Walkenhorst Fairy Tale: Spa 24 Hours 2018
Recently, the 70th edition of the Spa 24 Hours was run around the fantastic but challenging Francorchamps track, arguably the greatest racing venue on the planet.
Sixty-three GT teams showed up to the Spa 24 Hours, making it the biggest event of its kind. The list of marques contesting for victory reads like the roll of honour at a motor show: Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Ferrari, Honda, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, Nissan and Porsche. Only Corvette was missing from the lineup. The drivers ranged from fully professional crews to Pro-Am and Am, each racing to win their own batch of silverware awarded at the finish of a long, long day and night. The teams also were cosmopolitan, from thinly disguised factory efforts to Pro and semi-Pro outfits. Every colour and size showed up to Spa.
For example, Ferrari’s official GT outfit, AF Corse, solely focused their efforts on the ProAm class and not an outright victory. If you're wondering why, just follow the money. Customer racing programmes are how this part of motorsport will be run in the foreseeable future. The days of spending $300 million per annum on going racing (like Porsche and Audi did recently in WEC/Le Mans) are gone, probably forever.
The atmosphere in the Ardennes region of Belgium is invariably laid back and this informality is reflected in track walks for the fans and the traditional parade of cars and drivers in the centre of Spa, a few miles from the race track.
The whole field is driven down on the public highway, with a police escort, then parked up in the middle of town while the drivers get their formal briefing and indulge the enthusiastic fans with an autograph session. Then, around 9.00 p.m. whistles are blown and the racers blast up into the hills and the village of Francorchamps to the circuit. I know of no other major race that takes its stars to the streets in this fashion.
Thursday saw action all through the day and into the early hours of Friday morning. In the late afternoon the Super Pole session was run, giving us the first big news story of the weekend. Local heroes Team WRT and Dries Vanthoor had grabbed a sensational pole, but not without raising a few eyebrows. Then on Saturday morning, the Stewards acted. According to the reports received from the Technical Delegate, the car had a “modified air tract which gave a performance advantage.” Pole Position disappeared for the Belgians. Not good.
Just to make the point to everyone that this sort of behaviour has no place in the Blancpain GT Series, the car also had to serve a three-minute stop-and-hold penalty during the race for, “Non-sporting behaviour—presenting a car with a technical non-conformity of which the competitor should have been aware.” With two laps gone, their chances of victory were drastically reduced, so one of the favourites was pretty much out of contention before the race had even got underway.
Saturday dragged on with races and parades and all manner of distractions. Like I said, this region is very laid back. It seemed like the whole host of spectators and other attendees congregated on the grid wouldn't ever leave, but with the race imminent, the mob dispersed as quickly as it assembled.
The Race Begins
Suddenly, the late afternoon peace was shattered and the race roared into action with 63 GTs racing down the hill to Eau Rouge, then catapulting up though Raidillon and on to the Kemmel Straight.
The weather had been most un-Belgian, with the thermometer hitting 98 degrees Fahrenheit on several occasions, and while it cooled off a little for the race itself, the conditions in the closed cockpits would be challenging even for the fittest of drivers.
Fast and furious would be a good description of the race during the opening quarter running up until nightfall. Whenever it looked that one of the contenders would break away from their rivals, proceedings would be upset by a full course yellow, with pit stops almost mandatory during such periods.
At various points Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley and BMW were at the head of the pack, with Nissan and Lexus in close attendance.
Heavy Wrecks at Night
Just after midnight came the first of two serious race incidents when the veteran star Stéphane Ortelli crashed his Lexus heavily at Raidillon with the car bursting into flames. The Monegasque driver was released from hospital after checks.
A couple of hours later the Red Flag was thrown by the Race Director in response to a massive accident involving Andy Meyrick’s Bentley and Jürgen Krebs’ Lamborghini, once again at Raidillon. When Krebs spun to a halt facing the wrong way just over the crest of the hill, Meyrick had no chance to avoid him and hit the Lamborghini front on at around 170 mph, completely destroying both cars. Although both drivers were immediately rescued and transported to the local hospital's Intensive Care Unit, their injuries were described as "not life-threatening" and both drivers have subsequently left hospital. Meyrick even got married a fortnight after the accident.
Racing got underway again after being halted for two hours, with the contest shaping up to be a German affair of Audi vs. BMW vs. Mercedes-AMG in the run to the chequered flag.
Down to BMW
Attrition played its usual role in endurance racing, with minor problems blunting the challenge of several contenders until the duel came down to the BMW M6 GT3s of Rowe Racing and Walkenhorst Motorsport.
The race organisers, SRO and the RACB, have created a festival atmosphere with concerts going on late into the night. Naturally, this attracts a huge crowd of locals who party hard, mostly oblivious to the action happening on the track not more than 100 yards from them.
The BMW pair exchanged the lead over the final six hours of the race and then, remarkably, the advantage fell to Walkenhorst. What made it remarkable was that while both cars had factory BMW drivers, Walkenhorst’s pair courtesy of Munich, Tom Blomqvist and Phillip Eng, had the silver-rated Christian Krognes, a Dane who sells bricks for a living during the week, as their teammate.
Fairy Tale Victory
Walkenhorst are a private team who are tiny compared with the factory-supported Rowe, but in an almost Hollywood-style fairy tale, they triumphed over the rest of the field. It was the stuff of dreams.
The Spa 24 Hours is surely worth a place on any petrolhead’s bucket list. It's very different in flavour and atmosphere from its elder cousin at Le Mans and has a charm and style all its own. You should try it one year. I guarantee you'll want to go back.