The 67th running of the Total 24 Hours of Spa promises to be one of the highlights of the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series season. With over a dozen candidates vying for the win, representing a plethora of prestigious manufacturers, the spectacle during the Ardennes endurance classic will be of the highest level. Kiwi V8 Supercar driver Shane van Gisbergen has joined the Von Ryan Racing team as they attempt to repeat their victory at Silverstone earlier in the season.
Whoever thought that last year’s gap at the end of the Total 24 Hours of Spa – a mere seven seconds separating the winning Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car from the BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS machine – would be hard to beat, might be in for a surprise come Sunday July 26th. The 2015 edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa, the highlight of the Blancpain GT Series, will probably produce a very open race, with an unprecedented number of candidates for the win.
With three different winners in the first three races of the Blancpain Endurance Series, it is clear that there is little or nothing between this year’s teams and drivers in the Pro Cup division. The driver standings are led by Wolfgang Reip, Katsumasa Chiyo and Alex Buncombe – the winners of the previous round at Le Castellet with the #23 Nissan Academy Team RJN car – but the gap towards the competition is almost non-existent.
The Bentley Boys Smith, Meyrick and Kane are only one point behind, while the Audi-trio of Vernay, Frijns and Vanthoor just two. All of them are among the candidates for the win in Spa, but it is worth noting that reigning Blancpain Endurance Series champion Laurens Vanthoor has new team-mates for his home race, as he will be teaming up with René Rast and Markus Winkelhock to reunite the winners of last year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Vanthoor, Rast and Winkelhock will be driving a new Audi R8 LMS, entered by Audi Sport Team WRT. There are four of those at the start in Spa, two in the Audi Sport Team WRT camp and two in the Audi Sport Team Phoenix garages. Among the drivers of the latter are threefold Le Mans-winners Marcel Fässler and André Lotterer. The German-with-Belgian-roots is competing in Spa for the fifth time in his career and would love to add an almost home win to his tally.
The Audi R8 LMS is not the only car making its debut in the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The same goes for the Lamborghini Huracàn and the McLaren 650S. Both showed massive potential during the previous races of the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series – the VonRyan Racing McLaren taking the win in Silverstone – so keep an eye out for them as well.
That does not mean that the older generation of GT3 cars will not have their say during the Ardennes weekend. The previous generation of the Audi R8 – three times the winner in the last four editions of the Belgian classic – still has got a lot going for it, as shown by the cars of Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, Saintéloc and ISR.
The Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 – that car that crossed the line in first in 2013 – is the weapon of choice for Rowe Racing and Black Falcon in the Pro Cup, and with Black Falcon having local specialist Nico Verdonck in its driver line-up, they are expected to be among the frontrunners as well.
One of the advantages Verdonck and his team-mates Christodoulou and Simonsen will have is that they do not have to worry about the points after six and twelve hours to establish their strategy, as they are not competing in the whole of the 2015 series. The same goes for two other teams who have come to Spa with the clear intention to finish on the podium. Both entering one or more BMW Z4 GT3 cars, Roal Motorsport and BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS will do their utmost best to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bavarian brand’s first win in Spa in style.
The Italian squad will almost certainly be in the spotlight for the whole of the weekend, since Alex Zanardi is among its drivers. The former F1-driver, IndyCar-champion and Olympic champion has chosen the Total 24 Hours of Spa to be the next in his long line of challenges and together with DTM stars Timo Glock and Bruno Spengler the Italian is certainly aiming for a top finish.
A top finish might not be enough for the troops of Count Marc van der Straten. The BMW Sports Trophy Team Marc VDS has been chasing a win in its home race for so long now, that anything less will probably be a disappointment for Belgian squad. With Martin-Farfus-Werner and Palttala-Catsburg-Luhr, they arguably have their best line-up ever, and the preparations for the Ardennes race week were nigh on perfect, so everything seems to be into place for that elusive first win. But only the race itself will decide whether 2015 will be Marc VDS’s year or not.
Pro-Am Cup: class win or overall podium?
Do not, however, think that the Pro Cup has the exclusive rights on overall podium candidates within its ranks. Some of the Pro-Am Cup line-ups are mighty impressive as well. The #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari must certainly be a candidate for the Pro-Am Cup class win, but also for a good result overall. With Rinat Salikhov and Norbert Siedler at the wheel, the car became the first Pro-Am Cup car to ever win a Blancpain Endurance Series race overall, claiming the win in the 2015 opening round in Monza. After having spent two races in the Pro Cup, the mean green machine is now back in Pro-Am with Marco Seefried and Belgian Stef Vancampenhoudt joining Salikhov and Siedler.
Another Belgian having set his eyes on – at least – a top-5 finish overall, is Stéphane Lémeret. Lémeret – twice runner-up in Spa – has Thai youngster Pasin Lathouras as one of his team-mates, but also Ferrari aces Alessandro Pier Guidi and Gimmi Bruni. Do not be surprised to see the #47 AF Corse Ferrari on the front row on Saturday afternoon, because that is exactly what Pier Guidi accomplished during the two most recent editions of the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
With nine Ferrari 458 Italia in the Pro-Am Cup entry list, one might be tempted to only consider the Prancing Horses as a candidate for the class win, especially since three of them have a Platinum driver in their line-up. But that would be a mistake. Last year’s class winner Louis Machiels has switched to the Bentley Team HTP and the team’s experience (overall winner in 2013) will certainly help the Belgian to aim for another choice result.
And then there are the teams who have managed to get a Platinum driver on their rosters: together with full-season entrants Maro Engel (Black Falcon Mercedes SLS) and Marko Asmer (GT Russian Team Mercedes SLS), Mathias Beche (TDS Racing BMW Z4), Olivier Pla (Nissan GT Academy Team RJN), Stefan Mücke (Leonard Motorsport Aston Martin), Dirk Müller (Triple Eight Racing BMW Z4) and Christophe Bouchut (GT Russian Team Mercedes SLS) will not only try to get their cars high up the starting grid, but will also push hard to keep it among the frontrunners all through the race.
Am Cup: Ferrari against all
The Am Cup might be the smallest of the three categories in the Blancpain Endurance Series, but that does not mean that the fight for the win is any less fierce. The three races of 2015 have seen three different winners and of those, the Boutsen Ginion BMW Z4, will certainly be the most closely followed by the Belgian fans. The Brussels squad have been unlucky in their home race during the most recent editions, but the reliability of the Z4 might be the key to success this year.
The orange and black Boutsen Z4 will not be the only BMW the local crowd will notice. At the wheel of the Classic & Modern Racing machine, Frédéric Bouvy will try to claim another win in Spa, after having taken two overall wins during the Touring Car era. It is Bouvy’s 21st start in the endurance classic, making him one of the most experienced drivers at the start.
BMW has two representatives, but so do Porsche (Attempto Racing and the Belgian Delahaye Racing) and Audi (Saintéloc and last year’s runner-up Team Parker Racing). The majority of the cars in the Am Cup are Ferrari though, with Akka ASP, Sport Garage, AF Corse, Kessel Racing and Duqueine Engineering all choosing Italian horsepower. Will that strength in numbers be enough to claim a third consecutive class win in Spa for Ferrari? Only time will tell.