24 Hours of Spa 2012: Audi’s Dream Year Continues

Bathurst. Sebring. Nurburgring. Le Mans. And now Spa. Audi really is proving to be unstoppable in the big endurance classics so far in 2012. But in the Ardennes last weekend, it wasn’t the much-fancied line-up of multiple Le Mans winners Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Tom Kristensen that took the honours. Instead, it fell to young gun Rene Rast, plus long-serving Audi works man Frank Stippler and likeable Italian Andrea Piccini, to score yet another win for the R8 LMS Ultra GT3 car. It was a particularly sweet victory for Piccini, who made his first attempt at the Spa 24 Hours in 2002 and missed out on winning several times since then.

Audi also managed to secure a 1-2 courtesy of the efforts of Stephane Ortelli plus German young guns Christopher Mies and Christopher Haase, who were driving for the Belgian WRT team that was victorious in the previous Blancpain Endurance Series Race at Paul Ricard in France. A second WRT entry, driven by Swede Edward Sandstrom at the time, crashed out of second place around Sunday lunchtime. The Lotterer, Fassler and Kristensen car was taken out of contention very early in the race, when a clumsy late entry to the pitlane by Adam Christodoulou saw his McLaren MP4-12C swipe the nose of the #6 Audi R8, necessitating half an hour in the pits for suspension repairs. But the star trio were undaunted, and made up four of the eight laps they lost to the rest of the field over the remainder of the race, eventually coming home a remarkable sixth overall in an event that was packed full of drama, incident and interruption from start to finish.

A massive thunderstorm on Friday afternoon that led to the cancellation of the ‘Super Pole’ top 20 qualifying shootout provided a preview of the astounding extremes of weather that would affect the race. The 66-car grid took the start at 4pm on Saturday under blazing sunshine, yet by evening cars were aquaplaning in a straight line behind the safety car as the legendary circuit was once again pounded by torrential rain. Sixteen seperate safety car periods, totalling five hours, tell you all you need to know about the amount of incidents at Spa this year – as does the fact that only half the field finished. The cars on the whole may be more reliable and the tracks safer than in the past, but endurance racing in 2012 is still a punishing and merciless undertaking for all involved.

Just ask the McLaren teams: of the nine MP4-12Cs that started, only two finished, both run by former McLaren F1 man Dave Ryan’s Von Ryan Racing outfit. The strongest McLaren runner in the early stages was Nico Verdonck, who held fifth place in the Belgian Boutsen Ginion Racing’s MP4-12C. But nightfall brought and end to their promising performance when another McLaren, several laps down, came together with their car at La Source, knocking a wheel off. The two-car Gulf Racing effort ran well, too, until gentleman drivers Mike Wainwright and Roald Goethe were each caught out by the wet and pitch-dark Francorchamps night. About the only plus point the Woking firm can take from this race is that the reliability problems that blighted the MP4-12C earlier in the season appear to have been largely cured – but a tendency to over-use its tyres remains. There’s still some development work to do, but progress is being made.
It was the BMW teams that came closest to breaking Audi’s dominance. Team Vita4One and Marc VDS’ Z4 GT3s finished third and fourth respectively on Sunday afternoon, having disputed the lead  for much of the race. The combined effects of a stop-go penalty picked up by driver Markus Palttala, plus an increasingly troublesome starter motor, denied Marc VDS a podium finish. While the Vita4One crew of Frank Kechele, Greg Franchi and Mathias Lauda could well have pushed the winners much harder were it not for some unfortunately timed pit stops that saw them on the wrong tyres at the wrong time during Saturday night’s rain and safety-car melee.

The Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 never looked strong enough to challenge for overall honours at Spa this year, but the car was well represented in the Pro-Am class, which was won by AF Corse’s #52 car, driven by Niek Hommerson, Louis Machiels, Andrea Bertolini and Alessandro Per Giudi. A possible class one-two for the team was spoiled by a frustrating late retirement for the sister #51 machine due to a water leak. This promoted the Team Haribo Porsche up to second in class. BMW works driver Uwe Alzen putting on a spectacular show during his stints in that car, where he was filling in for Briton Richard Westbrook, who was on Grand-Am duty all weekend.
There were a few familiar faces in the third-placed Pro-Am car, too. Joining Eric Debard and Morgan Moulin Traffort in the #10 SOFREV Ferrari 458 were ex-F1 driver and Monaco GP winner Olivier Panis and World Cup-winning French international goalkeeper Fabien Barthez – the latter taking a step up from the French national GT championship, where he’s raced for several years. Reiter Engineering entered the sole Lamborghini Gallardo to appear in the race, and Peter Kox, Albert von Thurn und Taxis, Jos Menten and Blancpain CEO Mark Hayek pulled through several mechanical issues to eventually bring their car home sixth in Pro-Am and 11th overall.

But regardless of the result, Spa is always a spectacular place to watch motor racing. It’s all about the elevation changes: whether it’s the mind-bending rollercoaster ride that is Eau Rouge, or simply looking down on the cars from high above as they approach the rapid Pouhon double left-hander, Spa-Francorchamps gives spectators perspectives on racing cars that you just don’t get at other tracks. Sitting on the terrace of the Pit Brasserie restaurant during Thursday night qualifying lets you marvel at just how dark it gets away from the start/finish straight (in contrast to Le Mans or Daytona), while a walk away from the Bus Stop chicane past the frighteningly fast Blanchimont left-hander allows you to peer down through a forest of pine trees at cars being held at the very limit of adhesion on the quickest part of the circuit.

Don’t forget the spectacular views of the Kemmel Straight and beyond, which can be found just after Eau Rouge, or the less frequently visited corners like the Fagnes chicane – a technical right/left section that’s been known to catch a driver or two out. Plus, unlike Le Mans or the Nurburgring, Spa is relatively compact, so you can easily walk the whole lap. Be prepared for some steep hills, though – not to mention that eternal bugbear of the Ardennes region, undpredictable rain showers. But even the torrential rain seen at this year’s 24 Hours didn’t last for long, so if you don’t like the weather at Spa, just wait five minutes, or walk to another corner, and it’ll have changed!

Report by Stephen Errity, www.lendurance.co.uk

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