Racing – FIA GT Championship – Spa 24 Hours –
“This One Is Not Coming Easily” – But A Whole
Lot Was Right
24 Hours of Spa presented by far the biggest racing challenge yet
for the still young Embassy Racing team. The swelling pride of the
crew was there for all to see as the team lined up the #55 Porsche
at Spa alongside the cream of Europe’s GT teams, fielding
Aston Martins, Maseratis, Ferraris, Chevrolets and of course lots
and lots of Porsches.
was looking to add to its podium at the Silverstone round of the
FIA GT Championship with more silverware from the same championship
here. The team had added the well known driving abilities of Porsche
factory star Sascha Maassen to the regular driving squad of Ben
Collins and Neil Cunningham, in order to increase its chances of
initial reaction - “I knew some of the guys already of course,
but despite that I came to race with them anyway!” - showed
he had not only the talent but also the sense of humour required
to make the relationship tick.
The talent was
there in abundance, both behind the wheel and in the garage, but
with 24 hours of hard racing at one of the world’s most demanding
circuits, one other vital ingredient would be required – racing
omens from the early part of the meeting were not good. The first
qualifying session saw #55 well in touch with the lead GT2 group,
despite being fitted with an engine that had already seen well over
30 hours worth of racing running. The plan was to change it for
a fresh unit, fully rebuilt by the Porsche factory, in time to use
the last qualifying session to establish the optimum race set-up.
Good plan, but it seems someone up there decided that a team in
its debut 24 hour race wasn’t going to have it easy!
“The engine had just come back from a full rebuild at the
factory and I guess it was just unlucky that a brand new part (a
crank trigger) was faulty. It cost us the session (yesterday): the
Porsche engineers managed to trace the fault, but we only managed
to get the car fired up just as the session was coming to an end.”
It was a blow,
but far from fatal. Race morning warm-up would see Sascha Maassen
out for a brief, but valuable, 15 minutes in the Embassy Racing
Porsche, the team making up for at least a little of the lost time.
beckoned and Maassen had a clear view of the objective: “The
car is fast and we are well up with the leading group in our class.
Our goal is of course to finish the race and to finish it on the
podium.” Sounds easy when you say it doesn’t it?
4pm and the
pace car pulled off the circuit, but a heavy shower as the grid
formed up had wreaked havoc with the tyre choice.
to start on wets, which looked initially to be the correct choice,
but then cost them dearly as the cars which had risked taking intermediate
rubber started to get up to speed.
A change to
slicks as the track began to dry, a choice matched by some of the
most experienced teams in the race, proved to be the wrong call
- as rain began to fall again almost immediately. The first two
hours proved a real trial, with the wets / slicks sequence repeated
as the weather changed again and again.
Slicks on a
wet track is a lethal combination and the rapidly changing conditions
finally caught out Sascha Maassen, the car skipping wide into the
Blanchimont gravel, damaging the critical front splitter as it went.
The #55 car was soon a full lap astray of the lead GT2 car.
The crew effected
as good a fix as they could, but it would cost the team the cutting
edge from their pace for the remainder of the race.
was next aboard and he too had a brief moment in the gravel, after
an off on the still very greasy surface - definitely not his fault
A more substantial
delay though was caused by a broken half shaft – but despite
racking up delays, #55 was still running third in class, well in
the hunt for a podium: the other GT2 cars were almost all hitting
The second GruppeM
Porsche was in particular trouble after being caught up (and heavily
damaged) in somebody else’s accident.
was the next to hit dramas, the Porsche hit in the right rear corner
and requiring yet more tender loving care from the crew. This was
already looking like a tough race to finish, let alone to score
Back out and
running, and despite the by now obvious damage, the #55 car was
seemingly able to close effortlessly on most of the main class contenders.
That was until another impact from a GT1 car at the same rear corner:
this was becoming a cause of serious concern. The car pitted for
further attention but then rejoined once more, only to reappear
in the pitlane again shortly afterwards: there was clearly something
more seriously awry as the Dunlop tyre technician asked to examine
the right rear slick. A good call, the tyre was showing a clear
(and deep) groove, and the 911 GT3-RSR was pulled into the pit box
for some rapid, and now not so tender, loving care. Having fought
hard to get back into third in class, the position had now been
ceded to the #69 Proton Porsche, Ben Collins rejoining a lap down.
the last of the dramas either, the #55 car again falling foul of
another car’s misfortune, this time the #191 G2 Porsche of
“He spun in front of me, I went to avoid him but he released
the brakes and caught the rear of the car. We’ve done a rear
subframe, we’re fixing it but it’s another bloody long
way back! This one is NOT coming easily!”
Porsche finally rejoined with Neil still at the wheel, all hope
of a podium though seemed now gone, the repair costing the team
a full 17 laps to the Proton Porsche. That racing luck had clearly
gone elsewhere this weekend. There were tired faces lining the pit
garage, and team members grabbing some precious sleep where they
could, so shattered that even the cacophony of a GT car passing
by the door at full chat didn’t disturb them. It was perhaps
inevitable that somebody would mention the prospect of withdrawing
the car - only to be drowned out by the crew! “We’ve
not done this much graft just to park her,” said one bleary
eyed spannerman. Embassy Racing had learnt one of the cardinal rules
of 24 hour racing – you go for the win, or for a podium, but
most of all you go for the finish.
car was closing the gap again - still well out of reach, but with
#55 lapping steadily, there was still hope that those ahead could
was flying but the level of concentration you need to be on the
pace here, particularly at night, is enormous,” said Cunningham.
“I’ve been double stinting the Dunlops though and we’ve
really been surprising ourselves with the pace we’ve been
able to maintain.”
But the final
blow to the team’s podium hopes were about to be dealt, the
car pitting for a routine stop only to find the left rear wheel
jammed on and the mechanics trying everything, including bouncing
on the torque wrench, to fix it – it didn’t work, but
the team now owned a very bent torque wrench. Worse still, Stephane
Ortelli was closing all the time in the recovering #88 GruppeM Porsche,
and eventually made the pass with the Embassy car still stationary,
the repair taking just a lap too long - but in any case the GruppeM
911, despite its earlier woes, was by now in better shape than the
#55 car and was able to pull away.
It was time
to get into “get to the finish” mode. And whilst fifth
in class was a disappointment after the earlier highs, a finish
in any team’s first attempt at a 24 Hour race is no mean feat,
particularly if that race is as demanding as this one had proved
Last word goes
to Ben Collins who summed up the effort beautifully: “It’s
been a very tough race but the team has done a really fantastic
job. We’ve been very unlucky with niggly, time-consuming problems,
and particularly with having been hit at least twice in other people’s
accidents, on the same corner of the car. That’s caused the
guys no end of trouble, but they’ve fixed everything that
we’ve thrown at them.
first effort at a 24 hour race it’s been magnificent. The
car was great, the crew were outstanding, and the team hasn’t
just come here with a low key effort either, the equipment, the
hospitality and the whole package had been world class. Jonathan
has got a whole lot right.“