Hard work does pay off. Only two months ago, one failure followed the other as BMW saw its 24 Hours of the Nürburgring challenge fall apart within hours after the green flag. In a race against time, BMW Motorsport worked to improve the BMW M6 GT3 and give Rowe Racing all the right tools to successfully challenge for victory in the Ardennes classic. On the flip-side, those who dominated two months ago, Mercedes-AMG, got struck by a massive penalty, eventually running out of time and out of luck to come back from the five-minute deficit.
It started so well for AMG. A fleet of six Mercedes-AMG GT3s have made it into Friday evening’s Super Pole session after Thursday’s intense qualifying sessions sent the fastest twenty cars through to the shoot-out. And that’s where everything goes sideways for the tuner from Affalterbach. By not holding anything back, AMG’s works supported teams Black Falcon, HTP and AKKA ASP take the first three front rows on the grid for itself.
The sheer speed of the AMGs have attracted the close attention of scruteneering, who find what the Stewards deem illegal engine mapping. AMG argues that the mapping was approved by the FIA, but SRO disagrees with the legality of the updated software. There’s no mercy for the manufacturer: Shortly before pit lane opens and the cars move to the grid, word goes out that all six AMGs are stripped of their Super Pole lap times. To add insult to injury, they have to come in for a five-minute stop-and-go penalty during the first laps of the race for ‘non-sporting behaviour’.
AMG’s teams and drivers are angered and heartbroken by the verdict. Standing still for five minutes will cost them nearly three race laps.
The number 28 WRT Audi LMS GT3 of René Rast is promoted to pole position, with the number 16 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Mirko Bortolotti lining up next to him on the front row.
It’ll be a twenty-four hours where AMG will be racing to make up for lost ground, but at the start the damage at least is somewhat limited: Marco Seefried, the experienced and quick German racing the triple-8 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488 GT3, is spun at at the back of the track, gets stuck in the gravel trap and forces a Full Course Yellow. With the field going a slow 80 kilometre per hour, the AMGs full back only one lap while standing still. From there, the race for AMG begins.
The early hours are marked by a prolonged Full Course Yellows after a heavy crash by the Attempto Racing Porsche 911 GT3R of Kévin Estre who stormed out of pit lane to collide with Motoaki Ishikawa’s AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 at full speed coming out of Raidillon. Although the destruction is significant and requires extended work on the guardrail, both drivers escape serious injury.
Darkness falls over the Ardennes. With the race finally under way properly, the Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Markus Winkelhock, Christopher Mies and Frank Stippler is leading. The Audi is one of three cars that will battle it out at the front until noon the next day. Alexander Sims in the number 99 Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3 is trailing Winkelhock, and before long the number 8 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 with drivers Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek and Wolfgang Reip catches up to them. Throughout the night it’s this trio of cars that swap the lead as the teams cycle through their pit stops.
The AMG teams, meanwhile, are still pushing to undo their penalties. At midnight the number 84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Dominik Baumann, Maximilian Buhk and Jazeman Jaafar reaches the top ten, with the number 57 Black Falcon AMG of Adam Christodoulou, Hubert Haupt and Andreas Simonsen a couple of places behind in thirteenth. Unlike its sister Black Falcon cars, the GT driven by the English-German-Swedish trio wasn’t penalized. Instead, the black-purple coloured car started from the end of pit lane after undergoing an engine change after Thursday’s qualifying session, thereby missing Super Pole scruteneering and staying out of the Stewards’s reach.
Tristan Vautier, Felix Rosenqvist and Renger van der Zande are going full speed in the number 88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3. They’re working their way to the front, running in nineteenth at midnight and arriving within reach of the podium shortly before noon. Rosenqvist, the young Swede, refuses to be downcast by the harsh penalty applied today.
“It’s sometimes even easier to go into a race when you have no pressure,” a determined Rosenqvist says. “You know it cannot get worse. You have a good team around you and they are all ready to give 100-percent. They have been preparing for this race since January, and for sure we’re not gonna give it away. We’re gonna push like hell.”
The black sky makes way for grey clouds as daylights returns to Spa-Francorchamps. All throughout the night Phoenix, Bentley and Rowe have been exchanging the lead as each of them made their pit stops. The gathering clouds are looking more and more threatening, and finally rain comes.
All three teams have made it through the night, but now a crucial decision has to be made: Will the rain continue, or will it stop soon? Slicks or wet-weather tyres? Phoenix gambles on more rain and sticks threaded tyres underneath the R8. Rowe and Bentley, however, dare to stay out on the slicks.
Phoenix has made a mistake. Christopher Mies is for a few laps the fastest car on track, but the rain isn’t setting through. A dry line emerges as Mies’s Pirelli rubber is wearing out and heating up more and more. A second shower comes just too late: Moments before the rain picks up, the Audi works driver is seen fleeing an inferno. It’s his car on fire. A puncture has ripped through the bodywork and fuel lines, setting the car on fire and taking the team out of the race.
When afternoon arrives Audi is gone: Phoenix is out and WRT is too far behind to mingle with the leaders. The fight is down to Bentley and BMW, the rotation of the lead unabiding.
AKKA ASP inherits third place from Phoenix Racing, but it doesn’t last long. The team from the South of France is waiting for rain that never comes, losing valuable time driving around on rain tyres.
“We were gambling on rain, but it didn’t come,” Renger van der Zande explains the disappearance of the AKKA AMG from third place. “We should’ve just followed those around us, we tripped up there.”
Felix Rosenqvist has the duty of bringing the car back to the finish. Unhappy with the earlier strategic mistake, he’s set his mind on reclaiming the position.
“We went out in fourth place and I was really not happy with the way things had gone before,” Rosenqvist says. “We had such a good race and then we screwed up a little bit with the strategy. I actually think that was the only time we screwed up, but it cost us a lot because we were third at the time and went back to fifth, then back to fourth.
“I just wanted the podium so bad for the hard work of the guys, especially all the mechanics and our engineer Christoph, he did such a good job all the time.
“I was just driving flat out, I think I’ve never pushed a car so hard in my life. It was just every corner, every lap [racing] on the limit. That’s really cool, when you can do that in an endurance race which is normally not about doing quick lap times. And then it started raining, and everything got mixed up.”
As the race enters the final hour, a dark cloud rolls in over Francorchamps. It’s the last shower of the day and it’s a torrential one.
“We were standing in the pits and you’re trying to give the driver in the car as much information as you can,” Van der Zande tells how the team guided Rosenqvist through the heavy rain. “I was thinking, ‘please don’t fuck up and make sure you bring the thing to the finish, we’re in a good position’, and that’s precisely what he did.
“In the end, Felix did very well. He drove fast and kept his head cool.”
While others are falling into the trap of aquaplaning and the already slick track surface due to twenty-four hours of oil spills, Rosenqvist is flawless despite going at it hard.
“You couldn’t really see anything, especially in the beginning, but then it dried really quickly,” Rosenqvist continues. “My engineer was telling me the gap to the guy behind, Laurens [Vanthoor], and I knew I had to push. Every time I had some traffic, I was told that he got closer and closer.
“I was taking risks to overtake, that’s what you have to do if you want to fight for the position. It was like a sprint race at the end. I think it was really a race which all of us will remember.”
Rosenqvist is able to push on through to second place, but to win, he’ll need more. It will take more luck than what’s his today, and he would need more time than the twenty-four hours that are already behind him.
At a distance of almost two minutes, Alexander Sims in the number 99 Rowe BMW passes the finish line for the final time, taking BMW’s second consecutive 24 Hours of Spa victory. The German squad is the last one standing after the number 8 M-Sport Bentley drops out of contention in the last stint of the race.
Bentley takes the chequered flag only in fourth place, behind Rowe’s winning BMW, behind the AKKA ASP AMG, and behind the WRT Audi with Laurens Vanthoor in the car. Fourth place would’ve been worth celebrating on any other day, but not today. After a gruelling twenty-four hours of racing, having contended for victory all throughout the night and into the final hour, fourth place is a poor reflection of the speed that drivers Soucek, Soulet and Reip and their team brought to the table. The competition wasn’t ‘just’ better. Instead, unforced errors resulted in too much time lost due to spins, penalties and strategic mishaps over the course of the race, with the defining blow coming in the final hour when a Full Course Yellow infringement results in a drive-through penalty, throwing the British marque off from the podium.
AKKA ASP’s second place indicates that Mercedes-AMG could have, perhaps should have, charged for victory. Before AKKA ASP made it to the front on Sunday morning, HTP was already there, having come from the same lower regions of the field as their French brand compatriots. With or without the supposedly illegal engine mapping, all of the AMG crews had the speed throughout the weekend, and gathered themselves after starting the race with a huge deficit to make it within two minutes and one position of victory.
“Winning would’ve been hard, we would’ve needed luck to do that,” Van der Zande contemplates what could have been. “But if we didn’t had that penalty, we would’ve been fighting for the win.”