Friday
Aug132010

Belgian Waffle

Ed Fahey ~ Click on image to view Ed Fahey’s full gallery from Spa.A couple of weeks ago, a great many people got inordinately excited about a tennis match in the preliminary stages of the Wimbledon championships that finished with just over 11 hours on the clock. Amidst all the breathless talk of ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’ and ‘unprecedented’, I decided to bite my lip and grin wryly in the knowledge that I’d already been to one 24-hour motor race this year, and would shortly be attending another. Whatever the location, driving a racing car has to be one of the most physically and psychologically exhausting ways of spending 24 hours of your life. But whereas Le Mans is all about the magical atmosphere and ambience, the Spa 24 Hours is all about the magical setting. Whisper it, but the Circuit de la Sarthe, with its long, flat-out straights and no real elevation changes, is not exactly the sternest test of pure driving skill. Spa is a different matter. While the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans affords drivers the opportunity of taking a ‘breather’ of sorts, at Spa, the assault is relentless. The exit of one corner sets you up for the entry to the next, and even the hairpins and chicanes, such as they are, are much wider, faster and freer-flowing than those found on more modern circuits. And apart from the stern driving challenge, there’s the stirring beauty of the Ardennes forest to keep you bewitched all race long. Spa feels like an organically evolved part of the landscape it inhabits. The imposing pine trees are a constant presence and the natural contours of the Belgian countryside are respected all the way around the lap. There’s a couple of North American tracks I’d like to visit before making a definitive pronouncement on the matter, but as far as I can see, the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps has no contemporary equal as a venue for top-level motor racing.

Ed FaheyAnd all the often-repeated truisms about Spa are correct, but you don’t realise just how correct they are until you go there. It takes a few moments to recalibrate your senses to just how insanely steep the climb up Eau Rouge corner actually is, and the wicked combination of a massive elevation change with a high speed left/right/left sinew means few dispute the contention that this is the greatest corner on any racetrack, anywhere in the world. But there’s a strong case to be made for the second- and third-best corners being Spa ones, too. Pouhon, or ‘Double Gauche’ as the locals call it, necessitates extreme speed and precision, with the challenge of downhill braking adding to the threading-a-needle nature of this awe-inspiring double-apex left hander. And then you have Blanchimont, a classic test of driver resolve and car stability that is just about open enough to be considered a kink rather than a corner.

Spa is not perfect, however. The other familiar refrain about the circuit is, of course, the unpredictability of the weather, and this is no exaggeration, either. The very first practice session we attended switched from wet to dry and back again in the space of a few minutes, and over the course of the weekend we experienced more rain and sun - and indeed the two simultaneously - on more than one occasion. What’s more, the multi-level paddock is maddeningly confusing to find your way around at first, there’s a bizarre selection of mid-’90s pop music piped softly into the media centre and the track’s vast scale means that media shuttle buses are a necessity rather than an indulgence. Naturally, they were everywhere to be seen right up until the moment you actually needed one! But after a couple of minutes out in the forest, watching apexes being kissed with unnerving accuracy by cars on the very limit of adhesion, you’ve forgotten about such trivial details and are just glad that a track of this calibre is still allowed to exist in this increasingly sanitised world.

Ed FaheyFor 2010, the Spa 24 Hours would not form the centrepiece of a multi-round championship as has been the case for many years now. The cancellation of the 2010 FIA GT2 European Championship due to a lack of entries saw the Spa event re-formulated as a one-off contest for the ‘GT2 European Cup’, but open to GT3, GT4 and non-homologated ‘GT-N’ cars as well in order to ensure a healthy grid. The ‘undercard’ for the weekend consisted of the FIA GT1 World Championship (more accustomed to taking top billing ahead of the GT3 cars that made up the bulk of the 24 Hours field), the Lamborghini Super Trofeo one-make series and the British Formula 3 Championship. Victory for the Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Murcielago in the weekend’s second GT1 race was both welcome and timely for series boss Stephane Ratel, as it meant that all six of the manufacturers entered into his new-for-2010 series have now scored at least one victory, validating the sometimes-controversial ‘balance of performance’ efforts that have sought to prevent any one car from running away with the title. It was particularly convenient in view of the fact that Ratel chose to hold his annual ‘State of the Union’ address about SRO’s worldwide GT racing activities just after the press conference with the top three driver pairings from that race. The speech put an official seal on the ‘mid-term progress report’ vibe that pervaded the event, and was also Ratel’s chance to set out his stall in the wake of the ACO’s recent decision to scrap the GT1 class from Le Mans and Le Mans-rules events in favour of a single GT2-derived ‘GT Endurance’ class from 2011 onwards. This decision leaves Ratel’s GT1 series as the sole flag-bearer for the GT1 format and begs the question as to whether any new manufacturers will want to commit to a programme that leaves them with no possibility of going to Le Mans. Ratel, for his part, is banking on the inherent prestige of the GT1 brand, an increasingly global reach for the championship (with races planned in the US and China in the near future) and extensive media and marketing activites (including social networking, computer games and TV coverage on the Bloomberg business channel) to together provide enough of an incentive for new manufacturers to get on board from 2012 onwards.

Ed FaheyOne manufacturer that we can safely say won’t be joining the GT1 party, however, is BMW, at least in an official works capacity. Although an independent BMW 6-Series (developed from a current GT3 car) has been mooted for next year’s GT1 championship, the Bavarian manufacturer itself is currently in the process of evaluating the future of its various racing activities, with either its World Touring Car Championship or GT racing programmes likely to get the axe in favour of an entry into the ‘new-generation’ DTM series in 2012. Speaking to SCi at Spa, BMW motorsport czar Mario Theissen said, “We only want to enter DTM if these cars can be raced on other continents as well. The current DTM is a spectacular series, but we haven’t been interested in it because you have to design and develop a car that can only be raced in that series. If we go into DTM, this would be the main programme of BMW Motorsport, and we cannot aim our main programme at just one market, even if it is the home market. Our request was to make these cars, the future DTM cars, eligible in at least Japanese Super GT and in the US. There is good talk, regular talk, between the DTM and the Japanese series, and the Americans as well, so it looks quite promising and I think there is a high probability we will do it.”

With the ongoing wrangling about ‘European-spec’ and ‘American-spec’ BMW M3 GTs, not to mention the past difficulties surrounding balancing the performance of the petrol-engined 320si touring car with its diesel-powered rivals, it’s not hard to see why Theissen and his team would find such a ‘clean sheet’ appealing. The ‘Americans’ he refers to are, of course, the GrandAm organisers, who made public their approach to the DTM and Super GT organisers earlier this year. A common rules basis between that series’ GT division, DTM and Super GT is an obvious way for all three to move forward in terms of manufacturer involvement. The only question mark is when the tie-up  will be implemented, with DTM and Super GT believed to be pushing for ‘as soon as possible’ but GrandAm being more circumspect.

Ed FaheyThe second major aspect of Ratel’s address concerned the future of the GT2 European Championship, which, as noted above, was cancelled this year due to a lack of entries. In the preceding weeks and months, it was suggested that FIA GT2 could be re-branded as a ‘laboratory’ class for hybrid and other environmentally friendly technologies, but Ratel instead revealed that 2011 will see a series of 3/4-hour endurance races at classic European tracks like Monza and the Nürburging, with the Spa 24 Hours forming the centrepiece and all the races being open to the same combination of GT2/3/4/N cars seen at Spa this year. Ratel also conceded that perhaps SRO had not listened to the GT2 teams enough ahead of the 2010 season, and offered the olive branch of a larger air restrictor in order to ensure a greater performance advantage over the cheaper GT3 cars (it was hard to ignore just how close to the pace of the GT2 cars they were at this event). It all sounds good, but with only eight GT2 cars entered for this year’s 24 Hours, the future of FIA GT2 as a class is not yet certain, and those that assert that ‘GT3 is the new GT2’ may yet be proven correct. Furthermore, one seasoned observer of European sportscar racing that I spoke to at Spa commented that the European-based endurance series provides something of an ‘escape hatch’ for Ratel, should the required new cars to keep global GT1 alive from 2012 onwards not materialise. Ultimately, it’s somewhat disheartening to see the FIA and ACO diverging once again after a period of relative equivalence in rules and classes. It’s now up to the manufacturers and teams to vote with their feet and determine what form GT racing in Europe, and further afield, will take in the second decade of the 21st century.

Ed FaheyBut enough crystal-ball-gazing for now, what of the race at hand? In short, it was a classic, complete with a cruel, last-minute plot twist that recalled the drama of Le Mans two months earlier. With just 40 minutes to go, the works BMW had a comfortable one-lap lead and many in the media centre had already typed up their ‘BMW wins at Spa’ narratives and were hovering over the ‘post’ button as they watched the clock tick down towards 4pm. But, just as in Le Mans, the opposition (in this case the BMS Scuderia Italia and IMSA Porsche squads) had kept in touch just enough to capitalise when the leader hit trouble. Dirk Werner went off at the Fagnes corner, damaging his M3’s suspension enough that the car had to be pulled back into the garage for repairs. The BMS Porsche’s elevation to the lead meant that Romain Dumas became the first driver to win both the Le Mans and Spa round-the-clock races in the same year in the modern era of endurance racing, and he adds those victories to a previous success at the Nürburging 24 Hours. With BMW racing in the GT-N class, the ALD Team Vitaphone Ferrari F430, with NASCAR’s Michael Waltrip on board, took third spot on the GT2 podium. Three different manufactures were represented on the GT3 rostrum, in the form of the Muhlner Motorsport Porsche 911, the Marc VDS Racing Ford GT and the United Autosports Audi R8 (which you can read more about elsewhere in this issue of SCi). This was a race of attrition by anyone’s standards - just over half of the 40-odd starters finished, but even a couple of the finishing cars owed more than a little of their structural integrity to the motorsport mechanic’s best friend, duct tape. It was a brutal, physical, unsparing and unremitting contest, fought in an inspirational arena by a cast of hardened pros and adventurous amateurs - in other words, endurance sportscar racing at its very best.

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