For the fourth time, after earlier success in 2011, 2012 and 2014, an Audi was the first car across the line in the Total 24 Hours of Spa, the world’s biggest GT3 race and the undisputed season highlight of the Blancpain GT Series.
After 546 laps of the 7.004 kilometres long Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, German driver Christopher Haase drove the #25 Audi Sport Team Saintéloc Audi R8 LMS across the finish line to secure victory for himself and team-mates Markus Winkelhock (GER) and Jules Gounon (FRA).
“Not only the first, the second victory as well is very important.” said Markus Winkelhock of #25 Audi Sport Team Saintéloc follwoing their victory. “I think everybody will agree that this one is the toughest 24-hour races there is, so if you can win it, it’s very nice.
“When we were two laps down with twelve hours to go, we thought: ‘Well, maybe we can still get into the top-5’. I never expected that we would get a chance to win this race. That shows you never should give up in life.”
The #8 Bentley Team M-Sport made up for its misfortune in last year’s race at Spa by taking a hard-fought second place.
“This second place still feels like a win, though.” said Bentley’s Maxime Soulet. “It was a very hard fight, we all agree that this was the toughest Spa we ever did.
“It’s a first podium for Bentley in Spa, I heard that everybody was crying when I crossed the line.”
The #90 Akka ASP Mercedes rounded out the top three with the second consecutive podium finish at Spa for the French team. Mercedes-AMG took Pro-Am class honours with a strong performance by the #16 Black Falcon team while the #888 Kessel Racing Ferrari led almost throughout to score a commanding Am class win. The Belgian Speedlover team won the national class with its #991 Porsche.
With 63 cars taking the start and no fewer than 36 of them competing for overall honours, there was no doubt that this year’s running of the Total 24 Hours of Spa had one of the strongest entries ever in the history of the Belgian endurance racing classic. Qualifying had already made it clear that a fierce battle could be expected among the teams representing the world’s most prestigious sports car brands, and the race duly delivered.
Once the field was released after one formation lap of the 7.004 kilometres long circuit, it was ex-Formula 1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella who made the best use of the pole position and took the lead with the #55 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari, ahead of compatriot Mirko Bortolotti in the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini and Kévin Estre in the #117 KÜS Team75 Bernhard Porsche.
While the Ferrari and the Lamborghini shone at the front of the field throughout the first hours of the race, the second hour saw the first of several full-course yellows and a subsequent safety car intervention due to a severe crash by Thai driver Pasin Lathouras, who lost control of his #50 AF Corse Ferrari at the top of the Raidillon. Luckily, the driver walked away unscathed.
Several teams used the neutralisation to come in for pit stops with the different pit stop strategies applied by the teams leading to frequent position changes throughout the field. Meanwhile, it was also clear that the Race Control was watching drivers’ antics closely as there were penalties galore, particularly for track limit infringements.
As the first points were awarded after six hours, the #55 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari was leading from the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini and the #84 Mercedes-AMG Team HTP Motorsport Mercedes and no fewer than 16 cars were still on the lead lap after the first quarter of the race. Soon after the six-hour mark, Swedish driver Jimmy Eriksson crashed the #84 Mercedes-AMG Team HTP Motorsport car at Raidillon.
Temperatures were above 20 degrees until midnight, allowing the thousands of spectators to enjoy the entertainment both on and off track, including the Music Festival with several top-line DJs and live acts on a balmy Saturday evening. During the night, however, the rain shower that so many had expected finally arrived, spicing up the action even more whilst also making it more challenging for the drivers, as if the Spa-Francorchamps circuit wasn’t challenging enough in itself. Most drivers opted for rain tyres, but some gambled and stayed out with slicks. There were incidents, too, including a collision that put two Mercedes cars out at once, the #00 Good Smile Racing car and the #18 Black Falcon Mercedes. Earlier on, the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes had already retired after a crash.
Halfway through the race, points were attributed again and this time, it was the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini who claimed the full score ahead of the #85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes and the #55 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari. In the 14th hour, the #77 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini and the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari collided at Stavelot corner, after which the Lamborghini caught fire. Its driver, Adrian Amstutz, was taken to hospital in Liège where he was diagnosed with second-degree burns and a broken rib. The Ferrari driver, Matteo Cressoni, was transferred to hospital in Verviers for a check-up. There was well-deserved praise for the track marshals and rescue teams for their quick intervention.
A little bit later, the Kaspersky Motorsport team that had led the race for many hours saw its hopes of a possible victory evaporate as Marco Cioci came off track at the Raidillon with damaged steering, the result of contact with the #90 Akka ASP Mercedes at La Source. About two hours later, the other Italian GT car that shone for a long time, the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini, retired when Christian Engelhart crashed out at Les Combes with brake issues.
This effectively turned the battle for the lead into an almost entirely German affair with the Porsche, several Audis, the #98 ROWE Racing BMW and a number of Mercedes-AMG cars in contention, while the #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley defended British honours. Suspension issues then put to an end ROWE Racing’s ambitions of a repeat win after their 2016 success.
In the afternoon, the Saintéloc Audi emerged as the main candidate for success and as the last car from the group of the front-runners, the #117 KÜS Team75 Bernhard Porsche, completed his final pit stop on lap 527, it was left up to German driver Christopher Haase, who had pitted six laps earlier, to bring the Audi across the finish line, which he duly did after 546 laps, scoring Saintéloc’s first 24-hour race win as an Audi Sport team. The #8 Bentley came second ahead of the #90 Akka ASP Mercedes. The #117 KÜS Team75 Bernhard Porsche was classified fourth, making Laurens Vanthoor the best-placed Belgian driver in the overall classification.