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Blancpain Endurance Series: Spa 24, Hours 13 to 16, WRT & VDS Take Over From ROWE

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SUMMARY: The top of the standings was shaken up as the race entered its final third, with very few incidents disrupting the flow. WRT held the lead at the end of hour 16, but the #45 Marc VDS BMW was close enough to leapfrog the Audi during each pit-stop cycle. The ROWE Racing squad slipped back after two long service stops.

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The #59 McLaren continued its plunge down the order after a prang, slipping out of the top twenty spots by the time 5am arrived and the sun began to rise.

Another car having issues was the #8 Bentley, which had already been in the wars during the night hours. Max Buhk was noted as stopped after Les Combes with electrical issues while he slipped outside the top 10 and out of contention before later retiring. The team were unable to contact the German on the radio, which was also effected by the issue. It left just one Bentley running – the #84 sitting in 12th spot overall.

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The top two however were still going round and round, with the gap between the #99 ROWE Mercedes and #2 Phoneix Audi still tight when they were in sync. Stephane Oretlli remained around 15 seconds behind the SLS of Nico Bastian for much of the 13th hour, and was therefore well within striking distance going forward. In Pro Am it was much the same story, as the #47 and #51 AF Corse Ferraris were also still within 15 seconds of each other for the class lead.

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As the 14th hour approached, Bastian began to respond to Ortelli’s challenge, and pulled out a gap of 30 seconds in an attempt to solidify ROWE Racing’s lead. Further down the standings, the #1 was also continuing its recovery driver following Vanthoor’s off in the first portion of the race. Marcus Winkelhock was driving, and managed to climb to 16th spot, but still six laps off the leader.

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Phoenix managed to sneak into the lead halfway through hour 14 after a cycle of stops. A long stop by the leading #99 ROWE Mercedes promoted the Audi of Nico Muller to the top of the timing screens, with a healthy gap of 17 seconds. The chase was then on after Nico Bastian rejoined the race, hungry to regain the place.

Bastian continued to reel in the leader, reducing the deficit to Muller to just 12 seconds by the start of the 15th hour. The safety car then made an appearance for the first time in a couple of hours while the marshals recovered the Classic and Modern Racing BMW Z4 which was stranded on the inside of Stavelot after hitting the barriers. The safety car reduced the gap between the two leaders to just a second, with the third place #45 Marc VDS BMW a further two back.The WRT squad opted to dive straight into the pits under the safety car while the armco underwent repairs and it gave ROWE Racing the lead once again.

When the safety car pulled in, the battle for the lead was on between the ROWE Mercedes of Bastian and the #45 VDS BMW of Maxime Martin which was just behind. But Bastian was immediately on the pace, getting round the traffic far more efficiently than Martin, creating a gap of 4 seconds on the first green flag lap. He furthered his progress as 7am approached, the gap 15 seconds by the next round of stops.

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But another long stop for ROWE Racing meant the #45 and #46 VDS BMWs leapfrogged the Mercedes in the pits, rejoining in second and third respectively with Juncadella who climbed aboard the #99 fourth.

In the Pro Am ranks, Tom Onslow-Cole steered the Leonard Motorsport Aston Martin to third place (ninth overall), getting past the #79 Ecurie Ecosse BMW as the 15th hour drew to a close. It’s been an impressive recovery drive by the team after dramas early in the race. Up ahead was still the #47 and #51 AF Corse Ferraris.

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After running firmly inside the top 10 for much of the first half, the #9 ROAL Motorsports BMW slipped to 19th spot after a brake change during a lengthy pit stop. The work by Onslow-Cole was also undone by a very long pit stop which dropped the #32 Aston to 20th and 10th in class after running third.

Lewis Plato had an off at T14 into the tyres in the #71 GT Russian Team Mercedes, bringing out yellow flags as 8am drew ever closer. Plato didn’t get going again but there was no need for another FCY or safety car period. The #46 VDS BMW was then handed out a penalty in the final third of hour 16: a drive-through for overtaking under yellows. It was a significant blow for the third place car.

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Team Parker continued to sit in 20th spot as the final third of the race began, the squad had run faultlessly for almost the entire race, continuing to dominate the Am Cup.

Stephen Kilbey