Tag Archives: SRO

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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

Putting on the Ritz…………

OK what’s the excuse this time? Why the radio silence for the past few months?

Well rather than answer that I think we should jump back behind the wheel for another triple stint………..the first laps should be about a recent event that I was lucky enough to be invited to, a celebration of 25 Years of GT Racing hosted by SRO at the Palais Brongnian Paris. 

The former French stock-exchange was a suitably imposing venue for such a celebration. The Great and the Good of GT racing turned out for an action packed evening in Paris.

 

Everywhere I turned there were stars and outside there were cars, from the Venturi Trophy and 1992 to the latest Blancpain racers, via BPR, FIA GT, GT3, GT1 World Championship and Lamborghini Super Trofeo.

Seeing some of the participants for the first time in many years was emotional for me, from Laurence Pearce to Michel Neugarten or Ray Bellm to Thomas Bscher, the memories came tumbling back.

We are all a little older, greyer but even faster than we were back in the day, at least that is what we told each other.

Stéphane Ratel was the star of the show, without his vision and hard work over the years none of us would have assembled on a chilly November night in the heart of Paris. He had saved endurance racing from oblivion in the early ’90s and his actions helped the ACO rebuild their Great Race. The following evening I was flicking through the channels when I stumbled upon “Stones in the Park”, some of Mick Jagger’s moves looked very familiar……..

Of course Stéphane has assembled a great crew of people over the quarter of a century, none more important to the cause than Patricia Kiefer, though she prefers to remain out of the limelight. No such modesty was permitted on this night when the achievements of SRO and its crew were saluted by the GT paddocks.

The others who have steered the SRO ship over the years were also present; Jürgen, Patrick, Olivier, Benjamin, Jean, Gustave, Lucette, Jacquie, Laurent, Claude, Sophie, Mike, Richard, Bernadette, Fiona, Valerie, Adelheid, Sébastien, Anthony and many others that I have not encountered in the SRO family, if I have missed someone out I apologise.

Speaking with Audi’s Dr Ullrich before the event I learnt that he is in the final few weeks of his stellar career with the German giant, time waits for no man, motor sport will miss him.

The 828 guests who sat down to dine and celebrate were treated to various entertainments from SRO’s Mike Scott’s excellent videos about the racing down the years to the undoubted charms of the ladies of the Moulin Rouge………….well it was Paris.

It was a night to remember……………….

John Brooks, December 2017

Action in the Ardennes

We can now all relax, the Spa 24 Hours is done and dusted. A famous victory was the result for the BMW of Marc VDS that lays to rest that team’s hoodoo in their local endurance classic. The Special Correspondent was something of a ‘crash magnet’ during the early hours of the race, it all kicked off where the Kemmel Straight turns into Les Combes. Remind me not to stand near him in future.

2015 Spa 24 Hours

The Duqueine Engineering Ferrari with team owner Gilles Duqueine at the wheel clattered the barriers, apparently losing control on the unforgiving tarmac.

2015 Spa 24 Hours

Sorting out the mess was complicated by the fact that the French businessman is a paraplegic, having been the victim of a serious road accident 30 years back. Since then he has become a respected racing driver, winning titles along the way. He will be back as he was unhurt in the incident, though the Ferrari was too damaged to continue.

2015 Spa 24 Hours

The Special Correspondent had just got his breath back when there was a copycat incident. Karim Ojjeh’s BMW getting airborne after hitting the same steel barrier.

2015 Spa 24 Hours

Karim was shaken by the accident, caused by a lockup on the downshift according to the telemetry. Otherwise he was OK.

2015 Spa 24 Hours

There will be a ‘Reflections on Spa 24 Hours’ along later this week.

Meanwhile here is a gallery to enjoy.

A Primer on Sports Car Racing – Part Two

In the second part of his survey of the endurance motorsport scene, János Wimpffen considers the leading organisations in European GT racing, SRO, Creventic and VLN.

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The Stéphane Ratel Organisation is now the granddaddy of European GT racing. Its antecedents go back to the BPR (Barth-Peter-Ratel) Global GT Series which began in 1994 and most famously provided the framework for the long-lived FIA GT Championship. After having lost its World Championship status SRO became semi-independent from the FIA which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

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SRO, through its former European GT3 Championship, was responsible for carving out a niche for the GT3 class and it has become the sole category for what has bifurcated into two quite different series. The present form of the Sprint Series began in 2010 and consists of two races during the weekend. The main function of the Qualifying Race, typically held on Saturday, is to set the grid for the Main Race. Both are one hour in length with pit stops and driver changes taking place during a mandated ten-minute mid-race window.

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The SRO Sprint series is the most creative of all sports car series in testing the waters at some rather unique venues, including street courses in Baku and Moscow.

2013 BES Spa 24 Hours

The SRO Endurance Series primarily consists of three hour races with the Spa-Francorchamps 24 Hours as the season’s centerpiece. In many ways the Endurance championship is the spiritual successor to BPR as it caters largely to “gentleman” drivers. While the technical formula for both series is based on GT3, there are subsidiary classes reserved for non-pro rosters called Pro-Am and Am (Silver Cup in the Sprint Series).

2014 Spa 24 Hours

The Blancpain sponsored Endurance Series has grown into a very rich forum displaying all of the current GT3 machinery. New models for 2015 include the Lamborghini Hurracan and the McLaren 650S. Many other marques are currently circulating such as Audi, Aston Martin, Bentley, BMW Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Nissan, Porsche, and Jaguar—the last being represented only by a troubled, privately built car.

Entries for the Endurance Series have frequently exceeded 60 cars but the Sprint Series rarely has made it to two dozen. The short races do offer no holds barred cut-and-thrust battles. It is rare for the entire field to make it through the opening lap unscathed. That expectancy of carnage is one reason why some teams have balked and run primarily in the endurance rounds. Orthodox sports car fans may balk at one-hour races being considered a major event but the made-for-TV / video game format has a special type of appeal. Both of the SRO series have exclusive agreements with Pirelli.

2013 Dubai 24

The Dutch based Creventic Organisation has emerged as another major player on the European scene. They have been managing the Dubai 24 Hours since 2006 and this race has steadily risen in prominence, becoming a wintertime jaunt for European runners. Creventic expanded the concept a bit with a loose series begun in 2008 and this year the all-Hankook shod 24 Hour Series has become a full-fledged FIA championship. Despite the title, many of the rounds are actually 12 hour races. The fields for Creventic races are an eclectic mix of GT, Touring and silhouette specials. Overall winners at Creventic races invariably are built GT3 specs. Called A6, they are slightly altered and frequently must run above a reference lap time—a variation on the BOP theme.

2014 Nurburgring 24

There are important endurance races which are independent of any series. The chief European example would be the Nürburgring 24 Hours. For most of this race’s 30 plus year existence it was primarily a gigantic German club race.

2014 Nurburgring 24

Many of teams in its almost preposterous starting fields of nearly 200 cars still fit the mold of club racers and come from the ranks of slower GT and Touring categories. However, the sharp end of GT3 (called SP9-GT3) has inexorably become the domain of the major factory teams and has been fiercely contested of late by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. Further afield in Australia, the Bathurst 12 Hours has taken on a similar role as the antipode’s most significant independent GT endurance race.