With three hours left on the clock the very first Spa 24 Hours of the GT era was building towards a grandstand finish. At the head of the field, the #7 Larbre Viper of Christophe Bouchut, Jean-Philippe Belloc and Marc Duez held a narrow advantage. The French team's car had been a major factor throughout, recovering from a poor qualifying to lead the bulk of the twice-around the clock event.
But the final stretch of racing looked as though it might last a lifetime for Jack Leconte's outfit as the #3 Carsport Holland Viper loomed large. Pace-wise, this was the machine to beat. The crew of four-time winner Thierry Tassin, the experienced Mike Hezemans and teenager Jeroen Bleekemolen had started from pole and led the early stages, but a cracked exhaust required an agonising seven-minute stop and cost them more than two laps.
They were given a route back into the race when the leading Larbre Viper shed a wheel during the night. The sister #17 Larbre machine had also moved into contention, with 22-year-old Sebastien Bourdais demonstrating his great potential, only for the car to hit major brake problems just after 6am.
Sunday morning brought heavy rain. This was no surprise – there had been a number of showers on Saturday – but it caught the Carsport squad out. The #3 Viper had made it back into the lead, but the team chose to fit slicks just as the heavens opened. Another three minutes were lost and the #7 Larbe crew once again hit the front.
By lunchtime Bouchut was behind the wheel with a lead of two minutes, but a determined Tassin was closing rapidly. A fifth overall victory would make him the most successful driver in the event's history, adding further incentive for the local ace. Heavy rain hit once more and when young Bleekemolen took the wheel he was able to find previously undiscovered grip around the sodden Spa-Francorchamps. A safety car was deployed due to the conditions, leaving the race on a knife edge. With three hours left on the clock this was no longer and endurance contest: it was a sprint.
If you were looking for the moment at which the GT era truly came to life, this might well be it. All of the ingredients that would become part of the modern Total 24 Hours of Spa legend were present: an intense fight for victory, challenging weather conditions, young hotshots fighting experienced stars – and of course the roar of GT engines reverberating around the Ardennes, shaking rainwater from the trees.
Strictly speaking, of course, we can trace the beginning of this new phase in Spa's history back a little further, to the conclusion of the touring car era in 2000. In its glory days the event had attracted the creme de la creme of tin-top drivers, not to mention a few star interlopers from other disciplines.
But by the close of the 20th century it needed a refresh and the race’s long-time organiser, the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium (RACB), settled on a switch to the rapidly growing GT formula.
In stepped Stephane Ratel, whose SRO Motorsports Group was running the FIA GT Championship. The series was prospering, leading the GT discipline's new boom, but it was still missing something critical: a marquee race.
FIA GT had competed at Spa before, staging a four-hour contest at the track in 1997. This, however, would be a completely different undertaking, one in which both parties had something at stake. When the gates opened for the 2001 running, there were early signs that their gamble had paid off. Attendance figures rose significantly as fans ventured out to see what these GT cars looked like in the wild.
Nothing summed up the new breed of machinery quite like the Chrysler Viper GTS-R. Powered by an 8-litre V10, this combination of American muscle and European engineering was every inch the modern racing thoroughbred. No fewer than nine were on the grid for the 2001 race, the other top-tier opposition coming from a Ferrari 550 Maranello and Porsche's 996 Bi-Turbo.
All three looked instantly at home on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, exactly the type of machines that should be leading the new era for the 24 Hours. Their power was evident from the lap times: pole position was some 20 seconds faster in 2001 than it had been the previous year as GT machinery introduced new levels of speed and sound to the Ardennes.
Which brings us back to the 2001 race, at a little after 1pm on Sunday afternoon. The rain had eased and the safety car was withdrawn. Everything pointed to a Carsport attack and, most likely, a swift move into the lead. But when the race went green at around 13.30 local time Bouchut was the pace-setter. Bleekemolen appeared to be struggling; he spun at La Source and the Larbre car had soon carved out a 45-second gap.
Then came the race's defining moment. Still running second, the Carsport Viper ground to a halt at the Bus Stop chicane. Not for the first or last time at Spa, the rain had been decisive: water had found its way into the car’s electrical system.
Bleekemolen climbed out and made his way towards pit-in, where a team member had arrived with a replacement battery. As it was handed over to the driver, a marshal tapped Bleekemolen on the shoulder, but there was no response as the Dutchman made his way back towards the stricken car. The marshal waved his finger instructively, as if to say, "Don't even try it." He was right: assistance of this sort was strictly forbidden. The car was out of the race and Bleekemolen received a fine for his efforts.
With that, the contest was effectively over. Bouchut ran a full 15 minutes clear of Bourdais and could stroke the car home for a Larbre Viper one-two. The final margin of victory was five laps and helped Bouchut and Belloc to clinch the 2001 FIA GT title with four rounds to spare. The all-Belgian Silver Racing line-up of Robert Dierick, Eric De Doncker and Vincent Dupont collected a fine third, ensuring a Viper podium sweep.
Looking back at 2001, it feels like a very different event to the one we know today. It was an old-fashioned endurance contest where the task was to drive with a degree of caution and handle problems with the minimum of fuss. Ask those who have seen the full GT era play out and they will agree: it's just not that kind of race anymore. Today, the Total 24 Hours of Spa is tackled at 98 percent from the word go, while even a small problem can be the difference between challenging for victory and finishing on the fringes of the top-10.
2001 laid new foundations. It showed the world that GT machinery was the way forward for this grand old race, that there could be a new era in which it recaptured its international acclaim. But it was what developed over the following years that created the event we know today. In this respect, 2001 was only the start of the story.
photocredits George Decoster