An endurance racing classic, the Spa 1000 km race has been the only set fixture of the Le Mans Series championship. Scheduled in May, it usually also serves as the final 'dress-rehearsal' for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year was not exception with Audi and Peugeot fielding three cars each; the first encounter of the two rivals this season. The clash was particularly important for Audi as they needed to figure out how their new 'R15 plus' stacked up against the very quick Peugeot 908. In addition to the six works LMP1 cars, a further 44 cars spread over five classes lined up for the 1000 km or six hour race on the undulating Belgian track. Due to the ever changing weather races at Spa are rarely predictable, yet none could have expected what happened on Sunday, but more about that later.
At the end of the first day at Spa, Le Mans organisers, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), announced the further withdrawal of three teams that appeared on the original entry list for the 24 Hour classic. Sadly among them were the two 'Pescarolo' LMP1 entries, which means that living legend Henri Pescarolo will not actively be involved in the race for the first time since the late 1960s. The three will be replaced by the KSM Lola Judd in LMP2, the second Matech-Ford GT1 and the AF Corse Ferrari F430 driven by Toni Villander and Formula 1 stars Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella. The reserve list is now down from ten to just one; the second Spyker.
Headlining the Spa 1000 km support program was once again the Classic Endurance Racing one-hour endurance race for which over 60 classic sports racing cars were entered.
Our photographers braved the changeable weather conditions and returned with a 200-shot gallery
Practice and qualifying
Spa immediately lived up to its expectation by providing the teams with a damp but not wet track for the first of three free practice sessions. Although very little could be read into yet, Peugeot immediately put the marker down with the privateer Oreca 908 HDI Fap setting the fastest time by quite a margin. It must be added that the Audis were equipped with the Le Mans-spec, low drag bodywork, so wet conditions were certainly not in their favour. The track was dry in the afternoon and a pattern at the top of the standings began to appear; the three factory Peugeots were first, second and third. The quickest of the Audis was full three seconds behind. The biggest surprise of the session was in the hugely competitive GT2 class where the JMW Aston Martin V8 Vantage beat the Porsches and Ferraris. There was more of the same in the final practice session, although the gap between the quickest Peugeot and Audi was brought down to just over one second. Making their debut in the Le Mans Series, the Matech prepared Ford GTs faired very well in the GT1 class, which was up from one to seven entries compared to the season opener at Le Castellet.
Qualifying was run under completely dry conditions, which gave the first true indication of the cars' ultimate speed. As always the session was split in two parts; the first for the two GT classes and the second for the three prototype classes. There literally was absolutely nothing between the first and second placed machines in GT2. Jaime Melo in the AF Corse Ferrari pipped Marc Lieb in the Felbermayr Porsche for pole by just 0.080 of a second on a 140 second lap. The first fourteen cars in the class were separated by less than 1.5 seconds. That was about the same gap that split the first and second placed GT1 cars, both Ford GTs. A great drive from Bas Leinders meant that local favourites Marc VDS Racing beat the works Matech team convincingly.
Despite the split session, traffic was a big problem in the prototype half of qualifying. Especially pole-expert Stephane Sarrazin failed to get a clean lap and had to settle for third in the #2 Peugeot. He was beaten by Timo Bernhard in the #9 Audi and Sebastien Bourdais in the #3 Peugeot. The difference between the two was just over six tenths in the Frenchman's favour. Strakka Racing's Danny Watts outclassed the rest of the LMP2 field again in the fabulous HPD ARX-01c, beating the second placed and similarly engined RML Lola by over 2.5 seconds. The Formula Le Mans pole was for one of the Pole Hopevision Racing cars, driven by Belgian Nico Verdonck.
Classic Endurance Racing
A slot on the grid for the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) is in such a high demand that despite several withdrawals, the Spa round still had a capacity entry of 61 cars. Quite a few of these decided to skip the first practice session, which was run on a wet track. One of the entrants who was out immediately was Roald Goethe, who made his debut in the CER with his newly acquired Porsche 908/3. This was one of the final two cars built for the 1971 season when it raced only in the Nurburgring 1000 km race under the John Wyer banner in the legendary Gulf colours. It was subsequently raced in various guises and for nearly a decade by the Joest team. Restored to its original configuration, it was part of the legendary Setton collection for many years. As far as we can tell, this was the first race the car competed in for a very long time.
It was another former Reinhold Joest car that claimed the pole position; Jean-Marc Luco in his Porsche 936. Unfortunately his race did not start well with a spin at Les Combes on the first lap. It did not get much better as he had to abandon his rise up the leaderboard with a mechanical failure. Having his race cut short is something Paul Knapfield has been all too familiar with but a recent rebuilt of his ferocious Ferrari 712 Can-Am and a very careful treatment of the throttle pedal saw the car reach the finish in one piece and in first place. The 7-litre V12 in the back of the spectacular machine produces around 850 bhp and 960 Nm of torque. That is more power than any of the cars in the 1000 km have available. The torque is available already available at 4500 rpm and sufficient to twist the driveshafts. Kevin Wilkins and Mike Catlow finished second in the Lola T296 and third was for Ludovic Caron in a Chevron B21. David Ferrer won the P1 class in his Lola T70, Michael McInerney clinched the GT2 win by less than two seconds in his BMW M1 and GT1 was for Bernard Moreau in a Porsche 911 RSR.
Although Sunday started off beautifully, rain was expected for later in the day. Timed exceptionally well the first drops coincided with the warm-up lap of the race. It was, however, not wet enough to warrant a switch to intermediate tyres, making things very tricky for the drivers. Caught out by the conditions, Andre Lotterer spun his Audi during the warm-up lap and hit the barriers heavily. Despite severe damage to the rear suspension, he did manage to get back to pit and the subsequent repairs lost the #8 R15 plus eight laps. This was probably not the start of his career at Audi Lotterer had hoped for. The next victim of the conditions was Pedro Lamy in the pole-sitting Peugeot. He spun the 908 in the first corner but did manage to continue with little delay. Filippo Francioni was not that lucky in the #29 Racing Box Lola as he crashed heavily in the tricky Eau Rouge corner on the opening lap. To clear up the debris the safety car was called out for the first time. Shortly after the racing continued Olivier Panis was tapped by compatriot Jean-Christophe Boullion in the same Eau Rouge corner, sending his Oreca Peugeot into the barriers and ending his race. Fortunately the brightly liveried Peugeot could be cleaned up far quicker and no safety car was needed.
The race was neutralised for a second time after forty minutes after Thor-Christian Ebbesvik crashed his Ginetta-Zytek heavily at the 'Bus Stop'. Audi immediately called in Allan McNish for a pit stop but surprisingly Peugeot opted to leave all three 908s out. The wee-Scot was quickly on their tail and managed to grab the lead when the French cars needed to stop for fuel.
We will never know if this was an oversight or a smart move as the race was red-flagged after two and a half hours. This unprecedented move was the result of a power outage that affected the entire paddock. The timing computers did have a 30-minute back-up but when the power did not return after 25 minutes, the organisers had no choice other than to suspend the race. The cars were lined up on the start-finish straight under 'Parc Ferme' conditions, so nobody was allowed to touch the cars. Interestingly the clock was not stopped. After around 30 minutes the race resumed but for some time the confusion remained. Some cars had been caught out by the red flag in the pit lane and lost a lap at no fault of their own and they were eventually set right.
In LMP2 the defining moment of the race had actually already happened in the warm-up when Nick Leventis smashed the dominant HPD into the tyre wall. It took forever for the car to return to the Strakka team and unfortunately the extensive damage could not quite be repaired before the start of the race. Jonny Kane was eventually sent out a few minutes into the race, a lap behind the leaders. This left a much closer fight for the lead than at Le Castellet between the two OAK Racing Pescarolos, the HPD engined RML Lola and the reigning champions Quifel ASM with their Ginetta-Zytek. The HPD ARX-01c was still a threat until Leventis hit the wall again. This time he did manage to return to the pit but the parts-bin was depleted and the car had to be retired. The class win went to Quifel ASM ahead of the RML Lola and the #25 OAK Racing Pescarolo.
A flawless drive by Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz in the #77 Felbermayr Proton Porsche was awarded with a victory in the GT2 class with a one-lap margin. Behind the bright-blue Porsche the BMW M3 driven by Andy Priaulx, Dirk Muller and Augusto Farfus were heading for a surprise podium finish until the final safety car period brought two of the AF Corse Ferraris back in contention. In the final laps the all-new M3 was right on the tail of the two F430s but even a late move by Priaulx was not enough to get the podium. The result nevertheless showed that a lot of progress had been made since the car's debut at Le Castellet. Second in class was for Gianmaria Bruni and Jaime Melo and Fisichella, Alesi and Vilander were a close third.
The VDS Team managed to convert their pole position in a GT1 class victory. It was a good day all around for the Matech Fords as the works cars were placed second and third after the Larbre Saleen fell off the final step of the podium in the dying minutes of the race. Only three cars were classified in Formula Le Mans class, headed by the other Hope Polevision Racing car piloted by Steve Zacchia, Wolfgang Kaufmann and Luca Moro.
After the red flag confusion the #3 Peugeot emerged in the lead despite its spin in the first corner. The McNish, Kristensen and Capello Audi was a close second. In the final hour of the race the heavens opened once more and as always at Spa, the conditions varied immensely. At the top of the hill it was very slippery yet near the start-finish straight the track was almost dry. Audi gambled and called Kristensen in for intermediates. The Dane gained 10 seconds per lap on leader Simon Pagenaud but only on the first two laps as the rain did not persist. This allowed Sarrazin to make the most of his experience on slippery surfaces and he quickly chased down Kristensen, who struggled in the final laps on his wet weather tires. So the very eventful race ended in one-two for Peugeot with a third for the new Audi R15 plus.
The 2010 Spa 1000 km certainly ranks very high on the list of strange Le Mans Series races. It is rivalled only by the 2006 Istanbul 1000 km where the race had to be cut short due to a shortage of petrol. As far as we can tell the power outage fortunately did not have an affect on the outcome. That can not be said of the at times erratic behaviour of the marshals, especially the one controlling the red light at the end of the pit lane. During the final safety car period several teams lost precious time because they were not allowed to leave the pit lane for no apparent reason.
As a dress-rehearsal for Le Mans the Spa 1000 km only partly succeeded as it was a lot colder and wetter than it will most likely be in June. Despite losing, Audi can enter the race with the confidence that their car is very close to the Peugeot on raw speed, despite running less downforce. If Peugeot can repeat their flawless performance of last year, they are however still the favourites.