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Spa 24 Hours: Paddock & Driver’s Parade Notes

Setting the scene for GT3's blue-riband race

Thursday started off damp and drizzly at Spa, but there was glorious weather for Wednesday’s driver’s parade, with a healthy turnout from fans as usual to see the 65 entered cars up close and mingle with the drivers in Spa town square.

Attracting a lot of attention was the #00 Black Falcon Mercedes, a wild-card entry for Spa with an extremely eye-catching, part-metallic silver livery designed by US metal band Linkin Park. “The car looks great, it was really cool to have the guys from the band work on in,” Maro Engel told us. “We have no championship position or points to worry about, so flat out for the win is the plan.”

Engel also said he’s confident the gearbox issues that have affected Mercedes this season (including the #84 HTP car at Paul Ricard) have now been resolved. However, another driver of an AMG-GT told us he’d had the most extensive technical briefing of his career from his mechanics and had been issued with a very large on-board toolkit in the hope of being able to deal with any issues that arise.

Also flying the flag for Mercedes is HTP Motorsport. Its two full-season Blancpain GT entries are joined by a third car (the #86) driven by DTM regulars Max Goetz (who won here in 2013) and Gary Paffett (making his first-ever GT3 start), plus longstanding AMG factory driver Thomas Jaeger.

WRT Audi, winner here in 2011, 2012 and 2014, has shuffled its line-up slightly for the race, with the #28 R8 becoming one of two official Audi Sport machines (the other being Phoenix Racing’s #6) and seeing Laurens Vanthoor (above) team up with Rene Rast and Nico Muller.

“I try to approach avoid being pessimistic or optimistic and take it as a normal race, although we know it’s not,” said Vanthoor. “Because of the car, the team, the support from Audi and the drivers, we know the #28 is among the top contenders, but so many things can happen. The fact that we need big points to stay in the race for the title adds a bit of pressure, but this won’t affect our strategy. At the end of the day, this is the kind of race you value more than a championship.”

Also at WRT, it’s turned out to be a conflict of schedule as well as a conflict of interest preventing Peter Kox from driving the #4 Audi alongside Adrien de Leener and Pierre Kaffer, as the Dutchman is piloting the new Acura NSX GT3 in Pirelli World Challenge free-practice sessions at Mid-Ohio Thursday and Friday. Super GT regular and Le Mans class winner Bertrand Baguette has taken his place – a proper ‘local boy’, having been born 10 minutes up the road from Spa in Verviers.

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Garage 59 McLaren team boss Bas Leinders has been having a sterling year thus far, with Endurance Cup victories secured at Monza and Paul Ricard and Rob Bell leading the overall Blancpain GT driver’s standings. The team has added a third car (above) for Spa, with Daytona and Sebring victor Pipo Derani, as well as Bruno Senna and Duncan Tappy, at the wheel.

“Pipo has had two half-days testing the car, but Bruno hasn’t driven it since last year,” Leinders told us, “but they’re both very quick and experienced drivers so of course it should be no problem. We’ll decide our strategy after qualifying, if there’s a possibility of getting pole, we’ll grab it, but I think we can also come up from further down the grid.”

24h Spa-Francorchamps 2016 Testfahrten - Foto: Gruppe C GmbH

At BMW, ROWE Racing’s Nick Catsburg is focused on repeating his 2015 Spa 24 win, achieved with Marc VDS alongside Lucas Luhr and Markus Palttala. “It’s the first year for the M6 GT3, so it won’t be easy,” conceded the Dutchman. “We should be okay on the reliability front, it’s improving all the time. But sometimes you can get unlucky, like with the fire extinguisher in 2013 or the ABS in 2014!”

Also of note at BMW is the Spa 24 debut of Audi and BMW DTM veteran Martin Tomczyk, who joins Roberto Ravaglia’s BMW Team Italia line-up of Max Koebolt, Giorgio Roda and Stefano Colombo in the Pro-Am class.

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Catsuburg’s winning co-driver from 2015 Palttala is in very different surroundings this year, driving the second of two privately developed Emil Frey Jaguar XKs, alongside Jonathan Hirschi and ex-F1 man Christian Klien. Rather than being simply a copy of the existing #14 car (above, driven here by Stephane Ortelli, Lorenz Frey and Albert Costa), the #114 is a development car, incorporating numerous different or improved parts as the Swiss organisation continues to look to the future and the long talked-about possibility of a Jaguar F-Type GT3, with or without support from JLR.

Palttala says he’s excited by the range of projects and potential for the future at Emil Frey, with the squad also involved with the ongoing development of the Lexus RC F GT3, racing it outside of homologation in VLN rounds this season.

Andy Meyrick

The drive from the circuit to the town provided an opportunity for former Bentley factory driver Andy Meyrick (above) to get re-acquainted with the Continental GT3, in the shape of the Pro-Am Team Parker Racing entry he’ll be sharing with Ian Loggie, Tom Onslow-Cole and Callum Macleod.

“This was a natural fit for me, as I’m helping Seb [Morris] in British GT too” Meyrick told us. “Pretty much as soon as Ian had the deal for the season, he asked me to come on board for Spa.” After a hefty shunt last time out at Paul Ricard, the #24 car is effectively all-new for this round, something Meyrick hopes will pay dividends in terms of reliability.

Bentley’s #7 and #8 full-season factory entries are present and correct, with the #8 crew of Soucek, Soulet and Reip in particular eager to make up ground after a pit fire snatched away their chance of a race win at Paul Ricard.

Attempto-Lamborghini-Spa24-2016

The regular Lamborghini entries from Grasser Racing, Attempto Racing, Ombra Racing, ARC Bratislava and Barwell Motorsport are also here, along with Italian GT outfit Antonelli Motorsport, which was also seen at Monza and Paul Ricard. Present at Monza and Silverstone but absent at Ricard was Konrad Motorsport, and after some last-minute changes, its Spa 24 line-up now is now Jules Gounon, Christopher Zoechling, Luca Rettenbacher and Rik Breukers. Team boss Franz Konrad and the previously listed Marc Basseng are now no longer driving.

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Matt Griffin, Aaron Scott and Duncan Cameron are joined by Riccardo Ragazzi in the #52 AF Corse Ferrari (above) in the Pro-Am class. The full-season ELMS crew had been hoping to contest Spa as a trio, but the organisers wouldn’t grant an exemption to the rule stating all Pro-Am Cup and Am Cup cars must have four drivers. It’s expected Griffin, Scott and Cameron will do the lion’s share of the driving.

“In a way, it’s better, because doing it with three drivers leaves you with no margin if someone has a problem during the race and can’t drive,” Griffin told us. “For the Pro guys, doing it with three is tough. If one of your drivers had a problem at Le Mans, you could continue with two. It’s mentally tough there, but not as physical as Spa. A crew down to two would struggle.”

After finishing second in the Pro-Am class to another AF Corse Ferrari here in 2015, Griffin is fully expecting to challenge for the class win once again. “It was brakes that did it for us last year, the other car elected to change their pads and discs, we didn’t and we ended up having to manage the brakes towards the end. This year the technical pitstop rule means everyone will have to do it, but that plus the minimum pit time means the team and mechanics are less able to make a difference.”

Having contested Blancpain GT races with Attempto Racing during his spell as a McLaren factory driver in 2015, Kevin Estre is back with the squad for this race, now in his capacity as a Porsche works pilot. He joins the #77 car (above) alongside Clement Mateu, Jurgen Haring and Nicolas Armindo for the 24 Hours.

The rapid Frenchman’s expectations are understandably modest, as Porsche is fielding nothing like the extensive factory efforts of Audi, Mercedes and BMW here. “They’re good guys and it’s nice to be back with them,” Estre told us. “We saw at the Paul Ricard 24 Hours that this new Porsche is really reliable, so hopefully we can just focus on doing our best, making no mistakes and seeing where we end up.”

Over at Nissan, team boss Bob Neville was more optimistic than he had been ahead of the Paul Ricard 1000km. “I think the Balance of Performance is better here,” he declared. “They’ve given us a chance. Of course, your drivers, team and mechanics all have to be spot-on, but you need to be given the chance of running at the front and I think they’ve given us that.”

It’s GT Academy graduates Matt Simmons and Romain Sarazin’s first 24-hour race this weekend and Nissan is also marking (above) the 25th anniversary of David Brabham, Naoki Hattori and the late Anders Olofsson winning the Spa 24 in a Skyline GT-R in 1991.

There’s just a single Aston Martin at Spa this year, the Motorbase Performance-run Oman Racing Vantage of Ahmad Al-Harthy, Devon Modell and factory driver duo Jonny Adam (above) and Darren Turner.

“We’re a little bit off the brand-new GT3 cars like the Ferrari 488 over a single lap, but for the full race distance there’s not much in it,” Adam told us. “The team had a great run at Ricard, we were on course for a podium until the suspension failed. So we’ll be focusing on running fast to the six and 12-hour marks to collect the points and then making sure we get to the finish.”