While it may not stand in the memory like the BMW E30 M3, the Jaguar XJ-S or the mighty Maserati MC12, the Peugeot 306 GTI-6 owns a place in the Spa 24 Hours history books. The little Pug earned outright laurels in Belgium’s foremost endurance event in 1999 and 2000. With such a sterling record in the great event, it seemed entirely appropriate that Mrs Motorcardiaries and I should forsake my old Lotus Exige and journey to the Ardennes in her loyal 306 Rallye for the 2014 running of this great event.
The journey from Yorkshire was as uneventful as one might hope for. We were as well-organised as always, checking tyre pressures, oil level and screen wash in the Shuttle, deep below the English Channel. As is customary with an ageing French hot hatch, we paid due respect to the temperature gauge throughout. Mile after mile of monotonous Flanders autoroute passed beneath the Rallye’s wheels before Brussels was cleared and we hit the glorious woodlands of the Ardennes. An area blighted by savage fighting during World War Two, it is today a region of spectacular vistas, rising mists and vast coniferous trees.
Nestled among the arboreal beauty is Château Bleu, my favourite Belgian hotel and venue for the finest Continental breakfast going. The proprietor is an ardent classic car enthusiast who owns a pre-war MG K3 race car, Chevrolet Corvette and Jaguar E-Type. Home also to a couple of affection dogs, a visit to Château Bleu is like staying with friends.
Friday evening brought torrential rain, with thunder rolling through the valleys. It was perfectly typical of the region but seemed a worrying portent for the weekend’s track activities. Mercifully the rain had cleared by Saturday morning but the air was heavy and a thick mist shrouded the Ardennes as the sodden ground slowly warmed. This gave rise to some wonderfully atmospheric driving through dense forest and rolling pastures.
For the 24 Hours, camping and car parking become one so we adopted a space among the trees and debated clothing and footwear. Even at 10am, it was hot but Spa is notoriously unpredictable. Walking boots, umbrellas, trousers, waterproofs…we argued the merits of each – and with British F3 acting as a blaring soundtrack in the background. Eventually, replete with grubby trainers and barely a nod towards potential precipitation we were in: the 2014 Spa 24 Hours.
Having missed F3 due to our lengthy sartorial indecision, our first race of the meeting was for Formula Renault NEC. It set the tone for a weekend when the Lamborghini Aventador safety car spent almost as long in the race lead as any of the competitors. The race finished behind the safety car with Kevin Jörg taking a slightly deflating win as the clock ticked down to nothing as the crocodile rounded Blanchimont. With Jörg earning himself a 30 second penalty, Steijn Schothorst inherited the win. Perhaps not the most evocative race win in competition history but to finish first, first you have to finish. Brit Seb Morris duked it out wheel-to-wheel in the descent down to Eau Rouge before running into trouble half-way around the last racing lap, colliding with Raoul Owens.
The Lamborghini Super Trofeo for Gallardo race cars was up next and with it came more safety car time; a stranded Lambo on the exit of La Source being the culprit. The race itself didn’t present the finest action but the cars are mighty. Hammering out of La Source, that full-bodied V10 howl and cracks on the over-run combined with dramatic aero addenda certainly created an arresting spectacle.
Final support race before the main event was a combined grid of Belgian Racing Car Championship and European GT4 racers. A 90 minute mini-enduro saw a terrific early scrap emerge for the lead between the Brussels Racing Aston Martin V12 Vantage and Belgium Racing Porsche 991 GT3 R. This pair flew into an early lead at a pace way beyond the hopes of the following pack.
Behind them, a mixed bag of GT racers included a small herd of spaceframe racers, apparently using a VW Scirocco silhouette. Most entertaining of all, though, was a brace of Chevrolet Camaros which bucked and weaved its way through Eau Rouge in tandem lap-after-lap.
There may have been a safety car, but by this point most spectators had become so conditioned to the sight and sound of the Aventador at the head of each grid, we barely noticed its arrival. Eventually the Brussels Racing Aston was able to triumph over the Belgium Racing 911 following a race-long tussle.
A fine support bill, but the event was all about the 24 Hours and a wander around the paddock before the event gave the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. An enormous 61-car entry was headed by Bentley, McLaren, BMW, Audi and Mercedes teams in the pro category, each of whom had teams and drivers capable of delivering victory. The paddock was awash with corporate guests and the major manufacturers had vast fleets of cars in attendance. One could barely move for Bentleys and Audi RS6s.
On track during the build-up was a parade of local classic and supercars. A vast field of mixed machinery included strident AC Cobra, bewinged Viper, Lamborghini Uracco and Ferrari 412i to give a brief idea of the scope of the assembled pack. Each driver enjoyed the opportunity to gun it down the pit straight and sample Spa-Francorchamps’ unique topography. Also out on track for a quick demo was one of Audi’s latest R18 LMP1 runners. Although not lapping at racing speed, it was a reminder of how tiny and yet incredibly potent the latest hybrid prototypes have become. Perhaps a trip to the Spa 1000kms could be on the cards for 2015.
With the start approaching we wandered anti-clockwise out of the paddock and adopted a spot among the locals, high up in the trees above the Bus Stop chicane. Armed with a cone of the traditional frites avec mayo , this was an experience only Spa could serve up and provided the perfect spot to observe the huge field pouring its ways through the chicane and out onto the start-finish straight for the first time.
The early laps were all about pole sitter Laurens Vanthoor. The local hero is as quick as anybody in the world aboard a GT car right now and he controlled the race from the front. Not far behind, though, was the #50 Pro-Am Ferrari 458 which showed the rest a clan pair of heals. Behind them, and dropping quickly away, was a baying pack which included a gaggle of Audis, Mercedes and the hitherto all-conquering #7 Bentley.
A rhythm started to emerge but the race was not without interest through the field. Duncan Tappy brought the #8 Bentley into the pits on lap two for a steering rack change, his Continental GT3 grinding painfully as it crawled into the pitlane. The much-fancied #66 Marc VDS BMW Z4 started making progress up the order and the #98 McLaren was making its way through the lower-end runners after an enormous practice smash left Alvaro Parente starting from the dead last.
Sated by frites, it was time to wander on and tracking the course anti-clockwise leads you to the amazing Blanchimont. A flat-out left-hander – a relic of the circuit’s earliest days – Blanchimont remains a significant challenge in the modern GT3 racer. The first left kink is easy flat for all drivers but the second needs some thinking about. Most of the field boldly hooked all four wheels over the kerb on the outside of the corner, opening out the radius and swinging through towards the spectators watching at the apex. While apparently simple, the smoothest, shallowest line was the fastest and Vanthoor looked the absolute master, carving a perfect, efficient arc, revs barely wavering from the drag of the corner. By comparison, the Bentleys looked to be struggling; battling understeer all the way through with the front washing wide. It was a privileged perch to study the best at work.
Out here in the woodland, we first detected an aroma which seemed to pervade the entire weekend in an entirely unobtrusive manner: weed. It seems everybody at Spa (except, sadly, us) was getting high. Of course this entirely harmless activity had a couple of very positive knock-on effects: the circuit’s famous waffle vendors did fantastic business; and the atmosphere remained calm but fun.
Don’t expect too much of the Le Mans-style stag do banter at Spa. People come to the event in families and there are even girls in attendance. Perhaps even more unusual; so too are dogs. Belgian sports car enthusiasts seem to love only one thing more than getting stoned and that’s the companionship of their canine chums. It certainly livens up the spectator banks as dogs alternately square up to and attempt to get amorous with one another.
We continued to traverse the perimeter and it soon became apparent all was not well. The safety car emerged for the first of what became a great number of visits. As with Le Mans, Spa adopts a dual safety car procedure. That means a road-going Porsche 911 and Lamborghini Aventador each heading a separate pack. We weren’t within sight of any accident so settled on the banking high above Pouhon (or Double Gauche as the locals bill it) to relax with a beer.
At this stage things became quite confused. The track went green as the 911 pulled onto the Pouhon run-off to release the pack and they were back to racing speed. Immediately the yellow flags were waving and the safety car re-emerged. A trawl through Twitter reveals that safety cars do indeed breed safety cars as Tim Mullen suffered a terrifying smash at Blanchimont in the Von Ryan McLaren.
This pattern continued and for a time it was actually hard to tell who had crashed and where, but a stream of destroyed cars on flat bed wagons traversing the circuit’s access road told its own story. Racing recommenced as we trudged up the near-vertical slope towards Rivage where the locals were really in full swing. Several hardy – and evidently profoundly deaf – souls had pitched camp on the inside of this challenging 180deg hairpin.
Much as one might see at Monza over GP weekend, the campers’ ingenuity knows no bounds. A group of lads adopted a fine piece of real estate for the duration. A private viewing spot at the fence and fire pit looked welcoming but the huge tree house they had hitched way up in the trees permitted them an incredible, signature Spa view with the surface unravelling below them before rising again towards the distance paddocks.
The spectating at Rivage is superb. Approached downhill, and at enormous speed, the corner is long enough to permit a variety of different lines. It’s OK to go in a little deep and recover to hold position. The downhill approach means braking distances are long, permitting some bold overtaking moves. With the sun slowly setting in the distance, brakes glowing and exhausts spurting gobs of flame on the over-run, it’s hugely evocative spectacle, especially with the winds carrying the smell of barbecue (and weed, obviously) through the air.
With the light gently fading, we worked our way back around the track and to Les Combes. Every time I visit Spa, I take a second to reflect at the point where the old track spears off into the countryside. It’s impossible not to get a lump in the throat as one ponders the bravery of those who ranged themselves against road racing’s fastest, scariest circuit.
Feeling duly reverential, we grabbed a bière and ambled towards the top of the Kemmel Straight where it quickly became apparent that all was not well once again. The safety cars flashed again before the red flag was flown – an accident at Stavelot sufficiently severe to necessitate the temporary stoppage of the race. The cluster of incident vehicles and flashing lights told their own story.
This subdued the atmosphere slightly but the Spa party remained a buoyant one. It’s not as crazy as the Belgian GP, nor as ‘blokey’ as Le Mans but the beers were flowing and everyone remained in good spirits and fascinated by the awesome sight and sound of GT3 racing cars around Europe’s finest race track.
The racing got back under way after British Ferrari driver Marcus Mahy was airlifted to hospital. It was a huge relief to learn the next morning that he was conscious and reactive, though still injured.
We headed to the rooftop viewing terrace above the old pitlane where ART and Boutsen-Girion, among others, had their garages. Like a few other souls, we grabbed a glass of the local tipple, Jupiler, and enjoyed the view. It was now thoroughly dark, with each pit box illuminated individually. In the distance, a DJ set had kicked off with a dramatic light show and pumping music. We might’ve preferred a little Dark Side of the Moon but the banging bass immediately put one in mind of 90s Friday night telly sensation Euro Trash. It seemed somehow quite apt.
Of course, if Spa is defined by anything, it’s one corner: Eau Rouge. For the last ten years or so, this outrageous sequence has lost a little of its mystique with F1 drivers finding it to be an easy flat-out blast. For generations before – and still in all other categories – it has posed a unique challenge. The GT3 guys are flat from the exit of the La Source hairpin, accelerating hard downhill and through the initial left. From there it’s a game of testicular size and fortitude governing how much speed the drivers are prepared to carry into the right hander through the compression and up the hill.
This spectacle at night is just mesmeric. The cars are past us and out of sight, blasting up the Kemmel Straight within perhaps four seconds, but what drama. The very quickest guys are completing the entire sequence without the hint of a lift, revs high as they crest Raidillon and hammer towards Les Combes. With that enormous downforce-generating underbody, the Bentleys are incredible to behold. The darkness means there can be no secrets and even covering the brake pedal will illuminate the brake lights. Not a hint of it from either Continental GT3.
By comparison, the gentlemen drivers were braking fairly hard before the right hander. This strangled the revs, losing them precious speed up the ascent. The difference between the great and the good is small, the nuances of technique, but set against a cool, dark sky the finest talent sparkles. With virtually every car scraping its underbody through the compression, sending showers of sparks into the air, it’s a privileged glimpse into the world of night time endurance racing.
Past midnight and a little fatigue was setting in so we took to our feet for a wander around the paddock. The garages remained active, with wheels being scrubbed, timing monitors being studied and pitstops being prepared for. A visit to the Bentley garage and the guys there revealed a team frustrated with both cars having toppled down the order early in the race.
The mechanics were relaxing, ready for the next burst of frantic activity, while the drivers and engineers clustered around the timing screens. As we prepared for the quick trip back to a comfortable bed, we realised the cars would be pounding relentlessly through the Ardennes night for the intervening eight hours, every team member having to play his or her part to keep them operating. Endurance racing is, and always has been, a very human endeavour.
Sunday dawned overcast. A little rain in the morning had failed to disrupt proceedings much and the track was dry by the time we were trackside, armed with coffee but completely unaware of what was happening in the race.
Overnight, the rhythm of the race had really established itself. The #1 WRT Audi of Laurens Vanthoor, René Rast and Markus Winklehock had continued to circulate at considerable speed, while it had been joined at the front by the fuel efficient #77 Marc VDS BMW of Lucas Luhr, Markus Paltalla and Dirk Werner. Whatever the team names might be, this amounted to works BMW Z4 vs works Audi R8. The lead had yo-yoed between these two for several hours. When the Audi pitted, the BMW assumed the lead and vice versa.
Behind them, and just out of contention for the win, were the #26 Audi of Edward Sandström, Stéphane Ortelli and Grégory Guilvert, the #86 Mercedes SLS of Maximilians Buhk & Götz and Jazeman Jaafar, and the #3 Audi of James Nash, Frank Stippler and Christopher Mies. The other leading contenders had retired altogether or suffered woes which had dropped them down the order. That meant no Bentleys or McLarens vying for the lead and the much-fancied HTP Mercedes team wasn’t to repeat its 2013 victory – the #86 lacking the last ounce of pace to keep it in contention.
In light of cooler conditions, it seemed appropriate to walk the course once again. The race hadn’t been so blighted by serious incidents overnight but the facility remained littered with broken race cars. I can’t recall another race where so many gorgeous machines have been so badly damaged – it put one in mind of that demolition derby British GT round at Oulton Park in 2001 which claimed virtually the entire field.
18 hours of flat-out running had taken its toll on the cars still running. Once immaculate, the body of each car now carried a thick layer of grime. Most carried scars, holes and duct tape and pockmarks of rubber bloodied their noses. Remarkably, in spite of the toil and the tremendous quantity of energy exerted in pounding 500 times around Spa-Francorchamps’ pummelling fast corners and epic gradients, more than half the pack was still running – and running well.
Scarred and bloodied they may have been, but these awesome machines continued to soak up the bumps, rev freely and fire home gearchanges with conviction and alacrity. Standing at the bottom of Eau Rouge, hearing their bellies grinding along the surface under maximum load, it seemed impossible to countenance that the cars could suffer such abuse for one hour, let alone 24 – and yet here they were.
As the race entered its final hour, we settled in the Brasserie, located above the new pit complex. Possessing the most fantastic location, as well as big screen TV and chilled Coca Cola, this was the perfect place to watch the end of the race unravel. In the Pro-Am category, British interest was piqued by the speed of Alexander Sims in the Ecurie Ecosse BMW Z4. With 20 minutes remaining, he had 20 seconds to try and find on the #53 Ferrari.
It seemed an unlikely ask, but Sims had proven himself a mighty GT pilot during his first season in the discipline, an assured victory at Oulton Park in April announcing a sports car star of the future – and today. Sadly it wasn’t to be at Spa but huge plaudits to the team, which took a podium in class on a weekend when so many contenders failed to finish.
Third in Pro-Am went to the #52 Ferrari squad, which included Aussie legend Craig Lowndes in the driver line-up; the V8 Supercars star back at Spa for the first time since his F3000 season in 1997. His Spa 24 Hours debut put one in mind of Peter Brock’s bow in 1977, when he shared a DTV Magnum with Gerry Marshall. Also from the world of V8 Supercars was Shane van Gisbergen, whose acrobatics aboard a McLaren in the season’s Bathurst 12 Hours had earned him a seat in the Von Ryan team’s 12C. Sadly he was not to race after Tim Mullen’s terrifying accident during the early phase of the race had put the car out of the race.
Intriguingly, another Antipodean face around the paddock was Betty Klimenko. The distinctive tattooed Aussie’s Erebus squad runs Mercedes SLSs in the domestic Australian GT Championship. Her appearance at Spa suggests a European debut for the team may not be far off.
Back to the action, and with 40 minutes to go, there was enormous tension in the Brasserie. While half the assembled throng watched the final handful of laps of the Hungarian Grand Prix on one screen, the rest savoured a similarly close battle for the outright win at Spa.
The #77 BMW had fought adversity for much of the race, losing ABS and traction control. That it had remained in contention into the final stint says much for the quality of the car, team and drivers. The team rolled the dice and sent the car out from its final pit stop without changing tyres. That left Werner with a 20 second lead but René Rast in the chasing Audi was on fresh tyres – and with fresh brakes as well.
Rast set about closing the gap and was as much as three seconds per lap quicker. With Werner evidently hobbled, it became apparent this, sadly, was a fight the BMW simply couldn’t win and Rast sliced cleanly past into La Source with less than 20 minutes remaining. The German pulled out a slim lead to cross the line seven seconds ahead after 24 hours of flat-out racing.
The race highlighted the best and worst of endurance racing. The spectacle of GT3 cars around Spa is phenomenal and remains an enormous challenge. That amateur drivers can range themselves against the best in the world around such a great circuit is remarkable. Reviewing the footage afterwards, however, reveals how fortunate we were that nobody was killed during the race. The sight of Marcus Mahy slumped in the cockpit of his Ferrari made one shudder, as did the cars coming past at racing speeds up Raidillon as poor Vlacheslav Maleev stumbled from his wrecked car.
You’ll never make motor racing safe but there are lessons to be learned here.
That’s not to say the Spa 24 Hours isn’t a wonderful event. Blessed with the greatest GT field in the world and around such a formidible circuit, it remains a truly special event. GT racing is currently riding the crest of a wave and this event is one of the jewels in its crown.
As a means of closing out our trip, with the race over we ventured out onto the old circuit and speared off south, heading to Luxembourg for dinner. Having never been, and with our sat nav taking us off the autoroute, we discovered gorgeous, verdant countryside and quaint farming villages. Stopping for a bite to eat in Clervaux provided good food and pleasant people. We only scratched the surface of the country but the wonderful roads were a reminder of what a chore driving in the UK has generally become. Let’s not mention the discovery that the M20 was closed just as we emerged from the Channel Tunnel upon our return to England…