The DTM’s Spa weekend
Give a DTM driver a weekend off, and there’s a good chance he’ll still be in a race car.
Last weekend, a 72-car grid assembled for the 71st running of the annual 24-hour race at Spa-Francorchamps. A third of this year’s DTM drivers’ field were represented in the classic GT race in the Belgian Ardennes, and three DTM teams were participating in the race.
First held in 1924, and therefore only one year younger than the Le Mans 24 Hours, the endurance race at the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps has an impressive heritage. Unlike its French counterpart, that only saw its running discontinued in the years of WW2 and its aftermath, the Belgian event has had more interruptions throughout its history. No 24-hour race was held in the Ardennes in 1934, ’35, ’37, and then again from 1954 until 1963. Since 1964, however, the race has been held annually.
A brief history lesson
Alfa Romeo was particularly successful in the event’s early years, with seven victories for its 6C and 8C models from 1928 until 1938, only interrupted by a singleton Mercedes-Benz SSK victory in 1931.
For a long time in the 1960s and 1970s, the race was part of the European touring car championship – although a Porsche 911 conveniently was considered a touring car, too, as three consecutive wins for Porsche teams from 1967 until 1969 reflect.
BMW and Ford were the main brands in the touring car years, with great wins for the mighty 3.0 CSLs, the svelte Ford Capris, followed by the BMW 5-series saloons, the 635 CSi Coupé and the legendary M3 E30 as well as the 318 and 320 in the two-litre Super Touring era.
A switch to the GT category
After the demise of Super Touring, smaller production-based machinery never really caught on as it failed to match the fascination of previous tin-top iterations. Meanwhile, GT racing was on the rise after the turn of the millennium. Therefore, Frenchman Stéphane Ratel took over the organisation and promotion of the race with his eponymous SRO emporium in 2001. For the next nine years, the race was the flagship of the FIA GT Championship with successes for impressive sports cars like the Chrysler Viper, Ferrari 550 Maranello, Chevrolet Corvette and Maserati MC12. After a single non-championship year in 2010, the race at Spa has been a round of the Blancpain series since 2011, when cars built to GT3 rules became the top category.
A close link with DTM
With a total of 24 wins, 21 in the touring car era and three in GT races, BMW is the most successful manufacturer in the history of the 24 Hours. Audi, meanwhile, has racked up four wins in the GT3 era.
Current ITR chairman Gerhard Berger (below, right) famously won the Spa 24 Hours in 1985, sharing driving duties in a BMW 635 CSi with Marc Surer and Roberto Ravaglia (below, left, in ’85), the latter winning the DTM title four years later.
Eric van de Poele won at Spa in 1987, also the year of his DTM championship win. Other DTM champions on the Spa winners’ list are Bernd Schneider, Mattias Ekström, Timo Scheider and René Rast. Belgian Vincent Vosse, who currently runs the Belgian WRT outfit, is also a former winner of the race in the Ardennes.
All focus on the 2019 event
This year’s race attracted a record field of 72 GT3 cars, 36 of them competing in the Pro category, and therefore with a chance of the overall win. Six drivers from the DTM field participated in the race while WRT and Phoenix Racing, each with Audi, as well as R-Motorsport with Aston Martin, were also involved.
As ever so often at Spa, the weather was one of the main talking points, with record temperatures of up to 41 degrees during the parade on Wednesday and the practice and qualifying sessions on Thursday and Friday. Then, however, rain dominated proceedings during the race, with a start behind the Safety Car following a downpour in the first half of Saturday afternoon. As darkness fell over the circuit, the rain returned and increased during the night.
Standing water and aquaplaning prompted the race director to stop the race at 5.45am and action only resumed at 11.30am, setting the stage for a five-hour sprint for the flag. Porsche teams scored a one-two for the Stuttgart-based sports car manufacturer, followed by the Black Falcon-Mercedes that had ex-DTM driver Maro Engel among its line-up.
Of course, we had particular interest in the DTM drivers in the field. This is what they achieved:
Robin Frijns, Nico Müller, René Rast
Car #1 Audi Sport Team WRT Audi R8 LMS GT3
Result overall 23rd (DNF)
Result in class 21st
With Robin Frijns, Nico Müller and René Rast, three of Audi’s DTM regulars teamed up to share driving duties in one of the officially-backed Audi R8 LMS GT3s run by Belgian team WRT.
Müller drove the car in the Super Pole session on Friday evening, securing seventh place on the grid. In the race, the car was one of the frontrunners and looked set for a podium finish as, unlike some others, it had already completed its mandatory five-minute ‘technical pit stop’ at the time the red flags came out.
Indeed, the Audi led the field for the best part of Sunday afternoon, until Müller, determined to defend his position from the charging Porsches that proved fast in mixed conditions, lost control of the car at Les Combes and hit the tyre stacks. Müller soldiered on, with Frijns and Rast taking their final turns later on. At least, a podium finish looked on the cards, until Rast became the victim of another driver who went off track and hit the Audi.
That was the end of the race for the trio with four laps remaining.
Car #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin
Result overall 19th
Result in class 17th
Popular Brit Jake Dennis shared one of the two R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage GT3s in the Pro class with compatriot Alex Lynn and young German Marvin Kirchhöfer.
Dennis took care of the Super Pole session and put the car 13th on the grid – the fastest Aston Martin in qualifying. In the opening hours of the race, the team made good progress and even moved up into the top three as darkness set in, but two unscheduled pit stops due to an incorrectly fitted set of tyres caused delay and blew any hopes of a good result.
An unfortunate timing of the mandatory five-minute technical pit-stop didn’t help either and the team only finished 17th in class as a result.
Car #129 Montaplast by Land Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3
Result overall 14th
Result in class 14th
“If I make it to the finish, it will be my first-ever finish in a 24-hour race. Then again, I have done only two,” said Briton Jamie Green prior to the race.
He was drafted into the line-up of the Montaplast by Land Motorsport Audi at the very last minute to replace Argentine José María López, who had initially been entered. Green’s teammates were Audi GT stalwart Christopher Mies and young Swiss hotshoe Riccardo Feller.
Last year, the Land team was the best-placed Audi team, finishing third. This year, Green qualified the car 17th in the Super Pole. In the race, various issues – such as drive-through penalties for incorrect pit=stop procedures and speeding infringements – prevented progress. In the end, the team finished 14th, but at least, Green made it to the end!
Ferdinand von Habsburg
Car #762 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage GT3
Class Silver Cup
Result in class DNF
For Austrian Ferdinand von Habsburg, who shared the R-Motorsport Aston Martin in the Silver Cup class with Brit Ricky Collard, Swiss Hugo de Sadeleer and Finn Aaro Vainio, the race at Spa was over before he had as much as sat in the car.
In the second hour of the race, his teammate Collard collided with an opponent coming out of the La Source hairpin, damaging the car beyond repair.
Such is the sometimes fickle nature of endurance racing…