In 2007 a Phoenix Carsport C6.R won the 24 Hours of Spa by a little over one minute, giving the Corvette its first overall victory in a 24-hour race since the '01 event at Daytona. This year, Phoenix decided to up its chances of success by bringing two C6.Rs to the race, both ex-Pratt & Miller cars.
The FIA GT season comprises nine two-hour races and the 24 Hours of Spa. The two-hour races require two drivers per car. In the case of Phoenix Carsport, Marcel Fssler and Jean-Denis Deletraz drive the No. 5 Corvette, and Mike Hezemans and Fabrizio Gollin drive No. 6. The team has done well this season, including notching First and Third Place finishes at Adria. Hezemans and Gollin came to Spa only two points behind driver-championship leaders Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels in the Vitaphone Maserati MC12.
Spa is a demanding 7-kilometer (4.38-mile) circuit located three hours east of Antwerp, Belgium. In the GT1 class, an additional driver pairing is employed on each car to help cope with the physical requirements of the race. For Phoenix, that meant C6.R No. 6 would be driven by Hezemans, Gollin, Fssler and Deletraz. Meanwhile, No. 5 would be piloted by Uwe Alzen, Jos Menton, Alex Margaritis, and Robert Schlnssen.
A third highly competitive ex-P&M C6.R was entered by SRT (Selleslagh Racing Team). Regular drivers Christophe Bouchut and Xavier Maassen came to Spa tied for second place in the driver's championship, thanks in large part to their victory at Monza. Maxime Soulet and Christophe Pillon joined the SRT team for Spa. SRT had a major setback one week before the race, when French driver Soheil Ayari lost control of the car during a qualifying run for an FFSA (Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile) race. The car was badly damaged, requiring the SRT crew to work around the clock to repair it. It succeeded, and the Corvette showed up at Spa looking fit for the race.
Forty-one cars were entered, including 11 in GT1. These included three Corvettes, three Maserati MC12s, two Saleen S7Rs, two Aston Martins DBR9s, and one Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT. Qualifying was held on Thursday, and the French Larbre Competition Saleen took the pole with a 2:13.923. Hezemans was next with a 2:14.246, Bouchut was third with a 2:14.775, and Margaritis was fifth with a 2:15.148. Near the end of qualifying, Bouchut was pushing hard to make up time when he hit a curb and spun into the barriers. The front and rear of the Corvette were severely damaged, and Bouchut was airlifted to the hospital with possible neck and back injuries. Although reports soon came back that Bouchut's injuries were not serious, he would need to spend the night in the hospital for precautionary reasons.
Or so everyone thought. At around 1 a.m., just as the SRT crew was packing up the car's wreckage for the return trip to the shop, Bouchut strolled into the team's box wearing his hospital gown and booties. He reported that because he felt fine, he had checked himself out of the hospital and taken a cab back to the track. This energized the crew to such a degree that they decided to fix the car. With the help of the other Corvette teams, the SRT team gathered enough parts to fix the stricken C6.R. It worked around the clock until Saturday morning, when driver Xavier Maassen started the black-and-white Corvette to huge cheers from the fans. The car-and Bouchut-were declared fit to race.
During the warm-up session, another incident involving a front-running GT1 car occurred at the Eau Rouge corner. Eau Rouge is a fast uphill sweeper that is one of the most demanding corners in the world of motorsports. The pole-winning Saleen was halfway through the turn, traveling at more than 160 mph, when its engine exploded. The Saleen slid in its own oil and heavily impacted the wall on the driver side. It took 20 minutes to extract the driver. Fortunately, he only suffered minor injuries, but the car was withdrawn from the race. This incident put the No. 6 Phoenix Corvette on the pole, the No. 3 SRT Vette third, and the No. 5 Phoenix Vette fifth.
As the green flag fell, Maassen pulled out into the lead in the No. 3 car. Then, on lap three, he was forced to use the escape road at the Le Combes corner because of a brake problem. After a quick repair, Maassen returned to the race, only to lose the brakes again and hit a barrier, forcing the car out of the race. Thus ending an amazing effort by the SRT team.
The No. 6 GMAC-sponsored Corvette led for the next several hours, while the No. 5 Vette-which had spun earlier in an encounter with a Maserati-carved its way up from last place to contend for the lead. Then, at the beginning of the sixth hour, Margaritis spun the No. 5 car on the Eau Rouge corner. The spin damaged the clutch, which later exploded, causing a fire. The driver escaped without injury, but the car was badly damaged and had to be withdrawn.
Not long after, Karl Wendlinger spun his Aston, which bounced into the leading No. 6 C6.R. After a frantic repair session by the Phoenix team, the Corvette managed to return to the race in seventh position, seven laps behind the leader. By 11 a.m. the car was up to fourth, when driver Gollin smelled fuel. He immediately dove into the pits, but he had to stop at the entrance when flames entered through the dashboard. Gollin jumped out unhurt while track marshals extinguished the burning Corvette. Once again the car was dragged into the pits for repairs. While it did return to the race, it soon became apparent that the Vette's brakes had been irreparably damaged in the fire. Seeing this, the team manager decided to park the wounded Corvette and call it a day.
The Vitaphone Maseratis went on to finish First and Second in GT1, giving them a huge, 44-point lead in the team-championship chase. In spite of their tribulations at Spa, Phoenix and SRT announced after the race that all three C6.Rs were repairable and would attend the next round in Budapest. Let's hope the flame-out in Belgium proves to be an aberration.