Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Frank Kechele started the #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 from pole at the Spa 24 Hours, but it only took until the top of Eau Rouge on lap one for second-place starter Maxime Martin to muscle his way into the lead in the #3 Marc VDS Racing BMW Z4 – the car that has dominated the Blancpain Endurance Series so far this season.
Behind this battling pair, McLaren works driver Alvaro Parente defended the #88 Von Ryan MP4-12C's third-place starting position, but fourth-place starter Christopher Mies in the #1 WRT Audi R8 did not have an impressive opening stint: he currently lies 11th after ceding several positions in the opening laps.
Belgian Nico Verdonck made an aggressive start in the #5 Boutsen-Ginion McLaren, taking it from sixth on the grid to fourth, while Dutchman Peter Kox was another improver, getting the Reiter Lamborghini Gallardo into fifth from seventh. Kox swiftly came under attack from a hard-charging Uwe Alzen in the Haribo Racing Porsche, who outbraked him into Les Combes on lap 11 to take fifth. Another Porsche driver, Prospeed Competition's Maxime Soulet, then saw his opportunity and demoted Kox to seventh – which was where he started on the grid.
Multiple DTM champion Bernd Schneider had a productive opening hour, getting the Preci-Spark Mercedes SLS up into the top 10 with several decisive passing moves. Double Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer seemed to be biding his time in the #6 Team Phoenix Audi R8, progressing steadily from 13th to 11th in the early stages. But there was drama as he made the car's first pit stop, hitting the Lapidus Racing McLaren as they entered the pit lane. Both cars continued into the pits but may have suffered damage, and were stationary for a long time.
Belgian IndyCar star Bertrand Baguette also had a quiet opening stint, maintaining the GPR Racing Aston Martin's grid position of 10th. There were problems in the first hour for Jeroen Bleekemolen, whose #18 Black Falcon Mercedes SLS jammed in gear and had to return to the pits, as well as Koen Wauters, who hit the #37 DB Motorsport BMW at Bruxelles corner and found himself beached in the gravel. The car was pulled out and Wauters returned to the pits for new tyres.
Up front, as the first hour drew to a close, first- and second-place Martin and Kechele remained within a few seconds of each other as they fought their way through the race's significant amount of backmarkers – including Toni Vilander's AF Corse Ferrari. The Finnish ace had to serve a stop-go penalty in the early laps due to an incident in free practice, and found himself running well down the field, but almost at the leaders' pace. It was several laps before he relented, and shortly afterwards Kechele made his first scheduled pitstop, temporarily neutralising the battle for the lead.