For a little while there it looked like a Bentley might beat a Bimmer in the Total 24 Hours of Spa, but rain and penalties kept the Bentleys at bay and saw the flawless Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3 at the front when it counted most. It was BMW’s second win in a row at this event in Spa, Belgium, a round-the-clock race that first ran in the rainy Ardennes in 1924.
While Le Mans may be the king of 24-hour races, with Daytona second and maybe even the Nurburgring 24 third, Spa has been running – in one form or another – for almost as long as any of them. It’s quite a field every year, too, pitting GT cars from Europe’s best manufacturers in an all-out battle from 4:30 p.m. Saturday to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 31 to August 1 this year.
Entries included a fantasy racing league of cars: ten Audi R8 LMSs, three Bentley Continental GT3s, seven Mercedes AMG GT3s, two Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s, 10 Lamborghini Huracan GT3s, nine Ferrari 488 GT3s (as well as several 458s), three McLaren 650 S GT3s, Porsche 911s, a Jaguar, and four BMW F13 M6 GT3s. There were three Americans listed on the drivers’ roster (we didn’t know any of them, write in if it was you) and a total of 64 teams that showed up.
The order was thrown wide open under the first full course yellow, which saw teams stagger their pit stop strategies and subsequently juggle the lead early on. At six hours it was the #99 Rowe Racing BMW at the front with two Audis in second and third. At the halfway point, i.e. 4:30 in the morning, two Bentley Continental GT3s of Bentley Team M-Sport were in first and third with an Audi Sport Team WRT R8 between them.
The start of the 24 Hours of Spa. Cars enter Eau Rouge.
Rain came in the last hour of the race and while it didn’t seem to bother the by-then-leading-again Rowe Racing BMW, it wreaked some havoc with the cars just behind it. The Bentleys were already in trouble after having to serve various penalties throughout the race. When the rain came the Bentley switched to rain tires under green, just before cars hydroplaned off at the Bus Stop chicane, bringing out a full-course yellow. The cars in third, fourth and fifth all pitted during that period, which brought them out of the pits ahead of the Bentley. It appeared the #86 AMG-Team HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3 would inherit a podium position, but in the final minutes it was deemed the car had been released from its pit box in an unsafe manner and driver Maxi Götz was handed a drive-through penalty that demoted him to fifth. Felix Rosenqvist in the #88 AMG-Team AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 climbed to second, and although Laurens Vanthoor in the #28 Audi Sport Team WRT R8 did his utmost to pass the Swede, the Audi-driver had to settle for third.
At the front there were no real worries for Alexander Sims in the new BMW M6 GT3, who took the win under the cheers of the Rowe Racing team and his co-drivers Philipp Eng and Maxime Martin. For Martin it was a very emotional win, with this victory he follows in the footsteps of his father (and four-time Spa-winner) Jean-Michel Martin.
“It is difficult to describe,” said Martin. “This is the seventh victory for my family at the 24 Hours of Spa and it feels amazing. I have tried to win this race a few times before and come quite close in the last few years but today was our day, or at least our weekend. It was the perfect weekend with no mistakes and no regulation breaches. For me it is quite an emotional victory; it is just amazing.”