Weather the storm

For years Marc VDS Racing has been battling for the victory in the big races, missing out on the win every time. Last weekend they finally did it. At the 24 hours of Spa, the popular Belgian team defeated their long-time rivals of WRT to bring the BMW Z4 GT3 its only 24 hours win to date.

Never before was the rivalry between Audi’s WRT squad and BMW’s Marc VDS so strong. Unlike last year, Marc VDS is well prepared to take on the crown jewel of the Blancpain GT Series, having taken part in the previous round at Paul Ricard. WRT, at the same time, has brought with them not just one, but two brand new Audi R8 LMS GT3’s, one of which is the 24 hours of the Nürburgring winner. Supported with stellar co-drivers from Audi and BMW, the team’s star drivers Laurens Vanthoor, joined by René Rast and Markus Winkelhock, and Maxime Martin with Dirk Werner and Augusto Farfus next to him, have never been in a better position going into the race.

Come Friday afternoon, things aren’t as expected: sure, WRT grabs the pole, but it isn’t Vanthoor who does it. The Belgian isn’t even on first two rows, making it no further than sixth place. It is Stéphane Ortelli who introduces the might of the new Audi to the Belgian public.

When the France-born Monagasque pilot does his pole lap, a storm front is already approaching the Ardennes course. As the light goes green for the warming up the next morning, drivers are soon greeted by rain.

The start of the race is no different. Dark clouds have covered the sky since the night before and as the cars gather on the grid for the 16:30 start, the pouring rain isn’t letting up.

When the cars come down the hill towards Eau Rouge for the first time, the opportunity is perfect for Kévin Estre to go by the pole sitting #2 Audi of Stéphane Ortelli, Frank Stippler and Nico Müller, with teammate Álvaro Parente in the sister Von Ryan Racing McLaren 650S GT3 slipping through right behind him.

Qualifying might have been somewhat disappointed for the lead Marc VDS and WRT GT’s, Maxime Martin and René Rast are soon fighting their way to the front in the wet, removing all doubt that the rivals would be going head to head at the very front.

Estre’s lead is soon undone when the safety car comes out for a heavy crash by the Boutsen Ginion BMW Z4 GT3 at the end of Kemmel Straight. Von Ryan decides to call their driver in for a pit stop, but having to wait for the second safety car group to pass the pits, the team loses a huge amount of track position.

At this point in the race the Rowe Racing Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 starts to shine. Not much more than just an ‘also ran’ a few years ago, the VLN based team has quickly risen to be one of the leading AMG teams in Europe. It’s only a couple of hours into the race when the SLS brakes into the top six, only to take over the lead from WRT when Laurens Vanthoor crashes trying to pass a car. All hope is now lost.

“I made a mistake,” the Belgian admits. “I’m very sorry for Audi Sport and the whole WRT team. I was held up for a couple of laps by the Mercedes of [Yelmer] Buurman, who was a lap behind and didn’t want to let me through. I flashed my lights, I was showing I was there, but still he didn’t let me pass… Only the racing line was dry at that moment and when I finally tried to pass him on the outside in the Paul Frère corner, I ended up in the wet part and lost control. I was worked up but didn’t had to be. It’s a lesson I won’t forget anytime soon!”

As the sun rises and the fog clears, Rowe Racing is still in the lead. By now, the trio of Stef Dusseldorp, Daniel Juncadella and Nico Bastian have snatched up all available bonus points by leading at the six and twelve hour marks. Although dropping back after a brake change, the leading #2 Audi and both Marc VDS BMW’s are never too far away.

Disaster strikes in the nineteenth hour for Marc VDS: Dirk Werner, in the lead as noon approaches, spins off when a broken transmission locks up the rear wheels. This thrusts Ortelli into the lead, but the 24 hours of Le Mans champion is immediately attacked by Nick Catsburg in the #46 Marc VDS BMW. The Dutchman makes the move into La Source and keeps up the staggering pace set by both himself and team mates Lucas Luhr and Markus Palttala after they dropped back into the lowest regions on the timing and scoring screens the day before caused by a string of wrong tyres choices.

What seemed impossible, the Bas Leinders-led team achieves. 20 hours ago, no one in the team had any hope left to get a decent result, let alone go home with the grand prize. Marc VDS weathered the literal and figurative storm and were rewarded for their resilience with the greatest victory in the world.

I didn’t believe we could win it, to be honest,” Palttala admitted. “After the start, I just thought ‘this is not my weekend’, but it turns out that it was. There wasn’t any contact, a single mechanical issue.

I’m so proud of the team for doing such a perfect job. Lucas is the most professional guy out there, and Nicky… Well, I’m pretty sure he found a shortcut somewhere. He was unbelievable. This whole situation is pretty unbelievable!”

And the #99 Rowe SLS AMG, the bright star at night? They came so close. When the final hour came around, the team from the German town of St. Ingbert looked set for a podium finish. The alternator had different plans, breaking down and overcooking the engine, and devastating the team.

Narrowly missing out on the win is the WRT Audi team of Stéphane Ortelli, Nico Müller and Frank Stippler. They lost, but it was another very strong outing for the new Audi R8 LMS GT3. After winning the 24 hours of the Nürburgring, the car today finished second, third and fifth, serving as a clear message that the second generation R8 is built to win and lose none.

“In spite of everything, we’re pretty happy with this result,” Nico Müller says. “It’s an excellt result for this new car as it made its debut at Spa. Unfortunately, we lost quite a bit of time in the beginning of the race behind the safety car, but I honestly don’t think that would’ve made a difference. The balance of the car on a dry track wasn’t the best and in those circumstances we couldn’t beat the BMW.”

Marc VDS won, but again it wasn’t Maxime Martin who went home with the trophy, leaving his ‘big win tally’ at zero. And that’s not fair for a driver of his talent. What is fair, is that his team won, that Nick Catsburg won, that Markus Palttala won, that Lucas Luhr won, and that the Z4 still got that sole 24 hour win in, coming in it’s last year of competition.

Chassis 1049 is now retired, being send to München where it’ll forever be cherished for winning one of the most prestigious races in the world.

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Miguel is the founder and editor-in-chief of GT REPORT. He’s more interested in the human side of the sport and the heroics of racing. Also the founder of automotive PR and photography agency GTXM.media. When it doesn’t clash with racing you’ll find Miguel cheering football club Vitesse on.

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Miguel Bosch

Miguel is the founder and editor-in-chief of GT REPORT. He’s more interested in the human side of the sport and the heroics of racing. Also the founder of automotive PR and photography agency GTXM.media. When it doesn’t clash with racing you’ll find Miguel cheering football club Vitesse on.