Eau Rouge. La Source. Blanchimont. Pouhon. Classic corners all, the corners that define the challenge of Spa – and its status as one of the world’s best circuits. Watching a single car in practice is great: you can study each car in turn, hear the throttle modulation, see their braking point and view their different lines. One car and one driver against one corner. The struggle of the individual against the limits of grip and courage.
But then it comes to racing. A track becomes a different beast. Now there are 24 GT1 cars and one corner. Your carefully planned braking point? You can forget it. Your pre-selected optimum braking point? Obscured by a dozen other cars aiming for the same piece of track. Your race strategy? Thrown out of the window, along with every other calm thought you had before the lights went green.
Even off the track, on race day the circuit comes alive with colour, glamour and noise. 45 minutes before the pit-lane opens for the Championship Race, the grid girls began to form up to make their way out onto the grid and mark the starting positions. A salivating pack of photographers usually descend on them even before a single car has left its garage – looking for art, of course. The buzz of the crowd builds with the anticipation of the first cars making their way round on their exploratory formation laps. Gradually the grid becomes completely covered in people and the 24 cars lost in the sea of people.
A day dedicated to sportscar racing was made even more complete by the cars the fans themselves brought to show off: a glorious collection was on display both in the paddock but also out in the car parks. Belgium wins so far for the sheer quantity and quantity of exotica on show.
The Qualifying Race is a strange concept: I’m still not won over by all the different sessions with ‘qualifying’ in the tittle, but to be honest I don’t really mind: the chance of another hour of the pack of GT1 cars screaming round Spa is fine by me, whatever the reason. For this race I perched precariously on the side of the hill overlooking Eau Rouge, for the classic view of the cars streaming down the hill, over the endurance finish line and into Eau Rouge itself. Spectators line the fence all around the outside of the corner, soaking up the spectacle of seeing the cars dance on a knife-edge of adhesion up the hill.
It was a deserved lights-to-flag victory for the Dutch pairing of Xavier Maassen and Jos Menten #11 Mad Croc Corvette C6.R: Menten was using his co-driver’s seat insert, higher than normal, so had to ask his race engineer to call the green when the lights changed at the start! He was almost swamped at the start by Lamborghinis as a result. Once again its sister car had the opposite luck: #12 was turned round by Michael Bartels in the #1 Vitaphone Maserati MC12 as he tried to make up positions; his spin almost stopped the #22 Sumo Power Nissan in its tracks and caused a puncture. Sumo Power’s Jamie Campbell-Walter was not best pleased and seen dropping into the Vitaphone garage for a quick ‘chat’ after the race – hopefully we’ll hear about that in Jamie’s blog!
Things had looked good for Lamborghini with the #38 All-Inkl Murcielago second on the grid, but Dominic Schwager dropped back and was punted out of third at Les Combes corner, causing damage to the car – a bad pit-stop then dropped the Murcielago out of contention.
Another Lamborghini was still there though: the #25 Reiter Murcielago driven by Frank Kechele and F1 refugee Ricardo Zonta: they harried #11 all the way to the flag, flaming away as usual, and stayed within a couple of seconds of the Corvette for pretty much the whole race.
The Ford GTs were looking good here: Matech had split up their #5 car drivers to give them a better tilt at the championship, with Romain Grosjean swapping to #6. #5 had enlisted Porsche Carrera Cup champion Richard Westbrook, and he put in a strong debut outing in the Ford GT alongside Thomas Mutsch. However, early in the race Westbrook collided with the #40 Marc VDS GT driven by the local pairing of Maxime Martin and Bas Leinders, spinning them out. Marc VDS were going to have a rotten weekend at their local track…
As the cars fire into Eau Rouge, the Corvettes, Nissans and Lamborghinis were all trailing smoke: a result of low ride-heights and the under-floor legality plank wearing on the road. The cars looked pretty fierce on the entry to the corner: obviously if the middle of the car is bottoming out the tyres aren’t in full contact with the road. Up Eau Rouge? No thanks.
The #13 of Abu Dhabi winner Marc Hennerici, paired with Mike Hezemans returning to his own team after a quick sojourn with Mad Croc at Ricard, was third on the road but stopped on the warm-down lap when the engine cut out – they were then excluded for not having enough fuel in the tank. #14 had a puncture and stopped out on track. Both were towed back into Parc Fermé after the race, which made for a pretty sad sight.
Sumo Power had it all to do after its poor qualifying: both cars were well on the race pace but only #23 was able to profit: they were ferocious as they fought their way from 19th at the start to eighth at the flag, a result that immediately put them in the hunt for the next day’s Championship Race.
#22 could only finish 20th after the assault on JCW at the start, but they were still pleased with their pace. Maybe they could salvage something the next day?
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP SPA QUALIFYING RACE RESULT
1: #11 Mad Croc Racing Chevrolet Corvette C6.R (Xavier Maassen/Jos Menten) 25 Laps
2: #25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Frank Kechele/Ricardo Zonta) +1.895s
3: #8 Young Driver AMR Aston Martin DBR9 (Stefan Mücke/Christoffer Nygaard) +27.771s
4: #34 Triple H Team Hegersport Maserati MC12 (Nico Verdonck/Bert Longin) +35.518s
5: #38 Münnich Motorsport Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Dominik Schwager/Nicky Pastorelli) +36.972s
Walking up to Pouhon that morning I’d been swamped by this motorcade of Range Rovers sweeping past. James Bond villains? Nope, just Vitaphone’s taxis for their corporate guests… It’s alright for some people.
On the spectator banking overlooking the start-line was probably the most impressive line-up of cars I’ve seen this year. Starting with the local GT-R club, there was obviously plenty of local support for the Sumo Power and SRT teams.
Continuing along the line, the more exotic and rare the cars: this bewinged BMW M1 for instance.
Then a personal favourite: an immaculate De Tomaso Pantera.
It just got better and better. Drooling is never attractive, but sometimes it’s difficult to stop. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a V12 Lamborghini Espada in the flesh (‘Espada’ being Spanish for the sword used to kill the bull in bull-fighting’).
The GT40 was likely a replica, but still made a fantastic quartet next to the Lancia, E-Type Jag and Alfa Gtv. And then there were the obligatory Porsches, Ferraris, Astons… Beautiful.
The warm-up in the morning of the Championship race is only half an hour long, so it would have been stupid to trek to the far reaches of the circuit. Basically, that’s just an excuse for me to be able to hang out at La Source again. How close are you to the cars? This close. You can literally reach out and touch them. There is nowhere like this on any other European track.
But even in the warm-up a raging bull is difficult to tame, especially as the rain had returned overnight. Entry wrong, brakes locked, screech, spin. Cheer from La Source! More please!
11:40am. The grid is forming for the championship race. Peter Dumbreck and Michael Krumm in the #23 Sumo Power GT-R are with team boss James Rumsey on the grid. Eighth on the grid, boys? What can you do from here? No pressure…
#22 was at the back, but couldn’t be counted out.
‘Wazza’ Hughes and JCW have been giving masterclasses in overtaking all year. It seems like the further back they are, the more likely they are to be fighting for points come the end! They obviously love a challenge.
Whilst the teams on the grid were calmly going about their final checks, the #41 Marc VDS Ford GT was stuck in the garage with some kind of fluids leak: the radiator was off and the crew running about desperately trying to fix the problem and reassemble the car in time to take the start. It’s a horrible position to be in.
On the grid mechanics guard their charges from the combination of over-zealous photographers and team guests wandering around the grid. As was shown at Silverstone when it was actually a driver that was run over by a car coasting into its slot, the grid is still a dangerous place.
Although the garages are good places to get detail shots of cars, what I like about being on the grid (apart from the general buzz) is that you get a better look in the cockpits. Usually doors are left open as drivers are strapped in, mechanics carry out last minute adjustments in the cabins and engineers have a last play on their laptops.
The hooters start going off with 10 minutes to go and the grid starts being cleared, leaving just the cars and a few final mechanics making sure the cars are completely ready. With the final few minutes to go they too exit, and then the cars get reedy to set off on their formation lap behind the safety car. The anticipation grows: photographers who had been working the grid stumble up to the first corner, weighed down by kit, trying to get in position in the few minutes before the cars take off. Monopods up, lenses pointed, howling noise growing in volume as the pack approaches the Bus Stop in two-by-two formation, the final chicane. They come into view, the safety car peels off… And it’s GO! There’s the usual usual frantic charge to La Source: the cars spread out four and five wide in their efforts to make up places.
The La Source hairpin exit has been re-profiled in recent years and the unforgiving barrier on the exit replaced with acres of F1-friendly tarmac run-off. It means there are even more lines you can (and at the start, have to) take, but in the race you want to stay tight and cover the inside – Michael Krumm in #23 was forced wide and hung out to dry. Cars scythed past on the inside and eighth position became a distant memory. Tyre smoke hung in the air.
From La Source you also get the reverse view of the cars barrelling down the hill to Eau Rouge. The leading five cars had edged away, whilst the main pack circulated almost as one a couple of seconds back, followed by stragglers: both the #40 Ford GT and #12 Corvette had spun and #4 SRT GT-R had suffered a puncture early on.
Surely Lamborghini were going to have their day? The Reiter team have been prepping Lamborghinis for a decade, but a top-level win has always proved elusive. This time #25, starting from second, had the #24 sister car of Peter Kox right up there with it from seventh on the grid plus #38 in fourth: for the first seven laps the three Murcielagos harried the leading #11 Mad Croc ‘Vette until finally #24 took the lead on lap 8. Soon after the Corvette was into pits with a puncture: no chance of a double win now. Lamborghini now 1, 2 and 3!
But then #25’s wingmen started dropping away: #24 suffered an oil leak that left oil all through the Rivage corner and beyond, whilst #38 had another botched pitstop followed by a spin courtesy of a tap from the #10 Hexis Aston.
Warren Hughes in #22 had made the predicted amazing progress through the field, making it up to 11th place before, equally predictably, being spun out by a Ford GT – Romain Grosjean in #6 the culprit this time. JCW had to redo all of Hughes’ hard work when he took over the wheel, but would get the job done and be back up to 11th again by the end – just out of the points.
By this stage I was completely confused as to what was going on – okay, pretty much my default state. The only constant from the start was #25, but the rest of the field was like a pinball machine! A safety car had come out halfway through the race, and #23 was in third …
Third?! Where did he come from? Michael had got the car back up to eighth – its original starting position – by lap eight, and then some slick pit-work gained even more time.
With #24 dropping out Peter moved into third, and then took second just after the safety car came on. As it dawned on me that #23 was actually in contention for a win I had a little bit of a panic: I had to try and get back for the podium! Luckily a shuttle van passed by and I jumped in. The can had the French race commentary on, and as we were halfway back I heard the disastrous news: with just two laps to go #23 had ground to a halt, smoke pouring from the bonnet. Heartbreak for Sumo Power! But what an amazing run from both Sumo Power cars, and it’s definitely a race to catch on the GT1 web stream.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP SPA CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULT
1: #25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Frank Kechele/Ricardo Zonta) 24 Laps
2:#33 Triple H Team Hegersport Maserati MC12 (Altfrid Heger/Alex Müller) +3.253s
3: #5 Matech Competition Ford GT (Thomas Mutsch/Richard Westbrook) +6.675s
4: #2 Vitaphone Racing Team Maserati MC12 (Miguel Ramos/Enrique Bernoldi) +7.074s
5: #9 Hexis Racing AMR Aston Martin DBR9 (Frédéric Makowiecki/Thomas Accary) +7.936s
So, that was it for GT1 at Spa in 2010, and for me at the track. But the final word goes to the fantastically named Woopy Snakes, providers of lethally good, traditional Belgian frites with mayonnaise. My god. My poor arteries… Next up, Nurburgring in Germany at the end of this month!
Spa stories on Speedhunters (be sure to check out John Brooks’ Spa Old Circuit And the Porsche 917 piece – amazing!)