Vitaphone Racing scores 1-2 finish in Spa 24H

Vitaphone Racing claimed a dominating win in the Total 24 Hours of Spa, the fifth round of the FIA GT Championship. The German team's two Maserati MC12s crossed the line in flying formation, with the No. 1 entry of Michael Bartels, Andrea Bertolini, ...

Vitaphone Racing scores 1-2 finish in Spa 24H
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Vitaphone Racing claimed a dominating win in the Total 24 Hours of Spa, the fifth round of the FIA GT Championship. The German team's two Maserati MC12s crossed the line in flying formation, with the No. 1 entry of Michael Bartels, Andrea Bertolini, Stephane Sarrazin and Eric van de Poele finishing two laps ahead of its sister No. 2 machine of Miguel Ramos, Xandi Negrao, Stephane Lemeret and Alessandro Pier Guidi in second.

"It's difficult to find the words to describe this victory," team owner Bartels said. "We did not make mistakes during the whole week. I think this weekend we had a lot of angels above us, with all the accidents going on. This race just goes to show how strong the competition is this year. The cars are performing better. The drivers are pushing themselves to their limits. It just goes to show that the FIA GT is a high performance championship."

The twice-around-the-clock enduro proved to be a test of man and machine, as a number of Vitaphone's rivals fell out early in the running. Last year's winners, Phoenix Carsport Racing, came well equipped to defend its crown with two Corvette C6.Rs. The team's No. 6 entry of Mike Hezemans, Marcel Fassler, Fabrizio Gollin and Jean-Denis Deletraz led much of the opening five hours and proved to be the car to beat. However, Hezemans got collected in an accident in the sixth hour with the No. 33 Jetalliance Aston Martin, another contending entry. While it was day done for the Austrian DBR9, the Corvette rejoined, but seven laps down.

After a mid-race charge up to fourth, a fire in the 20th hour brought the Hezemans and company to a halt and completely out of contention. Phoenix Carsport's other entry also suffered a race-ending fire in the fifth hour. Two other favorites also faced trouble. The pole-sitting No. 7 Larbre Competition Saleen S7-R failed to make the start of the race after Steve Zacchia suffered a massive crash in the morning warm-up. The No. 3 Sellesagh Racing Corvette also had crash damage, but from qualifying on Thursday. The Belgian team worked around the clock to get the car on the grid, but brake problems compounded with a lack of spare parts forced them out after the first hour.

The demise of these cars gave the Vitaphone crew smooth sailing from the sixth hour all the way to the finish. The two MC12s swapped the lead multiple times, with the No. 1 machine settling into the top spot during in the final six hours. However, everyone had to contend with on-and-off bouts of rain that made driving tricky around the 7.004-km Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

The win by the Vitaphone crew was their third in the 24 Hours of Spa in the last four years, a testament to the durability and race craft of the Maserati and the Bartels-led operation. The team has put in impressive runs each year, and now joins the likes of Larbre Competition and BMS Scuderia Italia as endurance racing specialists at Spa. Making it even more special, local hero van de Poele scored his fifth overall win, a new all-time record.

"I remember being here this time last year, and I wasn't in the same mood," van de Poele admitted. "This year has been incredible. We have to applaud the team, because Michael has given us an incredible tool to win a race with, which is very hard, every year, even if the competition didn't look so hard at the end of the race, it was very hard for us in the team."

The No. 10 Gigawave Motorsport Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Allan Simonsen, Philipp Peter and Andrew Thompson finished third in class, seven laps adrift from the winning Maserati. The British team in its debut 24-hour race lost three laps overnight but stayed out of trouble on the track to bring the silver bullet home on the podium.

"The race was a battle," Turner said. "We didn't have the pace of the Vitaphone cars, or Eric [van de Poele]. We didn't have the overall pace, but we kept it there. We had no mistakes on the track or in the pits, so we just carried on as others fell behind. I think it's been really good for everyone in the team and a good boost for their hunt for points in the championship."

JMB Racing's Maserati MC12, a regular in the Series' Citation Cup, finished in a fine fourth position overall, making it three of the Italian supercars in the top-four.

Last year, BMS Scuderia Italia took its Porsche 997 GT3 RSR to the GT2 category victory. Flash forward to present times, and the Italian team is back on the top step of the podium, but instead with a Ferrari F430 GT. Matteo Malucelli, Paolo Ruberti, Joel Camathias and Davide Rigon drove the No. 77 Prancing Horse to a three-lap victory, finishing fifth overall. It was Malucelli's second straight triumph after being part of the driving strength in last year's winning team.

"This race should be called the Total Sprint 24 Hours, because it was amazing how quick everyone was going, right from the start through to the end," Camathias said. "I'm really happy to win - I felt a bit like a passenger alongside these guys, so I have to thank them for bringing me along. I must also thank the team, and Pirelli."

While the No. 77 BMS Ferrari stayed in control for much of the race, a number of rivals stayed closely in toe, with the No. 61 Prospeed Competition Porsche winding up second in class. The driving trio of Emmanuel Collard, Richard Westbrook and Marc Lieb was quicker than the Ferrari at times, but wasn't able to catch back up in time.

"I think the story of the race has to be the four BMS drivers, because they were just too fast for us," Westbrook said. "In the changing conditions they were excellent, they never made a mistake, and it just made it too difficult for the rest of us. We just couldn't put enough pressure on them, they ran the perfect 24-hour race."

Championship leaders AF Corse brought its No. 50 Ferrari of Gimmi Bruni, Toni Vilander, Mika Salo and Jamie Melo home in third, with the No. 55 CR Scuderia F430 GT in fourth.

Like their heavier and more powerful counterparts, many GT2 competitors hit trouble during the 24-hour marathon. The No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari suffered a race-ending crash in the ninth hour, while the No. 60 Prospeed Porsche was stranded on track with driveshaft failure. IMSA Performance Matmut's Porsche looked to be one of the cars to beat early on, but a gearbox rebuild caused an over one-hour delay in pit lane.

The G2 category, for non-homologated cars, had two starters but no finishers as both the Gillet Vertigo and Porsche 996 Bi-Turbo hit trouble during the race. Over in G3, a class open for FIA GT3-spec machinery, Muhlner Motorsport claimed a 1-2 finish, with the No. 123 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup S of Heinz Josef Bermes, Mark Thomas, Marc Basseng and Jean Francois Hemroulle finishing 13th overall and first in class.

"The goal for us was to win, with our team-mates second," Basseng said. "I think the changeable conditions worked in our favor, because we were very quick when it was like that. The team did an awesome job, with no mistakes - the car was great, it was only a few small mistakes by us drivers that cost us time."

While not one of the most thrilling 24-hour races of the year, the 60th anniversary of the Total 24 Hours of Spa awarded those who came prepared to take on the challenge at hand. As the old saying goes, "To finish first, you must first finish." And Vitaphone and BMS Scuderia Italia proved that today.

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