Located in the heart of Belgium's historic Ardennes forest, the 6.976-kilometer Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is one of the most beautiful and challenging tracks in the world. Circuit de Spa is also one of the oldest sports-car tracks in Europe, having hosted races virtually nonstop (the exception was during World War II) since 1924. The Proximus 24 Hours of Spa promised to be one of the highlights of this year's FIA GT Championship season, with double points awarded to the top finishers.
Unlike the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) and the sanctioning body for the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), the FIA does not allow prototypes to compete. The GT series is nevertheless very popular with motorsports fans, of whom around 150,000 crowd into Spa's 12-turn circuit for each year's race.
For 2006, the 45 qualifying cars were divided into four classes, based on weight and engine size. The Phoenix Racing Aston Martin DBR9 sat on the pole, with a time of 2:14.871. Four ex-Pratt & Miller Corvettes-two C5-Rs and two C6.Rs-were among the top starters, and these were supported by five Pratt & Miller employees.
GLPK Racing entered one C6.R, which was piloted by the driving team of Longin, Kumpen, Hezemans, Mollekens. The yellow No. 4 was the fastest of the Corvettes and started fifth overall, with a time of 2:15.854.
Belgium's PSI Experience entered a C6.R and a C5-R. The No. 34 C6.R won its class at last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it was driven by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta, and Jan Magnussen. Piloted by the team of Menten, Jean-Philippe, Bornhauser, and Bouvy, the car qualified ninth at Spa.
The No. 36 PS1 C5-R was previously owned and raced by Pacific Coast Motorsports, from California. PSI assigned drivers Kuismanen, Palttala, Dehez, and Radermecker, who managed to qualify 10th. Soulet, Horion, Hart, and Buncombe, meanwhile, drove the No. 35 Renstal Excelsior C5-R to an 11th-place qualifying spot.
The green flag was waved at 4 p.m., starting the 24-hour around-the-clock grind. At the end of the first hour, the GLPK and PSI C6.Rs were in first and second overall, and it was becoming obvious that the race would be tightly contested between Corvette, Maserati, Aston Martin, and Saleen.
The Renstal C5-R was the first Corvette casualty, withdrawing during the second hour with a broken driveshaft. By the fourth hour only the yellow GLPK C6.R was still running with the leaders. During the sixth hour the No. 34 C6.R ran off the course and brushed the wall at Turn 12, causing extensive body damage. This incident put it well down in the standings.
Up front, the Aston Martin, Maserati, and the single GLPK Corvette continued to battle for the top three positions. During the race's eighth hour, the yellow No. 4 car pitted to take on seven liters of oil. Curiously, the car was not smoking, and no oil was visible on the pit apron when it exited. In response, team engineer Mike Gramke instructed the drivers to shift at a lower rpm and pit whenever the oil light illuminated.
During the 12th hour the No. 36 PSI C5-R had an on-course incident that severely damaged the right front and side of the car. It spent a number of laps in the garage being fitted with a new front bumper and having several loose body panels repaired.
The No. 4 car, meanwhile, had begun pitting every 45 minutes for oil, taking on another seven liters with each stop. (By the 23rd hour the car had consumed an astonishing 43 gallons of the stuff, much of it borrowed from other teams along pit row.) Ultimately, these frequent stops put the C6.R behind the two race leaders and eliminated any chance for an overall victory.
By the 18th hour the No. 36 C5-R had moved up to 18th position. The No. 34 C6.R was sixth, despite having lost Fourth gear around the 20th hour. After consulting with their Pratt & Miller colleagues, PSI team members decided to continue racing without a gearbox change.
During the last hour the No. 1 Maserati MC 12 passed the No. 5 Aston Martin to take the lead. The Maser would hold on to take the checkered flag just 1:41.5 seconds ahead of the Second-place Aston. Despite its insatiable appetite for oil, the GLPK C6.R still sounded strong when it crossed the finish line in Third overall, nine laps behind the winner. The badly battered PSI No. 34 C6.R was Fifth, while its C5-R teammate finished Eleventh.
The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps also played host to the fifth and sixth rounds of the FIA's new GT3 racing series. Six Carsport/Callaway Z06.Rs were entered, and team manager Ernst Woehr announced that John Heinricy would return to drive the No. 18 car with Jurgen von Gartzen. Heinricy had never driven at Spa, but the experienced racer seemed to have little trouble getting acclimated to the tricky course, driving No. 18 to the seventh-quickest qualifying time in the first race. For Race Two, Team Riverside driver James Ruffier qualified his No. 19 Z06.R second, while von Gartzen qualified twelfth.
Thirty minutes before the start of the first race, it began raining heavily on the back part of the course, forcing all the teams to start out on rain tires. Von Gartzen got off to a good start, moving into second place by lap eight. When a crash brought out the safety car, the leaders pitted, and Heinricy replaced von Gartzen.
Four minutes before the end of the race, an Aston Martin crashed heavily and brought out the red flag, ending the session. The Heinricy/von Gartzen car finished Third, behind a Viper and a Porsche 911. The other two Carsport/Callaway entries finished Seventh and Tenth, while Team Riverside took Eleventh and Thirtieth. While Heinricy and von Gartzen stood proudly on the winner's podium, the Riverside crew began a long night of removing engines to replace faulty throw-out bearings.
Race Two got off to an auspicious start when the No. 19 Riverside Z06.R quickly pulled away to take a commanding lead over the second-place Viper. But while Heinricy was working his way to the front on the first lap, several cars came into contact at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Heinricy spun, damaging his steering nd forcing him to rejoin in the middle of the pack.
By Lap 10, the No. 19 Riverside car was holding down second, while the No. 16 Corvette of Klaus Ludwig and the No. 20 Vette of Marc Sourd had also moved into the top 10. Heinricy, meanwhile, experienced more misfortune on Lap 11 when he tried to push his steering-impaired car around the No. 17 Corvette of Paulo Bonifacio. The cars came into heavy contact with one another but were able to continue.
Jurgen von Gartzen took over for Heinricy during the mandatory pit stops and struggled to bring the damaged No. 18 car home in 20th position. Twenty-one minutes before the end of the race, a Viper and an Ascari had a major accident, which again brought out the safety car. During the ensuing caution, a Viper held first, and the No. 19 Corvette was second. But when the green flag fell with only three minutes remaining, four cars passed the Corvette, pushing it all the way down into Sixth.
Things got even worse for the No. 19 team when a post-race inspection revealed that the car's rear wing was in the wrong position. This ruling disqualified the car from Race Two, making the No. 20 Team Riverside car of Marc Sourd and Benjamin Dessange the highest-finishing Corvette entry at Ninth.
After three rounds of the GT3 series, it's clear the Z06.R is fully competitive with its class rivals. As soon as one of the teams can put together an error-and-accident-free race, look out.
Each year the city of Spa and the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium invite the race teams to display their cars in the center of town. The twist? The racers don't tow their cars into the city; they drive them. The display lasts from one in the afternoon until seven at night, during which time thousands of race fans throng the square to check out the cars, chat with team members, and cadge autographs from the drivers. It's a spectacle unlike any other in racing, and one we thoroughly enjoyed being a part of. At the appointed hour, the cars are restarted and lined up in pairs for the short drive back to the track. After an announcer delivers a brief commentary on each entry, the fans queue up beside the road to cheer them on their way. At Spa, the cars are the real stars of the show.