The safety car is requiring as much mechanical attention as the race-cars at this years Spa 24 Hours – it’s been out on track almost as much as the GT cars. Those that survive that is: it’s been a race of attrition so far, with the weather and traffic mashing minds and cars. The rain that lashed the track after just a couple of hours caused mayhem; tiredness of teams and drivers is continuing the carnage through the morning.
Overnight, the fatigue of a 24-hour race was added to by the frustration of an ever-breaking internet connection at Spa. It’s a less-welcome constant of the track, unfortunately.
Going down better was the new range of Speedhunters clothing being tried out by Camille, Julie and the rest of the team. Props to Fredric Aasbo?
Back at the start, seemingly days ago, rain was expected around 7pm, three hours after the start of the biggest-ever single-class running of the 24. Cars were suffering even before the start; a portent of what was to come. The #69 McLaren had its door open as the Preci-Spark Mecedes-Benz SLS rolled down the hill and into position on the sloping grid: after that there was less of a door. The team managed to repair it before the grid was cleared, but it’s not the way to start a race like this. Julie and Camille were car-hunting, trying to track down the WRT cars on the packed grid.
Edward Sandström would be running the first stint: he was fired up as ever.
As was the WRT team: the Belgian crew are super-professional, and were confident of putting in a strong performance alongside their fellow factory entrants, Phoenix.
Back in the garage the final strategy was being put together: double-stints would be the general rule of thumb.
At the start, Maxime Martin in the #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 made a robust move on the initial run down to Raidillon and Eau Rouge. Pole-sitter Frank Kechele in the Vita4One BMW defended all the way into and through Eau Rouge, only finally having to give way on the long run up to Les Combes. He then stuck to the rear of leading Z4 until taking an early pit-stop, dropping #66 temporarily down the order.
The first hour saw the first of what would be many casualties: the MTech Ferrari 458 and #83 SMG Porsche both sustained damage in incidents, several cars spun off – including the #70 BMW Z4 with a self-inflicted off and the #14 KRK SLS being spun out by a Z4, the latter sustaining a puncture and forcing them to pit.
The biggest incident was a clash between the #62 Lapidus McLaren and the big-name #6 Audi R8 LMS Ultra: the McLaren took an incredibly late chop across the Audi’s bows at the pit-lane entry, turning itself around the nose of the R8 and firing itself off and into the barriers with a sickening thump that caused damage to the front and rear and lost the car an hour in the pits. The #6 Audi came off better, but was still forced to pit – losing valuable time for repairs (half an hour) and dropping them well off the leaders.
The Von Ryan #88 McLaren made the most of its high starting position and launched into third, one of many cars making the most of their starting impetus and moving forward.
Of course, for every car going forward there had to one going in the other direction. WRT didn’t appear to have the best opening stint: Stéphane Ortelli lost several places from his third-place starting slot and Edward Sandström seemed mired around his starting position of 21st: he was part of a train of cars circulating closely together, including the #16 Phoenix Audi, two Porsches and a BMW Z4.
Things changed dramatically at the first pit-stops were over, just after the end of the first hour: fast turn-arounds and perfect timing jumped both cars up the order. Ortelli emerged in second; Edward leapt up the order and came out sixth! Edward was on fire as usual: scything through traffic and doing everything he could to close up to the cars in front.
Behind the leading BMW was a titanic battle between the #5 Boutsen-Ginion McLaren and #8 Haribo Porsche – their struggle went back and forward over each lap. They were then joined by Edward for the battle of the opening phase of the race. The #16 Phoenix Audi soon joined in as well, making it a four-car battle for fifth that ebbed and flowed through the traffic.
The two Audis managed to break out after a couple of laps, leaving the McLaren and Porsche to fight off the #24 Lamborghini and #88 McLaren.
With two hours gone, this time it was a Porsche’s turn to herald the top of an hour. The #33 911 arrived at the Bus Stop with its engine-bay a blaze. It then proceeded to make its way down the F1 pit-lane and to its box, where the marshals and team covered the car – and pit-lane – in extinguisher foam. Soon afterwards the #89 Gulf Aston Martin stopped at the exit of the pit-lane – ie, right at the blind exit of Eau Rouge. There was a heart-stopping moment as marshals ran out onto the track to push the car back through a gap in fence, waving wildly at cars firing over the crest. Terrifying.
The rain was always going to come. This was, after all, Spa. It arrived an hour early and fell heavily, and brought chaos with it. La Source soon looked like a super car car-park as car after car attempted to brake and rotated off the track. Some lazily spun to a halt and avoided the barriers; the #60 Von Ryan McLaren skated straight on and thumped into the tyre wall. The #37 DB BMW Z4 aquaplaned straight off soon after, also putting it out of the race.
Raidillon was like a swimming pool. Cars carved through the standing water – this is the corner leading to Eau Rouge, remember. Stephane Ortelli in the #1 WRT Audi radioed in to say that he was aquaplaning everywhere and could hear the water sloshing around under his seat.
Cue the dual Audi safety cars taking to the track. This would become a common cry. WRT had just pitted Edward for a driver change, so they initially lost out as they were forced to pit again to put on full wet tyres.
Around 7pm the track went green as the conditions improved slightly. It was temporary. The #86 RMS Porsche became the next victim, aquaplaning off the track at Blanchimont and smashing into the barriers. The driver, Philippe Salini, had to be taken to the local hospital to check – thankfully he’d sustained no serious injury.
Safety car period number two. The Nissan GT-R was also in trouble, a fire in the pit-lane caused enough damage that the car subsequently stopped out on track and was added to the list of retirees. Marc VDS continued to lead, but with the #1 WRT Audi inexorably closing in…
By 8.30pm, four and a half hours in, WRT were running in a strong second and fifth, but just half an hour later the safety cars would be out yet again as the rain fell even harder over the track.
This played the race towards Audi: smart pit work moved R8s into first, second, fourth and fifth, with the #40 Sainteloc car backing up the factory efforts at this stage and the #3 Z4 caught and passed by #1 and #16.
The rain continued to fall. Coming up to 10pm, over two hours run behind the safety car: #16 now led, but handed the lead over to the #1 car to score the maximum points at the first points-paying deadline. Points would also be awarded at the 12 hour mark, before the full points for the overall finishers.
POSITIONS AFTER SIX HOURS
1: PRO #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra 100 laps
2: PRO #16 Phoenix Audi R8 LMS Ultra +1 lap
3: PRO #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 +1 lap
4: PRO #2 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra +1 lap
5: PRO #40 Sainteloc Audi R8 LMS Ultra +2 laps
The #12 McLaren arrived in the pits on fire – another car to brew up…
…and another cause of a foam-covered pit-lane.
The lead for #1 was short-lived, as Martin in the #3 Z4 moved back in front of the two Audis early in the seventh hour. Towards 11pm, two McLarens came together, ripping a wheel off #62 in the impact and taking both cars out of the race: another safety car period. The #5 McLaren had been leading Pro-Am, so this accident handed the class-lead to the #24 Lamborghini. The race was neutralised for quarter of an hour, going green at 11pm – but only for about 10 minutes! Another incident brought the safety cars out once again, the fifth deployment in seven hours!
AF Corse Ferraris were circulating in eight to 10th positions: 458s had also spent a lot of the sunnier opening part of the race circulating in marque formation, Ferrari Challenge style.
As darkness set in completely, the terrible conditions caused a constant round of accidents and safety cars: another period was called at 12:45 when the #59 hit the barriers, and then at 1:17 another when the Cup-class leading #32 Porsche went off. Car after car was listed as a retirement, added to the list posted on the wall of the media centre. At least the rain was beginning to relent.
That was good news for the partying fans watching the gigs at the concert stage: Milk Inc were followed by a DJ set by Faithless – both complete with plenty of lasers.
Whilst Larry merrily skipped through the remaining puddles, relishing the appalling conditions, there were sad faces from Camille and Julie: party over for them, it was time to get back to the hotel.
1:33am. Safety cars: the #11 Ferrari had gone in hard at Les Combes. At 2:38am the leaders completed 200 laps – 2012 was definitely not going to be a record year for distance…
2:43am: an Aston stops at pit-in, causing yet another safety car period, number nine. 3:08 safety car number 10, as a Gulf McLaren stops at the Bruxelles hairpin. 3:52am, another short safety car period. 4:13am, safety car.
That meant 12 in the first eight and a quarter hours! Incredible.
At the 12 hour point, the #3 BMW had dropped back after suffering a puncture in the previous hour and also after being caught out – would you believe it – a safety car period; the #36 DB Z4 had been close behind and backing up the BMW effort, but they received a drive-through for exiting the pit-lane when the light was red. But now the #66 Vita4One Z4 was back in contention…
POSITIONS AFTER 12 HOURS
1: PRO #16 Phoenix Audi R8 LMS Ultra 230 laps
2: PRO #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra +19s
3: PRO #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 +1 lap
4: PRO #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 +1 lap
5: PRO #2 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra +2 laps
By 5am track conditions were improving and the lap-times edging down almost towards qualifying pace.
Tom Kristensen was lapping very quickly in the recovering #6 Phoenix Audi, trading times with the Marc VDS BMW. 5:41am, a 20 minute safety car interruption, as the #21 MTech Ferrari clattered into the barriers at Raidillon.
The dull light of day began to creep over the horizon in the 14th hour, as the laps continued to tick over. Up front it continued to be a battle between Audi and BMW, with #16 narrowly leading from #66, then the two WRT R8s and the recovering #3 Z4.
However, the Z4 was having trouble starting after each pit-stop, losing valuable seconds each time.
The Lamborgini hit trouble around 7am: a long pit-stop dropped them back to 20th. René Rast was leading in #16 – he’s missing his usual stint in the F1-supporting Porsche Supercup race to take part in the Spa 24. McLarens had suffered at Spa, but the #88 Von Ryan MP4-12C was struggling back towards the top 10.
Edward was back in the #2 R8 LMS, taking over from Marco Bonanomi.
He set a fastest lap before handing back over to Laurens Vanthoor just before 8am. A puncture for Andrea Piccini in the #16 Audi meant an unscheduled stop for the R8, but they were soon back underway, only temporarily losing the lead to Ortelli in #1.
10:00. The 14th safety car period… They’d also been a spate of teams losing wheels for some reason: a Gulf Aston had lost a front-left, the Beechdean Vantage the back-left, and the #71 Kessel Ferrari has squirmed across the run-off at Les Combes with failed rear-right suspension.
As the track went green an epic battle started between Christopher Haase in #1 and Frank Stippler in #16: these two fought tooth and nail through the traffic for several laps before an off at Les Combes set off a bank of alarms in the #1 Audi.
Just after midday, the tone of the announcer over the PA went up an octave: another car was off at Eau Rouge. It was Edward: out on fresh tyres and with new brake pads, the R8 looked unbalanced through the right-hand entry apex of Eau Rouge. From there he was lost.
The car ended up 200 metres up the track, smashed against the barriers. The car was quickly towed away under another safety car intervention. And then there was one.
The demise of #2 meant that AF Corse’s two Ferraris have moved up another step: #51 now lies fifth, with #52 sixth.
The only redemption for WRT was that soon afterwards, the #1 R8 took the lead. With three hours to go it could go any way among the leaders, although the #16 Audi does seem to have the edge. Casualties have been immense – #2 is just one of many, as over a third of the field was out by this stage – and this race still had a long way to go. It’s not over yet. Be sure to fire up the live stream to follow this one to the end: it should be an epic finish!
POSITIONS AFTER 21 HOURS:
1: PRO #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra 426 lap
2: PRO #16 Phoenix Audi R8 LMS Ultra +1 lap
3: PRO #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 +1 lap
4: PRO #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 +3 laps
5: PRO-AM #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 +6 laps