I wrote last week at length about Crevenitc’s 24H Series, which accounted for five of the 24-hour events that I attended this year.
I also visited Spa-Francorchamps in July for the ‘Total’ Spa 24-hours, the highlight event of the Blancpain GT Series, but also part of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. The Spa race is also a round of the Blancpain-backed Intercontinental GT Challenge, which also comprises the Bathurst 12 hours, the California 8 hours (held last weekend at Laguna Seca) and the Sepang 12 hours (in December). Creventic is not alone in having multiple and complex championship structures!
Despite the role it plays in various championships, series or cups, for me it is a bit of a stand-alone event, as this year I haven’t visited any of the other Blancpain races.
I always enjoy Spa, it is one of those places from which history oozes all over the place. It is similar to the Nürburgring in that respect, and the two tracks share more than a geographical proximity. Both have been neutered from their original ferocity, but while the Nürburgring is perhaps a little more hardcore (and entirely suitable for its devotees), without any snobbishness intended, I find the towns and villages of the Ardennes surrounding the Spa circuit a touch more cultured and refined.
Just as Creventic achieves a particular ambience at its events, so too there is a ‘Blancpain’ feel to the Spa 24, which is definitely different. The Blancpain series is managed by SRO – Stephane Ratel Organisation – and there is no doubt that the personality of the man at the helm has a role to play. There are some things that SRO treats very differently compared to Creventic – internet connections and timing system data are specific examples – my impression is that the two organisations march to the beat of very different tunes. I know which I prefer, but variety, they say, is the spice of life so in that sense I embrace both.
Back to the race though. The 2017 Spa 24 hours had 63 starters, all but two of which were GT3 cars and as a result, speed differentials were simply not on the same scale as in Creventic races, or the races at the Nürburgring. On the other hand, the parity of competition is part of the appeal of Spa - it was mighty impressive to watch the field thunder through Eau Rouge – or anywhere else around the circuit, come to that.
The Blancpain series comes in for a fair amount of criticism because of the way that the sporting regulations (allegedly) prevent innovative use of strategy. The maximum stint length (65 minutes), the ‘pit stop delta’ (meaning that at Spa this year, the length of pit stops was not allowed to be between 1m 33s and 2m 13s) and the ‘technical pit stop’ (a minimum five-minute stop between the 12th and 15th hour of the race), all reduce the options for team managers.
There are perfectly good reasons for these ideas, but like a lot of ideas with the best intentions, unintended consequences often result. I spoke to one team manager who felt that he was being penalised because the ‘short’ pit stop time did not allow the team to get a full 65-minutes-worth of fuel into the car and thus prevented the team from being able to double-stint the tyres. The fact that his car could easily double-stint a set of tyres (he said), while others were struggling to get a set of Pirellis to last a single stint was an advantage that the organisers were quite clearly trying to neutralise.
To be fair, he had a point, but the whole basis of the Blancpain series is to level the playing field and prevent anyone having an advantage. It is a strategy that has, over the years, ensured the series’ success, at least in terms of numbers of entrants.
It does mean that the effort of individual drivers comes to the forefront: a driver can end up being the thing that makes the difference. No doubt the driving technique required for a GT3 car, with its traction control and ABS, is somewhat specialised, and might also be compromised by the need to have a car that suits the needs of each of the drivers on the crew, but the guy (or girl) at the wheel has to deliver, lap after lap, throughout their stint.
For Stéphane Ratel, it is the cars that are the stars, but for the teams, it is all about the synergy within the team. The mechanics, engineers and drivers all have their part to play, and the differentials are so small that tiny things can have big impacts. Those who excel in SRO racing tend not to be the star names from the WEC or elsewhere, but their expertise is nevertheless sought after, and in my view their efforts deserve to be recognised.
The fastest lap of the Spa 24 hours was set by Markus Winkelhock in the winning Saintéloc Audi, but in terms of average lap times, it was Kevin Estre (Bernhard Porsche 911) and Maxime Soulet (M-Sport Bentley) who were the quickest. Most astonishing of all though, was the endurance shown by Raffaele Marciello in the Akka Mercedes AMG, who was at the wheel for a total driving time of not far short of 14 hours.
What the Blancpain series may lack in terms of class differentials and household names, it more than makes up for in the breadth of different manufacturers involved. Ratel likes to call them ‘brands’, and the off-track involvement of Audi, Mercedes, Nissan, etc. is a key aspect of the marketing of many of the major marques involved. Ratel’s passion has always been for road-going supercars, and he certainly has a knack for attracting paying players to his series.
In return, there is live television coverage, some great circuits and plenty of attractions for spectators who attend the events, whether they arrive in a Ferrari or a Ford.
Historically, the Spa 24 hours was a touring car event, rather than one for GT cars. However, since it has been in its current format, it has blossomed and now occupies an important position in the international racing calendar. Stéphane Ratel surely understands that Spa is the premier event in his portfolio; but he also runs SRO as a business, and will be ruthless if economics demanded. I am sure I am not alone in hoping the event continues to succeed, despite those who don’t hold it in such high esteem.