I tentatively approached committing myself to another 24 hours of racing after my utter heartbreak over Toyota at Le Mans. I still can’t even think about that without a tear (many tears) coming to my eye; but you know what they say about getting back on the horse… so I dived right in, and it was glorious. Just beginning to glance over the entry lists made me giddy with excitement. So much coolness in one race. Bernd Schneider already super cool for having once tested a McLaren F1 car as a present for winning DTM for Mercedes, was back yet again, having previously won the race in in both 2013 and 1989! A true 24 hours of Spa veteran. The driver listing is full of supreme driving talent from around the motorsport world not least those in the three car line up of Garage 59. Yes that’s right THREE McLaren’s. What could be more exciting than that!? Alongside regular Blancpain GT series contenders car #58 and #59 we had a very special #60, beautifully decorated with a Bruce McLaren heritage livery. A joy to behold for every McLaren fan, it should have got points for its beauty alone.
We had the usual stellar line up of Rob Bell, Shane Van Gisbergen and Come Ledogar in #58 and McLaren academy drivers Alex Fontana, Struan Moore and Andrew Watson in #59 with a Brazilian vibe in #60 with Bruno Senna, Duncan Tappy and Pipo Derani. With this, it was already clear before the start of the weekend that regardless of what happened, this would be spectacular to watch.
Free practice and qualifying
I was a little nervy through free practice as the times set by the McLaren’s were a little less competitive than could have been expected. The first qualifying was also quite nerve racking as #58 car only just managed to scrape through into 19th place (the top 20 cars from the two qualifying sessions would go through to the super pole shoots out). Shane Van Gisbergen stating that he was initially unhappy with the car, but happily a lot of set up work really paid off for the second qualifying session where he killed it, launching the McLaren into a seemingly easy first place and very safely through to the Super Pole session. Andrew Watson in the #59 car was less happy, having found it hard to find any space amongst the 65 cars out on track and as a result ended up a frustrated 38th place. #60 also unable to quite get it together on the busy track qualified in 49th. After such a stunning performance in the second quali session I was looking froward to the super pole shoot out, each of the 2 drivers getting 2 flying laps to se their time, starting with the 20th car and ending with the fastest Shane Van Gisbergen, an exciting, but slightly scary concept given the forecast for rain towards the end of the session which could have disadvantaged the McLaren with its late time slot, but none of this mattered in the end as unreliability struck and the McLaren ground to a halt at the side of the track during its outlap. Game over. 20th place, or so it would seem, but thanks to the stewards handing out random penalties to almost half the Super Pole competitors, Rob Bell earned the luxury of starting 12th.
If you read any of the race summaries afterwards, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an uneventful race for McLaren. Let me put you straight. After somewhat of a disastrous qualifying we knew there was lots to do, so much potential that had not yet been reached.
There was a long safety car period early on, of around 70 minutes, after a Porsche and Ferrari collided resulting in a lot of work for the marshals, however once the race was back on proper, it didn’t take long for all three McLaren’s to start making up some ground. Just under four hours in both the #58 and #59 cars were inside the top ten, with Ledogar rapidly hunting down the first place BMW #98 Catsburg. After dodging traffic and worrying the BMW driver for a good 10 mins, Ledogar went for it and swept past taking the lead and making it look oh so easy. Come then ducked into the pits and handed back control to Shane Van Gisbergen. A good pit stop enabled the team to keep the net lead of the race (although it doesn’t show on my wonderful graph below since pit stops meant that the McLaren was not technically first on the hour). The order was constantly changing due to random pit stop strategies caused by the extended safety car period at the beginning of the race, meaning that at one point we had #59 up into second place. Sadly we never got to see the #58 make its way back into the lead as a long pit stop was required resulting from some contact on the in lap when lapping back markers in the darkness.
After their successful charge through the field, the number #59 guys seemed a little over eager in their speedy McLarens as they seemed to sustain quite a bit of damage with much pitstop work occurring until they were eventually forced to retire shortly before the halfway point. Car #60 was also a bit war torn as it battled its way through, and by the end of the night had sustained too much damage and spent too long in the pits to be able to mount any kind of a come back, ending up in P40.
After a long and gruelling race, #58 brought the car home in 32nd, however since points are awarded at various points throughout the race, they still managed to score at the six hour mark, therefore allowing McLaren and Rob Bell to maintain their positions at the top of the Blancpain GT series championship.
Intercontinental GT series
As well as being part of the Blancpain GT series, the 24 hours of Spa also forms part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, this being the second round of the inaugural season. Last time out was the Bathurst 12 hours which of course was won by McLaren, with Shane Van Gisbergen taking the win alongside Alvaro Parente and Jonathon Webb. The result at Spa measn that Shane is now down into 2nd place in the championship standings, with Laurens Vanthoor taking over the top spot and Bentley taking the lead in the constructors championship. The final round will be the Sepang 12 hours at the beginning of December.
For those who would rather have a race summary in graph format – here is a depiction of how it went, hour by hour.