The annual Spa 24 Hour race has always been regarded as a classic, but it has never received as much attention here as in Europe. We paid our first visit to it in early August and came away with the impression that this is a very important event indeed. It receives enormous publicity on the Continent, is covered superbly on television by a team which really does know how to film a motor race (helped by a camera mounted in one of the leading Volvos) and attracts a crowd which is not far short of that at the Belgian Grand Prix.
It’s not hard to see the attraction. First, it’s impossible for a race on the magnificent Francorchamps circuit to be dull. Then there is the huge entry, the fifty-five cars take a full half minute to cross the start-finish line after the rolling start. Then there is the special delight of watching versions of everyday cars, sometimes driven by star drivers, do battle for 24 hours. Finally, for the spectators at any rate, there is a relaxed atmosphere, with a hint of carnival.
The one thing which spoils the Touring Car Championship and, the indeed British Saloon Car Championship, is imaginative interpretation of the rule book. This is not to suggest that anyone cheats. Lawks, no, it’s just that if you press a rule hard enough, it bends, and with more pressure, it breaks. Fortunately the bickering which has gone on all season was absent at Spa, the teams had quite enough to occupy thernselves with getting to grips with the organisers’ regulations and, besides, the sort of dubious tweak which might give an advantage over three hours of racing is often nullified over twenty four.
All the usual TCC runners were there, of course, supplemented by a three car Holden team and dozens of drivers paying their francs for a chance to take part in a classic race. Practice times for a 24 hour race are meaningless unless you take into account the vast television audience for the start, but Tom Walkinshaw brought contentment to Rover personnel with a pole-winning time of 2 min 37.80 sec, his fifth consecutive pole for the event, 0.43 sec ahead of the BMW of Gerhard Berger. Next up was Armin Hahne’s Rover followed by the two RAS Sport Team Volvos.
Both the Volvos and the turbocharged Sierra XR4Ti’s had a question mark over them, they were quick but could they last the distance and still be quick? The same question must have been in the back of many people’s minds as they viewed a number of Sierra RS Cosworths about the paddock, since production of this car has now started.
Of the other classes, the quickest of the Mercedes-Benz 190 2.3 16 runners (Snobeck/Cudini/Gouhier) was a commendable 11th quickest overall while the Toyota Corolla of Nielsen/Hoyer/Jensen was a full four seconds ahead of the rest of its class. Still, it’s not always the hare who wins the race.
Race day saw a plethora of umbrellas, and not for the usual reason at Spa. Despite threatening clouds which did no more than threaten, the air was hot and hurnid and on the Sunday it got even hotter, reaching 90F. Just before 5 pm, the pace car led the 55-strong field around, pulled off, and the leaders stormed away. Walkinshaw fended off a challenge from Pirro’s BMW as they climbed up Eau Rouge, the two cars actually touching. Armin Hahne made the most of the kerfuffle to slip into second place.
At the end of the first lap, the two Rovers had already pulled out a cushion and they continued to do so at a rate of two seconds a lap for the first hour or so. You’d have thought they were in a ten lap sprint especially since Hahne was looking for a way past his boss. They were followed by Allan Grice’s Holden Commodore, Pirro, Dieudonne’s Sierra, Soper’s Sierra and Granberg’s Volvo which had a camera on board.
A VW Golf blew upon lap four, spreading oil on the approach to the “bus stop” chicane, which nearly caught Hahne. It dropped him back five seconds but he quickly regained ground and took the lead early in the second hour. Grice had tyre trouble quite early on, Dieudonne’s pace slackened, and Granberg moved his Volvo to fourth and started to challenge Soper.
Just into the second hour, Brock brought his Holden into the pits with what was to be the first of two blown head gaskets and Grice’s Holden shed a front wheel as he swooped down the hill towards Pouhon. Grice returned to the pits on three wheels and continued. Later his problems included a broken seat and a cracked sump and the third Holden had suspected big end failure but all three cars finished, crossing the line abreast, and, blooded but unbowed, won the Coupe du Roi (team prize).
After six hours the order was 1, Rover (Hahne/Allam/Denny Hulme); 2, Volvo (Cecotto/Olofsson/Baldi); 3, BMW (Pirro/Ravaglia/ Berger); 4, Rover (Walkinshaw/Percy/Joosen); 5. BMW (Metge/Sourd/Haezebrouck); 6, Mercedes-Benz (Snobeck/Cudini/Gouhier). Sixth overall, and an easy class lead, was good for Mercedes-Benz but the team must have been bothered by the number of similar cars which were spending a long time in the pits. It hit problems soon after and Class 2 was then headed by a BMW 325i which also held fifth, such was the rate of attrition. In fact no Mercedes-Benz finished. The Neilsen/Hoyer Toyota spun while leading Class 1 and then found the battery dead. The small car class was then led to the end by the Corolla of HozI/Hesst/ Eichmann.
At 1.30 am, the prop shaft snapped on the leading Rover but fortunately it happened coming out of La Source and the car was able to coast into the pits for a replacement, but it dropped to seventh and allowed Berger’s BMW to lead. By this time there was only one Sierra still in contention. At 4.30 am, Baldi brought in the second-placed Volvo with a blown turbo. Both the quickest Volvos had major surgery to their turbochargers.
After half distance the race became a straight fight between Rover and BMW, the order being Rover, BMW, BMW, Rover, BMW, BMW. As the night ended, the leading Rover had a four lap advantage, despite getting through its Dunlop tyres at a fair rate, and the second Rover was in third place and looking for second. Then at 4.45 am, in came the leading car with rear axle troubles, lost three laps, went out again, but returned for further attention. This promoted the Berger/Pirro/Ravaglia BMW 635 CSi into the lead but the second Rover was hauling it in.
By three quarter distance, the Hahne Rover led, with the Walkinshaw car fifth and the other places taken by BMWs. Remarkably, less than a minute covered the first three cars after seventeen hours racing. Then, with four hours to go, the Rover came into the pits with drive train problems and there it sat sadly alongside its sister car which was to retire with the same malady, oil leaks from the rear axles.
All possibility of a British victory faded especially since the Hahne car later had to have its front suspension units changed. The last fifty minutes of its race it was nursed around by Denny Hulme with its broken rear axle bound by canvas. Despite this “Honest John, Used Car Broker” style of repair, it still managed sixth but behind the class winning BMW 325i of Voight/Danner/Oestreich which led home a gaggle of Alfa Romeos.
The final stages of the race looked as though it would result in a 1-2 for the Schnitzer BMWs but Pirro’s leading car was delayed for twenty minutes while an alternator was replaced, and passed by its team-mate (Quester/Tassin/Heger) and the CiBiEmme BMW of Carlo Rossi and the two Micangeli brothers who were five laps down in second place.
The BMW 635 CSi of Metge/Sourd/Haezebruck came home fourth, ahead of the class winning BMW 325i, the Hahne Rover and the Ford Sierra XR4Ti of Soper/Niedwiedz/Muller with Alfa Romeos filling the next three places ahead of the class-winning Toyota.
It’s perhaps odd to cast BMW 635 CS’s in the “tortoise” role of a “hare and tortoise” race but in terms of sheer speed they now do lag behind the Rovers, Volvos and turbo Sierras, but they are certainly reliable, as shown by the fact they filled the first four places. It’s also odd that British enthusiasts who flock to Le Mans in their tens of thousands each year have not yet discovered the Spa 24 Hours which is a lot nearer to home and as equally interesting. Australians present admitted that Spa beats even Bathurst for toughness.
Then again, more British enthusiasts go to Le Mans than spectate at the Tourist Trophy which is so often a cracking good race. It happens that it’s the next round of the TCC at Silverstone on September 7th. — M. L
Reviews, November 2004
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