Winning any 24-hour race means sticking to the golden rules: have a fast car with fast drivers and stay out of the pits. However, the Total 24 Hours of Spa is a somewhat difficult nut to crack. Over the years, under the auspices of SRO and the general organisation of the Blancpain GT Series, regulation has been layered upon regulation, leaving less and less that the teams’ strategists can do in order to gain an advantage.
The defence would be, of course, that this means the driver plays a more and more crucial role. In these days of increasing sophistication of GT3 cars, the ability of the less-experienced driver to extract the maximum from their mount is therefore ever-more important, it being taken for granted that the professional pilots will be able to do so.
The problem, of course, is that the (artificial) balance between the cars and the pitstop regulations are deliberately designed to equalise things, making it almost impossible for a car that encounters a problem to recover lost ground.
The key aspect of the pitstop rule is the so-called ‘pitstop delta time’ the prohibited time range from pit in to pit out. Last year, this was between 1m 55s and 2m 15s: this year it’s between to 1m 33s and 2m 13s. The distance from pit in to pit out at Spa, actually from the Formula One pit entrance, just after T19, to the exit of Raidillon, T4 is about a kilometre; at 50km/h that takes about 1m 12s. Add another three seconds to account for slowing to a standstill and accelerating again and you have less than 18 seconds to do any work on the car, if you’re going to achieve a ‘quick’ stop.
It’s pretty clear that this is insufficient time to get enough fuel in the car to allow it to then complete a further 65-minute stint, meaning that a double-stint on the same set of tyres will be impossible. That is, if your car will go a double-stint on the same set of tyres. Mark Lemmer, team principal of Barwell Motorsport, which has two Lamborghini Huracans entered, doesn’t think they’d be able to double-stint the tyres anyway: “We’ll have to be very careful with tyres,” he told DSC yesterday, “otherwise performance will drop off before we get to the end of a single stint.”
Other teams are more confident. One team manager, who asked me not to mention his team’s name, felt that the wider ‘prohibited pitstop time’ window was specifically aimed against them and the cars that were able to use the Pirelli rubber more kindly. “The rule change simply takes away the advantage we have,” he told us.
At the other end of the window, doing a ‘full service’ pitstop (driver change, full tank of fuel and new tyres all round) within the 2m 13s (two seconds less than last year’s minimum) shouldn’t be a problem for the professional teams to achieve, especially those well versed in the disciplines of the Blancpain series, such as WRT.
Another change for this year is the way that safety car procedures work. Alain Adam, the race director, told the drivers that he’d use the full-course yellow (FCY) procedure to neutralise the track after any serious incident that couldn’t be dealt with using a local yellow. However, if the incident would need more than 10-15 minutes to resolve, the FCY will transition into an SC. The slower speed of the FCY (80km/h) will allow the SC to more easily to pick up the leader. And the pitlane entrance remains open at all times. The key change is that the pit exit light will also remain green throughout any period of neutralisation, except when the safety car and its train of cars is passing.
This means it’s less likely that a car will be held at pit exit, as happened on a number of occasions during last year’s race. However, it also means that cars exiting the pits will be able to go at close to racing speed in order to catch the queue behind the safety car. Then the question arises for the marshal controlling the pit-exit light: when to switch the light back to green after the SC queue goes past?
In the end, the race will most likely to boil down to pace and the ability of all three drivers (in the pro teams) to achieve consistent lap times. At Spa, there are various reasons why this mightn’t be possible. Firstly, traffic. Because the cars are pretty evenly matched, passing can often be a problem, even if, once we’re deep into the race, they may not be fighting for position.
Secondly, it’s important to keep the car working in its optimum window for as much of the stint as possible. You don’t want to be changing the setup of the car midway through the race and you need to have a setup that works for all drivers throughout their 65-minute stint.
Thirdly, you need to avoid any penalties. Last year’s race was defined by them, mostly given for track-limits offences. It’s clear that most drivers don’t abuse track limits intentionally, but sometimes an overambitious attempt at overtaking can mean putting all four wheels beyond the limit. The implication is clear: team managers must impress upon their drivers the need to leave a margin (particularly once your ‘chances’ have been used up) in order to avoid transgressing. A drive-through penalty will cost around one minute in terms of lost track time.
According to Bentley’s Steven Kane, the effect of coming out of another car’s slipstream at the end of the Kemmel Straight can move a car several feet to the side as the air hits it. Getting through Les Combes under those circumstances without transgressing track limits is in itself something of an achievement.
Fourthly and finally (although within the driver’s list of excuses are probably many more), is getting the lights right. The lighting around the distant regions of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is nonexistent. One team manager revealed that the times through the second sector (Les Combes to Stavelot) at night never match those during the day. Kane again: “It’s critical to have your lights set up right. They need to be bright, but they need to be pointing at the correct angles as well.” Losing time at night, or gaining it, has often made the difference between winning and losing 24-hour races.