The Spa 24 Hours began only a month after the Le Mans 24 Hours, but throughout its history has struggled to match the Sarthe for mass appeal. The race has developed and grown from a touring car event into the unofficial GT3 world championship. Since moving to the GT3 platform in 2011 the race has thrived with every year seeing an increase in the quality and quantity of the entry.
This year is no different, with a staggering 66 cars set to compete on the 7km circuit throughout the 24 hours. The top level Pro cup sees an incredible 36 entries, and ten different manufactures, with almost all having some form of factory support, competing fiercely for the win. In a series of blog posts I will be previewing the upcoming race, with this being the first post looking at a portion of the incredible Pro cup entry.
#00 Good Smile Racing & Team UKYO Mercedes AMG GT3: Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka/Kamui Kobayashi
The Japanese Super GT team embark on their maiden assault on the Spa 24 Hours, something that will not prove easy despite having a very strong team. The Goodsmile team are very successful in the GT3 spec GT300 class in recent years. The team and their regular driver line-up have won the class in 2011 and 2014, and they could not have added a higher quality driver to complete their trio.
The regular season pairing of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka have been competing together since 2012 and won the class in 2014, with Taniguchi making a name for himself in the world of D1 drifting.
Team mate Tatsuya Kataoka a similarly talented driver who has come up through the single seater ranks before switching across to GT racing.Completing the line-up is factory Toyota LMP1 and former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi. He’s a seriously quick driver and despite having never driven a GT3 car before he should provide some quick times in the car. For this team a top ten or fifteen result would be a huge achievement in such a highly competitive field.
#1 Audi Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Antonio Garcia/Nico Muller/Rene Rast
The #1 entry was the most successful of the Audi entries at the preceding Paul Richard six hours last month, and amongst a very strong Team WRT Audi stable any of their pro cup entries could win this race.
The Audi R8 appears to have been disadvantaged by the new spec Pirelli tyre, aside from a dominant double victory in the two Sprint cup rounds at Zolder. The Belgian team however always manage to put themselves in contention in Belgium’s most famous GT race.
Nico Muller is a very quick factory Audi DTM driver with experience in this race, and factory Corvette racing driver Antonio Garcia adapted well to both the car and the team last time out in France. The trio is completed by double Spa 24 winner Rene Rast, and this team are definite contenders for the win if they can remain trouble free.
#2 Audi Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Conor de Filippi/Christopher Mies/Frederic Vervisch
The WRT Audi team are factory supported and have a huge arsenal of entries for their highlight of the season. The #2 entry is another contender for the victory in this hugely competitive pro cup class entry.
Conor de Filippi and Christopher Mies are well versed as successful team mates, having won the German ADAC GT Masters title together last year and only several months ago they won a dramatic Nurburgring 24 Hours. Frederic Vervisch is another Audi factory driver who can deliver a very quick consistent stint.
To discount any WRT Audi at the GT3 level is a mistake but this entry in particular will be one of the pre-race favorites amongst their massive stable.
#4 Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT3: Adam Christodolou/Yelmer Buurman/Luca Stolz
The Black Falcon outfit have established themselves as one of the leading Mercedes teams at this level, much like rivals WRT are for Audi. These three have been the full season Blancpain Endurance triumvirate this season, and despite a difficult start to the season the strength of this team and its drivers means you cannot read too much into their results this season.
Mercedes factory driver Adam Christodolou is a former Nurburgring 24 Hours winner and deserves the respect that comes with being a Merc factory driver. Dutchman Yelmer Buurman is a former single seater hotshoe who has now established himself an an excellent GT driver in a Mercedes in particular. German Luca Stolz has risen from the German sportscar ranks to reach the Blancpain level and has so far established himself as a very good driver at this level.
#5 WRT Audi R8 LMS: Marcel Fassler/Dries Vanthoor/Andre Lotterer
This season so far has been slightly underwhelming in comparison with their usual very high levels of success. This #5 entry has been up there with the best WRT Audi’s in Blancpain this year, yet they have struggled for consistently top line results in such a highly competitive series.
Audi LMP1 refugee Marcel Fassler has adapted well to the R8 LMS GT3 car this season along with team mate Dries Vanthoor, a pairing that have worked so well despite being a very different spectrum’s of their careers. Partnering them in a late addition to the lineup is Porsche LMP1 driver Andre Lotterer, who replaces Will Stevens for this race. Him and Fassler were Audi factory drivers last year and he should show well in the car despite limited experience.
#6 WRT Audi R8 LMS: Nathanael Berthon/Stephane Richelmi/Benoit Treluyer
This #6 entry has suffered some terrible luck this season, failing to finish either of the first three Blancpain Endurance series races. This does not bode well going into a 24 hour sprint race, but the WRT are the premier Audi GT3 team so if anyone can get the car running it’s them.
Another Audi LMP1 refugee is the Frenchman Benoit Treluyer, who is greatly enjoying his debut GT3 racing season despite the cars struggles. Partnering him are two recent F2 converts, Nathanael Berthon and Stephane Richelmi. Berthon is in his first GT season whilst Richelmi has shown flashes of promise in his opening three seasons at this level. This team will be hoping their bad luck is done for the year and on a upward swing beginning at Spa.
#7 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3: Steven Kane/Guy Smith/Oliver Jarvis
The factory Bentley M-Sport team have been winning races at this level since entering the Blancpain series in 2014, however unfortunately this season it has been that way for the other #8 entry.
This car has suffered the lions share of the teams bad luck this season, most notably the teams bizarre disqualification at the opening Blancpain Endurance round at Monza. Steven Kane has been competing well in the full Blancpain GT series, meanwhile Smith and Jarvis has only been competing in the Endurance rounds. All three are very quick GT drivers and cannot be discounted on a circuit which seems to have always suited the Bentley.
#8 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3: Andy Soucek/Maxime Soulet/Vincent Abril
This #8 has led the Bentley charge in recent months, and is coming into Spa on the back of a huge confidence boost with their victory last month in the Paul Richard six hours. The race is known as the warm-up for the Spa 24 Hours and this bodes well for the team.
The team are hoping they are just as competitive as last year, although will be hoping to better the 4th place from last year after late race drama. Something just seems to be clicking for this Bentley team this year, with the trio of Soucek, Soulet and Abril all combining to create a formidable trio going into the race.
#9 Bentley Team Abt Bentley Continental GT3: Nico Verdonck/Christer Jons/Jordan Pepper
The Bentley team have added another weapon to their arsenal for Spa this year, enlisting the help of factory partner team, the German Team Abt. The Nurburgring 24 hour regulars are new to the Blancpain series but are a well known force in German motor racing.
Belgian Nico Verdonck is an underrated GT driver who will likely anchor this lineup. Christer Jons has established himself in both the ADAC GT Masters and VLN series, although may struggle slightly with the step up from national to European GT3 racing. Completing the trio is young South African Jordan Pepper.
He has risen through the ranks of the VW Cup in South Africa and then Germany, adapting well to the GT3 level in Germany. Much like Jons however he may struggle to match the ultimate pace, which is no shame in your first race at this level against such established talent.
#12 Ombra Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3: Andrea Piccini/Michele Beretta/Stefano Gattuso
For the Italian Ombra racing team it’s not been the year they will have hoped for this season. Their best result in the Endurance round was 15th at Silverstone, and with an influx of international drivers and entries for Spa it may be difficult for the team to improve upon this result.
On the driving front Andrea Piccini will lead this trio, as he has extensive GT racing experience effectively since the beginning of the millennium. Partnering him are two silver drivers, Stefano Gattuso and Michele Beretta. They are two good drivers and Gattuso indeed was the 2015 Italian GT champion, however they may struggle against the plethora of gold and platinum drivers they are competing against. This does mean they have nothing to lose however and potentially everything to gain.
This wraps up part one of my preview of the upcoming Total Spa 24 Hours, beginning with the Pro Cup class. Coming very soon is the second part of my preview looking at the Pro Cup class. I hope you enjoyed reading this and any comments or feedback would be hugely appreciated!