From its inception in 1924 through to the modern era, the Total 24 Hours of Spa has long been established as Belgium's national endurance race. Whether it was the daunting old 15km circuit that saw competitors blasting along public roads or the high-spec modern venue, Belgian fans have always flocked to the Ardennes to follow the contest.
Of course, there is nothing that local fans enjoy more than a local winner. During the touring car era, there was no shortage of Belgian participation. Indeed, by the late nineties, non-Belgian competitors were becoming increasingly rare. This was partly the motivation for the event adopting GT rules in 2001: to return the 24 Hours to its rightful place as a major international event.
Almost 20 years on, there can be no doubt that this has proven very successful. At the dawn of the GT era in 2001, the race retained its strong local flavour. Indeed, some of the entries made their allegiances very clear, such as Belgian Racing and Ecurie Bruxelloise.
Over the years that have followed the entry list has expanded to the point where, today, the paddock is a thoroughly international arena. This year's race will feature teams from across the globe, with entrants from as far afield as China, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
The pool of drivers still has significant Belgian representation – little surprise given that the country punches above its weight in many areas of international motor racing. Indeed, the likes of Maxime Martin, Maxime Soulet and the Vanthoor brothers – Dries and Laurens – are all among the leading contenders for outright honours this year.
When it comes to teams, however, Belgian participation has decreased – but it certainly hasn’t ended. In fact, one of the major challengers for overall victory is Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, while the returning Boutsen Ginion Racing squad is a definite contender for the Am Cup class.
Both teams head into this weekend's race with the same aim: to uphold national honour at the Belgian endurance classic.
Vincent Vosse: Winning driver turned winning boss
Vincent Vosse is better placed than most to speak about the Total 24 Hours of Spa. Having triumphed in 2002 as a driver, he has since captured two more wins as the head of Belgian Audi Club Team WRT. He'll be back again this year with a three-pronged effort in the Pro class, as well as an additional car contending for Silver Cup honours.
"I started watching motorsport at this race, with my parents, so it's an important event for me," recalls Vosse.
"I always say that my first time here was 1978," he continues. "In fact, I don't know exactly when it was, but I'll keep saying '78. I would have been six and I remember a great atmosphere, being here with family and friends. I remember waiting outside the old pit boxes. There was a small door that you had to wait by for a driver to come through and sign your autograph.
"As a driver it was always my goal to succeed at this race, which I did,” says Vosse. “As a team, it was not the idea to compete here in our first year , but we did. Since then we have always been here with a minimum of two cars."
The Belgian connection has been crucial to WRT's success. As Vosse explains, it was Audi Belgium's commitment to its home event that encouraged the Ingolstadt marque to put its full weight behind the 24 Hours.
"The first year we only had one car at the finish, and it was way back," says Vosse. "After that, Audi Belgium asked Audi in Germany if they were going to take the race seriously – and they did! They have always been involved with us, which is why the team is called Belgian Audi Club Team WRT."
Though it was his childhood dream to conquer the 24 Hours behind the wheel, Vosse explains that his role as a team boss has proven far more rewarding.
"It was more special to win as a team," he confirms. "It is a target for a group of people, whereas when you're a driver it's more individual. Even in endurance racing, you're still more of an individual.
"But as a team you are planning with your engineers, your mechanics, your sporting directors, so it is much more a group effort. As a driver, I remember having very good times in the car, taking the chequered flag, and for a few hours afterwards. But celebrating as a team, with all the people who are involved, feels like more of a success. As a team boss, you have put everything together."
As a 20-year veteran of the event ¬– and having seen the race from both the cockpit and the pit wall – Vosse can assess how the Total 24 Hours of Spa has grown following its move to GT rules in 2001.
"It hasn't stopped growing since 2010,” he explains. “Before that you had great cars and great teams winning, but it was not as professional as it is now. You had maybe five cars capable of winning, whereas now you have more than 15, maybe more than 20. When I won, it was by five laps. It's not that kind of race anymore. Now, it's flat out from the first lap.”
As to what a third victory would mean to WRT, Vosse retains the air of a seasoned winner.
"It would be the most important win for the team,” he says, “because the most important win is always the next one.
Kevin Boutsen: Keeping it in the family
Boutsen Ginion Racing bears the name of one of Belgium's most famous drivers, Thierry Boutsen, whose career included three grand prix wins during a decade in Formula 1, as well as multiple starts at the 24 Hours. His best result came in 1988, when he drove an Eggenberger-run Ford Sierra RS 500 to second spot.
He now acts as an advisor to the Boutsen Ginion outfit, which is overseen by his brother-in-law Olivier Laine. It is a real family effort, with Thierry’s son, Kevin, working as race engineer on the #9 BMW M6 GT3 that the team will enter in the Am Cup class.
"For us, this is the most important event of the year," says Kevin. "It's the one we look forward to and prepare for the most. Coming here and seeing all the Belgian fans, it's really special.
"It’s just a crazy event," he continues. "It's very competitive and you can have a lot of cars here because it's such a long circuit. It's an old-school track where, if you make a mistake, you're going to have a problem!"
The team first competed at the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2012, making five successive appearances before stepping away for the past two years. Given his family history, it is no surprise that Boutsen Jr. is at home when working at the venue.
"We've grown up with this race. My dad raced here a lot – including with BMW – and I was coming here when I was five years old. I used to go to races with my dad before he stopped competing in 1999 and these are great memories for me.
"My first year working here was 2009, when I was 18 and straight out of high school. So the team is my family and I've always been involved with it."
Despite his young age, Kevin is already something of a Spa veteran. Indeed, he even answers like an old hand when asked about his favourite moment in the race.
"The part you enjoy the most is when your car finishes!” he says with a smile. “But the second-best part is at around five in the morning, when you see the sun rise and the cars are going through Eau Rouge. It's a great time in the race: your car has completed 14 hours, the sun is coming up and you know you have 10 hours left. You feel like ‘we can do this’.
"Our preparation this year has been really good,” he continues. “We've done everything we can and we have a lot of experience at Spa. We've also overhauled the entire car for the 24 Hours because it's so tough.”
As for what a class win would mean for the Boutsen Ginion squad, Kevin does not hide his enthusiasm.
"It would be incredible. It would be the highlight of the past 10 years, for sure. This is such an emotional race for us and we've had a lot of hardship here. We've had two crashes, two mechanical failures and finished once. That was great, but to finish on the podium or even win would bring a lot of joy to the whole team."
Short on numbers, big on passion
While there may be comparatively few Belgian squads competing at the 24 Hours in 2019, the determination to conquer their national endurance race remains just as strong. If anything, Belgian Audi Club Team WRT and Boutsen Ginion Racing are more motivated than ever to ensure that it is their anthem playing on the podium come Sunday afternoon.
That would certainly please the local fans who will pack the circuit this weekend for the latest running of the Belgian endurance classic.