Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Spa 24 Hours: Two overall victories in four years for Audi

By Tarek Ramchani

In addition to Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona and the Nürburgring, the Spa 24 Hours is a true classic in the world of endurance and sportscar racing. Since 2001 the race has been exclusively open to GT cars, after decades with Touring Cars. The Audi R8 LMS has always taken part in the event since 2009. Overall victories and great performances, but also a lot of bad luck for the Audis in the last four years at the Belgian Ardennes.

The first appearance of the Audi R8 LMS at the Spa 24 Hours dates back to 2009. A single car had been entered from GT specialists, and 2007 overall race winners, Phoenix Racing. That was not a works entry, but Audi blessed the effort after a maiden debut at the Nürburgring 24 Hours earlier that year. The race was part of the former FIA GT Championship.There was no specific class for proper FIA GT3 cars, therefore the Audi R8 LMS entered the G2 class for national GT cars. The car itself was slightly different from its original FIA GT3 specification. In the race the Audi was amazingly fast and reliable. Phoenix Racing ended in third overall, beating a full field of much faster FIA GT1 and FIA GT2 cars. A great Audi debut in the Belgian classic.

A year later the race had become a stand-alone event known as the FIA GT2 European Cup. The FIA GT1 cars were removed and the FIA GT3 cars were finally officially welcomed. Seven Audi R8 LMS cars entered the event from Phoenix Racing, the newly formed Team WRT and United Autosports. The Phoenix cars performed really well against strong rivals from BMW, Porsche and Ferrari, all of them with GT2 cars. Audi and Phoenix Racing lead the race overall, yet bad luck hit their cars forcing them to retire. Bad luck also hit the local WRT team. United Autosports finished as the best Audi team, their R8 LMS cars ended in ninth and tenth overall, second and third within the GT3 class.

For 2011 there were big changes for the Spa 24 Hours. The race became the stellar event of the new Blancpain Endurance Series. No more FIA GT2 cars, the race was only open to FIA GT3 cars as the top class. Audi entered the event for the first time with a factory effort. Audi Sport Team WRT and Audi Sport Team Phoenix, with a two-car effort each. United Autosports, as a customer team, entered three cars. After a great race Audi finally took their first overall Spa 24 Hours victory. The #33 Audi R8 LMS of Audi Sport Team WRT driven by Greg Franchi, Timo Scheider and Mattias Ekström finished first. A victory that helped Audi and WRT to later win the Blancpain Endurance Series titles.

In 2012 Audi defended the title. Audi Sport Team WRT and Audi Sport Team Phoenix were again entered as factory teams. Privateer Audi R8 LMS and ultra cars also took part in the event from Sainteloc Racing, United Autosports, JB Motorsport, GT3 Racing and ALFAB Racing. The race saw titanic battles for the race lead, with extreme hard weather and track condition. Race victory in the end went to the #16 Audi R8 LMS ultra from Audi Sport Team Phoenix. It was in the hands of Frank Stippler, Rene Rast and Andrea Piccini. A fine 1-2 win for Audi as the #1 Audi R8 LMS ultra from Audi Sport Team WRT with divers Stéphane Ortelli, Christopher Mies and Christopher Haase finished second. The same as in 2011, the Spa 24 Hours victory gave Audi big points in the Blancpain Endurance Series. Both the driver and team titles were back to WRT and Ingolstadt in the end.

2013 will mark the fifth year for the Audi R8 LMS at Spa. And unlike the past two years, Audi will not enter the event as a factory team. A total of seven cars will be at Spa: Four cars for Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, two for Phoenix Racing and a single car for United Autosports. Six cars out of the seven are in the upper Pro-Cup class. Without any doubt Audi will be one of the big favorites for the overall win.

Photo credit: Audi Media