Bracing Spa waters

Spa-Francorchamps. With Audi. For the 24 hours. It doesn't get a lot better. There is something so exciting about driving down to the Ardennes in the days leading up to a big race at this wonderful circuit. As assignments go, it's a good one, and I make no apology for another mention of the Audi Sport team here. It's an impressive outfit and I am always surprised that more manufacturers do not mimic its modus operandi.

My heart beats faster as I pick up the signs for Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. The dark forests are softened by a blue haze as the sun goes down, pockets of mist hang in the trees like smoke from myriad camp fires. When darkness falls, qualifying begins, growling V8s and howling VlOs keeping awake the birds of the Ardennes. The Haribo helicopter, lights twinkling, settles onto the hotel lawn. They are clearly selling large amounts of sweets.

"I'm expecting a lot of cars to be at a very similar and very high level," Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi's motor sport division head, tells me. "I'm not surprised by the qualifying pace of the McLaren, but can they do 24 hours? I don't think so. No, the major challenge is to stay out of trouble. You immediately pay for mistakes in a 24-hour race."

His predictions are, as ever, spot on. It is the BMW Z4s that chase the Audis. The R8 [MS Ultra of pre-race favourites Kristensen/ Lofferer/Fassler is rudely knocked out of the running when a McLaren inexplicably dives into the pits right across its bows. The Audi crew change a tie-rod, losing 12 laps, before sending the car back out in 63rd place. We then witness a staggering recovery drive to sixth at the flag. Spa would not be Spa without torrential rain. "No rain in next four hours," chortles the weatherman on Saturday night. Must be some kind of joke. Two hours later, a crack of thunder, and a river runs across my shoes at Eau Rouge, forcing me to seek solace in a measure of Zweigold Zweigelt (a fine Austrian red) with my hosts. Keen to stay focused on the race I am cheered to find TV monitors at eye level above each urinal. Such is the attention to detail inside this shelter from the storm.

"Believe me," chuckles Jamie Campbell-Walter, Gulf McLaren pilot, "Eau Rouge is still a corner in this car. Some laps, yeah, I have a little lift. The mechanics say the driver is just a pedal bracket not at Spa they're not. At night the place is pitch-black, apart from the lights on the pits straight. That gets your attention." Tom Kristensen agrees. "Sure, the modern headlamps are better, but we're travelling a lot faster you know." What we do know is that endurance racing is now sprint racing, the front-running cars flat out all the way. Frank Stippler and Christopher Haase, both in Audis, fight like Formula Fordsters for the lead, Stippler finally leading home a 1-2 ahead of the hard-charging BMWs. For excitement, Stephane Ratel's Blancpain series lacks little. He needs more manufacturers to take on the might of you-knowwho from Ingolstadt but the future looks bright, a new Pirelli tyre contract now in place. The tyre company's sports boss Paul Hembrey significantly missed the Hungarian GP to be at Spa.

When the fat lady finally sings at 4pm on Sunday even Wolfgang Ullrich, still niggled by being cast aside by a stray McLaren, can smile. Better than most, he knows that to finish first, you must first finish. There are few sadder sights than tired mechanics packing their kit at dawn, but there had been many of those. Where once VIP guests sipped their champagne, bare tables now provide a resting place for rucksacks, bottles of Belgian beer and cold chips.

Racing history is made in Belgium, Audi winning its third 24-hour race in the space of 71 days, having already triumphed at Le Mans and the NOrburgring. "Everybody involved should feel proud," says Ullrich. "It is another milestone for us, achieved in an enormously competitive race with up to 20 cars in contention at times."

By the time you read this, the Grand Prix cars will be at Spa. I just hope you've packed your galoshes and sou'wester.

Rob Widdows