Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Victory at the 2012 Spa 24 Hours looked to be slipping away from the Blancpain Series championship leaders Marc VDS Racing as the hours ticked by towards dawn. Not long after 2am, their lead car suffered its third close encounter with a backmarker so far – this time as Maxime Martin attempted to put a lap on the #14 KRK Racing Mercedes SLS of Raf Vanthoor. Contact resulted in a puncture for the BMW Z4, and the required pit stop meant the car lost the lead of the race. Martin continued pushing, however, and managed to set the fastest lap of the race so far as the track dried out and the air temperature cooled.
This elevated the #16 Team Phoenix Audi to first, with the #36 DB Motorsports BMW not far behind. The Dutch squad had been having a quiet but effective race up to this point, slowly but surely making their way up the order from the lower reaches of the top 10. But a quick word with driver Jeffrey van Hooydonk in the DB garage revealed they weren't as big a threat for the podium as they seemed. “We've just lost time being held in the pitlane under the safety car, which had dropped us to sixth,” he said. “So the overall result is not important anymore. But I'm reasonably happy with how the car is driving – we can't do a perfect lap time, as the car got hit early in the race when Stephane [Lemeret] was driving. That broke two dive planes at the front so we're getting a lot of understeer.”
DB's chances of a strong result received a further blow when the stewards announced that the car's third driver, Jeroen den Boer, would be penalised for exiting the pitlane while the red light was still illuminated. As van Hooydonk alluded to above, the night-time hours have seen no let-up in the constant string of safety-car interruptions, which now stands at 13 – making up roughly a third of the event's total running time so far.
Since the previous update, there have been incidents for the #69 Beechdean Aston Martin and the United Autosports Audi R8. The latter car's three gentleman drivers were having to do without the support and speed of their professional co-driver Mark Blundell – sidelined since early in the race with a debilitating virus. The pressure finally showed as Mark Patterson spun and hit the wall while leaving the pitlane – blocking the exit, bringing out another safety car and ending the team's race.
In the second half of the top 20, pro drivers Matt Griffin and Nick Cadei have been double-stinting the Mtech Racing Ferrari 458 during the night, and the former offered an explanation as to why there have been so many safety-car incidents in the race so far. “It's dark and foggy, and the fog is moving around,” he commented just after a stint. “So some of the gentleman drivers might be struggling to see their apices, whereas the pros know where the track goes. Also, safety cars breed safety cars, because the tyre temperatures go down, then you have people with less grip than they expect, or else they're overdriving trying to get heat back into the tyres.”
The McLaren casualties have continued to mount – but unlike previous races this year, its accidents, not mechanical problems that have accounted for the majority of the retirements. Both Gulf Racing entries are now official retirements, after each car's gentleman driver (Roald Goethe and Mike Wainwright) was caught out in damp conditions. This leaves the two Von Ryan Racing machines (running 12th and 38th) as the only survivors from the original nine-car McLaren entry.
Around 4am, Markus Palttala finally took the wheel of the Marc VDS BMW, and served the 30-second stop-go penalty picked up during qualifying. This has put the former race-leading car down in third position at the time of writing, and handed the initiative to the #16 Team Phoenix Audi R8 of Frank Stippler, Andrea Piccini and Rene Rast – a particularly significant performance for the latter driver, as he's also racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup at Hungaroring this weekend! The #1 WRT Audi of Mies, Haase and Ortelli (one of the pre-race favourites) is currently shuffling in and out of second place as the pitstop cycles run through, with the #66 Vita4One BMW now looking like a podium threat once again – thanks mostly to the sterling efforts of Frank Kechele.
And while the top six continues to be the exclusive preserve of Audi and BMW teams, Porsches and Ferraris fill out the lower reaches of the top 10. Dan Brown, the young Briton who forms one-quarter of the driving strength of the eighth-place #51 AF Corse Ferrari, described the conservative approach that's keeping his car in a strong position despite the 458 not having the ultimate pace at Spa. “We're just using our mirrors and paying attention, as we were told to in the drivers' briefing – and we've not had any incidents. We're not the fastest car out there, but we're not the slowest either.
As this report was filed, the words 'safety car' returned to the timing screens once more as Duncan Cameron crashed the Mtech Ferrari he shares with Matt Griffin at the bottom of Eau Rouge. The #16 Audi continues to lead.