August is here, the dog days have started and the feeling prevails within me that yet another year is sliding past into history. The beginning of August is marked by the running of the third great endurance race to be held in Europe, which how I came to find myself in the Ardennes last weekend. I published a flash result within an hour of the final flag being waved but now I must try and make sense of the whole affair.
The Spa 24 Hours is but one year younger than its famous French cousin, having been run for the first time in 1924. Then Maurice Becquet and Henri Springuel took honours in a Bignan 2L, no, I haven't a clue what that is either. Since then the race has prospered, with the Stephane Ratel Organisation taking over in 2001, making the 24 hours the jewel in the crown of the FIA GT Championship. Those of you paying attention will know that Sheik Ratel, as he is affectionately known, has finally achieved his dream of creating the FIA GT1 World Championship, the coverage with our partners, Sumo Power, has been extensive. The Spa 24 Hours was supposed then to form part of the FIA GT2 European Championship, however the teams voted with their feet and deserted the series. Disputes over driver classification and technical rules were largely to blame, that and the decision of the ACO that GT2 would be the future. The factory teams decided that Le Mans and the new InterContinental Challenge would be their future. The stillborn GT2 Championship morphed into the FIA GT2 European Cup and disaster was averted by combining cars conforming to GT2, GT3, GT4 and local specs to get a reasonably healthy grid of 40 cars.
As usual there was a parade of the 24 Hours competitors in the middle of Spa on the Wednesday preceeding the race, giving everyone the chance to get up close and personal. Then the engines were fired up and the whole convoy was escorted at a good pace back up the hills to the Francorchamps circuit.
As in any race there are a small number of contenders that at the outset that would be a reasonable bet for a win. Leading the pack and Pole position holder was the #2 AF Corse Ferrari, regular Ferrari drivers Gianmaria Bruni and Tony Vilander being joined by locals, Bert Longin and five time winner at the Spa 24, Eric van de Poele. Since Le Mans the engine spec had been updated and the Ferrari handled the customer spec Michelins better than the others in the field.
The main opposition to the AF Corse #2 430 GT would come from a brace of BMW M3 run by Schnitzer for BMW Motorsport. Of course there were arguments about homologation, the M3 being admitted for ACO rules races but not for FIA ones. So the two cars would run in the invitation GTN class, and as a result did not get the 45 kilo weight break that was awarded to the FIA spec GT2 class. However they did get the restrictor size changed which gave them back the 30bhp lost at Le Mans. The team missed the last LMS race at Portimao, prefering to go testing instead, which was their first proper test session of the year. Running in GTN meant that they would be on Dunlop tyres, more on that later, it would be crucial part of the story. At Le Mans the BMWs had been off the pace but at Spa they were able to perform much more like a factory BMW team, mind you there were no Risi Ferraris nor Pratt & Miller Corvettes to play with.
The only GT3 car that could match the leaders' pace was the #50 Phoenix Audi R8 LMS with a star studded line up of Mike Rockenfeller, Lucas Luhr, Anthony Kumpen and Marcel Fassler. In the dry they struggled as the extra 145 kilos that they carried, as opposed to the 430s and 911s, dragged them back, despite having around 60-80bhp power advantage. It was a different story in damp or wet conditions when the weight penalty did not show and the ABS system could be used to good effect. Given that Spa usually features four seasons' weather in a day and is almost always wet at some time, the R8 was a good outside bet. The biggest hurdle they faced even if it was a deluge the extra power that they had and the extra weight meant that their fuel consumption was poor in relation to the GT2 runners and that would mean more fuel stops and more time lost.
The question after qualifying was where were Porsche, who had three good teams representing them, BMS Scuderia Italia, IMSA Performance Matmut and Prospeed? The answer was unanimous, tyres they all said. Michelin brought along a standard customer tyre and everyone except the Trackspeed Porsche (Avons) would use it. Except……………..BMW.
It would not be a proper motor race if there were not a row about something, at Spa there was a terrific amount of grumbling coming from the Porsche teams about the legality or otherwise of the Dunlops. The Michelin runners on their bog standard customer tyre all said that the Dunlops were development tyres, run in the ALMS and outside the spirit and letter of the regulations. Dunlop and BMW maintained that are available for sale and used in the Dutch Supercar Challenge, so fitted in. The FIA said put your money where your mouth is and raise a protest, the fans all shrugged and said whatever……………….
It was held by some drivers, the factory guys from Weissach, that the development or "confidential" tyres were worth around 2 seconds a lap, around the advantage that BMW had on the 911s.
After the usual ballyhoo, parades, grid girls, speeches, etc., 4.00pm came and the race got underway. Within a few laps the #2 AF Corse Ferrari had pulled out a lead over the #79 BMW and the rest of the chasing pack.
The second BMW got bottled up behind Marcel Fassler in the #50 Audi R8 in the scramble for 3rd place. The straightline speed of the Audi showing off the extra power granted through the rules. Eventually Uwe Alzen got the M3 past and set off after his team mate and the Ferrari.
Next up was the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 but they went out after 63 laps with engine failure. Another leading casualty early on was the WRT Audi R8 while the #51 Phoenix car suffered electrical problems.
In the second hour the race order changed completely with the Ferrari getting involved in another car's accident, costing them a lap. The #79 BMW duly took the lead with #78 cruising up behind, the Porsches overtook the #50 Audi during pitstops, it was game on between the two German rivals. Then the rains came……………….
GT4 rapidly turned into the class that no one wanted to win. The pace setter, the RJN Motorsports Nissan 370Z lost all drive in the second hour of the race with what turned out to be terminal clutch failure.
Despite persistent electrical problems the class honours went to the strongest finisher, the Jota Sport Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
One of the higher profile teams was United Autosports, running a pair of Audi R8s. My old friend, Tom Kjos has raised the story that Grand Am are looking into bringing GT3 into the series, which would fit with the objectives of the team and expand the cars available to compete in the classic Rolex 24. January in Florida in a nice idea. Also over from NASCARland was Michael Waltrip, driving the #1 AF Corse 430. As ever you can rely on the Good Ol' Boys for copy. "When I was out on slicks and it rained and you couldn't see where you were going, believe me that Ferrari was handling like a NASCAR. Not only was I worried that I might have to fix the cars but also that I would have to change my pants."
It was a touch of Team Grumpy Old Men with ex Grand Prix stars Eddie Cheever, Stefan Johansson and Mark Blundell on the drivers' list, I would have fitted in quite well.
During the hours of darkness the BMW team led, with both the #2 Ferrari and #50 Audi playing catch up. Lucas Luhr in the R8 was mighty in the wet conditions, easily the fastest man on the track. #78 lost a couple of laps having an ECU replaced as it was letting in the water. They also suffered a failure in their cockpit cooling system that would lead to the drivers having to receive medical attention after their stints for dehydration.
As if the action trackside was not enough there were balloon flights across the paddock, this one had trouble gaining altitude, giving the folks down in the old pits a moment or two of concern.
For those with more exotic tastes, there was a bikini clad car wash competition. Strange to see so many accredited media down in the pit rather than on track, maybe they were all making documentaries. There were concerts, fair ground rides and of course, Les Frites and Belgian Beer.
Away from the pleasures of the lower paddock, the race pounded on through the rain and the night. The #50 Audi took a spell at the lead with Marcel Fassler putting in an awesome performance. The #2 Ferrari was back in contention too, so dawn would bring a new race to the flag only some 11 hours away.
The next twist of the plot came just after 5.30am when #50 and #2 collided as a result of contact with a back marker. Eric van de Poele and Anthony Kumpen were OK but both cars were out of the race.
The race was now surely BMW's? The three Dirks, Werner, Muller and Adorf had roughly a lap's lead. The Sun made a welcome appearance, lifting the spirit.
Second was the BMS Scuderia Italia Porsche, keeping the pressure up, making sure that BMW could not relax.
Third was the other surviving top level Porsche, that of IMSA Performance Matmut.
With the demise of #50 and #51 crashing out, the GT3 class seemed to be heading the way of local team WRT but having endured this windscreen damage for the whole race, they suffered an electrical failure.
This handed the class lead to the #53 Muhlner Porsche which hung on to take the win.
Into the final hour, those of us on deadline started to prepare our stories telling the world about BMW's famous victory….NOT! There had been rumbles that a win by Munich would get protested on the grounds that the tyres did not comply with the regulations. Then that action was rendered redundant.
Suddenly the screens were full of a BMW spearing off the track, a track rod had failed on #79 with around 35 minutes to go. A slow crawl round to the pits and feverish repairs from the Schnitzer team could not prevent the M3 slipping down to third, a lap down on the Porsches.
No need for a caption as Mario Theissen, Head of BMW Motorsport and Dirk Adorf contemplate what might have been.
One team's heartbreak is another's joy. BMS Scuderia Italia's Porsche 911 GT3-RSR crossed the finish line at 4.00pm on Sunday with 541 laps or 2,355 miles completed to register an unexpected victory.
Romain Dumas, Jorg Bergmeister, Martin Ragginer and Wolf Henzler celebrate on the podium. Dumas is the first man to win at both Spa 24 and Le Mans 24 in the same year since Luigi Chinetti in 1949.
Was the 2010 Spa 24 Hours a great race? No. It was like all the classic 24 Hour races, a great event. Each one has its own character, its own tales to tell, we are all enriched by participation. When you get a chance go, it is an experience like no other.