Spa: Round seven preview

For the LG Super Racing Weekend, summer is synonymous with Spa; once again, the last week of July will see the teams and drivers head to the Ardennes in Belgium for one of the highlights of the racing season. Not only is the track one of those most ...

Spa: Round seven preview

For the LG Super Racing Weekend, summer is synonymous with Spa; once again, the last week of July will see the teams and drivers head to the Ardennes in Belgium for one of the highlights of the racing season. Not only is the track one of those most frequently cited as a favourite by drivers, but the event, which normally attracts around 100,000 spectators, is the longest of the year, starting on Wednesday with parades and festivities, and lasting until Sunday at 4 pm, the end of the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, the seventh round of the FIA GT Championship. This will be the fourth running of the 24-hour classic as part of the FIA GT Championship, and the third time that the LG Super Racing Weekend series has visited the spectacular circuit.

For the FIA GT Championship, the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the season. Twenty-four hours of racing round the challenging Belgian circuit, with its notoriously changeable micro-climate, means they will spend longer on track during the next weekend than they have for the rest of the 2004 races to date. Up to four drivers can share each car, and the regular entrants will be joined by a number of newcomers, both competing in the normal GT and N-GT categories, and in Group 2, for cars competing in National GT Championships and Group 3, for cars from single-make trophies, cups and challenges. Last year, the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche of Stephane Ortelli, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas created history by winning the race outright, ahead of the winning GT car, the BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 550 Maranello of Gollin, Cappellari, Calderari and Bryner. This year, the Porsches will be aiming to repeat their 2003 feat, but they will face stiff challenge from the Ferrari, Saleen and Lister cars, not to mention the BMW M3 GTR cars, competing in Group 2.


Kurt Mollekens, aged 31, from Belgium is facing a busy weekend at Spa ! As well as competing in his home round of the FIA ETCC with BMW Team Belgium-Luxembourg, he will be part of the BMW Motorsport line-up for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. Kurt's varied career as driver and team-manager includes a win in the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort in 1996, a win in the 24 Hours of Spa in 2000 with Peugeot and two class wins in 1997 and 2003. He competed in the FIA GT Championship in 2001 and 2002, and made his FIA ETCC debut this year, his best result to date fifth at Donington.

"Most people know Spa with two highlights : Eau Rouge / the Raidillon, and Blanchimont, one of the few very quick corners left on the Formula One circuit. Even for us, in the FIA GT or ETCC, it is still great to be able to drive on such a circuit. There have been some changes this year, at the Bus Stop chicane, and passing will therefore be more difficult. But for a driver, the challenge is still good, and it will still be great fun to drive. The tarmac has also been changed on half the circuit, which makes it more grippy and more physical to drive. You might lose one or two seconds in the Bus Stop, but you gain almost the same from the new tarmac, so I would estimate that the lap times will be similar. Spa is a circuit where you have to be both clean and courageous. It's a very complete circuit, which is why it is loved by so many drivers. It's definitely among the best out there."

Round 7 of the 2004 FIA GT Championship is exceptional in every way. More cars, more points and a lot more time on the track : the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa will see the cars and drivers compete round one of the most spectacular tracks for a full 24 hours, with a grid of around 45 cars. Double the usual amount of points will be allocated for this round, with half the normal points awarded to the classification after six hours, half after twelve hours, and full points to the results after 24 hours. For this round, no handicap weights will be carried. However, the weight accumulated after Donington will be added to the weight earned at Spa, to give the weight for Imola in September.

After six rounds, the Championship is close in both GT and N-GT categories. BMS Scuderia Italia's Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari are leading the Drivers championship, as they have since the start of the season, eight points ahead of their team-mates Bobbi and Gardel. After his Donington win, Karl Wendlinger is the leading non-BMS driver, in fifth, three points ahead of Vitaphone Racing's Bartels and Alzen. In the Teams classification, BMS is ensured of maintaining the lead after Spa, as they have a 44-point lead over JMB Racing, with GPC Giesse Squadra Corse a further point behind.

In N-GT, Ortelli and Collard lead, two points ahead of Maassen and Luhr, with De Simone and Pescatori ten points behind them. Freisinger Yukos Motorsport leads the Teams classification, 18 points ahead of sister team Freisinger Motorsport, with GPC ten points behind.


The appeal on behalf of JMB Racing car nr 17 (Karl Wendlinger) against the decision of the Stewards of the Meeting at Donington on June 27th, concerning the 5-minute time penalty imposed on the car, was heard in Paris on July 20th. The Court quashed the penalty and replaced it by a 15,000 US$ fine. This means that JMB Racing have regained their first win of the season, ahead of the Vitaphone Racing Saleen and the GPC Ferrari 575 M Maranello of Peter and Babini. It was only the second-ever win in the Championship for a 575 M car, after Estoril last year.


GPC Giesse was fastest in both GT and N-GT categories during the official test day at the Spa-Francorchamps test day. The nr 13 Ferrari 575 M Maranello set the best time of the day, with a lap of 2:14.916 for Mika Salo in the afternoon, ahead of Fabio Babini in the nr 11 car; the nr 62 Ferrari 360 Modena was 6th overall and fastest in N-GT, with Pescatori setting the time. The leading Group 2 car was the nr 142 BMW M3 GT, in 5th place overall. In the slower morning session, Uwe Alzen set the fastest time in the nr 5 Vitaphone Racing Saleen, which ended up third overall. The cars were using the new Bus Stop chicane for the first time, and were also the first cars to use the new tarmac covering around half of the circuit. "It was very useful today as we tested with Salo in one car and Babini in the other car. We concentrated on testing tyres and balance, and had a very good test for the race," GPC team manager Batti Pregliasco explained. "In N-GT, we expected to be fast, as this track is very good for the Modena and the Pirelli tyres, but the times from the 575 were a surprise -- we did not expect to be faster than the Saleen ! "


GPC Giesse Squadra Corse has confirmed its line-up for the upcoming Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. The nr 11 Ferrari 575 M Maranello will be driven by Fabio Babini, Phillip Peter, Vincent Vosse and Mika Salo. This will be the first FIA GT race for former Formula One star Salo, from Finland. "GPC is a good team and I hope we can be competitive all the way through. I've previously tested the Ferrari 575 at the Paul Ricard. This is a great circuit, and it must be fun at night ! I'm really looking forward to it." The nr 13 car will be in the hands of Emanuele Naspetti and Gianni Morbidelli, joined by Belgian drivers Frederic Bouvy and Didier Defourny. All three Belgians taking part have previously won the race, most recently Vincent Vosse in 2002, when he drove for Larbre Competition.

As for the nr 62 Ferrari 360 Modena, it will have a powerful trio of Italians behind the wheel : regulars Christian Pescatori and Fabrizio De Simone, joined by four-times 2003 race winner Andrea Bertolini ! "I am very happy to be back in the FIA GT Championship," he said. " I hope we can do a good job in the 24-hour race, because last year, after around 4 hours, we had an alternator problem. This year, we want to get to the end." This will be Bertolini's first race since Monza last year. "I am very happy to return to competition. I have done many, many kilometres since then, but only testing - the MC12, the Formula One car, the GT car ... but no racing ! It's very nice to be back !"


BMS Scuderia Italia, reigning FIA GT Champions and current leaders in the classification, have announced their line-up for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. The nr 1 car will be shared by Matteo Bobbi, Gabriele Gardel, Stefano Livio and Miguel Angel de Castro. De Castro was part of the line-up that finished second at Spa in 2002, in a Lister Storm. The second Ferrari 550 Maranello will be in the hands of the team that finished second overall and first in GT last year : leaders in the GT Drivers Classification, Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari, and usual Care Racing drivers Lilian Bryner and Enzo Calderari. "I am very pleased to have Miguel Angel in the car," reigning Champion Matteo Bobbi explained. "I knew him well when I was racing in Spain. I think we will make a good line-up. Spa is very important -- the double points could mean a lot this year, when we have three or four cars which are all competitive and could be fighting for the title by the end of the season. Last year we went out after four hours, so I couldn't really enjoy the special feeling of a 24-hour race. I hope this year will be different !"


The Vitaphone Racing Team was present at the Spa test day, where the car was fastest in the morning session. "We're looking forward to the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa," Michael Bartels said. "But it is going to be a challenge to get the car through to the end. We will try everything. The countdown starts now, with very detailed preparation. We will mobilise every last drop of our energy to finish the race. Our goal is to score points at every point-scoring moment, perhaps not the first place, but we want points at 6 hours, 12 hours and 24 hours, so that in Imola, we will be in a good position to close the gap to the leaders. We need some luck, but we are quite happy. We've won three races, and the motivation is still rising. I'm confident !" Bartels and Alzen will be joined for the event by experienced Belgian driver Eric van de Poele, who also drove a Saleen last year.


The highest-placed Belgian driver in the FIA GT Championship, Bert Longin will be sharing the nr 17 JMB Racing Ferrari 575 M Maranello with Karl Wendlinger and Jaime Melo for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. "Karl and Jaime are certainly the most talented pair of drivers I have ever driven with," Bert explained. "For me, this is really a dream come true. It will be a fantastic stimulus in order to achieve something extraordinary. Karl's experience in both Formula One and endurance are an excellent asset, which should allow us to set a high pace without taking too many risks." The team will enter a second Ferrari 575 M Maranello for Antoine Gosse, Peter Kutemann and Andrea Garbagnati.


That is Jamie Campbell-Walter's recipe for a successful 24-hour race. "Historically, the Lister Storm has run well at Spa, and we have a good line-up, with Bobby Verdon Roe joining Jamie Derbyshire and me. After disappointments in 2002 and 2003, I'd like to do well. The key is really to have no problems and keep going round. Everyone remembers who won the race, not who finished first after six hours. The car is also very good in the rain, although we'd prefer a dry race-- " Peter Snowdon will be the fourth driver in the line-up; the British driver competed for Creation in early 2003, and drove for Roos-Optima Racing at Spa last year.


The overall winners last year, ahead of the GT cars, Freisinger Motorsport have an impressive line-up of drivers for this year's race. Current N-GT leaders Stephane Ortelli and Emmanuel Collard will be joined by Frenchman Romain Dumas, one of the winning trio last year. Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr, lying two points behind the Freisinger Yukos drivers in the points, will share their nr 99 Porsche 996 GT3-RS with Marc Lieb, who will be making his return to the Championship he won with Ortelli in 2003. As for the nr 77 car, the line-up will be strengthened by experienced Porsche drivers Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister, who will share the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-RS with Alexei Vasiliev. Bergmeister recently won the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, alongside Sascha Maassen.


BMW Motorsport, entering two BMW M3 GTR cars in the Group 2 category for National GT competitors, has manned its cars mainly with its FIA ETCC stars, Jorg and Dirk Muller sharing the nr 142 car with Hans-Jorg Stuck, while Kurt Mollekens, Andy Priaulx and Antonio Garcia will drive the nr 143 with 1998 FIA GT Champion Pedro Lamy. Most of the drivers were in Spa for the test day. "We're gaining experience with the car and the team," Andy Priaulx said. "I'm enjoying driving the car - it has a lot of grip. I drove it in the Belcar, but I still feel I need to gain some more experience. However, I'm happy with what I've done so far. This will be my first 24-hour race, which will be something totally different for me. I've already driven the car at night, so I'm pretty happy with that. So far, it's all going well : Antonio and Pedro have good endurance experience, and it is Kurt's home circuit. I think we will all be quite similar in terms of lap times. "


RML CONCENTRATES ITS EXPERIENCE : The four regular drivers from the nr 7 and nr 8 RML Saleen S7-R cars will share the nr 7 at Spa : Mike Newton, Tommy Erdos, Chris Goodwin and Miguel Ramos. The second car will be manned by team owner Ray Mallock, his son Michael Mallock, who has driven in the British GT and FIA Sportscar Championships in recent years, and Adam Wiseberg, an experienced historics racer.

LISTER CONFIRMS CAR AND DRIVER The nr 14 Lister Storm GT will have an all-British line-up for Spa. The chassis will be the one that was victorious in Anderstorp last year, and which finished second at Spa in 2002. Rob Schirle was due to race the car last year, but due to various problems, did not get to race. The other two drivers are Ian Donaldson and Gregor Fisken. Both are new to the Lister, but are experienced endurance racers, having had results at Le Mans, Spa and Daytona in the past.

FORCE ONE RETURNS ! Force One Racing will enter a Chrysler Viper GTS in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, driven by Philippe Alliot, Francois Jakubowski, Julien Gilbert and Francois Labhardt. The team was a regular competitor last year, with Alliot taking pole position at Donington.

GRUPPE M BACK AFTER DONINGTON PODIUM. Having finished on the podium during its first-ever FIA GT appearance, the nr 88 Gruppe M Europe Porsche 996 GT3-RS will be back for Spa. The car will be driven by Donington third-placed drivers Tim Mullen and Jonathan Cocker, joined by experienced race Tim Sugden, twice a race-winner with EMKA Racing in 2003.

MIXED TEAM FOR CIRTEK MOTORSPORT British team Cirtek Motorsport, a podium finisher in 2002, will be entering two cars in the N-GT class : one Ferrari 360 Modena, for Frank Mountain, Rob Wilson, Karim Ojjeh and Maurizio Fabris, and a Porsche 996 GT3-RS for Vic Rice, John Grant and Nikolai Fomenko. This car will be used for on-track action in a Russian film project starring Fomenko, explaining his move to Cirtek for Spa and Imola. Manager Rob Schirle will be driving for Lister Racing.

FATHERS AND SONS FOR PROTON Lying fourth in the N-GT Teams Classification, Proton Competition's Porsche 996 GT3 R will be driven by two father-and-son duos -- Gerold and Christian Ried, and Horst Felbermayr Sr and Jr.


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