Porsche claimed its second Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli victory in three races and first at the Total 24 Hours of Spa since 2010 during a weather-affected race at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend.
GPX Racing’s Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen and Richard Lietz starred at the beginning and end of a race that was red flagged for six hours on Sunday morning due to heavy rain. Their win follows Porsche’s first-ever #IntGTC triumph at Bathurst in February and also marks the first for its 2019-spec 911 GT3 R.
Porsche also finished second in the overall classification courtesy of ROWE Racing. However, it was Mercedes-AMG Team Black Falcon’s Maro Engel, Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman plus Audi Sport Team Sainteloc’s Markus Winkelhock, Frederic Vervisch and Christopher Haase who ensured three different full-season manufacturers completed Intercontinental’s podium after finishing third and fourth overall.
What’s more, Honda Team Motul’s NSX came home an impressive sixth overall after starting 33rd, while Walkenhorst’s BMW made it five different full-season #IntGTC manufacturers in the top-11.
A RACE OF TWO HALVES (LITERALLY!)
In a sign of things to come, a wet race began behind the Safety Car before blasting into life after four laps.
Maro Engel converted his pole position into an early lead over Porsche trio Earl Bamber (KUS Team75 Bernhard), Fred Makowiecki (ROWE Racing) and Kevin Estre (GPX Racing) who subsequently stormed from 11th to second before the end of the opening stint. However, four Full Course Yellow periods prevented a rhythm or pattern from emerging.
Instead, SMP Racing’s Ferrari and WRT’s #1 Audi traded places via diverging strategies during hours three-to-six before the latter opted to make its mandatory five-minute technical pitstop at one-quarter distance. That dropped the car shared by Robin Frijns, Nico Muller and Rene Rast outside of the top-20.
Back at the front, the advantage continued to swing between SMP, Sainteloc’s Audi and GPX Racing until the two latter entries were handed drive-through penalties. That made the Ferrari shared by Davide Rigon, Mikhail Aleshin and Miguel Molina the de facto race leader, despite running fourth on the road, when heavy rain halted the race at 05:41. It would remain red for much of the next six hours.
Having also made its technical pitstop before the delay, SMP began the final five hours in the box seat. But it wouldn’t remain there for long after Aleshin hit KCMG’s #35 Nissan, forcing the car in for lengthy repairs.
That handed the advantage to WRT’s #1 Audi which had spent much of the race slowly but surely working its way back to the front. The R8 remained out of reach while the track stayed wet, but started to struggle relative to its rivals when a dry line appeared.
Indeed, Estre’s superior pace in the improving conditions first helped him pass Engel into Les Combes and then reel in Muller at a rapid rate of knots. That pressure forced the WRT driver into a mistake just one lap later at the same corner where the Audi spun into the tyre wall.
Estre and Engel both took advantage as the race ticked into its final two hours but were still being tracked by ROWE’s non-Intercontinental-nominated Porsche. Estre’s pace kept him out of range of Nick Tandy who managed to pass Engel just after their final pitstops. Incredibly, Black Falcon’s Mercedes-AMG took the chequered flag just four seconds inside the maximum 65-minute stint length after extending its final pitstop accordingly.
The top-three remained as they were despite a late race Safety Car period that bunched the pack and finally ended WRT’s challenge once and for all when Rast crashed with just minutes remaining.
Fortunately, the sister Sainteloc R8 was there to pick up the pieces despite incurring a drive-through penalty in the night for a pitstop infringement. It completed an Intercontinental podium featuring as many different manufacturers.
The late Safety Car period also denied Honda a fifth place overall finish. However, the Team Motul crew and their drivers Renger van der Zande, Mario Farnbacher and Bertrand Baguette will be delighted after coming through from 33rd on the grid to sixth.
Their place in the overall top-five was taken by ROWE Racing’s fellow Intercontinental-entered 911 GT3 R, which bagged #IntGTC points for finishing fourth in the hands of Romain Dumas, Mathieu Jaminet and Sven Muller. Those along with GPX Racing’s have moved Porsche to within eight points of Manufacturers’ Championship leaders Mercedes-AMG.
ROWE’s third entry and KUS Team75 Bernhard’s 911 ensured all four Porsche #IntGTC entries finished in the top-nine, while Drivers’ Championship leaders Maxi Buhk and Maxi Goetz, plus GruppeM Racing co-driver Lucas Auer, completed the top-10.
Intercontinental’s other full-season manufacturers all endured a tough Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Walkenhorst’s decision to delay its mandatory technical pitstop kept Christian Krognes, Mikkel Jensen and Nick Catsburg artificially near the front of the field until the final two hours. They eventually finished 11th. Elsewhere, Team Schnitzer’s M6 retired during the night when John Edwards was knocked out of fifth place.
Ferrari had the pace and strategy to win before SMP’s accident and subsequent retirement, while AF Corse’s Pro entry never had a chance to show its true potential after an accident overnight.
KCMG’s #35 Nissan pitted for repairs to its exhaust system in the opening hour after being rear-ended at the Bus Stop. It played catch-up after that along with the team’s #18 GT-R, which made progress from a lowly grid slot before being delayed by a puncture.
Meanwhile, Bentley lost two of its Continentals before quarter-distance due to gearbox issues. The #107 car ran as high as 12th but ultimately lost time in the pits, which left the #110 to soldier on from a lowly grid slot to 29th.
Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli continues at the Suzuka 10 Hours on August 23-25.
Richard Lietz, #20 GPX Racing Porsche: “We were asked in June to participate in this race, and I think nobody regrets saying ‘yes’ now! GPX Racing did a fantastic job, and after finishing three times runner-up here I am really happy that I took the win. I really enjoyed this week in Spa.”
Press release Intercontinental GT Challenge, picture Jean-Baptiste Lassaux/Sport-Auto.ch