A whole day has been sacrificed to the racing gods. They seem pretty happy. Hours and minutes have passed, billions of safety cars have circulated, but the surviving GT cars have crossed the line, with Audi once again victors at the Spa 24 Hours. The Speedhunters team are in small pieces, what sense we had scattered to the wind with the joy of surviving another 24-hour race.
Rewinding slightly, after 21 hours of racing in the 2012 edition of the Spa 24, the #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra driven by Christopher Mies had managed to jump the #16 Audi of Frank Stippler and was leading by just 10 seconds – were WRT about to make up for losing their second car in a violent accident at Eau Rouge? It wasn’t to be: a slow puncture for #1 soon after forced a pit-stop, losing the car a minute and a half. This handed the #16 car the lead back again, a position it had in any case occupied for most of the previous 11 hours.
With just over an hour to go the cars dived into the pits for their final fuel stops: at 2:50pm Christopher Mies brought #1 into the pits for fuel, tyres and to hand over the reins to Stéphane Ortelli to bring the car home. However, the timing of the stop meant that they’d still need a splash-and-dash before the end: it was not impossible for them to still win, but it was really going to very difficult. 25 minutes later the #16 Audi pitted for its final stop. As the R8 accelerated away, the Phoenix crew he left behind were all smiles and already embracing each other – they knew that the win was looking more than likely.
In keeping with how the race had been going, there was of course a final safety car period required at 3:16pm after the #72 Kessel Ferrari 458 ran out wide at Blanchimont and smashed into the barrier, coming down hard on its roof before landing back on its wheels, remarkably intact but substantially flatter. Somehow the driver emerged unscathed. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari, which had been leading Pro-Am, was knocked out of fifth with a coolant leak, moving the #52 sister car up a place.
This coincided with #1 taking its splash and dash, but Stéphane was held for an age at the end of the pits and lost a lap. Worse, 15 minutes later Stéphane was called in for a drive-through penalty, as Christopher Mies had crossed the white lines on pit entry on his way in. Luckily for WRT, the third-place #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 was also due in for their last stop – the Z4 exited their box just as the Audi was getting near the pit exit, so their second place was only as long as just the length of the Endurance Pits in fact!
But a last-ditch BMW challenge didn’t emerge, and the Audis were safe to start forming up their cars with 500 laps completed and 15 minutes of the race remaining. Tom Kristensen had taken over the #6 R8 LMS Ultra; he and his crew had fought their way from the back after an early accident to an impressive sixth place. A great performance, but you’d expect nothing less given the quality of the drivers.
With 10 minutes left the walking wounded were sent out on track to try and run the last few laps, take the flag and be classified as a finisher. In Pro-AM, the #52 Ferrari has a clear lead of a couple of laps over the #8 Haribo Porsche; the #88 McLaren was chasing down the third-place #10 SOFREV Ferrari with ex-F1 driver Olivier Panis at the wheel, but ran out of time to pass the 458.
The Audi mechanics could now finally relax, and they gathered around the TV screens to watch the finish.
With three minutes to go the three factory Audis were circulating in a line, with #16 leading #1 and #6. An errant Mercedes almost spoiled the photo finish plan, but was dispatched around the back of the track. Going through Eau Rouge for the last time, they didn’t look any slower or less mean than they had a day ago. Just a lot more grubby. All that was left was the final run into the Bus Stop.
The Audi mechanics hung over the pit-wall, frenziedly waving flags as the trio passed by – the official finish line was up on the top straight, with a ceremonial finish and the podium down on the Endurance pit-lane, around the La Source hairpin.
In the end the #66 Vita4One BMW only just made it in behind the Audis: the car almost spun off into the barriers at the Bus Stop, and crawled across the line with a destroyed right-rear tyre.
The spirit of the event award must go to the Gentlemen Trophy class Mustang, whose driver had crawled to the line to await the Audis, but had no power when it came to that final couple of yards. The driver jumped out, put his back into it and pushed the stricken car over the line!
In the pit-lane, the celebrations could begin. The two other drivers from #16, René Rast and Andrea Piccini took the plaudits of their team.
Mechanics then had to pay up on any foolish bets they’d made before the race…
Christopher Haase, part of the #1 WRT Audi crew, was doorstepped for an interview by the Audi PR team before being hustled into a car and taken down for the podium presentation.
Waiting for them were the drivers who had completed the final stints. The effort they’d put in was clear: this was no team-orders run to the flag: they were fighting all the way.
After a day of constant action the R8s could finally become quiet, their job done for the weekend.
Champagne was let loose in abundance on the podium, with Eau Rouge visible in the background. Audi’s win means that they have become the first manufacturer to win all three of the most important 24-hour races in Europe: the Nürburgring, Le Mans and now Spa-Francorchamps, all won within just 71 days.
The top three of each of the four classes were lined up – where there were still three cars left. Only 33 cars finished in total, with only a single Cup-class Porsche making it to the end.
POSITIONS AFTER 24 HOURS
1: PRO #16 Phoenix Audi R8 LMS Ultra 509 laps
2: PRO #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra +1 lap
3: PRO #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 +1 lap
4: PRO #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 +2 laps
5: PRO-AM #52 AF Corse Ferrari 458 +7 laps
Now there’s only one thing on the mind of the majority of people in Spa…
Though with the Speedhunters team due to fly back to their holding pens around the world early tomorrow morning, there’s a distinct possibility that we will be found wandering around the local town within hours… Keep a look-out. And be nice if you find one.