Last weekend's Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms represented a major milestone in the countdown to this year's Total 24 Hours of Spa.
As has become tradition, the French contest was the final Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup event to be staged before the season's marquee race. We are now less than four weeks away from the official test days at the Belgian circuit (2-3 July) and just 50 days from the world's biggest GT3 contest getting underway at one of global motorsport's most iconic venues.
First staged in 1923, the Total 24 Hours of Spa has enjoyed a new boom over the past two decades, rapidly growing into a must-win event that every racer wants on their CV. Scheduled to run from 25-28 July, it now holds a reputation for huge grids, ultra-close racing, and a unique off-track atmosphere.
The sheer number of cars on-track is a big part of the challenge that drivers face, with in excess of 70 expected at this year's event. Though four different classes will compete, every car conforms to the same GT3 regulations, meaning that each overtake requires hard work and perseverance.
Indeed, winning the Total 24 Hour of Spa is perhaps tougher now than it has ever been. To understand its unique character, we sought out a group of drivers who have conquered the race to provide their expert opinions.
Atmosphere and energy
One of the event's most popular traditions is Wednesday's parade to Spa town centre, which is followed by a vast autograph session in the local streets.
Among the current field, Maxime Martin knows the 24 Hours better than most. As the son of four-time winner Jean-Michel Martin, he grew up immersed in the race and eventually won it himself in 2016. Unsurprisingly, Martin is among the most popular drivers at the parade and looks forward to it each year.
"I don't have a lot of opportunities to race in Belgium, so the Total 24 Hours of Spa is always special," he says.
"There are so many people at the parade – more and more every year – and it's a big part of the show. As a Belgian driver, everybody wants to see you and get an autograph. It's really busy, but also very nice."
Christopher Haase won Spa in 2017 as part of Sainteloc Racing's #25 crew. The German driver recalls that, before the event, he and the team left their mark on the Audi R8 LMS.
"When we were in Spa town centre for the autograph session we all decided to sign the rear-wing of the car, just because we were loving the event so much," recalls Haase. "When we came back to the track, all of the mechanics and everyone from the team signed it as well."
A few days later, the car carrying those signatures won the Total 24 Hours of Spa. As Haase says: "I don't think it has ever happened that everyone signed the car beforehandand then it won the race!"
The toughest in the world
The Total 24 Hours of Spa is an exceptionally difficult event, something that Markus Winkelhock knows well. The vastly experienced German has won the race twice (2014 and 2017) and, as a leading Audi factory driver, is almost always part of the battle for victory.
"It is very hard physically," says Winkelhock. "There are only three drivers and it's normally very hot in the car, which makes it very demanding.
"For me, it's the biggest competition in GT racing. Everything is so close and to win this race, I would compare it to winning a championship."
"Spa is for sure the hardest 24-hour race in the world; I really believe that," adds Haase. "Every lap you have to overtake cars that are on another strategy, or fight against those that are on the same strategy. You never have a lap where you can take it easy. You can't make a mistake."
Jules Gounon, who was alongside Haase and Winkelhock for their 2017 triumph, agrees.
"You need the right car, the right teammates and the right team – everything needs to be right," says the French ace, who has since switched to Bentley Team M-Sport.
"When you see from the outside you think it’s tough, but seeing it all from the inside – the strategy, the tyres, the engines – it's unbelievable. Every stint is like when I drive a sprint race. All the fans I talk to love Spa for that."
Local expert Martin takes a similar view on the race's competitive nature.
"You have 70 cars that are the same and there are a lot of manufacturers and factory drivers, so it's really intense. You're going over 100 percent for 24 hours, but that's why we love it."
One of the most famous Spa victories of recent years came in 2003, when Stephane Ortelli drove a Freisinger Motorsport Porsche alongside Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, with renowned engineer Norbert Singer also part of the effort. Despite this heavyweight line-up, the squad was using second-tier N-GT machinery. Overall victory looked to be out of their reach.
Nevertheless, the Porsche moved into the lead after staying out longer than the competition on slick tyres, allowing the crew to make a quick change to wets when rain arrived. But the real moment of inspiration came during an extensive safety car period.
“Norbert Singer came on the radio and said: ‘Steph, I don’t want to see you back in the pits," recalls the Monegasque driver. "Do what you want but try to stay out.’”
Somehow, Ortelli managed to remain on-track for almost three hours.
“I was going quite fast up to Les Combes, then switching off the engine and going all the way down to Pouhon,” he explains, adding that he also turned off the lights and used the clutch to restart in order to protect his car. “I was running for a couple of kilometres without using the engine, and for the rest of the lap I was in sixth gear.”
The Porsche held the lead and ran faultlessly for the remainder of the race. The second-tier machine eventually triumphed by eight laps, clinching a famous win.
Winkelhock experienced something quite different when he first won the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2014.
"Laurens [Vanthoor] was sick during the race, which meant Rene [Rast] and myself had to finish the last eight hours between the two of us. That made it very tough for us physically, especially for Rene as he did the last stint, fighting the BMW for the win.
"I remember that afterwards he was completely done; he almost couldn't make it on to the podium."
If there was something that kept Rast pushing beyond his normal limits, it could have been the energy that chasing victory at Spa generates within a team. Haase describes a similar sensation when the Sainteloc squad realised that the 2017 win was within reach.
"It happened in the early morning, when the sun came up. We'd had some trouble during the night that cost us a lap, but the team did an incredible job to get us back into contention," recalls the German driver.
"With the strategy we had, we realised that if we continued in the same way we could at least be in the top-three at the finish. From this moment on we were one of the fastest out there.
“It was quite a special feeling. Once you pass a certain moment and realise it is going for you, it gives the team, the drivers and the manufacturer the energy to push for it."
That winning feeling
Overall victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa requires a superhuman effort from each member of the winning team. As such, the emotion that comes from clinching first place can be overwhelming.
“The most amazing part for me was seeing [team bosses] Norbert Singer and Manfred Freisinger crying at the end of the race,” 2003 winner Ortelli recalls. “Norbert had 16 wins at Le Mans but he had never won Spa, and no one was expecting us to do it. This was my favourite success, the best win of my life.”
For 2017 winner Gounon, the realisation of his achievement came as he climbed on to the podium.
"I think that was the biggest emotion, because it was a French team [Sainteloc Racing] running the Audi and so we had La Marseillaiseplaying. It makes the hair stand up on my arms to remember the whole team singing it. All the wins I’d had previously were with German teams, so to hear the French anthem was amazing."
Maxime Martin is in no doubt as to where his victory ranks.
"Winning the Total 24 Hours of Spa was the best race of my career, especially as a Belgian driver," says the 2016 winner. "I'd been close to it before, so it was a big thing to get it and create those memories."
Still, Martin knows that he has some work to do if he's to compete with his famous father.
"I still need to win it a few times more before I can match the four victories of my dad! But that history is special and this is why, for me, it's the best race in the world."
Next month, Martin will be among the small army of drivers hoping to clinch victory at this year's race. After a full day and night of flat-out competition, just three will have earned the right to call themselves overall winners of the Total 24 Hours of Spa. This exclusivity is what makes victory in the Belgian Ardennes so sought after and its champions so celebrated.
➢ Info and tickets: www.total24hours.com