South African eyes turn North this weekend to the iconoic Belgian circuit of Spa where Jordan Pepper and his Bentley teammates start the 24-Hour race just one point to the good in the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli championship.
Damage caused by a GT4 car while leading the Indianapolis 8 Hour means Bathurst winners Jules Gounon, Jordan Pepper and Maxime Soulet arrive at Spa just one point clear of BMW’s Farfus/Catsburg/De Phillippi at the top of the Drivers’ standings.
Predicting Bentley’s form at the world’s biggest GT3 race has never been easy. On the one hand its runner-up finish in 2017 remains the best result by a British manufacturer at Spa since 2006, as well as the only rostrum achieved by a non-German brand during the 10-year GT3 era. On the other, bad luck has often conspired against the first and second-generation Continentals, the latter of which endured a particularly torrid 2019 edition.
Now, a host of new customer teams will be hoping to change that. Gounon – whose Audi denied Bentley victory in 2017 – Pepper and Soulet head-up K-PAX Racing’s two-car assault that also features Alvaro Parente, Andy Soucek and Rodrigo Baptista, while CMR add a third Pro entry featuring another factory Bentley Boy, Seb Morris.
Team Parker Racing’s Silver Cup contender and a second CMR entry, albeit in the Am class, complete Crewe’s five-strong contingent.
The largest Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli grid ever assembled will tackle the world’s biggest GT3 race this weekend (October 22-25) when 39 entries nominated by eight manufacturers compete at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Following rounds in Australasia and North America it’s now – finally – Europe’s turn to host the global endurance series, which should have visited Belgium back in July. Instead, the rescheduled event takes place against a rather more autumnal Ardennes backdrop just three weeks after its last outing at the Indianapolis 8 Hour.
Bentley and BMW lead the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships, respectively, after claiming a victory apiece at the first two rounds. But that could all change at Spa where each marque can nominate up to four professional driver line-ups amongst their six-car Intercontinental GT Challenge quota.
As always, and in the true spirit of endurance, points are only awarded at the finish, while the three best-placed crews score points towards their respective manufacturer’s championship tally.
Five of #IntGTC’s registered manufacturers – Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche – have nominated the maximum number of entries, while Bentley are just one shy of capacity. Indianapolis 8 Hour winners, BMW, are represented by three M6 GT3s, and Honda’s sole factory-backed NSX returns to the Ardennes following a strong run there last year.
The record entry is 11 more than Intercontinental’s previous best – also set at Spa last season – and almost 70% of the entire 56-strong field. Nominated cars are easily identified by their white windscreen banners and the #IntGTC roundels that appear on their bonnet and flanks.
No manufacturer has scored more Total 24 Hours of Spa victories than BMW whose current M6 and previous-generation Z4 have won three of the last five editions. What’s more, it arrives in Belgium leading Intercontinental’s Manufacturers’ Championship following a dominant one-two finish at Indianapolis.
If that wasn’t enough, Indy victors Walkenhorst – who also masterminded BMW’s last Spa triumph two years ago – enter both factory-backed M6s, one of which features past winners Philipp Eng and Nick Catsburg.
The latter is enjoying a particularly strong run of form after clinching major GT wins at the Nurburgring 24 Hours and Indianapolis 8 Hour, finishing second in class at Petit Le Mans, and scoring a WTCR victory all within the last 30 days. Augusto Farfus is no slouch either, while the other works car relies on the same crew that finished second in America: Martin Tomczyk, David Pittard and Nick Yelloly.
BMW’s third entry will contest the Pro-Am class and is notable for its ‘art car’ livery designed by visual artist Peter Halley, who was commissioned by his friend and former gallerist Alain Noirhomme to produce a unique on-track aesthetic for the event.
They might have a lower percentage of factory cars amongst their quota this year but Mercedes-AMG’s big guns are still bound to be near the front come Sunday afternoon. AKKA ASP and HRT both pack fully professional line-ups but, on paper at least, it’s the latter that has the strongest chance. Maro Engel claimed pole position and a podium finish last year and is again joined by his full-season GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS co-drivers Luca Stolz and Vincent Abril.
Of course, it would be unwise to rule out any car driven by Raffaele Marciello, and especially one that lies second in this year’s Endurance Cup standings. What’s more, Timur Boguslavskiy leads the combined Sprint and Endurance championships, for which points will be awarded at the six and 12-hour marks.
Both teams also field Silver Cup entries, either of which has the potential to claim class honours and break into Intercontinental’s top-10, while HTP Motorsport and SPS automotive performance complete the list of Mercedes-AMG nominations.
Porsche’s Intercontinental title defence hasn’t gone entirely to plan thus far, although the 10-point gap to current leaders BMW could be closed with a strong result at Spa where it finished one-two in 2019. Stuttgart certainly arrives with strength in numbers. Indeed, there are more Pro-crewed 911s than Porsche are permitted to nominate! Those that have been feature the cream of global GT racing’s current crop.
Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Richard Lietz are back to defend their crown, albeit in the unfamiliar surroundings of KCMG which made its previous #IntGTC appearances with Nissan. The trio didn’t put a foot wrong en route to victory in treacherous conditions last year and – as one of Porsche’s two all-Platinum-graded crews – surely start amongst the pre-race favourites.
2019 winners and runners-up, GPX and ROWE, also call on full factory line-ups. Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet – both Intercontinental race winners last season – are joined at GPX by 2019 Spa runner-up Patrick Pilet, while Porsche’s GTE regulars Earl Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Nick Tandy – a Petit Le Mans class winner alongside Campbell last Sunday – comprise a particularly eye-catching crew.
Elsewhere, reigning Drivers’ Champion Dennis Olsen re-joins Frikadelli for his first Intercontinental outing since clinching the title with the same team at Kyalami last December.
Traditionally, manufacturers must rely on several entries to ensure at least one enjoys a fault-free run over 24 hours. But that’s a luxury Honda won’t enjoy at Spa where Renger van der Zande, Dane Cameron and Mario Farnbacher carry the weight of Japanese hopes.
And, if 2019’s race is anything to go by, it’s a challenge they’re willing to accept. A largely trouble-free run helped Farnbacher and Van der Zande – then joined by Bertrand Baguette – climb from 33rd on the grid to sixth overall by the chequered flag.
Team Honda Racing’s NSX also arrives fresh from its best-ever Intercontinental result at the Indianapolis 8 Hour where the same driver crew finished third.
The most successful manufacturer of Spa’s GT3 era will be desperate to add a fifth overall victory to its tally this weekend, as well as an eighth Intercontinental GT Challenge win in what will be its 18th championship start.
It’s a mark of how seriously Audi takes Spa that it, like Porsche, has more Pro crews than can be nominated for #IntGTC points. Instead, two Silver Cup entries overseen by WRT and Attempto join the four selected factory line-ups, two of which – also like Porsche – include all-Platinum drivers.
Picking just one is a tricky business. But there’s no denying that current GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Endurance Cup championship leaders Mirko Bortolotti and Kelvin van der Linde – joined this weekend by double DTM champion and two-time Spa winner Rene Rast – represent a formidable proposition. What’s more, their WRT squad have twice won the race with Audi, although not since 2014 when Rast was also part of the line-up.
Sainteloc – who clinched Audi’s last win in 2017 – pair former winners Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase with DTM championship contender Nico Mueller, while WRT can also call upon Christopher Mies, Robin Frijns and newly-crowned Sprint Cup champion Dries Vanthoor. And there’s also the small matter of Attempto’s factory GT3 regulars Mattia Drudi, Patric Niederhauser and Frederic Vervisch.
You have to go all the way back to 2004 and before the GT3 era to find Ferrari’s last Total 24 Hours of Spa victory. But surely the Scuderia will never have a better chance to add to its total than this year when three 488 GT3s will be in overall contention.
Having qualified third, SMP Racing headed into the final five hours of last year’s race leading on merit but were ultimately thwarted by accident damage that ruled Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina out of contention. Both return this weekend with new full-season GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS co-driver and fellow Platinum, Sergey Sirotkin.
There’s more Ferrari factory talent in AF Corse’s lead entry, which sees FIA WEC stars Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Nicklas Nielsen join forces, while HubAuto return to Intercontinental duty with Kamui Kobayashi partnering Tom Blomqvist and team regular Marcos Gomes.
Several more works aces are also scattered across two of three Pro-Am entries. Daniel Serra and two-time winner Andrea Bertolini comprise one-half of AF Corse’s second 488 crew, while Giancarlo Fisichella is onboard Sky – Tempesta Racing’s example. Rinaldi Racing complete Maranello’s six-car fleet.
Spa hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Lamborghini during the GT3 era. Indeed, its best finish of eighth proves what a difficult race this is to win, even with a car as successful as the Huracan.
This year, though, could be very different. For starters, Lamborghini has filled half its Intercontinental quota with Pro crews and packed the rest with Silver and Pro-Am entries. What’s more, its two factory line-ups – split equally across Orange 1 FFF Racing and Emil Frey – are some of the best in the business.
Andrea Caldarelli and Marco Mapelli won just about everything other than Spa last year and team up once again with fellow works ace Dennis Lind. The same trio performed well at Bathurst before a fuel issue ended FFF’s promising run. Franck Perera, Giacomo Altoe and Albert Costa also know how to get the job done and will benefit from fellow Pros Ricardo Feller, Norbert Siedler and Mikael Grenier working on the other side of Emil Frey’s garage.
FFF’s other entry leads the Endurance Cup Pro-Am standings ahead of Spa, while father/son combo Rob and Ricky Collard feature amongst Barwell Motorsport’s class contending Huracans.
Local restrictions will prevent spectators from attending this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa. However, fans around the world can watch every session from Pre-Qualifying onwards and all 24 hours of racing live, free and unrestricted on SRO’s GT World Youtube channel.