It was a thrilling end to the 2019 Total 24 Hours of Spa, with the #20 GPX Racing Porsche of Michael Christensen, Richard Lietz and Kevin Estre beating the weather and late yellows to win the Belgian classic.
It was a fraught final three hours that saw them battle and fend off the #998 Rowe Racing Porche for second (driven by Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Frédéric Makowiecki) and the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes of Maro Engel, Yelmer Buurman and Luca Stolz rounding out the podium.
In the end, it came down to a two-lap shootout for the win after multiple yellow flag periods in the final half an hour. But the fight started far before that.
The 22nd hour was commenced with Nico Müller leading in the #1 WRT Audi, ahead of Yelmer Buurman in the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes and Richard Lietz in the #20 GPX Porsche.
The technical stops were done, the teams were pitting within about 10 minutes of each other, it was a race to the flag.
Müller was about 20 seconds up the road from Buurman and Lietz, who were line astern. As the second-to-last round of stops got underway, it was Black Falcon and GPX pitting, with Buurman handing over to Maro Engel and Lietz to Kevin Estre.
They left line astern as well but soon Estre would pass Lietz on track on the Kemmel straight and into Les Combes. The move was tight but it stuck, and as Müller came into the pits, the move would be crucial.
With fast laps being put in and the pitstops closing the gaps, the three would find themselves in a fight.
Soon Estre would start to hound Müller and filled his mirrors on Kemmel. The line was dryish but off was wet. Müller would twitch and spin, backing into the wall, fortunately without damage but the lead was gone.
Estre in the GPX Porsche was able to take advantage and proceeded to build a gap over Engel and Müller, all with just one stop remaining.
Müller would continue to lose time and would soon fall into the clutches of the #998 Rowe Racing Porsche with Nick Tandy behind the wheel. With 70 minutes left, Tandy mounted an assault and while Müller was able to stave him off for a lap, the Porsche would soon win out.
Meanwhile, the #72 SMP Ferrari who had taken the points at the six and 12-hour marks was forced to retire. Mikhail Aleshin was, perhaps, a little too aggressive in dealing with a Honda and the resulting contact would send the car back to the pits and end their day.
The other classes saw battles as well with James Pull in the #78 Barwell Lamborghini leading Nico Bastian in #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes in the Silver Class. With a gap of a minute between the cars, the battle would be tactical.
The Am class was between the #33 Rinaldi Ferrari of Hendrik Still and the #77 Barwell Lamborghini of Leo Machitski. The latter had the lead but made their technical pitstop quite late, leaving a five-second gap between the cars heading into the final hour.
In Pro-Am, Nicki Thiim held a comfortable lead in the #97 TF Sport Aston Martin. In second was the #74 RAM Racing Mercedes a lap back.
The final round of stops commenced with 66 minutes left, meaning the teams took the first opportunity to make their final stop. Engel would stop first, with Estre, Tandy and Müller in one lap later.
Now the battle turned to Tandy in the #998 Porsche and Engel in the #4 Mercedes. Firstly Engel went wide at the final Chicane lettingTandy through. Engel would fight back on the next lap with door to door action, at times sending both cars off the track.
While Tandy was able to hang on, Rast now in the #1 Audi would get past Engel while he returned to the track. Surely though there would be more.
The rain started to fall more heavily and drivers started to be caught out. With 58 minutes left, Rast showed how slippery it was, drifting around Pouhon and losing a position again.
The joker in the pack though was the #25 Sainteloc Audi with Christopher Haase out of sequence. The team, running on track in second, would be hoping it rains enough for all to have to pit again.
Haase would pit with 46 minutes to go, taking a joker stop, saving five seconds on the 1:55 compulsory stop time. They did not find the luck they needed with the weather, and took slicks, dropping to sixth.
As the race came to its conclusion there were a few lazy spins in the wet including the #34 Walkenhorst BMW and Estre who came across Shae Davies’ #17 WRT Audi, with the Audi turning across the Porsche with minor contact, and a spin for Davies
There were also a raft of penalties for track limits, contact and pit lane infractions. Car numbers 21, 29, 16, 80, 54, 35 and 519 all receiving penalties in the final three hours.
As the race entered the last 30 minutes, Benny Simonsen in the #16 Modena Motorsports Porsche crashed heavily on the exit of Speakers Corner. He ran wide on the astroturf and headed hard into the inside barrier.
The car disintegrated across the track, forcing a Full Course Yellow, leaving the marshals with a race against time to get rid of the car and repair the barrier. The car was dragged off quickly and the FCY turned into a safety car quite quickly
It gave the #98 Rowe Porsche and #30 Honda a chance to make their last stop. The green flew with just 14 minutes to go with Estre having 12 lapped cars between himself and second placed Tandy with Engel, Rast and Haase making up the top five.
At the green, the gap from first to second was 9.2 seconds. But as they say, yellows breed yellows. In sector two, there was a crash in the gaggle of cars that eliminated the #1 Audi of Rene Rast out of fourth and the #54 Dinamic Porsche of Klaus Bachler. The #444 HB Racing Ferrari with Jens Liebhauer on board was also involved.
The FCY and safety car came out again and the #23 Lexus of Bernard Delhez spun trying to catch up the gap.
With just four minutes to go, the race went green and left a two-lap shootout. There were battles throughout the field, with the #98 Rowe Racing taking fifth from the #30 Honda.
But at the front, Estre had it under control, giving the outright win to Porsche and GPX Racing by three seconds from Rowe Racing and a further 17 seconds to third.
The other classes battles continued. In the Silver Cup, the #78 Barwell Lamborghini was able to hold on to take the win. The driving team of James Pull, Jordan Witt and Sandy Mitchell took the victory by 13 seconds and finished 15th overall.
In the process, they beat the #90 AKKA-ASP Mercedes of Nico Bastian, Timur Boguslavskiy and Filipe Fraga. Third in this class was the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes, a couple of laps off second with Hubert Haupt, Patrick Assenheimer, Gabriele Piana and Abdulaziz al Faisal at the wheel.
In Pro-Am, #97 TF Sport Aston Martin were able to take the win in what was a difficult week for the team. Nicki Thiim, Salih Yoluc, Charlie Eastwood and Ahmad Al Harthy beat the #74 Ram Racing Mercedes of Darren Burke, Remon Vos, Christian Frankenhout and Tom Onslow-Cole. In third was the #43 Strakka Mercedes with Christian Nielsen, Richard Heisland, David Fumanelli and Jack Hawksworth all standing on the podium.
The Am Cup was won by the #33 Rinaldi Ferrari of Hendrik Still, Christian Hook, Alexander Matschull and Manuel Lauck. They ended up having a comfortable one-lap gap on the #77 Barwell Lamborghini of Leo Machitski, Adrian Amstutz, Richard Abra and Patrick Kujala. In third was the #29 Raton Racing Lamborghini with Christoph Lenz, Antonio Forne Tomas, Stefano Costantini and Alberto di Falco aboard.