In our January issue, we brought you blow-by-blow coverage of the 2006 Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, held last summer at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in eastern Belgium. During the race, our European correspondent was given unprecedented access to the cars, drivers, and crew members that make up French GT powerhouse Team PSI Exprience. His observations provide an uncommon glimpse into the rarefied world of high-end professional motorsports.
When one of racing's great endurance events is practically held in your backyard, it would seem foolish not to take up the opportunity. With that in mind, Team PSI Exprience decides to take a breather from its usual campaigns in the FFSA GT and Le Mans series, take the short drive up the motorway, and enter the 58th running of the 24 Hours of Spa.
Ease of logistics aside, fielding a car for a 24-hour race is a massive undertaking-not least in the financial sense. To ease that particular burden, PSI will sport a somewhat different line-up than that to which we've become accustomed in FFSA. Into the team's C6.R steps local driver Fred Bouvy, alongside Jean-Phillipe Belloc, Jos Menton, and reigning French GT champ Patrick Bornhauser. The more familiar Finnish pairing of Markus Palttala and Pertti Kuismanen will now line up in the C5-R with Belgian drivers Bernard Dehez and Vincent Rademecker. With different levels of experience and abilities on display, a steady approach will be required. As circumstance would have it, being cautious and not chasing times is exactly the tactic the team will adopt.
As the only GT1 team on Dunlop rubber, PSI is well aware that when it comes to outright speed, they'll be in no position to challenge their Michelin-shod rivals. As Markus Paltalla says, "The Michelins are worth two seconds a lap over the Dunlops. In qualifying maybe three, so we have to be clever and conserve the tires as best we can." Any decent result will be achieved through a combination of stealth and discipline. As such, a strict time limit is set for the drivers. They're to aim for a 2:24 lap, with strict instructions not to go under 2:22.
Qualifying brings no surprises. The combined-time format sees the PSI Vettes lined up side-by-side in ninth and tenth-near the back of the GT1 field. This result is satisfactory all the same, particularly since the No. 34 C6.R had experienced a clutch failure during Friday's practice session. The team can't be sure whether the problem is due to a fitting or manufacturing error, so as a precaution, the entire gearbox is changed. The warm-up brings optimism. The cars are fifth and sixth quickest, though Jos Menton is complaining the new gearbox is feeling a bit stiff. It's a portent of things to come.
With just a few hours to go, it's hard to imagine that the two cars will be ready for the race. The sheer volume of human traffic makes the garages unimaginably chaotic. In the midst of it all, the cars are being stripped down and re-assembled for the race. Thanks to the organizational virtuosity of car managers Jerome Padoumont and Dennis Layher, the two pristine Vettes nose out through the crowds and make their way around to the grid on time. The drivers seem unfazed by the tumult, but team owner Phillipe Tillie is showing his nerves in the form of a furrowed brow he'll wear for the next 24 hours.
The first hour of the race flies by, and before we know it, the pit-crew members are donning their helmets and balaclavas. First in is the No. 36 C5-R. It's not a quick stop, at 1:10, but there are no mistakes, and Markus is away. With scarcely time to draw breath, the C6.R is upon us, and the crew goes back to work. Worried, Jos is reporting inconsistent gearbox pressure, with a stiff downshift and a slight misfire. After one hour, this is not a good sign.
Just more than three hours in and the first crisis: The C6.R is in unexpectedly, and Fred Bouvy is reporting an upshift problem. Alexandre Roberge from Pratt and Miller is analyzing the data in an attempt to determine the cause. It turns out there's a relatively simple explanation: A gearbox sensor is loose and is causing a short circuit. This has caused the gearbox to reset to the default settings, so the changes are taking 200 milliseconds rather than 70 to 80. This also explains the inconsistency in the gearbox pressure. It's a simple fix, and the car is out again and performing well.
The C5-R has some minor problems, too. Hugging the pit wall for the best line into Eau Rouge, Markus has tagged his pit board and damaged the rear wing. There is also minor damage to the right rear, where Vincent Rademecker ran into a GT2 Porsche. Fortunately, these are easy repairs, and the pit-board man still has all his fingers.
Shortly after 9 p.m. comes the first major crisis. The safety car is out because of an accident involving one of "our" cars. A broken valve causes the C6.R's right front tire to deflate, pitching Jos Menton into the barriers. Unable to engage Reverse, Jos waits 17 minutes for the marshals to push the car. The damage is repaired, and Patrick Bornhauser is soon lapping in the 2:23 range. No major damage is done, but six laps are lost, and the C6.R has tumbled down the order.
It's well into the night, and Paltalla and Belloc are lapping quickly and consistently in double stints. Most of the spectators and hangers-on have taken the opportunity to get some sleep. The garages are now calmer, the crew members are doing their best to find someplace comfortable to relax. It almost seems quiet.
By midnight, the Vettes are in eighth and eleventh. Vincent Rademecker readies himself for his "double dark." "It's no problem. The lights are good," he says. A shrug of the shoulders, the helmet is on, and he's away to take over from Markus, who emerges from the car looking as if he's ready for a repeat stint. It's all about lapping to the target time, not stressing the car or the driver.
A real rhythm emerges as the cars race through the darkness of the Ardenne. In the pits, it's all about numbers-another lap, another lap of time, the clock moving inexorably on. Pit stops become routine, just another part of the rhythm. Across the track from the pits, the thump of bass from the fairground becomes like a heartbeat as the race seems to take on a life of its own.
At 12 hours in, there's contact between Markus and the leading Phoenix Racing Aston Martin. A puncture forces a tire change, but a few laps later there's real drama. Dennis Layher is in the garage with a troubling report. "Markus is on the radio. He's in the gravel at Combe and waiting for a push." Nothing more is said. The crew is up and clearing a space. No emotion, just work.
The C5-R arrives, and there's significant damage to the front. The right rear is stripped down to repair suspension damage from the clash with the Aston. The damaged nose is removed, but the replacement will not go on. After half an hour, real frustration shows for the first time. Eight people-including the Pratt and Miller boys-are now wrestling with the recalcitrant front clip. The Americans are only there on an advisory basis, but when it comes to the crunch, they're up to their elbows in it, right alongside the rest of the team.
Finally, the nose is secure and the alignments are checked. The C5-R rejoins the race just as dawn is breaking, 75 minutes after it rolled into the pit. It's a difficult end to the night, and it finds the car down in 22nd position. Running strongly after its earlier problems, the C6.R has worked its way up to sixth, though the reality is without problems for those ahead, it will be very difficult to progress any further.
By mid-morning there is more to worry about. The gearbox on the C6.R is becoming a bigger issue. The drivers have been complaining about the shift to Fourth, and it's only getting worse. Alexandre Roberge is confident the problem is a broken tooth but feels that a lengthy gearbox change simply isn't an option at this point. Changing the gear cluster is considered as a last resort. "When we changed the cluster at Sebring, it took 28 minutes," he says. "But here, with a crew [that's] less experienced with the car, it could take double that...so we hope we can nurse it." The drivers are instructed to avoid using Fourth gear, and everyone crosses their fingers. There are still four hours to go.
With 21 hours gone, the Saleen S7R holding fifth ahead of the C6.R leaves the track. It rejoins after 20 minutes for repairs, just a lap-and-a-half ahead of the Vette. This is a welcome development. Now, there is the possibility of gaining a place, and it's a spur to keep the drivers and the crew going.
With just under an hour to go, Paltalla and Belloc take over for their final stints. The last hour is interminable. All eyes are on the timing screens. The C5-R has recovered well and is up to twelfth, while the C6.R, its gearbox holding up, seems destined to finish sixth. Then, with just half an hour to go, the Saleen comes back into the pits. This time, it's terminal.
A few brief minutes are left to the finish, and when the flag comes down, there's unbridled relief and happiness in the PSI pits. Against the odds, the team has gotten both cars across the line-in Fifth and Twelfth. After the evening's manifold travails, there's a great deal of pride in the accomplishment. Team owner Tielly is close to tears, and the look of concern he has been carrying for the last day is gone. Like the rest of us, the time for reflection will come later. For now, the drinks are on him.