HTP Motorsport drivers Bernd Schneider, Maximilian Götz and Maximilian Buhk take Mercedes-Benz’s first victory at the Spa 24 Hours in nearly fifty years.[Not a valid template]
Mercedes-Benz are proving particularly adept at breaking long standing records. In May, Team Black Falcon withstood pressure from BMW, Audi and a severe lashing from Mother Nature. Now, HTP Motorsport snapped victory at the Spa 24 Hours, the first event victory for Mercedes since 1964. Whereas then Belgium teammates Robert Crevits and Gustave Gosselin succeeded in the 300SE, German trio Bernd Schneider, Maximilian Götz and Maximilian Buhk would pilot the SLS AMG GT3 to victory lane. Of course, in endurance racing, it’s never quite that simple.
During the early going, the Marc VDS Racing Team BMW Z4 of Markus Palttala, Henri Moser and Nicky Catsburg had stolen a march after a strong start in the first hour by the Dutchman launched the Z4 from third on the grid. Unlike Paul Ricard, however – where teammates Maxime Martin, Bas Leinders and Yelmer Burrman took the #3 entry to victory – the team’s luck would run out, and the Beemer would crawl to a halt before the tenth hour after shedding a bolt from the alternator. The polesitting SMP Racing Pro-Am Ferrari fared little better in the opening stages Alexey Basov, Alexander Skryabin, Matteo Bobbi and Alessandro Pier Guidi falling from its shock pole position to 23rd and 8th in-class within the first hour. Though the team would recover to ultimately finish 12th (7th in-class), mechanical issues meant the struggle was to be a long one throughout the 24-hour enduro.
Making full use of an electric start and a well setup McLaren 12C GT3 around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Alvaro Parente, Stef Dusseldorp and Alexander Sims would leap into an early second place for Hexis Racing from ninth on the grid, pegging the gap to just three seconds to the leading VDS Z4, and all the while with the Manthey Racing Porsche 997 GT3 R of Marc Lieb, Richard Lietz and Patrick Pillet breathing down their neck.
Come the break of the second hour, eventual winners Schneider, Götz and Buhk in the #84 SLS found themselves down in 9th, though Hexis’s technical gremlins would aid a little. Indeed, falls from grace for both Mercedes, the Pro-Am Beechdean AMR Aston Martin Vantage GT3 of Andrew Howard, Daniel McKenzie, Jonathan Adam and Stefan Mücke – who’d cemented a shock all-Pro-Am front row – meant BMW Z4s held four of the top five spots come the third hour (the Manthey Porsche the solitary fly in the ointment in first).
HTP, after a slow climb through the field would eventually take their spot at the front come nightfall and the arrival of the 14th hour following a long stint by the Manthey Porsche. Following the fall of the BMW assault – poor reliability would shatter the Z4s charge, and the sole remaining entry for Vita4One Racing would lose a podium position in the final hour due to engine failure – the fight was now on between the HTP and Rowe Racing Mercedes SLS AMGs, the latter driven by Klaus Graf, Jan Seyffarth and Lance David Arnold, and up from 22nd.
The Ferrari of standings leaders Cesar Ramos, Daniel Zampieri and Davide Rigon meanwhile had climbed from 26th on the grid and were now running fourth. A freak fire caused by low water pressure also cost the Kessel Racing crew – winners at Monza – a podium in the latter stages of the event, a position gladly taken up by the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS Ultra of Andre Lotterer, Frank Stippler and Christopher Mies, incredibly from the 16th row of the grid.
Ferrari did at least have cause to celebrate, the Alex Mortimer/ Toni Vilander/ Duncan Cameron / Matt Griffin 458 Italia cementing Pro-Am honours at Spa for AF Corse one lap ahead of the second SMP Racing Ferrari of Victor Shaitar, Maurizio Mediani, Kirill Ladygin and Dubai 24 Hours runner-up Mika Salo. The all-gamer line-up of Lucas Ordonez, Jann Mardenborough, Wolfgang Reip and Peter Pyzera completed the podium in the #35 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R Nismo GT3.
Middle East favourites Von Ryan Racing – whose McLaren 12C GT3 was driven by Dragon Racing regular Rob Barff, Chris Goodwin and Le Mans entrant Bruno Senna – enjoyed a tough race but still bounced back to take a solid 15th place overall (8th in-class) in the McLaren 12C GT3.
Soon the fight at the front came down to the #84 HTP SLS and the #150 Manthey 977 GT3 R, the Merc’s superior grunt giving the team the edge on Spa’s infamously quick long corners, though the nimbleness of the Porsche and its capabilities under braking meant the Lieb/Lietz/Pillet combination was hunting the leaders down fast. Ultimately, and disappointingly, the race would be decided by a pitlane penalty for the Porsche, which had jumped the start following a safety car period.
For Schneider however, a one-lap lead over the nearest rivals made his latest GT3 victory all the sweeter. Following successful runs at the Dubai 24 Hours and the Nurburgring 24 Hours, the German GT veteran is three for three in the blue ribbon GT events from 2013. The missing fixtures? Le Mans. Speculation mounts that Mercedes-Benz may yet make a return to Le Mans to make up for their infamous 1999 showing, but that’s a stroy for another time.
– Shots courtesy of Eric Fabre