Even though Rob Bell enjoys a healthy 44-point lead in the overall Blancpain GT Series driver standings - together with his #59 Garage 59 McLaren team-mates Shane Van Gisbergen and Côme Ledogar the Briton also has a 22-point advantage in the Endurance Cup - the races of the 2016 season of the greatest GT championship on the planet are among the most closely-fought of recent years. That will almost certainly also be the case for the upcoming Total 24 Hours of Spa.
A look at the 65-car-strong entry list shows that no fewer than 29 cars have a fully Pro line-up. Of those 29 cars - representing nine different manufacturers - one could pick almost twenty that have a shot at winning the Belgian endurance classic. That means that well over 50 drivers could claim the highest step on the podium come Sunday afternoon.
For some of those drivers, that top step in Spa is familiar territory. Twelve former winners of the Total 24 Hours of Spa are at the start this year, driving ten different cars! After Belgian BMW-squad Marc VDS Racing ended their GT3 programme, last year's winners Nick Catsburg and Markus Palttala are now split up. The Dutchman still represents the Bavarian brand, driving the #98 Rowe Racing BMW. Markus Palttala adds a sixth brand to the already impressive list of cars that he has driven in the Total 24 Hours of Spa, by driving the second of the Emil Frey Jaguars, the same car on which former F1-driver Christian Klien will make his Spa debut. Not that six different cars is a record: by driving the #19 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini, 2012 winner Andrea Piccini adds a seventh brand to a list that already includes Ferrari, Lister, Aston Martin, Maserati, Audi and BMW. Palttala is not the only Spa-winner driving for the Swiss team: Stephane Ortelli, on the top step after the epic 2003 edition, is at the wheel of the team’s other Jaguar.
Of the twelve former winners, five are at the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS this year. 2014 winners Laurens Vanthoor and René Rast (who also won in 2012) share the factory-backed #28 Audi Sport Team WRT R8 with Nico Müller. Their 2014 team-mate Markus Winkelhock is sharing the #6 Phoenix Racing Audi with 2012 winner Frank Stippler and Christopher Mies. Mies, while never a winner in Spa, holds a quite unique record in the Belgian Ardennes: at each of his four participations the quick German finished on the podium. The fifth former winner in the Audi camp is Peter Kox, who won in Spa on his first attempt... in 1995.
But Kox is not even the oldest of winners driving in the 2016 edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa. That honour goes to Bernd Schneider, who crossed the line in first position in 1989. 24 years later the German added a second Spa win to his tally and just like Schneider - at the wheel of the #.00 AMG-Team Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG - his 2013 team-mates are again driving a car with a three-pointed star this year. Maxi Götz makes his return to the Blancpain GT Series at the wheel of the #86 AMG-Team HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG, while Maxi Buhk shares the #84 AMG-Team HTP Motorsport car with his usual co-drivers Dominik Baumann and Jazeman Jaafar. For that trio, a good result in Spa would be crucial to their title ambitions as well.
Which brings us to the teams that do not have a former winner in their ranks, but have a good chance in changing that during the last weekend of July. The leader in the team standings, Garage 59 is bringing a third McLaren 650S to Spa - among the drivers is 22-year-old 2016 Daytona 24 hours and Sebring 12 hours winner Pipo Derani - in order to improve their chances in scoring a first Spa win for the British brand.
The same goes for Bentley. Its history in Spa dates back to the 1930s, but a win was never on the books. With Belgian specialists Maxime Soulet and Wolfgang Reip now among the ranks of the Bentley Boys, Team M-Sport has repeatedly shown that it is capable of winning endurance races. Remember that only cruel luck at the last pitstop prevented them from claiming victory at the previous round of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup at Le Castellet.
Nissan has won in Spa before, with the legendary Skyline in 1991, and with former Blancpain Endurance Series champions Lucas Ordonez and Alex Buncombe sharing the #23 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R with former Japanese F3 champion Mitsunori Takaboshi a repeat of that historic win might well be within the realms of possibility.
In short, all nine manufacturers have at least one candidate - most have several - for the win in the Total 24 Hours of Spa and not even a whole truckload of crystal balls could help in predicting the outcome of this year's edition of the Belgian endurance classic.
Pro-Am: who will stop Broniszewski?
The Pro-Am Cup looks like another story. Polish driver Michal Broniszewski has been dominating the category since the start of the season and with his various team-mates the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari driver has claimed five wins out of six races. 'Broni' won the three Sprint Cup events and claimed top spot in the endurance races in Monza and Circuit Paul Ricard as well. Only in Silverstone did he not finish on the podium, when he was eighth. In the standings, Broniszewski now has an 88-point advantage over his nearest real competitors Morgan Moullin Traffort and Jean-Luc Beaubelique - Giacomo Piccini is 62 behind, but shares the car with Broniszewski - so the Polish Ferrari-driver only needs a handful of points in Spa to be certain of the 2016 Pro-Am Cup win.
But do not think that Broniszewski is the only candidate for the Pro-Am win in Spa. With 26 cars at the start, quite a few teams have added experienced and talented drivers to their regular line-up. Do not be surprised then if one of those Pro-Am cars is among the overall frontrunners during the early hours of the race and keep an eye out on them during Friday evening's Superpole as well.
Am Cup: Lémeret against all, all against Lémeret?
In the Am Cup standings the drivers competing in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup are matching the performances of those only driving in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. But all that could change in Spa. Stéphane Lémeret - one of the drivers of the Pro-Am Cup winning Ferrari last year - has already taken three wins in the Sprint Cup and is now adding some endurance rounds to his calendar as well. In the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000, the Belgian looked set for a great result with the #49 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari, but mechanical problems meant retirement. If Lémeret - sharing the car with Moiseev, Rizzo and Aguas in Spa - is able to score significant points in his home race, the Belgian looks set for the Am Cup title. Not that it will be easy to beat the competition in the Am Cup at Spa. There are four other Prancing Horses at the start and the Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini teams will do their utmost to make their lives difficult.
Intercontinental GT Challenge adds even more spice
As if the quest for the win in the Total 24 Hours of Spa or gaining important points towards the Blancpain GT Series titles was not enough, the Intercontinental GT Challenge adds even more spice to the Total 24 Hours of Spa, the second round of the inaugural season of the global GT competition. Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hours winners McLaren (3 cars) will defend their lead against Audi (3), Bentley (2) and Mercedes (4). Leading the driver standings, Shane Van Gisbergen is the only driver of the Bathurst winning McLaren who will be at the start in Spa. Of the Bentley that finished second in Australia Steven Kane and Guy Smith are driving in Spa as well and the best Audi-representatives are Laurens Vanthoor and Markus Winkelhock, who finished on the third podium step in Bathurst.
As you can see, there is plenty to look forward to in the 68th edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa. And you don't have to miss a single moment, for from Qualifying over Superpole to the whole of the 24-hour race, everything will be streamed live and absolutely free on the official website.
Useful information - Total 24 Hours of Spa
When: 26th – 31st July 2016
Tickets : from 15 €
General Entrance : 30 € (includes free entrance on Thursday and Friday)
General Entrance + paddock : 60 €
Children aged 12 or under, accompanied by an adult, enter for free
Sales on: www.24hoursofspa and www.ticketmaster.be
Tuesday July 26th
Bronze test 14:55 – 17:55
Wednesday July 27th
Parade Spa 16:00
Autograph session 17:00-18 :00
Thursday July 28th
Free Practice 13:20-14:50
Night Qualifying 21:45-23:45
Friday July 29th
Super Pole 18:00-18:30
Saturday July 30th
Warm Up 09:05-09:25
Starting procedure & Grid walk 15:40-16:30
Start of the Total 24 hours of Spa 16:30
Information & reservation : www.24hoursofspa.com / www.blancpain-gt-series.com
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Blancpain - Innovation is our Tradition
Founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, the watch brand bearing his name is the oldest in the world. Blancpain is currently engaged to the renewal of mechanical watchmaking and to passing on exceptional expertise from one generation to the next through constant investment in human resources, production facilities and research. This approach is its strength and the expression of our long-term vision, even though it goes against the tide of a certain tendency to seek immediate profit.
From the creation of components through to watch design, Blancpain is distinguished by its ability to develop exceptional movements. Over the past ten years, the Manufacture has indeed developed no less than 35 new calibres.
Through its various models, Blancpain preserves its heritage of precision and elegance, while also displaying an innovative and occasionally provocative spirit.
Its range encompasses the sportive L-evolution line, the legendary Fifty Fathoms diver’s watch, as well as the classic Villeret collection, the high complication from Le Brassus collection and the Women models.
Pirelli – Official Tyre Supplier
Pirelli is a tyre manufacturer and world leader in the automotive industry. It has an exclusive relationship with over 50 racing series worldwide, including Formula One.
Pirelli has a long and illustrious history in endurance racing, and has also claimed a huge variety of class wins in GT racing all over the world. The design of the new Pirelli GT tyres meets the needs of GT racing while maintaining the performance characteristics that endurance drivers have appreciated in the past.The slick tyres used for GT racing are branded Zero: just like the slicks that have become a central feature of Formula One.
The name P Zero is used in the highest categories of motorsport such as GT racing.
Total - Official Sponsor of the Total 24 Hours of Spa
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Wherever it is available, energy is helping to drive progress, but sustainability requires changes in the way that it is used and managed. This is the environment in which we conduct our business.
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Our nearly 99,000 employees leverage their globally acknowledged expertise so that together they can discover, produce, refine and distribute oil and gas to provide products and services for customers worldwide.
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SRO Motorsports Group - The architect of modern GT Racing
SRO Motorsports Group was founded by Stephane Ratel and has specialised in the promotion, support and organisation of many national and international motorsport series since 1995.
In 2016, SRO Motorsports Group promotes several championships and series, such as the Blancpain
GT Series, including the iconic Total 24 hours of Spa, the British GT Championship, the Blancpain Sports Club with the Blancpain GT Sports Club and the Blancpain Ultracar Sports Club, the Competition 102 GT4 European Series and the Intercontinental GT Challenge.
SRO Motorsports Group runs also the SRO Race Centre by MMC - a high-level technical centre at the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France - and Curbstone, that provides ultimate track driving opportunities on world renowned race circuits in Western Europe for supercar owners, as well as test driving facilities for race car drivers.
SRO has offices in London, Paris and Liège.