Local Boys Make Good – GT1 says farewell to the Spa 24 Hours

I wrote this retrospective a while back, intending it to be used for another purpose. Perhaps it should have seen the light of day last weekend when the attention of the GT Universe was focused on Francorchamps. It matters not, like the 2019 edition the 2009 Spa 24 Hours was action packed, this part of Belgium rarely disappoints. So take a few minutes to look back to the time of GT1………….

Change was in the air for those anticipating the 2009
edition of the Spa 24 Hours. In early July that year the FIA had given approval
for SRO’s next big step, the FIA GT1 World Championship, a brave venture to
launch in the face of the financial storms that were raging at the time. This
bold move also spelled the end of the road for the FIA GT Championship which
had graced tracks around the globe since 1997, taking GT racing to new heights.

The 2009 Spa 24 Hours would therefore be the last contested
by the GT1 cars that had pretty much ruled the roost since 2001 when SRO took
over as promoters of the Belgian endurance classic. That fact combined with the
economic challenges of the time faced by all the competitors meant that the
field in the leading class was smaller than in previous years. However, the
quality of the competitors more than made up for any shortfall in quantity.

Hot pre-race favourites were the trio of Maserati MC12 GT1s
entered by Vitaphone Racing, as winners in three of the previous four years at
Spa, they looked on course to add to their trophy cabinet. The German team’s
driver line ups were first class too. In #1 were the reigning FIA GT Champions,
Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels with Stéphane Sarrazin and Alexandre
Negrão completing the quartet. #2 MC12 had regulars Alex Müller and Miguel
Ramos supported by Pedro Lamy and Eric van de Poele, a record five-time winner
at the Spa 24 Hours. The final Vitaphone entry had Belgians Vincent Vosse and Stéphane
Léméret leading the charge with Carl Rosenblad and Alessandro Pier Guidi also
in the team.

The opposition to the Italian supercars came in the shape
of three Corvette C6.Rs. Local favourites Peka Racing Team gave the crowds
something to shout about and did not lack in speed and experience in the driver
department with a line-up of Mike Hezemans, Anthony Kumpen, Jos Menten and Kurt
Mollekens. Race day would be Mike’s 40th birthday, what better
present than a second triumph at the Spa 24 Hours?

Bringing a touch of the exotic to the grid was the C6.R of
Sangari Team Brazil. The car, formerly run under the DKR banner, was crewed by
ex-F1 driver Enrique Bernoldi and his fellow Brazilian Roberto Streit, with
Xavier Maassen the third driver.

The final Corvette on the grid was entered by Selleslagh
Racing Team, long-time supporters of the Championship. Leading their challenge
was Vette factory driver and all-round good egg, Oliver Gavin. His teammates
were James Ruffier, Bert Longin and Maxime Soulet.

The brave new world of the future GT1 class was also
represented on the grid with the Marc VDS Ford GT and a factory backed Nissan
GT-R. While these novelties attracted much attention, they were considered too
new to challenge for outright victory.

The Qualifying sessions were struck by rainstorms of
biblical proportions and there was virtually no running in the dry. The grid
lined up with the Vitaphone Maseratis at the head with the Sangari and
Selleslagh C6.R pair up next. Then it was the Marc VDS Ford, the final Vette of
Peka Racing and the GT1 field was rounded out by the Nissan.

The Maserati phalanx immediately grabbed the lead on the
run down to Eau Rouge and headed the field on the climb up the Kemmel Straight
to Les Combes. If the MC12s thought that they would dominate the race they soon
disabused of that notion. Within seven laps it was a Corvette 1-2, with
Bernoldi heading Gavin, while Hezemans was also on the way up the leader board.
However, the weather gods decided to get in on the act and soon heavy rain was
falling and that seemed to favour the Maseratis.

For the first two hours the race swung between the leading
six cars, then Streit’s Corvette crashed heavily at Raidillon and was out of
the race. The rain returned with a vengeance after that with the contest potentially
being won and lost in the pits as much as on track. Getting the right tyre
strategy was vital to keeping up the pace, the engineers were as stressed as
the drivers. The lead continued to change until just after Midnight when
Bertolini lost control of his MC12 after encountering oil all over the track at
Pouhon. He managed to get the heavily damaged car back to the pits but the
repairs would take three hours and cost 67 laps. It later emerged that Hezemans
was following the Maserati closely and also spun on the oil but without making
contact with anything, that really was a late birthday present.

The problems at Vitaphone piled up when Pier Guidi was hit
by a backmarker not long after the Bertolini incident. The subsequent repairs took
ten laps and banished any realistic prospect of victory. Meanwhile out on track
a fantastic battle raged in the darkness between Gavin, Hezemans and Lamy. This
contest continued when Soulet, Kumpen and Müller took over their respective
mounts at the next set of pitstops.

The rain gradually disappeared and as dawn broke the
remaining Maserati began to slowly edge away from the chasing Corvette pair,
although a mighty stint from Gavin yielded the fastest lap of the race,
2:15.423, and kept his Vette in contention. Then just after 10.00am disaster
struck Müller in the MC12 when the Maserati’s rear right wheel collapsed approaching
Fagnes, damaging the suspension. Despite his best efforts Müller could not get
the three-wheeler back to the pits and was forced to retire on the spot.

The race had one more act of motoring cruelty to inflict,
this time on the Selleslagh Corvette. A breather pipe worked loose, the loss of
oil damaged the engine and the team parked the car in anticipation of
completing one slow lap at the finish, being classified and scoring points
would be scant reward for their efforts battling for the lead.

The final three hours of the race played out without drama
at the head of the field till Kurt Mollekens crossed the line to score a
popular and famous victory. The Peka Racing Corvette hardly missed a beat, the
only one of the leading contenders to do so. Eleven laps down, and in second
place, was the recovering #33 Maserati, but bitter disappointment would be all
that Vitaphone Racing would take away from Spa.

The final step of the podium was taken by Phoenix Racing’s
Audi R8 LMS which was running in the G2 class. The crew, Marcel Fässler, Marc
Basseng, Alex Margaritis and Henri Moser had a largely trouble free run. The
performance of the Audi gave a clue as to the future direction of the Belgian
classic. The Audi was essentially a GT3 car, the race would prosper under that
formula when it was adopted for the 2011 event. The fantastic entry for this
year’s race is proof of that.

GT1 has signed off at the Spa 24 Hours in the most dramatic fashion, now there was a World Championship to chase.

John Brooks, August 2019