BATTLE OF THE HEAVYWEIGHTS: WHO WILL WIN THE FIGHT FOR OVERALL VICTORY AT THE 24 HOURS OF SPA
The Sprint Cup season is complete. The test days have been run. It’s just about time to head to the Ardennes for the biggest GT3 race on the planet. Which raises one very important question: who is the favourite to take victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa?
From a 56-strong grid, 28 full-pro crews will be gunning for overall glory in the Ardennes, the vast majority featuring factory drivers from the world’s biggest brands. The teams are the best in the business, and many will get extra support from their manufacturers.
With so much talent spread throughout the field, there is no one that would be considered a shock winner. Some may be more fancied than others based on the experience of the team and its drivers, but there is no genuine outsider. Should they execute perfectly and circumstances work in their favour, any of the 28 have the potential to win this race.
As such, picking a favourite is impossible. In fact, it is difficult to narrow the list down to five or even 10 crews. All that we can do is assess this year’s entrants and get an idea of who will be in the fight come Sunday afternoon.
As last year’s winning brand, Porsche is the natural place to start. GPX Racing ended a nine-year wait for victory, but the German manufacturer clearly has even bigger ambitions in 2020. Eight full-pro crews – more than any other brand – confirms as much.
They are led by last year’s winning trio of Kevin Estre, Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen, who move to Paul Ip’s KCMG operation. Experience alone makes them the favourites among Porsche’s representative, but the opposition is stiff. Dinamic Motorsport scored a dominant victory in last month’s GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Endurance Cup race at the Nürburgring, while the #98 ROWE Racing crew of Nick Tandy, Laurens Vanthoor and Earl Bamber also looks set to be a factor.
Add in another strong ROWE car, two excellent GPX crews and a one-off entry by Frikadelli Racing and it becomes clear just how stacked Porsche’s line-up is. Don’t bet against another triumph in 2020.
After a relatively fallow 2019 the current season is looking very bright indeed for Audi. The Ingolstadt marque has pulled out all the stops in its pursuit of a fifth Spa win in 10 years, with four factory-supported cars contending for overall victory.
The #30 Audi Sport Team WRT entry is the pick of the bunch, with Endurance Cup leaders Mirko Bortolotti and Kelvin van der Linde joined by two-time Spa winner Rene Rast. The sister #31 of Chris Mies, Robin Frijns and Dries Vanthoor is also a major threat for victory this year.
Audi Sport Team Sainteloc counts on a pair of past winners in Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase, who are partnered by DTM championship leader Nico Müller. There’s also bags of talent at Audi Sport Team Attempto, a new addition to the factory fold that features Fred Vervisch, Mattia Drudi and Patric Niederhauser.
Belgian Audi Club Team WRT provides an extra top-tier car, which combines teenage Sprint Cup champion Charles Weerts, 2012 race winner Frank Stippler and Audi returnee Edoardo Mortara. All told, an Audi victory looks distinctly possible.
Mercedes-AMG celebrates the 10th anniversary of its customer racing programme this year and will have two factory-backed cars hunting its first win since 2013.
The #4 Mercedes-AMG Team HRT crew is among the favourites. Last term, in its previous guise as Black Falcon, the squad took overall pole and finished on the podium. This year it retains the established pairing of Maro Engel and Luca Stolz alongside Vince Abril, a runner-up at Spa in 2017 with Bentley. Now under the stewardship of Hubert Haupt, this squad should be a contender again in 2020.
Mercedes-AMG Team AKKA ASP also looks strong, with Raffaele Marciello, Felipe Fraga and Timur Boguslavskiy showing well at Imola and the Nürburgring. Jerome Policand’s outfit is already a two-time podium finisher at Spa so this is definitely a car to watch, particularly when the lightning-fast Marciello is behind the wheel.
Ferrari’s last win in the Ardennes came back in 2004. If you’re looking for a good omen, the car that secured victory that day, a 550 Maranello, recently sold at auction for more than $4m.
The #51 AF Corse crew will hope to hit the jackpot this time around, with 2017 poleman James Calado paired with two-time Pro-Am class winner Alessandro Pier Guidi and rising star Nicklas Nielsen.
It will also be fascinating to watch Sergey Sirotkin tackle the event for the first time in the #72 SMP Racing machine. The Russian has shown impressive speed this year and in Miguel Molina and Davide Rigon he boasts two of the best teammates in the business.
There’s an additional Ferrari thanks to HubAuto, which has assembled a crack line-up of Kamui Kobayashi, Marcos Gomes, and 2018 race winner Tom Blomqvist. Any of the Ferrari crews could be celebrating come Sunday afternoon.
After taking an unprecedented overall title sweep last year, there’s pretty much just one thing left for Lamborghini to do: win at Spa. The #63 Orange1 FFF Racing crew has not enjoyed an easy start to its Endurance Cup defence and will be relying on a stellar run in the Ardennes to reignite its hopes.
The #163 Emil Frey Racing line-up could also be a factor. Franck Perera is vastly experienced, while Albert Costa and Giacomo Altoe have shown excellent form in the Sprint Cup. The same is true of the sister #14 crew, and if they can add consistency to their speed the Swiss squad will be very competitive.
Bentley is the only non-German brand to score an overall podium during Spa’s GT3 era and remains committed to taking victory in the Ardennes. American outfit K-PAX Racing will field two cars, maintaining Bentley’s Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli crew of Maxime Soulet, Jordan Pepper and 2017 winner Jules Gounon in the #3 Continental. The sister #9 car also looks good, with the vastly experienced Andy Soucek and Alvaro Parente joined by Rodrigo Baptista.
French squad CMR will add a third Bentley. Its #107 Continental is a potential dark horse, with factory ace Seb Morris joined by long-time sportscar racer Nelson Panciatici and young charger Pierre-Alexandre Jean.
There is a very simple rule when assessing potential winners at Spa: never rule out BMW. The German brand holds a record 24 overall wins, and while it has just two full-pro cars this term both are contenders for the top of the podium.
This was underlined by Walkenhorst Motorsport taking a one-two finish at the recent Indianapolis 8 Hour. Two of the Indy winners – Nicky Catsburg and Augusto Farfus – are joined by double Spa winner Philipp Eng, forming a heavyweight crew.
There’s plenty of talent across the garage, too, with Martin Tomczyk, Nick Yelloly and David Pittard sharing the #35 M6 GT3. BMW may only have two bullets in the chamber, but it would be no surprise if one of them hit the target.
McLaren returns to Spa with its new 720S and a new team, Optimum Motorsport. Rather more familiar is the presence of Rob Bell, who first raced a McLaren at the 24 Hours in 2011. He is joined this year by fellow factory pilot Joe Osborne and development driver Ollie Wilkinson.
The #69 crew has scored points in both Endurance Cup events thus far, showing consistency and race craft rather than outright speed. That bodes well for the longest race of the season, where they will be chasing McLaren’s first top-10 finish at Spa since 2012.
Last but by no means least, Honda. The Japanese marque also has just one full-pro representative at Spa, with the #29 Team Honda Racing entry competing as part of its full-season Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli programme.
Fielding one car means there’s no room for error, but this is a highly capable crew. Renger van der Zande and Mario Farnbacher were part of the line-up that finished sixth last year, a fine debut result for the NSX GT3 Evo.
This time they’re joined by multiple American sportscar champion Dane Cameron, and the trio are fresh from a podium at the Indianapolis 8 Hour. While the odds are not in their favour, this is a one-car effort with every chance of a big finish.
Which of these crews will emerge victorious? It really is anyone’s guess. As ever, the only way to know for sure is to follow events from Spa-Francorchamps. Live coverage begins on Thursday 22 October with pre-qualifying, which is followed later in the day by the main qualifying session.
On Friday it’s Super Pole, which brings together the fastest 20 qualifiers to battle for the coveted P1. This will at least give us an idea of the leading contenders: only twice since 2001 has the winner qualified outside the top-20.
This year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa gets underway at 15.30 on Saturday 24 October, considerably later in the year then we are used to. The race will also feature a great deal more night running than previous editions, adding to the challenge faced by competitors. Indeed, whoever emerges on top in 2020 will have thoroughly earned their victory.
Class glory up for grabs at 2020 Total 24 Hours of Spa
While the battle for overall honours attracts the most attention, the Total 24 Hours of Spa is very much a multi-class contest. This year’s grid is a perfect split, with 28 full-pro entries joined by another 28 competing across the Silver Cup, Pro-Am and Am Cup categories. In each case, the battle for victory is just as fierce as what you will see at the front of the field.
The opening GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Endurance Cup events have highlighted two crews as leading contenders for Silver honours. Garage 59 heads to Spa with a one-point championship advantage after taking a runner-up finish at Imola and then securing victory at the Nürburgring. Their crew combines reigning Silver class winner James Pull with full-season drivers Andrew Watson and Valentin Hasse-Clot, as well as teenager Roman De Angelis. All things considered, this should be a very strong effort.
But they certainly won’t have it easy. Last year’s class winner Barwell Motorsport won at Imola and finished second at the Nürburgring with its #78 Lamborghini and is generally considered a Spa specialist. Its 2020 line-up is led by Patrick Kujala, who was part of Barwell’s Am Cup-winning squad in 2018 and as fast as anyone in a Lamborghini; Frederik Schandorff and Alex MacDowall add youth and experience to complete another excellent Silver line-up.
These two crews can be considered class favourites, but there will be no shortage of competition. There’s another Lambo courtesy of Orange1 FFF Racing, which features a quartet of drivers aged 23 and under. Porsche will be represented by Dinamic Motorsport, which counts 2018 Silver Cup winner Andrea Rizzoli among its line-up, while the #11 Team Parker Racing squad features Bentley Motorsport Academy drivers Frank Bird, Nicolai Kjaergaard and Euan McKay, who will look to give the British brand its first class win in the Ardennes.
You also have to factor in the #15 Tech1 Lexus crew. The all-French line-up of Thomas Neubauer, Aurélien Panis and Timothé Buret is as quick as they come and will have ambitions of gatecrashing the overall top-20 in qualifying. Running smoothly for the full 24 Hours will decide whether this squad can compete for class victory.
Numerically, Mercedes-AMG leads the way with four cars. AKKA ASP is something of a Silver Cup expert, so expect the #89 crew to be in the mix despite a tough start to the Endurance Cup season. Madpanda Motorsport will make its maiden appearance in the Ardennes with a strong line-up led by team owner Ezequiel Perez Companc. Patrick Assenheimer and Ricardo Sanchez add experience, while Juuso Puhakka has impressed in the Sprint Cup.
HRT should also be a contender. The #5 AMG GT3 features the most experienced line-up in the Silver Cup class, with team owner Hubert Haupt joined by Sergey Afanasiev, Gabriele Piana and Michele Beretta. The only one-off entrant is the #84 HTP Motorsport crew, which has Indy Dontje, an expert in AMG machinery, competing alongside Phillip Ellis and Russell Ward.
Last but by no means least, a pair of Audi runners will be hoping to fight for the Silver Cup podium. The #55 Attempto Racing drivers have an average age of just 20, but their pace this year has been impressive. The #33 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry has faced a tough start, but the squad knows better than most how to excel in the Ardennes.
While we can use the results from Imola and the Nürburgring to pick out the Silver Cup favourites, they tell us very little about who will lead the way in Pro-Am. Why? Because six different crews have stood on the podium in the opening two races, leaving the competitive picture rather unclear. All we can say is that 12 cars will compete in the class and that pretty much any of them might end up on the top step come Sunday afternoon.
When it comes to Pro-Am, the Ferrari runners are a good place to start. The Italian marque has taken six wins from nine GT3 races at Spa and will be represented by three very strong crews this year, including two past winners.
AF Corse is always a factor in the Ardennes and the #51 line-up of Louis Machiels, Niek Hommerson and Andrea Bertolini has already won the Pro-Am class twice. They are joined by Ferrari factory ace Daniel Serra this season and have every chance of adding a third victory.
There’s plenty of experience at Rinaldi Racing, too, with 2018 Pro-Am winner David Perel joining regulars Pierre Ehret, Rino Mastronardi and Daniel Keilwitz. A third Ferrari comes from Sky Tempesta Racing, which recently picked up the Sprint Cup title and adds Giancarlo Fisichella to its Spa line-up. All told, another Ferrari win is very possible.
Having finished first and second in the Am Cup during the previous two seasons, Barwell Motorsport returns to Pro-Am targeting another victory. Leo Machitski continues to anchor the #77 Lamborghini alongside 2019 Silver Cup winner Sandy Mitchell and father-son duo Rob and Ricky Collard. There’s another Lambo among the Pro-Am runners courtesy of Orange1 FFF Racing, which sees Luigi Moccia return to the 24 Hours after a 14-year absence.
Like the Silver Cup, Mercedes-AMG leads the way in Pro-Am with four entries. AKKA ASP will field an all-French line-up that features Jean-Luc Beaubelique, a class winner at Spa in 2011 and 2013 . At JP Motorsport, former grand prix racer Christian Klien anchors a line-up that also includes Mathias Lauda.
SPS Automotive Performance has something of a transatlantic feel: Valentin Pierburg and Dominik Baumann represent Europe, while George Kurtz and Colin Braun fly the American flag. RAM Racing will field its full-season AMG GT3, which runs in a distinctive livery created by the Czech artist Michal Skapa.
Speaking of distinctive liveries, they don’t come much brighter than the Boutsen Ginion Racing BMW, which will compete in a stunning ‘art car’ colour scheme created by Peter Halley. One of just two local teams on the grid, the Wavre-based squad will fly the Belgian flag in spectacular fashion this year.
Porsche machinery is always a factor in the Pro-Am class and few teams know the 911 GT3-R better than Herberth Motorsport. On the driving front, twin brothers Robert and Alfred Renauer will represent German outfit for the third time in four years. Finally, another of the favourites for Pro-Am honours: Garage 59. The British squad brings its full-season line-up of Alexander West, Chris Goodwin and Jonny Adam, who will be joined in the #188 Aston Martin by 2016 Total 24 Hours of Spa winner Maxime Martin. With two factory drivers on board, this is a serious contender.
A quartet of Am Cup cars will complete the 2020 grid. The #26 Sainteloc Racing Audi includes the vastly experienced Pierre Yves Paque, while emerging talent Steven Palette joins as the designated Silver driver. Raton Racing will field a Lamborghini that features Stefano Costantini and Christophe Lenz, both of whom were part of the same crew in 2019.
Herberth Motorsport will add a Porsche that includes gentlemen racers Jürgen Häring and Dimitrios Konstantinou, who first ran the 24 Hours together in 2009 and clinched GT3 class honours the following. Finally, French outfit CMR adds an extra Bentley into the mix. This line-up is anchored by Spa legend Stéphane Lemeret, who made his debut in the Ardennes in 1996 and was a Pro-Am class winner as recently as 2015.
With each class sure to provide its fair share of heartbreak and glory, this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa promises to be another gripping contest from start to finish. Whether it’s the battle for overall victory or the race for class honours, there is always a story to follow.
Source. SRO Motorsports Group