eventually recovered to 4th in the class. The Lieb/Rockenfeller/Luhr car was pursued for much of the race by the nr 67 Porsche, but the Autorlando squad were simply unable to prevent GruppeM pulling out a lead of several laps. Their hopes were raised at the half-distance point, when nr 66 lost six laps to repairs after a collision, but it took less than an hour for GruppeM to regain the lead. A second chance came when the throttle cable of nr 66 snapped, handing a two-lap lead to Autorlando; this time it took four hours for GruppeM to regain the upper hand, which they then held to the flag, coming home five laps clear. Third place went to the father-and-son team of Gerold and Christian Ried, Horst Felbermayr and Horst Felbermayr Jr. The four drivers, all FIA GT regulars for many years, claimed a fine podium after a steady race in their Porsche. The nr 55 Embassy Racing Porsche was fifth, having run as high as second, but which lost a lot of time in the pits to repair damage. The Vonka Racing Porsche took the final GT2 points, despite going out in the penultimate hour with engine problems. The Ebimotors Porsche was extremely unlucky, being involved in a first lap crash which damaged the chassis of their nr 74 Porsche; they were the only car in the class not to finish.

G2 : RENSTAL DE BOKKENRIJDERS VICTORIOUS

The nr 121 Porsche of Virenque, Labhardt, Prette and de Radigues held the early lead in G2, until problems allowed the nr 105 Gillet Vertigo of Leinders, Kuppens, d'Ambrosio and Delcour into the lead. When they, in their turn, encountered problems, which forced them to retire from the race two hours later, the nr 191 took the class lead, which it held for almost the entire remainder of the race, coming home a massive 20 laps ahead of nr 121 Chrysler Viper, with the nr 190 Porsche of Gastines, Cloet, Rossem and Laet third. The eighth and final car classified was the nr 107 Maserati Light of Giudici, Romanini and Raimondi - a fine finish for the first time such a car has competed in the FIA GT Championship.

G3 : MUHLNER MOTORSPORT - FOR THE SECOND YEAR !

The nr 123 Porsche of Ickx, Bermes, Hemroulle and Reis led the G3 class for over nine hours, stretching out a seven-lap lead; but when the car stopped at Raidillon, their race was over. From there to the flag the nr 124 Porsche led the way, ending with a 26-lap lead over the nr 112 Levy - Team GB car of Nozière, Brouard, Levy and Levy.

-www.fiagt.com

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About this article
Series Blancpain Sprint
Drivers Karl Wendlinger , Emmanuel Collard , Lucas Luhr , Timo Scheider , Michael Bartels , Luigi Moccia , Marc Lieb , Christian Ried , Mike Rockenfeller , Gabriele Gardel , Horst Felbermayr Jr.