For GT racing, the legendary 24 hours of SPA ranks closely behind the 24 hours of Le Mans. In January 2010 when I committed myself, with the support of my sponsors House of Portier and TAM Auto Engineering, to this incredible challenge of driving for Raphael VDS owner and driver of VDS Racing Adventures, with his ambitious desire to present his Matech built FIA-GT3 Ford Mustang amongst the worlds top GT teams, cars & drivers, I knew it was going to be a challenge that separates the men from the boys.
I had never before been to the famously technical Circuit of SPA in Belgium, so when I arrived there I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Jose Close waiting for me at the gate of the Circuit late in the evening, with the keys to the gate in his hands ready to take me around for a lap in his Nissan Tiida which naturally was going to be a very slow sight-seeing lap! To understand the value of this lap, allow me to explain to you that the legendary Jose Close has participated 23 times in the 24 hours of SPA and would be one of the three drivers with me in the Ford Mustang of VDS Racing Adventures. Luckily I came prepared with a clear mind, determined attitude for success, plenty of white paper, and an i-phone to video his line and record his words. With my experience I knew that I needed to extract as much as I could from Jose if I wanted to succeed at proving to the team I could master the Circuit in minimum time and push their “wild mustang” on the edge consistently during the the ultra competitive endurance race. I filled many pages with details recording every comment Jose makes.
By the time the 1st of 3 mandatory Qualification Sessions started I had done only 14 laps of the Circuit, and now the other factor of SPA decided to play a part, it rained heavily. Piloting the 550+hp rear-wheel drive Mustang in the wet on one of the world’s most challenging Circuits that is loaded with every type of corner as well as major elevation changes was intense. Before getting in the car, I went through every detail on my hand-written notes, studied every detail of the circuit one last time, and reminded myself I was sharing the Circuit with 45 top GT cars with the best Pilots in existence of GT racing, some of the them ex-F1 drivers.
The same scenario was repeated for the 2nd and 3rd Qualifying sessions, albeit without the rain, however the final session with the added factor of complete darkness made it even tougher for me to stand my ground against my very experienced team-mates for whom SPA was their home-circuit.
To my pleasant surprise the team would inform me at the end of the night that I had managed to set the fastest qualifying time for my team, what a moment of pride that was! I cannot use words to explain the numerous thoughts that went through my mind that night. Had I really just come to SPA, driven one of the most challenging cars there is, and accomplished my first goal? Absolutely, and honestly exceeded my expectations. I had even managed to share my thoughts on the set-up for the car which was also implemented by the team engineers during the Qualifying day. I was very pleased to know that I adapted so quickly to my surroundings – that is a very valuable asset to have as a driver.
So on Saturday July 31, 2010 during the parade lap prior to the start where all pilots sat in convertible SAABs with over 100,000 spectators cheering and waving to us, Raphael clearly emotional with joy of being an entry at this legendary race took us in his arms and said “Bring the car to the Checkered Flag at the end of the 24 Hours”. As we went around the 7km Circuit all Marshals were chanting “Good Luck Raphael! Good Luck Jose!” and at Speaker Corner (turn 11) the Marshals had attached a VDS Racing Adventures banner on the fence, then I suddenly felt added weight on my shoulders as I realized that this local Belgian Team I was driving for had high hopes of competing at this race with a strong support from the spectators and marshals.
At 1600 the race started, the GT cars sounded incredible all of them with engines screaming at max power that would be silenced only during pit-stops for the next 24 hours. Like all endurance races, positions moved up and down, and all the personnel of this 25 person strong team gave their maximum from the engineers, mechanics to the cooks and masseuse, knowing that every detail plays a part in the result of the race. I was as always well supported by my friend Alix Corbasson who controls my surroundings while I am not in the car, so that I can have a seamless transition during my stints, and I made the most of the wonderful hospitality and atmosphere within the incredible team VDS Racing Adventures.
Before finishing 19th overall having started 35th, I had more confirmations of my ability to lap quickly, repeatedly setting fastest lap times again during the race for our team, and receiving my favorite calls on the radio: “Each sector shows green on the computer, you have set the fastest lap of our car, please try to Slow Down”
From all my successful races in Europe this summer, including several VLN Races at Nurburgring as well as the 1000km Omnitel Race in Palanga, this 24 hours of SPA 2010 has been the most incredible personal achievement encouraging me to continue competing at the highest levels of GT Racing and carrying with me the UAE flag.
- Karim Al-Azhari