GPX Racing’s Estre/Lietz/Christensen win Spa24H

GPX Racing’s Estre/Lietz/Christensen win Spa24H

International Racing

GPX Racing’s Estre/Lietz/Christensen win Spa24H

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Porsche won a battle of the heavyweights to clinch victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The German marque beat fierce rivals Mercedes-AMG and Audi to climb the top step of the podium for the first time since 2010 and capture a one-two finish in the world’s toughest GT race.

Porsche put significant emphasis on conquering the Belgian endurance classic this year, with six 911 GT3 R machines contesting the Pro class. Five of of those would finish among the top 10, but ultimately it was the GPX Racing squad that secured the win with a full-factory line-up of Kevin Estre, Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen at the wheel.

The No. 20 Porsche was the star of Saturday’s opening stages, with Estre scything through the field from 11th on the grid to run second by the time the opening round of pit stops began. Maro Engel led the early stages from pole in the No. 4 Mercedes-AMG Team Black Falcon entry, which would prove to be one of the GPX Porsche’s biggest challengers for the win.

Estre’s heroics — which included passing another 911 GT3 R around the outside at Blanchimont — looked as though they might have been in vain. The No. 20 was hit with a drive-through penalty for a pit stop infringement, which dropped the car well over a minute off the lead.

But the crew battled back over the next few hours, returning to the top 10 by the time morning arrived at Spa-Francorchamps. By this stage heavy rain was falling over the circuit, making driving conditions near-impossible and leading to a red flag shortly after 5:40 a.m.

With the rain abating as the morning progressed the cars rolled off pit lane again at 11:15. The order took a little time to become clear as a number of cars had not yet taken their five-minute technical stop, a task the No. 20 GPX Porsche had completed at around 3:30 a.m.

The concluding battle took shape with the No. 1 Audi Sport Team WRT machine out front. The Belgian outfit’s all-star crew of Rene Rast, Robin Frijns and Nico Muller had looked to be a threat from the first stint and they were out front as the race moved towards its final two-hour sprint.

But there was excitement just around the corner. Having always looked to be in contention, the No. 20 GPX Porsche really came alive shortly before the 22-hour mark. First it overhauled the No. 4 Black Falcon car, with Estre blasting past Engel on the run down the Kemmel Straight.

Just one lap later he closed on Muller as they headed into Les Combes, where Muller briefly lost control of his car and made rear contact with the outside barrier. Incredibly the Audi was able to continue with almost no damage — but the lead had fallen to the Porsche.

Estre then set about building an advantage, pulling clear at the front while the battle for second continued. Engel eventually came under pressure from the charging Nick Tandy, whose No. 998 ROWE Racing Porsche was as rapid as the GPX effort during the final hours. The crucial move came with an hour remaining, with Tandy overcoming Engel after an entertaining battle from Bruxelles to Pouhon.

The race now looked to be settled — but there were a few late twists to follow. A full-course yellow and safety car period began with just 25 minutes remaining after the No. 16 Modena Motorsports Porsche crashed out from third in the Pro-Am class. Estre looked to have successfully dealt with his final restart, only for the No. 1 Audi Sport Team WRT machine to make contact with the No. 54 Dinamic Motorsport Porsche and bring out another full-course yellow and safety car.

The French driver made one last push for the finish, eventually bringing the No. 20 GPX Porsche home to secure the marque’s seventh overall win at the Belgian endurance classic.

“During the night it was extremely difficult out there, with a lot of aquaplaning,” related Estre. “In fact, the whole race was difficult. Due to the changing conditions, we were almost never on the right tires, but we survived and took the win.”

Christensen added: “When we lost time early in the race due to a penalty, we had to change our strategy to be able to make up ground. That’s why sometimes we took the choice of staying out and continuing on tires that did not really match the conditions. It was tough, but we had a plan and we stuck to it.”

The No. 998 ROWE Racing machine shared by Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Frederic Makowiecki completed a fine run to second, with the No. 4 Mercedes-AMG of Engel, Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman third after a faultless showing in the Ardennes.

Audi Sport Team Sainteloc was fourth, a repeat of last year’s result for Markus Winkelhock, Christopher Haase and Frederic Vervisch. Another ROWE Porsche was fifth thanks to Romain Dumas, Mathieu Jaminet and Sven Muller, while Honda scored a sixth-place finish from 33rd on the grid with its lone Pro class NSX GT3.

Silver Cup honors were secured to the No. 78 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini, which went one better than its 2018 result to take a hard-fought victory. Sandy Mitchell was the only driver to return from last year’s crew and led a sterling effort alongside James Pull and Jordan Witt.

The No. 55 Attempto Racing Audi led the early stages from pole and was a contender for the overall top 10, but dropped out during the night. This made the race a two-horse battle between the No. 78 Lamborghini and the No. 90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, with the latter taking the points for leading after six and 12 hours despite starting from the pit lane.

But the Barwell car prevailed over the second half of the race, eventually finishing seven seconds clear after the late safety car closed the gap. Having missed out on Silver Cup victory last year by just a few seconds, Barwell made absolutely certain of success this time around. The AKKA ASP crew of Nico Bastian, Felipe Fraga and Timur Boguslavisky can be content with the fact that they have clinched the class Endurance Cup title with a round to spare, while the No. 6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG completed the podium.

The No. 97 Oman Racing with TF Sport Aston Martin put in a phenomenal comeback performance to take Pro-Am honors. Driven by Ahmad Al Harthy, Salih Yoluc, Charlie Eastwood and Nicki Thiim, this car was severely damaged during Thursday’s opening practice session, forcing the team to switch to its backup chassis.

This also meant the No. 97 Aston Martin had to start the race from the pit lane, 30 places behind the class polesitter. Despite this setback the car stormed through the field to lead at both six and 12 hours, then ran faultlessly to the finish. Thiim was at the wheel for the final hours and was predictably measured on route to victory, taking 22nd overall and finishing a lap clear of his closest contender.

The No. 74 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG took second spot and despite missing out on victory will nevertheless travel to the Barcelona season finale in title contention. The No. 43 Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG crew completed the podium.

The No. 33 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari bagged Am Cup honors, ensuring another class win at the 24 Hours for the German outfit. Having triumphed last year in Pro-Am, Rinaldi was able to conquer a different challenge this year. Alexander Mattschull was part of both efforts, with Christian Hook, Manuel Lauck and Hendrik Still joining his for this year’s assault. The destination of the winners’ trophy not decided until the final hour, with the Rinaldi car battling reigning class winner Barwell Motorsport throughout the second half of the race before prevailing in the final hour.

Despite finishing as runner-up two of the No. 77 Barwell Lamborghini’s crew — Adrian Amstutz and Leo Machitski — clinched the Endurance Cup crown with a round to spare. The final spot on the Am Cup podium belonged to No. 29 Raton Racing by Target Lamborghini outfit, while the Coupe du Roi — which rewards the manufacturer with the best results across the classes — was won for a second year in succession by Mercedes-AMG.

 

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