Spa 24: Round six preview

A month after the fifth round at Donington, the teams and drivers taking part in the LG Super Racing Weekend series will be heading for Belgium, for an exceptional weekend of action, including the longest round of the FIA GT Championship, the ...

Spa 24: Round six preview

A month after the fifth round at Donington, the teams and drivers taking part in the LG Super Racing Weekend series will be heading for Belgium, for an exceptional weekend of action, including the longest round of the FIA GT Championship, the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. The track, nearly 7 kilometres long, is one of the most beautiful and challenging in the world, with some legendary corners, such as the Raidillon and Eau Rouge. Located 15 km from the town of Spa, the circuit has a notoriously variable climate, with rapid changes of weather due to the surrounding Ardennes forests.

The FIA GT Championship first raced there in 1997, returning in 2001, when the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa became a part of the Championship calendar for the first time. Both then, and in 2002, Larbre Competition won the race and took the full 20 points on offer, continuing to win the GT titles. In N-GT, RWS was victorious in 2001, with victory going to Freisinger Motorsport in 2002, when Ortelli, Dumas and Collard finished in an excellent third place overall. As usual, the ranks of the FIA GT Championship will be joined by a number of other entrants, both in the GT and N-GT categories, and in the two other classes, for cars from National GT Championships, and from those cars competing in Single Make Trophies. A grid of up to 60 cars is expected.

As well as the FIA GT and ETCC, there will be one round of the Formula Renault V6 Eurocup, when Neel Jani will be hoping to repeat his 2002 Eurocup win, while support events include the Renault Sport Clio Cup and Trophy cars competing together in the Renault Sport Speed Trophy, a round of the Belgian Clio Cup, the European Alfa Challenge and the Mini Cooper Cup.


Bert Longin is currently the highest-placed Belgian driver competing in the FIA GT Championship. At the wheel of the nr 51 Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-RS, his third-place finish in the previous round in Donington helped to take the German team to the top of the N-GT Teams Classification. Bert, in his second season in international competition, shares his car with former single-seater driver Gabriele Gardel, from Switzerland.

"The 24 hours race in Spa-Francorchamps is certainly the highlight of the FIA-GT season for me. Last year, I finished fifth overall and third in the N-GT class, winning the Coupe du Roi as well. But I would like to go one better this time and aim for the win. The car is competitive and reliable as we recently proved in Donington with a third place. And this is my favorite track. Spa is an amazing and very beautiful circuit. Not only because it is my home track, but because it is very exciting and fast with places like Eau Rouge and Blanchimont where good drivers with guts can make the difference. Concerning the track I can also say that it is possible to pass if you take the Bus-stop and the Eau Rouge without braking. As for La Source, you need to go as near to the concrete wall as possible."

After five rounds,Thomas Biagi and Matteo Bobbi have yet to lose a race in their nr 23 Ferrari 550 Maranello, earning the two young Italians a perfect score of 50 points, while their team, BMS Scuderia Italia, has a commanding lead in the Teams classification. However, round 6 is a totally different matter - the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. Not only is the race as long as eight normal rounds of the FIA GT Championship, but double points are on offer - half at the end of the race, one quarter after six hours and one quarter after twelve. For this race, a number of other teams will be joining the regular FIA GT contenders. Double Spa winners and reigning FIA GT Champion Larbre Competition will be returning with two cars, while Paul Belmondo Racing will also be back for the first time since Estoril 2002. Zakspeed, a regular competitor in 1998, is also entering a Chrysler Viper GTS-R. With most teams bringing in additional drivers, or rearranging their line-ups, the race is sure to be fascinating. But one thing is certain - Matteo Bobbi and Thomas Biagi cannot lose their lead, being currently 26 points ahead of Bryner, Calderari and Livio.

The N-GT Drivers classification could hardly be closer. Tim Mullen and Jamie Davies are currently leading, just one point ahead of Fabrizio De Simone and Andrea Bertolini, with 2002 Spa winners Stéphane Ortelli and Marc Lieb a further point behind. In the Teams points, Freisinger Motorsport have a 5-point lead ahead of Team Maranello Concessionaires, with JMB Racing nine points behind the leaders. 23 cars are currently due to take part in the N-GT category in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. The regular teams will be joined by 2002 race-winner Autorlando Sport and Mastercar from Italy, frequent FIA GT competitors Seikel Motorsport, Belgian teams Ice Pol Racing Team and JMT Racing, and French teams Emeraude Racing and T2M.

No penalty weights will be carried for the Spa round. Any weights won after Donington will be added to those awarded at Spa, at the 6 hours, 12 hours and 24 hours points, for the Anderstorp round in September.

After being excluded from the results of the Donington round, and then reinstated by the International Court of Appeal, BMS Scuderia Italia continues to enjoy a healthy lead in the Championship. "We were quite confident about the appeal, as we trust in Prodrive's work," team Logistics Manager Marco Streparava explained. "But we are very happy, as it would have been a bad situation, which would have cast all our results into doubt. We are currently very busy preparing for the 24-hour race. We are putting all our efforts into getting the best result possible. Our aim is to finish, so we will start slow and get the cars to the end, which is very important for us, to gain 24-hour experience. We hope to be leading at the end !" The nr 23 car will be driven by regular drivers Thomas Biagi and Matteo Bobbi, joined by Stefano Livio, usually in the nr 21 Ferrari 550 Maranello, and by Ettore Bonaldi, current leader of the Italian GT Championship. The nr 22 will be driven by Lilian Bryner, Enzo Calderari, Luca Cappellari and Fabrizio Gollin. As for the nr 21 Care Racing car, this race sees the return of Jean-Marc Gounon to BMS, a team for which he drove in 2001 in the FIA Sportscar Championship, and for whom he competed in the final races of 2002. After three events in a Saleen, he will share the Ferrari with experienced French sportscar driver Jérôme Policand and with Niki Cadei, a young driver from the Ferrari Challenge in Italy. The team took pole position last year at Spa. "We have only had one pole this season, but with Gounon in the team, a very fast driver we have worked with a lot, we hope he might capture pole for us again !" Streparava concluded.

Lister Racing is currently second in the GT Teams classification, 34 points behind BMS Scuderia Italia. After the surprise retirement of Jean-Denis Deletraz, the team has announced that the nr 15 car will be driven by Andrea Piccini and David Sterckx, who finished second with the team at Spa last year. They will be joined by 28-year old Italian F3000 driver Gabriele Lancieri, who will be competing in his first-ever FIA GT race. A fourth driver for the nr 15 will be announced later. "The test day went very well, and we set very good times, faster than my pole position last year," Piccini commented. "The car was reliable then, and should be good this year. Lancieri is a friend of mine, he's quick, but does not know the car, so he will have to drive a lot in the free practice sessions, while Sterkcx was in the car that finished second last year. We just have to be quick and reliable. I'm confident - even if the Ferrari is far ahead in the Championship, I know that I lost a lot of points there last year, while Lister and the Vipers closed up. I want the same to happen this year - but this time I'm on the other side !" As for the nr 14 Storm, it will be in the hands of regular drivers Jamie Campbell-Walter and Nathan Kinch, who will be joined by leading Belgian single-seater driver Bas Leinders, currently competing in the World Series by Nissan. A fourth driver has been signed, but wishes to remain anonymous until signing on at Spa.

Christophe Bouchut, who has been part of the winning line-up during the last two editions of the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, as well as winning an FIA GT title during the past three seasons, will be making his reappearance in the Championship at Spa, driving for Creation Autosportif, where he will share a Lister Storm with Bobby Verdon-Roe and Marco Zadra. The French driver has competed in 50 FIA GT Championship races in his career, for Kremer Racing, Persson Motorsport and Larbre Competition. "I think they will make a good combination," team principal Ian Bickerton explained. "Bobby finished second last year, Christophe won the race and has prior Lister experience, and Marco also raced at Spa last year, as well as in various Sportscar races. It is a big move for Christophe, who is sad to leave Larbre, but we are very pleased that he is joining us." The team is testing at Magny-Cours today (Friday), giving the reigning Champion his first opportunity to try a Lister Storm since 1996.

Wieth Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello regular drivers Wolfgang Kaufmann and Niko Wieth will be joined by German driver Elmar Grimm for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. Grimm previously competed, with some success, in the Euro GT Series in a Porsche 993 GT2, with Klaus Abbelen, now racing for Zwaan's Racing. "Spa will be the best opportunity for us to finally prove that our car can be reliable," team manager Florian Hebel explained. "We have eventually solved the understeering problem. We have had three days of testing since Donington, at the A1-Ring in Austria, and in Dijon, France, with no reliability problems. We have also tested a new engine, engineered and built by Oral Engineering in Italy, a company founded by former Ferrari F1 engineer Mauro Foghieri. Wolfgang was very satisfied with the set-up changes we have done in Dijon. With the new engine, and different Dunlop tyres, we were able to improve our lap times by 3 seconds compared to our last test there. We really want to show the crowds at Spa a fantastic, competitive 550 Maranello. Niko, Wolfgang and Elmar form a very good driver combination, so maybe we can create a surprise at Spa !"

After Donington, when both the team's Ferrari 550 Maranello cars finished the race for the first time, French team JMB Racing has opted to only enter one car in the GT category for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, while running three Ferrari 360 Modena cars in the N-GT category. Last year, their line-up of Pescatori, Montermini, Garbagnati and Bertolini finished second in the N-GT class and fourth overall. This year will see 2001 N-GT champions David Terrien and Christian Pescatori reunited with the Ferrari Modena 360, alongside Barcelona winner Andrea Bertolini. Fabrizio De Simone, Bertolini's usual team-mate in the nr 52 JMB car, will drive with Boris Derichebourg, with a third driver yet to be named. Peter Kutemann and Antoine Gosse, 8th in Donington, will be joined by Stephen Earle, who also drove for the team last year. The Ferrari 550 Maranello will be driven by Fabio Babini and Phillip Peter, with a third driver to be announced later. "I am really delighted," David Terrien explained. "The dream team - me, Christian and the Ferrari Modena - are back together again. I really wanted to be in this car, because it's good to know you have a chance of a result. Our main aim is to help Andrea Bertolini to close in on the title. I know the car well; it is reliable, and fast - I took the N-GT pole in it two years ago. The three drivers are homogenous, we all know the car and the team well. The team has done plenty of 24-hour races, and is very quick in the pits. I think we really have everything in place for a good result. I have such a wonderful memory of the Spa podium, both times that I have stood there, and I really want to be up there again !"

F3000 LINEUP FOR MENX (8th in N-GT, 8 points)
MENX, the Czech team running a Ferrari 360 Modena in the N-GT category, missed the last round at Donington, but will be back in action in the Belgian Ardennes with Robert Pergl joined by two young Formula 3000 drivers from the Superfund I.S.R Charouz team, Jaroslav Janis of the Czech Republic and Yannick Schroeder of France. "Spa is one of my favourite circuits, and I always like to compete there," Janis said. "I have never raced the Ferrari 360 Modena, or taken part in such a long race, so for sure I will learn some new things. One of these will be racing during the night, as I have very limited experience with that. It is going to be very interesting !" It will be Schroeder's first race with a sports car. "I love Spa, it is a beautiful track, which is why I am happy to be taking part in the 24-hour race. I drove an LMP675 car in a 12-hour race at Atlanta in 2001, so I have some endurance experience." Pergl, having recovered from the health problems which forced him to miss Donington, is also looking forward to the race : "I have always dreamed of starting a 24-hour race. I am confident that the relationship between me and my new team-mates will be good, as despite being young, they are quite experienced and definitely very quick. First of all, we want to finish the race - and then we will see."

Force One Festina had it best FIA GT race ever at Donington, with Philippe Alliot taking pole position in the nr 4 Chrysler Viper GTS-R, and the car crossing the line in 4th place, later inheriting third. The team has not yet determined the definitive line-up for the 24-hour race, which will be announced early next week. " It is a complicated matter, and we have not yet taken the final decisions," Philippe Alliot explained. "However, it is certain that after Donington, we are feeling confident. The cars have been totally revised for Spa. We are heading there with modest ambitions, but with the firm intention of getting to the end of the race."

Although the car has plenty of 24-hour endurance experience, this will be the first time the Saleen S7-R will be taking part in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. Three cars will be on the starting grid, the nr 2 Konrad Motorsport car, and both Graham Nash Motorsport cars. Leading Belgian driver Eric van der Poele will be joining Franz Konrad and Toni Seiler, with young Austrian driver Walter Lechner Jr, previously on board the nr 99 RWS Yukos Porsche 996 GT3-RS, also joining the team. The two Graham Nash Motorsport cars, which were in action at the test day on July 8th, should be in the hands of their regular drivers, with Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton sharing one car, with a third driver to be announced, and the Portuguese trio of Ni Amorim, Pedro Chaves and Miguel Ramos in the nr 8 Saleen S7-R. "As it is our first Spa 24-hour race as a team we are all looking forward to it and hope for a good result," Graham Nash Motorsport team Manager Gordon Davies said. "The driver line up is quite strong and the consistency of the times through out the driver stint should help us to keep within the front runners. Being our first year in the FIA championship we are still developing and learning and enjoying the competition"

French team Paul Belmondo Racing will be back in the FIA GT Championship for the first time since the last round of 2002. The team will be entering two Chrysler Viper GTS-R cars. The nr 24 will be driven by GT regulars Paul Belmondo and Emmanuel Clérico, joined by Belgian driver Pierre Yves Corthals, who took part in the FIA European Touring Car Championship round at Spa last year, finishing sixth in the first race and starting the second from pole. The fourth driver will be Yann Clairet of France. The nr 25 car will be in the hands of team co-owner Claude-Yves Gosselin, with French drivers Olivier Dupart and Pierre Ragues, and Italian driver Marco Saviozzi, a frequent FIA GT competitor over the years.


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