Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
There was no let-up to the incidents during the early hours of the morning at the Spa 24 Hours as the Blancpain Endurance Series' flagship race approached its half-distance point. A typically super-fast stint from Maxime Martin saw the #3 Marc VDS BMW take the series points on offer for leading at the six-hour mark, but two near-misses in the hours of darkness served as a reminder that the race could yet turn against them at any point.
First, there was a scary moment as Martin lapped the #9 Gulf Racing McLaren, with gentleman driver Mike Wainwright at the wheel. The BMW driver had to take to the grass to avoid him, and the McLaren spun in the runoff area, but both cars escaped without damage. More bad news for McLaren followed shortly afterwards, as Nico Verdonck's #5 Boutsen Ginion Racing MP4-12C clashed with the #64 Lapidus Racing machine, being driven by Klaas Hummel.
Verdonck had been the top McLaren in the race, as well as leader of the Pro-Am category, but unfortunately for him the incident ended his race as the car suffered severe damage to one of its wheels. To compound McLaren's misery, the #12 ART car has now confirmed its retirement after an earlier engine fire. The #88 Von Ryan Racing car, which qualified third, is now the leading McLaren in the race in 12th overall.
Further safety-car sessions were called for when the #73 Kessel Racing Ferrari 430 lost a wheel and became stranded at the pit exit; the #70 RaceArt BMW Z4 crashed out of a top 20 position; the #32 Pro GT Porsche spun; and the #11 Sport Garage Ferrari had an off at the Les Combes chicane. But the most serious incident as far as the race leaders Marc VDS were concerned took place when Filip Salaquarda in the #59 AF Corse Ferrari came into contact with the back of Leinders' BMW. The 458 was recovered to the pits and looks very much like a retirement, but the leading car was able to keep going after a short precautionary pitstop and did not lose the lead under the safety car.
Other top 10 runners hitting trouble included former Pro-Am leaders Reiter Engineering, who had to deal with a wheel hub problem on their Gallardo, and the #40 Sainteloc Racing Audi, which had to have front-end damage repaired. Approaching 2am both had fallen outside the overall top 30.
Marc VDS' third driver Markus Palttala has yet to appear in the car – as he picked up a stop-go penalty during qualifying, which he will have to serve within the first three laps of the stint. Thus far, the team has focused on pulling out a gap with Martin and Leinders at the wheel, so they can take the penalty without losing position, but the constant stream of safety cars is frustrating their efforts – and allowing the chasing Audis to take the lead during each pitstop sequence. Palttala has been sent to bed for the night and should be in the car at around 6am – shortly after the team can collect another haul of points to protect their Blancpain Series lead.
Second and third positions remain firmly in the grasp of Audi, with Rene Rast in the #16 Phoenix R8 currently heading former race leader Stephane Ortelli in the #1 WRT entry. The polesitting #66 Vita4One BMW is also back in the frame, having slipped out of the overall top 10 in the evening, and Frank Kechele currently sits fourth. The DB Motorsport BMW is fifth, followed by the second WRT Audi in sixth. The come a pair of Porsches: the #34 Pro GT by Almeras and #75 Prospeed competition cars. Ferraris are up next, in the shape of the #57 Vita4One Team Italy and #50 AF Corse machines, with Alessandro Bonacini and Enzo Ide driving respectively.