After five hours of track time yesterday (Thursday) the cars for this year’s Total 24 hours of Spa had a much more restful day today, even if some of the mechanics were kept busy getting things ready, and many of the teams had press conferences with their drivers. It hasn’t been quiet on the track today by any manner or means, with five races to keep the spectators entertained. The superpole competition brought things to a nice climax at the end of the day. Well, nearly the end of the day, as the usual Bronze Driver Test is rather unusually placed at the end of qualifying for this weekend, being the final track activity of Friday, before the thirty minute warm-up session for the Blancpain cars that will take place first thing on Saturday morning.
As I see it, though, there’s a great danger in these Superpole sessions. I’m not talking about physical danger to life or limb; but to the emotional danger of getting caught up in the moment and forgetting that the difference between positions on the grid will seem a long time ago after a 24 hour, twice around the clock grind. Grid positions for endurance racing may not be irrelevant, but nor are they really that important, compared to Formula 1 or other sprint racing where overtaking is more difficult and the time to do so more limited.
Folk will tell you that being at the front of the grid is invaluable in terms of its publicity value, and so it is. Equally, being out of the way of any early lap histrionics has to be a good thing. But having the skill, vision, ability or just plain good luck of being out of the way of someone else’s accident is something that drivers have to do throughout the race, not just in the first few laps. Twenty-four hours racing is a team game: not just the three (or four) drivers, but the mechanics changing the wheels and getting the fuel in, the team manager making the strategy calls from the pit wall and those clever technicians making decisions on how long to run on a set of tyres, when to change the brakes, and so on. Being a few rows further back on the grid isn’t going to make the difference – ask anyone who’s been successful in long distance races.
Having said all that, and having observed the Top-30 and Top-40 qualifying for the Nürburgring 24 hours the last two years, I have to admit it is attention-grabbing and exciting stuff. There is an argument that says that to put drivers into a more gladiatorial role is no bad thing – and nor is making the whole event more suitable for a television audience, which, of course, a superpole shoot-out is absolutely made for.
So, I took the opportunity to get myself onto the outside of Eau Rouge to see the spectacle unfold. And unfold it certainly did. Quite honestly, it was one of the most spell-binding, thrilling and downright jaw-dropping sessions I’ve ever watched – at least in the context of GT cars.
Coming down the hill, right hand wing-mirror tight against the pit wall, then find a turn-in point and put two wheels on the left hand kerb and down into the compression. At this point, cars differed: some shed sparks, some dirty smoke; nearly all were grounding, left-side door sills rubbing on the track. Some used the kerb on the right, some didn’t. Significantly, Pier Guidi did and ended up second. Schneider was tidy, and was seventh. On the exit, the left-handed Raidillon, much kerb; but not too much – Buncombe and Chiyo were four wheels off and ended up 13th and 19th. The Audis were doing the most bottoming out, but looked light and nimble. But I wouldn’t have bet on Vanthoor being quickest of all – of the WRT cars, Fässler looked the best to me. Maybe he lost out elsewhere round the lap.
All too soon it was over, and thankfully the thunderclouds that had been booming around as the session started refrained from dumping their contents on us all and spoiling matters. Reflecting on it on the way back, one remembers how pointless it all was – superpole did nothing to help anyone work out who is in best shape for the race. A Ferrari on the front row? Bentley ahead of McLaren? Neither Marc VDS in the top ten? It’s all nonsense, isn’t it?
Well maybe it is, but it was properly entertaining, wickedly fun and probably a very good idea. Hopefully, by the morning everyone will have calmed down and we can concentrate on the important matter of the 66th running of the 24 hours of Spa. The Gladiators of superpole need to leave their egos in the garage, and may the best team win!