It’s race day in the Ardennes! The 2017 edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps will see the Belgium flag at 16:30 local time as the race twice around the clock begins. The number 55 Kaspersky Motorsport Motorsport Ferrari 488 GT3 will start from pole after a stellar lap in Friday’s Super Pole session. James Calado set a 2:17.390 but was only 0.057 seconds faster than the second placed Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3. Weather is forecast to be mostly clear, but there is a rain shower expected towards the end of the race. Realistically, it’s Spa–anything can happen. The race is going to be fast paced and intense, so kick back, make sure your fridge is stocked to the brim and expect the unexpected.
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Onboard Camera number 63 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3
Mirko Bortolotti/Christian Engelhart/Andrea Caldarelli
Onboard Camera number 8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3
Maxim Soulet/Vincent Abril/Andy Soucek
1 Hour complete. 23 Hours to go. 42 laps completed
As the Belgium flag dropped, the race to tomorrow began. The 63 car strong field streamed through Eau Rouge for the first time as Giancarlo Fisichella lead from his pole position start in the number 55 Kaspersky Ferrari. The Italian driver was on another level in the opening minutes, pulling an astonishing 3.8 second lead by the end of lap four.
The opening chapter of the 24-hour classic was headlined by lots of little incidents and some really close racing. Having started the race from pit lane, the number 22 Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 ground to a halt just a few hundred metres into the opening lap. The team worked long into the night on Thursday after the car suffered major damage when it made hefty contact with the barrier at Eau Rouge.
Officials deemed the car had to start from the lane after contravening a number of regulations in order to repair the GT-R for the race. However, its race initially lasted only up the climb over Eau Rouge, Radillon and to Les Combes, where it ground to a halt. Covered under waved yellow flags, it eventually got going again but lost eight laps in the process. Rubbing salt further into the wounds it was then forced into the pits to serve a two-minute stop-go penalty, which was dished out after Nissan changed the chassis during its repairs to make the race start.
The story of the race was quickly written as Fisichella continued to clear off out front. Towards the end of the first hour a fierce battle erupted between the number 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 and the ISR Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Frank Stippler. The pair went side by side through Eau Rouge, but Raffale Marciello refused to yield in the AKKA ASP car, running straight on over Raidillon. Stippler kept on the track but lost a position to a shark like Jake Dennis in the number 17 WRT Audi, who snapped thirteenth position away from Stippler.
As the hour ticked over eyes fell on a slow moving number 99 Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3. With Alexander Sims only just behind the wheel, the car limped back to the garage with a right rear puncture, the team wheeling the forlorn 2016 race winner into the garage where they set about replacing the right rear drive shaft damaged by the puncture.
As the race begins to settle down, Mirko Bortolotti leads in the number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini from Marco Cioci in the Kaspersky Ferrari and René Rast in the number 1 Audi R8 LMS GT3. SP
9 Hours complete. 15 Hours to go. 210 laps completed.
As we reach chapter nine in the tale of the Spa 24 Hours, night has settled over the enchanted Ardennes forests. The sun is gone and all that’s left is the eerie pitch black night time. With things really starting to settle down and the teams and drivers getting into their own rhythm, they’re left to cut through the darkness with a pair of headlights and their own two eyes.
The first nine hours of the race have been riddled with Safety Cars, Full Course Yellows, penalties, close racing and some major crashes too. An enormous shunt for the number 50 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 during the second hour of the race brought out a prolonged safety car period. The bright yellow 488 went in hard just before the top of the Eau Rouge making contact with the tyre barrier at extremely high speed. The car was ripped to pieces and didn’t even resemble a Ferrari as it sat at the top of Radillon strewn across the track. The driver, Pasin Lathouras, walked away from the incident unhurt.
When we left off at the end of the first hour, the number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini was leading. The car is currently running in lead, but how’s their race going? We caught up with Christian Engelhart.
“So far things are going well,” said Engelhart.
“We started P2 and we’ve had a great strategy so far, all the stints are running really smoothly. Of course, it’s always a little up and down with the pit stop strategy with now a lot of the cars on different strategies.
“The first few hours we’ve always been fighting in the top five, so that’s really good, I guess we will just see where we end up in.
“The Ferrari is really fast, with all the drivers it’s tough competition. We tried to take them on the first pit stop but we just didn’t manage and they came out right in front of me. The battle we had was close–he stayed in front but it was a lot of fun.
“This is a really long race, you never know whats around the next corner. So far it’s looking good: The pace is promising, the team is working perfect and we will try to continue like this. Everything else is out of our hands.”
Punctures and small, unnecessary incidents plagued the field. As the race went through the dusk period vision started to become difficult and mistakes increased in frequency. The biggest of those came when the third-placed number 84 HTP Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the hands of Jimmy Eriksson went in hard at the top of Radillion. Eriksson lost control as the AMG crested the Eau Rouge section, the car darted across the pit exit and went into the outside barrier with extraordinary force. This would bring out yet another safety car period, Eriksson walked away from the incident unscathed.
At the moment, the race is under safety car with the number 88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the barriers at Stavelot. Andrea Caldarelli is at the wheel of the leading number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini from Vincent Abril in the number 8 Bentley Continental GT3 and in third is the Kaspersky Ferrari 488 in the hands of James Calado. SP
Through the lens: Saturday
14 Hours complete. 10 hours to go. 310 laps completed.
As the night time really started to settle in, a new chapter was written, a chapter headlined by chaos, rain and confusion. The Grasser Racing Lamborghini continued to lead but only by a handful of seconds, the racing was close, the field even closer.
Crashes and incidents seemed to be the common denominator. Into the eleventh hour and it was Full Course Yellow and then Safety Car time again as the number 00 Goodsmile AMG of Tatsuya Kataoka and number 3 WRT Audi of Jon Venter had a nasty coming-together on the way into the Bus Stop, leaving the latter car stranded by the barrier and the former limping back to the pits with heavy front-end damage.
The rain then decided it would visit the Spa-Francorchamps circuit and eventually it was bucketing down, layering the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in a beautiful coat of water. It made for some interesting sights as the lights flared on the surface of the track, and cut through the rain drops that fell from above, none of this though was good news for the drivers and teams. A choice needed to be made, a simple, but critical choice. Slicks or wets?
Almost every car dived into the pit-lane to bolt on a set of wets, except three. The leading number 55 Kaspersky Ferrari 488, the second placed number 4 Black Falcon AMG and the third place number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini. The three respective teams rolled the dice and opted to stay out on the wet track on their slicks.
The gamble paid off with the rain stopping as quick as it started. A few of the teams including all three of the remaining WRT Audis took the opportunity to make their compulsory brake change, The number 4 Black Falcon AMG also came in for a brake pad change rejoining the track on a fresh set of slick tyres. Once the stops had cycled back through and everyone was back on the slick compound things started to heat up again at the front of the field.
With the sun just peaking over the top of the trees the race took a turn for the worst for the Kaspersky Ferrari crew. Contact with the second placed number 90 AMG at La Source caused major damage to the steering column of the 488. As Marco Cioci arrived at the bottom of Eau Rouge little did he know that 30 seconds later his race would be all over. The car went straight on ending up in the tyre barrier with huge damage to the front of the 488. Race over for the number 55 crew who were looking on course for a very strong result.
The number 85 HTP AMG of Dominik Baumann currently leads but hasn’t served its compulsory technical stop yet. The number 90 AKKA ASP AMG runs in second with Marciello behind the wheel and the number 1 Audi sits in third place. SP.
19 Hours complete. 5 Hours to go. 432 laps completed.
As we roll into hour number nineteen, we caught up with the driver of our current race leader, the number 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3, Raffaele Marciello.
“The race so far is going great,” said Marciello
“We will see where we are at the end of the race, five hours is still a very long time.
“The incident with the Audi (number 1 car, read further to find out more) was strange, I left him room and he just crashed into me. I don’t understand why.
“It’s clear that the stewards made the right decision giving the Audi a drive through penalty, so it’s something we can forget about now. The team is doing a great job and we will just keep pushing until the end.”
The race changed direction completely when the number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini found the wall down at the Campus chicane. With Christian Engelhart behind the wheel, the GRT Huracán suffered a brake failure that led to the car understeering off at the right-hander. Engelhart went straight on, deep into the barriers, ending the championship-leading number 63 car’s race.
Another strange incident unfolded on one of the many a safety car restarts when second place René Rast in the number 1 Audi went side by side with race leader Raffaele Marciello in the number 90 AKKA ASP AMG under braking for Les Combes. The pair collided, making heavy side to side contact, with both cars pirouetting and then eventually getting back underway. Rast was deemed responsible for the collision and received a drive through penalty.
Last year’s Spa 24 Hours winning car, the number 98 Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3, snatched the lead as the number 1 and number 90 tangled up front. But the number 90 car went back to the lead when the BMW pitted. And so, as the race continues to push on, the classification shifts and changes with every pitstop.
The number 90 AKKA ASP AMG leads with Edoardo Mortara behind the wheel from Antonio García in the number 1 WRT Audi and the number 25 Saintéloc Audi in third. SP
Through the lens: Sunday morning
Final update. 24 Hours complete. Chequered flag, race finished with 546 laps completed.
With just over two hours remaining, the number 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 led, but only by a few car lengths over the number 25 Saintéloc Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3, as the pair played cat and mouse at the head of the field. On the pit wall, the calculators were smoking while strategists quadruple checked their fuel numbers and driving times to make sure they could get to the end on the least amount of pit stops.
At the last pit stop sequence, the AKKA AMG had to make a slightly longer stop to satisfy its maximum driver time, resulting in the number 90 AMG dropping back to third place as the number 8 Bentley Continental GT3 seized second. More importantly, though, the Saintéloc Audi stormed into the lead with a flawless stop from its crew, snatching the lead from the AKKA AMG and maintaining a healthy margin to second place.
As the last chapter was written and we turned over the final page, the chequered flag was in the air for the winner of the 2017 Total 24 Hours of Spa. The number 25 Saintéloc Audi R8 LMS GT3 crossed the line with an 11-second gap to second place as Christopher Haase, Jules Gounon and Markus Winkelhock ecstatically celebrated their victory.
Coming home in second place was the number 8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 and rounding out the podium, the number 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3.
With none of the top three finishers starting in the top 10 on the grid 24 Hours ago, it leaves a question wide open: Is the Top 20 Qualifying Shoot-out even worth it? SP