It took me over six hours to drive to Dover, so I arrived at Spa-Francorchamps for the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship feeling I had all the skills necessary to actually take part in the endurance race. Though the cars have to compete non-stop for six hours, each car is driven by three drivers. On that basis I was more than ready. If any of the drivers fell ill – a surfeit of moule-frites, perhaps – then I was ready to step in. I didn’t actually walk up to Audi or Toyota and offer my services, but if the start of the race approached and word went round that McNish was ill or Davidson had a dicky tummy then I would cough politely and show them my driving licence.
Greaves Motorsport Zytek Z11SN Nissan
The Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit is one of the greatest racing circuits on the racing circuit circuit. As Anthony Davidson pointed out, it is one of the original F1 circuits still being used today, along with Silverstone and Monza.The track used to be a lunatic 14km of fast corners and even faster straights but in 1979 it was shortened and made safer. That hasn’t made it an undemanding trip to the corner shop though, it is still a 2 minute/ 7km lap and the essence of its brilliance remains. ‘Spa is wonderful, the track is beautiful,’ Lotus driver Vitantonio Liuzzi told me and indeed it undulates through the Ardennes forest like a carriageway through an English country estate. I had been warned that the weather can be sunny at one end of the track and pouring with rain at the other – although in that respect it is no different to any British High Street. And this weekend I didn’t need the brolly that had seen such sterling service at Silverstone three weeks ago. The sun shone on the 35,000 fans that were packed all around the circuit.
The battle for supremacy in the top LMP1 class was again between Audi and Toyota, continuing from Silverstone where the first round of the World Endurance Championship took place on the 14th April. Back then Audi stormed away with both the win and second place, along with the superb Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy. Toyota had to settle for 3rd and 4th. But here at Spa Toyota were due to premiere their updated 2013 car.
Toyota TS 030 Hybrid
So was it advantage Toyota? Possibly. Although Audi had brought a new long-tail car to Belgium. So it was probably deuce. But then, Audi were entering three cars in preparation for Le Mans. So maybe it was advantage Audi… Calling this one was impossible. It was going to be a race to savour.
Map of Spa-Francorchamps by Will Pittenger
Spa is a great racetrack for watching the action. The paddock is located within La Source hairpin (1) and the huge roof terrace of the PIt Building gives great views of the Pit straight, as well as the acceleration towards Eau Rouge and Radillon. It is not until you see the track in real life that you appreciate the incline from Eau Rouge, which continues up until Les Combes. Patrick Pilet, factory driver for Porsche spoke of the compression that the drivers experience as they bottom out through Eau Rouge, before taking the blind corner heading into the Kemmel straight at two hundred and something kph. ‘It is one of the few racetracks where the driver can make a difference,’ he added, explaining why he liked it so much.
Aston Martin Vantage. With most of the car missing…
Saturday was race day and had blue skies and sunshine, with veterans commenting it was the best weather they had ever seen at Spa. The race started at 14:30 and with Audi first, second and third on the grid you might have expected them to process to the first corner in formation. No chance! When the lights went green Loic Duval in the #2 Audi took the lead from the second row, whilst Andre Lotterer’s #1 Audi had dropped from pole to 5th by the end of the first lap. Not the start that Audi would have wanted, although they still retained first and second positions.
Eau Rouge at Spa. Sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re at a race track.
I’d watched the start of the race from the main grandstand opposite the grid, a fantastic view of the pre-race band and the cars rushing into La Source to head right round the sharpest corner of the track. There was also a big screen showing action from the rest of the track. However at Spa spectators can walk all the way from Eau Rouge along the Kemmel straight to Les Combes. After an hour’s racing the safety car was deployed after Antonio Pizzonia’s Delta ADR spun into the wall. The frenetic pace slowed for a while and I took the opportunity to walk around the track. With the safety car coming in I enjoyed the almost constant overtaking that comes from having different classes of cars competing in the same race. Endurance drivers have to be very aware of the other traffic on the track, constantly allowing faster cars through whilst battling with those in their own class. The World Endurance championship is a complicated beast, with different classes of cars and drivers all competing on track at the same time.
It was a hot day and just when I thought I could walk no further and was contemplating how the drivers were coping inside the cockpits, I stumbled across a very welcome sight…
A bar overlooking the race track near Radillon
Refreshed by a glass of the local Jupiler beer, I joined the fans watching from the grassy banks above the Kemmel straight. The views of the action were stunning, looking down onto the track from slightly above. The #1 Audi which had regained the lead had suffered a puncture and had to pit, handing the lead to the Toyota. In the other classes Rebellion led the privateers, Pecom led LMP2 whilst the Ferraris of AF Corse and 8-Star motorsports led the LMGTE PRO and LMGTE AM classes.
The concentration required of the drivers in a six hour race is immense, but the technology also has to be reliable. Unfortunately the 2013-spec Toyota entry had to retire with a hybrid issue. Before then it had led the race and showed sufficient pace to suggest that if the problem can be overcome they will be a force in the future. The lead was returned to Audi, and they were to keep it until the chequered flag with the #1 car of reigning champions Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler taking the win. The statistics will show that they also started on pole, but they didn’t have it as easy as that suggests. Silverstone’s winners McNish/Duval/Kristensen were second. Before the race the 3rd Audi car had deliberately been set up with Le Mans spec, as a test for the next race in the WEC series. With the car not being optimised for Spa Di Grassi/Gene/Jarvis were pleased to finish third. The other classes were won by Pecom racing, AF Corse and 8 Star Motorsports.
Audi drivers celebrate their 1-2-3 at Spa-Francorchamps
Now the World Endurance Championship moves to Le Mans on 22-23rd June. This is the big one, a race lasting an almost unbelievable 24 hours. I’d say it was impossible, except that – excluding wartime – it’s been completed every year since 1923. The distances the cars cover in the 24 hours grows annually, and the manufacturers use it as a testing bed for new technology that will eventually be seen on road cars of the future. Spa brought fantastic racing, but Le Mans is a legend in its own right. And all positions get double points. See you there!