Frank Stippler led #16 Audi Sport Team Phoenix to a masterful victory of the Total 24 Hours of Spa on Sunday after a tough battle with one of its factory rivals.
After 509 laps of the famed Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the German racer held a lap lead over #1 Audi Club WRT stablemate Stephane Ortelli at the finish line; however that is not to suggest the victory was an easy feat.
Alongside Stippler, Audi Team Phoenix drivers Andrea Piccini and Rene Rast enjoyed their share of battles with the factory leader (piloted by Ortelli, Christopher Mies and Christopher Haase).
Rather than drive straight to the front, the #16 team subtly played themselves into the race – best let one’s rivals show their hand first; bring weaknesses and straights to the fore.
It is a strategy that can work wonders should one be completely confident in the human and machine tools at your disposal and Audi specialise in a quiet confidence.
Managing the race
Content to be mere guest stars for much of the opening portion, Team Phoenix ran 3rd before finally making their presence as midnight turned.
As every hour struck, the #16 marched ahead, with only a single wobble during hour eighteen, when the left-rear tyre blew apart, shredding violently as Piccini manhandled the machine to safety.
Again luck played its part – occurring toward the back end of the circuit meant a short trip to the pitlane for the Audi, where it was discovered the German machine had been spared ancillary damage.
Unfortunately a puncture during hour twenty-two finally saw off the challenge from the #1 Audi, allowing the Phoenix crew to pull almost a pitstop ahead of their persistent rivals.
There would still be something left for the crowd to chew on, as off kilter pit strategies played themselves out. Leading briefly following a Team Phoenix stop, #1 Audi (with Mies at the wheel) fell toward the chasing Stippler – complete with fresh tyres – eventually losing the top spot as the penultimate hour drew to a close.
A safety car with forty minutes remaining (thanks to Lorenzo Bontempelli spectacularly barrel rolling at Blanchimont) allowed the Audi team an opportunity to align the pair accordingly, with #1 Audi losing a lap after being held by a red light at the end of the pitlane during the neutralised period.
It was a tactic that formally put victory well beyond the #1 Audi squad; however it much be noted that success for Team Phoenix was born out of remarkable consistency, terrific pace, fabulous luck and tenacity – even when the conditions were utterly appalling.
Beyond the leading Audi’s…
Of course, the race was not just some battle amongst the Audi duo – a pair of BMW Z4’s also fought for a piece of the action for much of the duration.
The “Beemer” charge was led by the #66 Vita4One team (Mathias Lauda / Gregory Franchi / Frank Kechele), while the #3 Marc VDS trio (Bas Leinders / Maxime Martin / Markus Palttala) also performed remarkably well to finish 3rd and 4th respectively.
Kechele – who qualified the Vita4One entry on pole – suffered a poor start, but neatly drew back up the order, eventually breaching the top five just after the one-quarter mark.
By the fifteenth hour, the #66 had played itself into the race as a minor threat in 3rd spot, but realistically, the leading Audi’s had the Vita4One covered nearly every step of the way.
The BMW team enjoyed a battle with the #2 Audi in the few hours leading to midday; however that contest came to a brutal halt when Edward Sandstrom lost control of his Audi going through Eau Rouge, with the resulting accident essentially sealing the final podium spot for the #66.
It was a dreadfully unfortunate end for the #2 Audi, after a consistent run kept their trio of drivers (Marco Bonanomi and Laurens Vanthoor also piloted) kept the machine running on the fringes of the top five for lengthy spells.
Off the Marc
Meanwhile in the next running BMW, a stellar early stint from Martin – in fairness, all his stints were top notch – gave #3 Marc VDS the lead in the opening hours; however the pendulum swung toward Audi in hour five, when Haase grabbed the lead on the 96th circulation.
#3 Marc VDS kept Martin and Leinders behind the wheel during the daylight hours, with Palttala finally emerging as the night closed in.
Martin did court some controversy. The Belgian retook the lead from the Audi’s toward the end of the opening third, but did also rather clumsily clatter the #9 Gulf McLaren at Blanchimont – both continued unharmed.
Two hours later, the #3 Marc VDS would be the innocent party when an overenthusiastic Filip Salaquarda (#59 Vita4One Ferrari) rear-ended the BMW on the approach to the Bus Stop. On this occasion, the #3 machine received minor damage; however Salaquarda was less fortunate – losing the front end, the Czech racer was pitched into the wall – hard.
Salaquarda was fine, the car less so.
Unfortunately, woes would deepen for the #3 Marc VDS squad. Pitting during two separate safety car periods under darkness would see the car held at red lights at the end of the pitlane, pulling the BMW down to 5th. That became 4th when #2Audi removed itself from the action.
A stop-go penalty for Palttala (a hangover from an infringement during qualifying) further dampened their efforts, while starter motor issues put pay to quicker pitstops late on.
Unfortunately, the second Audi Team Phoenix machine (#6 piloted by Andre Lotterer, Markus Fassler and Tom Kristensen) endured a fruitless twenty-four hours.
Amidst Pro-Am traffic, Lotterer was clattered by a pitlane bound Adam Christodoulou in the #62 Lapidus Racing McLaren – a pointless clash that would see Christodoulou excluded from the rest of the running.
Necessitating repairs to suspension and bodywork meant #6 Audi Team Phoenix lost 30 minutes in the garage, while the #62 McLaren dropped an hour – the former came home 6th, some eight laps adrift, while the latter didn’t finish at all…
The #52 AF Corse Ferrari team (Niek Hommerson / Louis Machiels / Andrea Bertolini / Pier Guidi Alessandro) took 5th overall and the Pro-Am category to boot.
The four-man entry took charge of the category after fighting its way up the class order, leaving the #34 Pro GT by Almeras Porsche and both #50 and #51 AF Corse Ferrari’s behind in its wake.
Luck also fell upon the leading AF Corse, while also casting a shadow on rivals. After a long period swapping the class lead with the eventual victor, the #51 AF Corse dropped out due to incurable coolant leak with less than two hours remaining.
The #50 AF Corse also fell from the lead battle thanks to a long pitstop, losing the entry five laps during the fourteenth hour. They would return to the garage later in the race with mechanical issues.
Radiator issues for the #34 Pro GT Porsche hampered its efforts in the latter third of the race, with the fault becoming terminal during the penultimate hour. The #24 Blancpain Reiter Lamborghini also featured for a time, but issues with wheel changes during pitstops deprived of a realistic chance to challenge in the long run.
This all naturally happened after the initial class leader – #5 Boutsen Ginion McLaren – was ruthlessly taken out by Klaas Hummel in the #62 Lapidus McLaren at La Source. The move was made even more galling as the #62 Lapidus entry was already 32 laps down following its earlier clash with the #6 Audi. An utterly pointless incident.
The #25 First Motorsport Porsche (Steve van Bellingen / Bert Redoint / Armand Flumal / Johan Vanloo) won the Gentlemen’s Trophy and also took 17th overall.
Admittedly, the Porsche team had been chasing the lead for the opening third, when original class leaders, #73 Kessel Ferrari lost a wheel at the pitlane exit following a botched stop.
Come the end, the #25 First Motorsport team enjoyed a thirteen lap advantage over next class challengers in the #82 Bull Fight Dodge Viper.
The #94 Speedlover Porsche (Kevin Balthazard / Christophe Bigourie / Rik Renmans / Raf Vleugels) was the only Cup Class entry to actually finish; however that should not diminish their efforts. The class initially led by the #32 Pro GT by Almeras Porsche, fell to the Speedlover squad as other dropped by the wayside.
As with the victorious Audi’s, clean and consistent running garnered top honours for the #94 team – more than well deserved honours at that.
Oh the rain
At times, the conditions did get truly appalling. The race was only two-and-a-half hours old when the first torrential shower came.
Such was the downpour, sections of the circuit turned to free flowing rivers, with La Source being one of the most affected areas. Each additional drop accentuated the lack of grip, so much so that drivers were losing control at less than 40 mph approaching the opening hairpin.
These cars – weighted and powerful – were picked up by the shimmering rainwater as if they were mere paperweights, before being carried and dumped unceremoniously into awaiting run off areas.
Not all made it to the run off though. Sadly the #37 DB Motorsport BMW became a victim of the weather, when it aquaplaned on the start / finish straight, pitching hard – front first – into the wall.
Worse was to come just after the race restart. Midway through the fourth hour, Philippe Salini lost control of his #86 RMS Porsche toward the end of Blanchimont, hitting the wall hard. As the Frenchman received treatment in his broken car, the race was neutralised for 65 minutes, until he could e safely taken to hospital for checks and x-rays. Thankfully, Salini suffered no injuries.
Sunday proved more pleasant, as the expected showers stayed away, leaving in its wake a sunny, if breezy day.
2012 Total 24 Hours of Spa (509 laps) Overall Pos Team Time /Gap Pro Class 1. #16 Audi Sport Team Phoenix 24:01:21.757 2. #1 Belgian Audi Club WRT +1 lap 3. #66 BMW Vita4One Racing +1 lap 4. #3 Marc VDS Racing BMW +2 laps 6. #6 Audi Sport Team Phoenix +8 laps Pro-Am 5. #52 AF Corse Ferrari +7 laps 7. #8 Haribo Racing Porsche +12 laps 8. #10 SOFREZ ASP Ferrari +12 laps 9. #88 Von Ryan Racing McLaren +12 laps 10. #20 SOFREZ ASP Ferrari +14 laps Gentlemen’s Trophy 17. #25 First Motorsport Porsche +34 laps 22. #82 Bull Fight racing Dodge Viper +47 laps 23. #41 Sainteloc Racing Audi +49 laps 24. #81 ALFAB Racing Audi +54 laps 33. #98 JB Motorsport Audi +146 laps Cup Class 25. #94 Speedlover Porsche +54 laps