History beckons as 11 manufacturers bid for Total 24 Hours of Spa glory
The Total 24 Hours of Spa will celebrate its 70th edition this year, with 11 different manufacturers aiming to conquer the Belgian endurance classic. While the race itself takes place on 28-29 July, preparations will begin this weekend with the opening Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup round at Monza.
Whether they have already tasted success in the Ardennes or are complete newcomers to the event, the final weekend of July will see these brands seeking to add a fresh chapter to the history of the most prestigious GT race on the planet.
Aston Martin fans in search of good omens have plenty to be optimistic about ahead of the 70th edition Total 24 Hours of Spa. Why? Because the first win for the iconic British marque came exactly 70 years ago. In 1948 the Aston Martin factory team – run by industrialist David Brown since the previous year – entered a brand-new DB1 at Spa. St John Horsfall and Leslie Johnson climbed the top step of the podium that day, overcoming rain and fog to win a gruelling race.
Of the 18 manufacturers to have won the Spa 24 Hours, Audi had to wait the longest. But while their first victory came as recently as 2011 – courtesy of an R8 LMS driven by Franchi, Scheider and Ekström – the German brand managed a further three triumphs in the following six years. The most recent came in 2017 thanks to the Audi Sport Team Saintéloc R8, which won an event in which six cars finished on the lead lap.
Though Bentley was a major force during the pre-war era of endurance racing, the British marque could never get close to a win at the Spa 24 Hours. That changed during the current GT3 era thanks their Continental GT3. Cruel luck robbed Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet and Wolfgang Reip of a podium finish in 2016, but last year Soucek and Soulet combined with Vincent Abril to clinch runner-up spot. Can they go one better with the new-spec Continental GT3 in 2018?
By far the most successful manufacturer in Spa 24 Hours history, the Bavarian brand has a record 23 wins to its name – as many as the next four manufacturers on the all-time winners’ list combined! Most of these came during the touring car era, with the first two BMW wins taken by the Ickx brothers (Pascal in 1965 and Jacky in 1966). Another Belgian family has also played a major role in the marque’s success: first, Jean-Michel Martin took two of his four wins at the wheel of an M3 (including the infamous 1992 edition, when Martin’s car beat the BMW of Eric van de Poele by a mere 0.48 seconds, the closest ever finish at Spa). More recently, his son Maxime Martin was among the drivers at the wheel of the victorious BMW M6 GT3 at the 2016 edition. In total, 14 different BMW models have been triumphant in the Belgian Ardennes.
The Prancing Horse took its first two Spa wins at the end of the first era of the Belgian twice-around-the-clock event. In 1949, Luigi Chinetti drove a Ferrari 166 to victory at Spa and Le Mans, becoming the first driver to win both 24-hour races during the same year. The next edition – organised in 1953 – saw Ferrari legends Nino Farina and Mike Hawthorn on the top step, but after that the Maranello brand had to wait more than half a century to score another win. It finally came in 2004, when Lilian Bryner became the first woman to win the Spa 24 Hours, sharing a Ferrari 550 Maranello with Luca Cappellari, Fabrizio Gollin and Enzo Calderari.
The Italian brand made its Spa debut in 2001, the first year of the GT era, when three monstrous Lamborghini Diablos were entered under the Category 3 rules (reserved for cars of single-make cups and trophies). They were certainly loud, but proved to be no threat for the overall win. That changed when the Murcièlago arrived at Spa, with a top-eight finish coming in 2008. This result was not improved upon by the Gallardo – the first GT3 car produced by Lamborghini – while the current Huracan is also yet to match it, taking a best finish of 11th in 2016. Keep an eye on the machines from Sant’Agata Bolognese this year, however: they are the reigning Blancpain GT Series champions and hungry to conquer the Belgian race.
The Japanese luxury brand makes its Spa debut in 2018 in partnership with Swiss squad Emil Frey Racing. With two cars driven by a roster of top GT drivers, they are considered a dark horse for the win. It would not be the first time a Japanese manufacturer has sprung a surprise at a long-distance event…
McLaren is another brand that first travelled to the Belgian Ardennes when the Spa 24 Hours became a GT race. In 2011 three papaya orange MP4-12Cs were entered by McLaren GT, with one of them finishing in 25th. The following year that number had grown to 10, with a Von Ryan Racing machine finishing in ninth. To date, that remains the best result for a McLaren at the 24 Hours.
Of the 11 manufacturers taking the start of this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa, Mercedes was the first to claim victory in the endurance classic. In 1931 the German manufacturer managed to break Alfa Romeo’s 10-year dominance of the event, with Geffredo Zehender and Russian Prince Dimitri Jorjadze steering a Mercedes SSK (with an impressive 7.1-litre engine) to glory. In 1964 Mercedes became the first manufacturer to win the touring car version of the Spa 24 Hours, thanks to the 300 SE of Crevits and Gosselin. When the HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG SLS GT3 of Maxi Buhk (20 at the time and still the youngest winner to date), Maxi Götz and Bernd Schneider won in 2013, the German marque became the first to win Spa in the pre-war, touring car and GT eras.
Remember what we said about Japanese manufacturers springing a surprise? Nissan is one of them. While there had been Nissans (or Datsuns in the early days) at Spa before, they were never really in contention for overall honours. So, when Japanese squad Team Zexel brought its Skyline GT-R to the Belgian Ardennes in 1991, nobody expected it to win – but they were wrong. The Skyline of Olofsson, Hattori and Brabham crushed the competition, beating the second placed Porsche by a mighty 21 laps. The brand’s best result during the GT3 era came in 2013, when gamers-turned-racers Ordonnez, Reip, Pyzera and Mardenborough finished on the Pro-Am podium and seventh overall.
With six victories at the Spa 24 Hours, Porsche is the third-most successful manufacturer in the history of the race. Half of those wins came at the end of the sixties, when the Stuttgart marque’s 911 dominated the event with three consecutive wins. After clinching the shortened 1993 edition (the race was stopped after the the passing of King Baudouin I of Belgium), Porsche had to wait another decade to claim overall victory – but what a win it was. Swiss squad Freisinger Racing had entered a Porsche 996 GT3-RS in the less powerful N-GT category, but in typical Belgian circumstances – it rained during 22 of the 24 hours – Stéphane Ortelli, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas beat the GT powerhouses by eight laps or more. In 2010, the last edition before the GT3 era began, Porsche took a one-two finish to secure its most recent Spa win to date.
Manufacturers’ list of Spa 24 Hours wins:*
Alfa Romeo 7
Aston Martin 1
* Brands in bold are competing in the 2018 edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa