20/20 David and Goliath

5 March 2020

The story of the 2003 Spa 24 Hours has entered racing folklore as one of the greatest giant-killings in the sport's history. Against all odds, the brute strength of the mighty GT1-spec cars was overcome by quick thinking and a brave strategy. If you were searching for the racing equivalent of David and Goliath, you’ve come to the right place. 

There was one major difference from the original, however: despite the obstacles, David at least believed he could overcome Goliath. In the GT version of the story, there was no such confidence. In the words of the driver who led the charge to victory that day: "We never thought about winning overall!" 

Discussions ahead of the 2003 race centred around whether the mighty Chrysler Vipers could be toppled following comfortable overall victories in 2001 and 2002. There was certainly a new level of opposition for 2003, with the Ferrari 550 Maranello looking to be in especially strong form. 

A mighty five-race winning streak in the FIA GT Championship made the #23 Scuderia Italia entry a strong favourite and, when the sister #22 car snatched pole, almost a second clear of Konrad Motorsport's Saleen S7-R, a Ferrari win became the expected result. A total of four Maranellos would take the start, with further top-class opposition from nine Vipers, three Lister Storms and a lone Corvette C5-Rs. Spa was becoming a battle of the Goliaths. 

These 17 top-class entrants led a 53-car field, the biggest yet of the fledgling GT era, with a further 18 N-GT machines falling into line behind them. The bulk of these were Porsches, and it is here that we find our somewhat unlikely David. A brand with as much racing pedigree as Porsche does not often fall into the underdog category, but with the N-GT machines lapping some six seconds slower than the GT1 cars in dry conditions it was a fair description in 2003. 

Sat in his car waiting to take the start, Stephane Ortelli might just have been able to see Eau Rouge rising and disappearing into Raidillon. The French-born Monegasque would start the #50 Freisinger Porsche from 21st on the grid and third in the N-GT class. It is also quite likely that Ortelli was studying the skies above Spa-Francorchamps. Though it remained dry, the overcast late-July afternoon had rain in the air. 

Here’s where things get interesting. This nimble 911 GT3 RS was blessed with excellent roadholding and would be able to compete on a more even footing in wet conditions. Of course, it would still not be an equal fight and Ortelli knew it. He was the one who "never thought about winning overall".  

But while an underdog in terms of equipment the #50 Porsche crew had few equals when it came to personnel. The great Norbert Singer was at the helm, still chasing an elusive overall win at Spa. His driving talent was led by Ortelli, a known quantity who had previously won at Le Mans and arrived at Spa as the reigning Porsche Supercup champion. His teammates were not quite as established, with 25-year-old Romain Dumas and particularly 23-year-old Marc Lieb still in the early stages of their careers. Looking back on what they have achieved since, this was a heavyweight line-up. 

At Spa 12 months earlier, the Freisinger Porsche had taken third overall with Ortelli, Dumas and Emmanuel Collard at the wheel. Of course, there had been fewer GT1 cars that day and the Porsche had finished seven laps down on the winners. Indeed, that result had seemed like the limit for second-tier machinery, and simply matching it would be as good as a win. Ortelli picks up the story.

"I was not pushing to the limit at the start," he recalls. "I remember some guys were pushing hard, but I decided to back off a bit and start slower. Early on I was running around fifth in our class, maybe 10 seconds behind the leaders. I was saving fuel, even though there was no major reason to do so at this time. 

"It was still dry and the GT1 cars were pitting. Of course, the pit lane is very long at Spa. I could see the clouds above and I thought: 'Perhaps I should go even slower, just to see what would happen. Perhaps we could refuel and change tyres at the same time...' Sometimes you think these things and they don't happen – but this time it did!"

The heavens opened and Ortelli's gamble paid off. The #50 car effectively gained a free pit stop on the field, and now had the added advantage of racing in its favoured wet conditions.  

"The Porsche was always very good in the rain," recalls Ortelli. "We had the engine at the back, which helps you not to lose the rear axle too much."

Now holding an unexpected lead, the race continued to move towards the #50 crew as a number of GT1 cars fell by the wayside, including the much-fancied #23 Ferrari. Still, it would require more quick thinking from Ortelli, this time when the race was neutralised for barrier repair, to keep the Porsche out front. 

"We knew it would be a long safety car. Norbert Singer came on the radio and said: 'Steph, I don't want to see you back [in the pits]. Do whatever you want, but I don't want to see you back.' So I was going quite fast just before Les Combes and then switching off the engine and staying in neutral more or less until after the double left of Pouhon. Then, of course, you worry that you will kill the battery, so I turned off the lights as well. Then also I was thinking that maybe I'd kill the starter, so I was putting the car back into fifth gear, lifting the clutch and restarting like this. I was not using the battery, not using the starter, but every lap running a few kilometres without the engine! 

"In this way I was able to stay out for a very long time, which gained us another pit stop. The rules have changed since and you have to keep a minimum distance to the safety car, so you couldn't do this anymore. But there was nothing to stop us doing it then. It was just about trying to survive for as long as possible." 

By morning the Porsche still held the advantage but the #1 Larbre Viper was catching rapidly, with Vincent Vosse closing to within a minute as 11am approached. Goliath was flexing his muscles, but there was yet another twist to the story when Vosse limped into the pits. The Viper required a gearbox change and, after half an hour in the garage, the gap was immense. Larbre would need the Porsche to hit problems if they were to bag a third successive win at the 24 Hours, so team boss Jack Leconte tried one final roll of the dice.

"Jack Leconte is a great guy, but he's also very tough," says Ortelli. "The Vipers were catching us at five seconds a lap, but they had calculated that we were too far ahead. I was at the back of the garage with Manfred Freisinger. Jack came to us and said: 'Hey guys, you have to think about the [N-GT class] championship and about the points. You should back off a bit and be safe. Manfred just told him to go away!"

Despite Leconte's best efforts, the Freisinger crew held on. Ortelli's quick thinking had been decisive, while Dumas and Lieb also delivered exemplary drives and the team did not put a put wrong. The Freisinger Porsche crew therefore became the first from the less-powerful class to win in the FIA GT Championship; to this day, it also remains the only car from outside the top tier to win overall at Spa during two decades of GT competition. 

"The most amazing time for me was Norbert Singer crying at the end of the race," recalls Ortelli. "He had been part of 16 Le Mans wins with Porsche, but he had never won Spa. Nobody was expecting us to beat the GT1s. It was an amazing time and a big emotional win for sure."

Ortelli has told this story many times over the years. He achieved plenty before and after Spa 2003, but this has become the victory with which he is most associated. That a driver could make such a difference to the result – partly behind the safety car – is truly remarkable.  

"As a Frenchman, I should say that the Le Mans win was my biggest success," he concludes. "But I have to say that this was my favourite. It's the best win of my life." 

Indeed, this was a true endurance classic that had it all: changeable conditions, supreme teamwork and a strategy that was equal parts risk and intelligence. Porsche is best known as a Goliath, but in 2003 the 911 GT3 RS played the role of the underdog to perfection. David couldn’t have done it better himself.