So here we are. The last of the big 3 European 24 hour races at Spa.
We’ve had the Nürburgring 24 Hours and Le Mans, now it’s time for the Blancpain GT Series’ big race to show its hand.
With the race not too long away now and the entry list being released a few days ago, The GT Observer has attempted to narrow down the über-talented grid to a list of potential winners. No mean feat and probably a quite impossible job, but here we are…
#00 BLACK FALCON MERCEDES-AMG
Drivers: Maro Engel, Yelmer Buurman, Bernd Schneider
As the Mercedes AMG GT3 has proven this year, it is much more than just a very good looking car.
In the Blancpain series, HTP Motorsport find themselves top of the Sprint Cup standings and second in the Endurance Cup, prior to the start of the 24 Hours of Spa.
That’s only just relevant though, because the #00 will be a Black Falcon entry. The same Black Falcon who’re bottom of the overall Blancpain standings. That said, they have won the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring already this year and this car has two of the winners in it. Bernd Schneider and Maro Engel shared the #4 car which eventually won what is arguably the most arduous race on any racing circuit.
It’s not often that you get drivers who win two of the European 24 hour races in one year, so I’m not necessarily putting the #00 as the absolute favourite. But if it’s not in the top 10 (possibly top 5) I think you could be forgiven for being very surprised. Two former DTM drivers (one of which is the greatest of all time) who’ve also won a 24 hour race this season already, with a Dubai 24h winner? You’d be an idiot to look past this lot.
#58 GARAGE 59 McLAREN
Drivers: Rob Bell, Côme Ledogar, Shane van Gisbergen
Garage 59 have been something of a surprise this year by competing on both fronts in the championship. They lead the overall Blancpain championship by 19 points ahead of HTP and, most importantly, hold a 24 point lead over them in the Endurance Cup alone.
It’s been an impressive start from the British team. I don’t know how many would’ve been foolish enough to predict the outcome of the championship prior to it kicking off, but I would hazard a guess that the Garage 59 crew wouldn’t necessarily have been the first ones on most people’s lips.
The concerning thing for the rest of the competition is that they’ve started to fire themselves up in the Sprint Cup too now. Thanks to a rapid #58 car lineup of Rob Bell, Côme Ledogar and Shane van Gisbergen, it could be a very, very good season for them and I would expect them to finish very highly indeed in the Ardennes.
#8 M-SPORT BENTLEY CONTINENTAL
Drivers: Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek, Wolfgang Reip
Last year, it was the #7 Bentley that was the shining light. This year, however, it’s the #8 which has impressed right from day one across both championships. Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek have both hit their full potential and proven to be very quick, even on circuits which may not necessarily suit the car. You can’t leave them out of the reckoning and that’s purely because it’s a season where they’re exceeding expectations, turning out top drawer performances weekend after weekend.
As of yet, they’re without a race win in the Endurance Cup this season, but their steely consistency sees them sitting third, behind HTP and Garage 59.
A 32nd place finish at the Nürburgring at the start of July wasn’t the best way to prepare for the 24 hour extravaganza, but if they can stay clear of trouble, expect the #8 M-Sport Bentley to be right up there by the final hour.
#86 HTP MOTORSPORT MERCEDES-AMG
Drivers: Maximilian Götz, Thomas Jäger, Gary Paffett
Gary Paffett is making his debut in a GT car at Spa and takes residence alongside fellow Mercedes DTM colleague Maxi Götz and the young Austrian Thomas Jäger.
Paffett has had a highly successful career across multiple disciplines and is a previous DTM champion (2005). He also lists Formula Vauxhall, British and German Formula 3 titles as career achievements, along with quite possibly the loudest whinge in motorsport.
His performances in the DTM have dropped in recent years, but he still has immense racing skills and can certainly be seen as a big name on the grid.
Götz has more relevant experience in the shape of an overall Blancpain Sprint Cup win in 2014 and he’s also won the ADAC GT Masters before. A very competent GT driver, he also came third in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring earlier in the year.
#84 HTP MOTORSPORT MERCEDES-AMG
Drivers: Maximilian Buhk, Dominik Baumann, Jazeman Jaafar
You can only be classed as a fool if you choose to ignore or undermine this trio’s chances at Spa. Still very much in the hunt for wins in both the Sprint and Endurance Cups, Buhk, Baumann and Jaafar are a force to be reckoned with this season.
Buhk was sensational in his Bentley last year and has generally carried that form over to the HTP team. That said, he and his two Endurance Cup partners have only had one race win this season and that came at Silverstone after the #84 narrowly beat the #1 Audi across the line. They, like the #8 Bentley crew, are brilliantly consistent and pick up big points regularly on any type of circuit. Buhk did also win the qualifying race for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring this year and is last year’s Blancpain Sprint Cup champion.
#98 ROWE RACING BMW M6
Drivers: Dirk Werner, Nick Catsburg, Stef Dusseldorp
Never, ever underestimate Marc VDS drivers. The now disbanded GT3 team had rotten luck over the years at Spa but eventually won the race last year with Nick Catsburg, Markus Palttala and Lucas Luhr at the wheel.
Whilst Palttala takes control of the #114 Emil Frey Jaguar at this year’s race and Lucas Luhr doesn’t take part, Dirk Werner is also an ex VDS driver and takes his place in the #98 ROWE Racing entry. Werner helped put them on the podium in 2014 and missed out on victory by just 7 seconds to the #1 Audi of Laurens Vanthoor, Markus Winkelhock and René Rast. He’ll be desperate to clinch that elusive win at the Belgian power circuit.
Marc VDS’ history was written in a now obsolete BMW Z4. This year we’ve been blessed with an F13 M6. Can this car deliver the goods?
#99 ROWE RACING BMW M6
Drivers: Maxime Martin, Philipp Eng, Alexander Sims
Maxime Martin has won the 24 Hours of Spa before, in 2009, and is also another ex Marc VDS driver. His most ‘memorable’ involvement is arguably the most comedic of the VDS problems they’ve faced at the Belgian circuit. In 2014, the #66 car he shared with fellow DTM driver Augusto Farfus and Jörg Müller was retired after the car hit a kamikaze hare, which in turn damaged the car’s radiator.
On the whole, Martin is a very experienced driver, particularly in GTs, and has also finished on the podium at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring on two separate occasions (2013 and 2015).
Philipp Eng is something of a Porsche expert, having won Carrera Cups and the Porsche Supercup in his career. He’s also won his class at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring in 2015.
This car’s most impressive performances this season have come in the sprint race at Misano (2nd in the quali race and 3rd in the main race) and Silverstone in the Endurance Cup, where it secured a 4th place finish.
At present, ROWE Racing are 6th in the overall team standings 12 points behind the lower placed Belgian Audi Club Team WRT.
#1 WRT BELGIAN AUDI CLUB AUDI R8 LMS
Drivers: Will Stevens, Dries Vanthoor, Frédéric Vervisch
This car is always going to be strong. Slight change of lineup though, as the Vanthoor brothers are split, with former Grand Prix racer Will Stevens deputising for Laurens.
This is quite possibly a reward for good form for Stevens, who – alongside René Rast – came 2nd in the last Blancpain GT round at the Nürburgring, albeit in the Sprint Cup. He’s very, very rarely outside the top 10 this season and must surely fancy his chances of taking a race win at some point this season. But when?
The #1 Audi has had success at Spa previously, taking top step on the podium in 2014, but two of the drivers from that car are in the #28 this time around. Nevertheless, keep your eye on this one.
#28 AUDI SPORT TEAM WRT AUDI R8 LMS
Drivers: Laurens Vanthoor, René Rast, Nico Müller
On paper, this car has a very strong case for ‘most talented driver lineup’. Vanthoor and Rast won the race in 2014 and Nico Müller has also been on the podium in the past. He’s in great form at the moment too, having recently claimed his first ever win in the DTM at the Norisring.
Last time out, in the Nürburgring sprint race, his and Dries Vanthoor’s #4 Audi had a technical problem right from lap 1 and eventually finished 30th which wasn’t ideal preparation, but anyone who knows anything about Nico will be fully aware of how quick and consistent he is this season.
Laurens Vanthoor will have been hoping for a better season than he has had, but with a career podium percentage of 42.8% he still remains one of the most talented drivers on every GT grid he turns his hand to.
His achievements include winning the FIA GT Series and Blancpain Endurace Cup in 2013 and 2014 respectively and wins in the Sepang 12 hours, Bathurst 12 Hours (in class) and the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
Former Audi Team Joest driver René Rast, like BMW’s Philipp Eng, is something of a Porsche expert, having dominated the Mobil1 Super Cup in the early 2010s and sealed a couple of Carrera Cups. A highly experienced driver, he also won the 24 Hours of Nürburgring and the ADAC GT Masters in 2014.
If this car can stay out of trouble, expect it to be in contention for the overall win.
#16 GRT GRASSER RACING LAMBORGHINI HURACAN
Drivers: Rolf Ineichen, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Mirko Bortolotti
Maybe a slight outsider, but it’s an impressive car and lineup, this #16.
Rolf Ineichen was fantastic at Oschersleben and the Lausitzring in the GT Masters and the 38-year old is beginning to really show what he’s capable of. Perhaps not the most experienced of drivers, despite his age, but still very quick and despite his career being spent primarily in lower competitions, his success rate is frighteningly high. Of the 75 races he’s entered, there have been 36 wins and 48 podiums. That represents percentages of 48% and 64%.
What can you say about Jeroen Bleekemolen that hasn’t already been said? The guy is just incredible. A whopping 586 career races and 42% of them have resulted in him being on the podium. Frightening! His list of major achievements is ridiculous: a victory in class at Le Mans, two back-to-back Porsche Super Cups, two class wins in the American Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Dubai, a class win in the Gulf 12 Hours and an overall win at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. He also came top of Division 3 in the Dutch Winter Endurance Championship in 2015.
The Lamborghinis have done better at circuits with fast corners and as they’re perhaps well-suited to the Spa circuit, you never know, but this car may well spring a surprise!
#53 AF CORSE FERRARI 488
Drivers: Ishikawa Motoaki, Lorenzo Bontempelli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Olivier Beretta
With two platinum-graded drivers in Giancarlo Fisichella and Olivier Beretta, this car ought to be right up there, not just in class, but perhaps even the overall race.
Two Ferraris made it into the top 10 last season (#47 and #51). I was tempted to enter the #50 Spirit of Race entry of Pasin Lathouras, Michele Rugolo and Alessandro Pier Guidi into this spot as outsider, and I still would include it into the number of entrants with a chance of a win. But with the former F1 star at the wheel alongside Beretta, you would expect this car to be one of the better Ferraris on track.
Beretta is a seven-time class winner of the American Le Mans Series and has also won his class at Le Mans on six occasions. He’s very experienced and very successful. Podium percentage? 49.3%. That’s higher than Bleekemolen. Though, admittedly, he’s been in fewer races than the Dutchman.
The long and short of this is that Ferrari are well-suited to Spa. They’re rapid in a straight line and with Spa being pretty much the ultimate power circuit in Europe, don’t rule the Prancing Horses out here!
The full entry list for the race can be found here.