Saintéloc Audi wins dramatic 24 Hours of Spa

The 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Spa was even more dramatic and unpredictable than any other Blancpain GT Series round, which are already filled with drama. Across multiple favorites that appeared and disappeared through the race, The No. 25 Saintéloc Audi prevailed at the end on the failure of the No. 90 AKKA-ASP Mercedes. Jules Gounon and Markus Winkelhock drove superbly while Christopher Haase brought the car to the checkered flag.

The initial moments of the race had Giancarlo Fisichella on a hard charge in first with the No. 55 Kaspersky Ferrari while Mirko Brotolotti in the No. 63 GRT Lamborghini was trailing him closely. Traffic was expected to be the biggest of the problems, and although it did produced great battles, it also brought lots of track limits abuse warnings and penalties due to collisions.

GRT the took the lead after the first pit stop while the 55 crew opted for a driver change as Marco Cioci came in. It didn't take long for Cioci to get in pursuit to Bortolotti though, but traffic proved to be a challenge when the Ferrari 488 GT3 wasn't with clean air. Backmarkers weren't making it easy for neither of the leaders, which pretty much let Bortolotti fuming behind the wheel.

When all the teams were preparing for the second pit window the No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari crashed heavily at Eau Rouge, destroying the car and launching huge pieces of debris everywhere. Good thing is that Pasin Lathouras was OK after the impact, leaving the car on his own power. The pit stops then were made under yellow flag, when Bortolotti left the No. 63 in the hands of Ezequiel Perez Companc.

It took around 25 minutes to clear the track and the GRT-Kaspersky fight resumed, but ten minutes later the No. 17 WRT Audi crashed and brought another yellow flag, and after another 10 minutes the green flag was back, with the No. 63 GRT Lamborghini leading again and having the No. 55 Kaspersky Ferrari targeting it for quite a time, with the No. 1 WRT Audi and the No. 84 HTP Mercedes appearing a bit behind as undesired guests in third and fourth. It didn't take long for the 55 to show the claws to the 63, going full aggressive in the search for a gap to overtake before more traffic appears.

It was in the pits that the 63 gained the lead but it was in the pits that it lost it too, the losing 2nd and 3rd on track to the No. 2 WRT Audi and to the No. 1 WRT Audi. As the night time was coming more cars were eliminated, with the No. 6 WRT Audi and the No. 333 Rinaldi Ferrari stopping on track almost at the same moment, bringing another full course yellow, but soon the green was out again with headlights on full power. With 18 hours and a half to go, when WRT was controlling the top spots the No. 1 Audi took a drive-through penalty due to track limit abuse, and while it wasn't a WRT show anymore, it was still an Audi show as WRT was leading Saintéloc and ISR. Sad note of the moment is the retirement of the No. 58 Strakka McLaren Art Car as it stopped on track.

With the No. 114 Emil Frey Jaguar stopped on track with its steamy problems, most of the Audi lead train got spread and the No. 2 WRT Audi lost the lead for the No. 55 Kaspersky Ferrari, with the No. 63 GRT Lamborghini going back to second and the only change in front from the earlier hours being the No. 84 HTP Mercedes in third, although it just took time for the order to reverse again with the No. 2. To worse things for real, Jimmy Eriksson went too much into the Radillion kerbs and crashed the No. 84 in the barriers just outside, retiring as damage was way beyond repair.

As the race was closing to the midnight the No. 90 AKKA-ASP joined the fight, with the 90, the 2, the 63 and 55 swapping positions from time to time while the No. 8 M-SPORT Bentley was watching it closely. With 11 hours and a half of racing rain was spotted by various sources around the track, but another collision wasn't even caused by that as Jonathan Venter lost control while braking the No. 3 WRT Audi at the Bus Stop chicane and Tetsuya Kataoka in the No. 00 GSR Mercedes didn't have a way to go as both front ends collided heavily. The 00 went quickly to the pits while 3 stopped in the runoff, unable to continue.

While the local yellow flag was on the rain got heavier, and with this WRT took the opportunity to change brakes in all its cars along with wet tires while the 63 and the 55 were bolder and stayed longer, enough to see the rain stop in some areas, eventually stopping some minutes after the halfway point. It did rained more during the night, enough to cause trouble but then the track dried again before dawn.

Once the sun was on again a big moment that ended the race of the No. 55 Kaspersky Ferrari as contact with the No. 90 AKKA-ASP Mercedes broken the suspension of the 55, making it go straight to the barriers at Eau Rouge, bringing a full course yellow that lasted 15 minutes and ended the 14th hour action. The fiercest rival of the 55 also had a bitter end as the No. 63 GRT Lamborghini had an ABS failure at Fagnes with 7 hours and 45 minutes to go, diving into the barriers and never returning.

With the main contenders of the first half out, the No. 90 became a favorite while the No. 1 WRT Audi was the hopeful, with the No. 25 Sainteloc Audi, the No. 8 MS-SPORT Bentley, the No. 117 Team Bernhard Porsche and the No. 98 ROWE BMW being the dark horses. With 17 hours and a half gone, the No. 90 got spun by the No. 991 SpeedLover Porsche Cup car while the No. 98 ROWE BMW was brought to the garage for maintenance.

The Pro-Am Cup was still in a tight battle between the No. 16 Black Facon Mercedes and the No. 97 Oman Racing Aston Martin, but a driver stint penalty broke all the hopes of the TF Sport-run car, sending them to a 2 Lap disadvantage to the German team.

When in the final 3 hours of the race the No. 90 was controlling the lead while the No. 25 was just there, lapping quicker by a reasonable margin but not resulting in an overtake. The situation repeated at the 22nd hour as Christopher Haase with the 25 was still stuck behind Raffaele Marciello in the 90, while Maxime Soulet in the No. 8 M-SPORT Bentley was trying to reduce a 16 second gap to the leader. The final pit stop window was a game changer as the No. 90 had to stay a bit longer to not have driver stint limit penalty, which relegated Raffaele Marciello to third while Soulet had to deal with a gap of 10 seconds to Haase, but the Belgian was trying everything in his power to turn things on his favor.

With 25 minutes to go Haase started to open the gap, putting around 0.5s per lap on Soulet and avoiding any chance of a turnaround, and so it stayed until the finish line. Pro-Am honors were for the dominant performance of the No. 16 Black Falcon Mercedes aided by the mistakes of the class-second No. 97 Oman Racing Aston Martin, and Kessel Racing puts the No. 888 Ferrari in the top of the Am Cup podium.

The Blancpain GT Series takes a month to stop and then returns on August 26th and 27th at Hungaroring with the Sprint Cup, while the Endurance Cup returns only on October 1st with the Blancpain GT season finale at Barcelona.

PHOTO: Audi Sport