A staggering 72 cars will be on the grid for this year's Total 24 Hours of Spa, establishing a new record for the race's GT era. Almost half of them will compete in the top-tier Pro class, with 35 entrants gunning for overall honours at the annual endurance classic. Indeed, with a host of international stars and factory-backed efforts among them, we could very well be looking at the strongest field of the past two decades.
On one hand, this should ensure a hugely entertaining race on July 27-28; on the other, it makes picking a favourite for victory almost impossible. Indeed, with 10 different teams having won the past 10 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup races, there really is no way of predicting what will happen once the on-track battle gets underway on Saturday afternoon.
Nevertheless, we do have some clues as to where the winners’ trophy might be headed.
2019 RACE WINNERS IN IDEAL FORM
The natural starting point when looking at this year's contenders are the crews that have already shown winning form in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. Dinamic Motorsport gave Porsche its first victory in six years with a masterful wet weather display at Monza, while the SMP Racing Ferrari crew produced an assured drive through the field to capture overall honours at Silverstone. Then, at the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms, Bentley Team M-Sport produced a display of rare dominance to seal the win. With momentum on their side, all three brands are looking strong.
Porsche began the year with victory at the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour and has signed off on an ambitious Spa effort that features a raft of factory drivers, including past winners Romain Dumas (2003 & 2010) and Laurens Vanthoor (2014). Indeed, with six Pro cars, Porsche has as many bullets in the chamber as fierce rival Audi.
The SMP Ferrari crew currently top the Endurance Cup drivers' standings and will be joined in the Ardennes by additional efforts from AF Corse and Intercontinental GT Challenge squad HubAuto Corsa. The AF Corse line-up of James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Sam Bird comes with considerable pedigree, while HubAuto Corsa is on a roll having clinched victory at the California 8 Hours.
And then there is Bentley. The British marque celebrates it centenary this year and will take four factory-backed cars to Spa as it seeks to clinch its very first victory in the Ardennes. It will be tough, but there is no shortage of talent among its crews, including past race winners Jules Gounon (2017) and Markus Palttala (2015).
Success breeds success, so each of these brands should be considered strong contenders at Spa. Yet despite not winning yet in 2019, it is Lamborghini squad Orange1 FFF Racing that tops the Endurance Cup teams' standings ahead of the 24 Hours. Strong results for the Italian marque come as no surprise, though the form shown by the Chinese-run FFF outfit – a newcomer to the series this year – has been particularly impressive
They will launch a two-car attack this term, while Grasser Racing will add a third Huracan GT3 to the grid. That is a strong line-up by any brand's standards and it would be no surprise to see Lamborghini finally take its first Spa win this year.
Were this any other race, these four brands would be strong favourites to clinch victory on Sunday afternoon – but the form guide tends to go out the window at Spa. Indeed, this year’s grid is so deep that every brand launching a Pro class assault must be considered a contender.
THE GERMAN GT HEAVYWEIGHTS
It is now 10 years since Chevrolet captured Spa victory in 2009. The significance of this fact? It was the last time the winners' trophy went to a brand outside Germany. 2010 saw Porsche take its most recent win and kick off the German dominance. Since 2011 – the first year of the Blancpain GT Series – three brands have been in command: BMW, Audi and Mercedes-AMG.
Given the importance of experience, this trio must be considered very serious contenders for overall honours once again in 2019. Indeed, all three have sanctioned factory-backed efforts to ensure that they are fighting at the very front.
In particular, BMW machinery just seems to be in sync with Spa. The Bavarian marque has a record 24 overall wins, including three of the past four, and triumphed last year thanks to Walkenhorst Motorsport.
A pair of factory-backed entries will compete this season as part of BMW's assault on the Intercontinental GT Challenge. The Walkenhorst outfit is back to defend its win, while Team Schnitzer will contest the 24 Hours for the first time since the passing of its hugely successful and much-loved boss Charly Lamm. With this being the case, a Schnitzer-BMW victory would be a hugely emotional outcome – and it's a real possibility.
Audi is the most successful brand of the race's GT era with four wins and is always a leading contender for victory in the Ardennes. Indeed, the Ingolstadt marque has been represented on the overall podium every year since 2011 – an incredible feat in such a competitive era.
There's a good chance this run will continue in 2019, with three factory-backed cars ready to chase outright honours in the Ardennes. There are no fewer than five Total 24 Hours of Spa wins among them, with two each for Rene Rast (#1 Audi Sport Team WRT) and Markus Winkelhock (#25 Audi Sport Team Sainteloc) and one for Christopher Haase (#25 Audi Sport Team Sainteloc). In terms of winning know-how, no other brand can match this.
Mercedes-AMG enjoyed an enormously successful 2018 season, clinching titles in Intercontinental GT Challenge, the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup and the Sprint Cup. Its most recent Spa win came in 2013, since when it has been a regular podium finisher.
There will be five AMG GT3s among the Pro field this year. In particular, the #4 Black Falcon and #88 AKKA ASP crews are extremely strong, while the #999 GruppeM line-up features a pair of former race winners in Maxi Buhk and Maxi Goetz. With a new car coming for 2020, this will be a golden opportunity for the current-generation AMG GT3 to sign off in style.
All in all, this trio looks as strong as ever. Between them and the in-form Porsche, there is a good chance that the winners' trophy will be heading back to Germany once again this year.
EVERY BRAND IN CONTENTION
Three more brands will be represented in the Pro class at Spa. And, while they do not qualify as heavy favourites, there every chance that one of their cars will conquer the 24 Hours.
Indeed, an Aston Martin victory is quite conceivable. The brand has launched a new car this year and will arrive in the Ardennes with a trio of Vantage AMR GT3 machines, two of which will be run by R-Motorsport. The Swiss squad comes with an impressive driver line-up in both its #62 and #76 machines, with local superstar and 2016 race winner Maxime Martin among them. Martin bagged overall pole for last year's race and the 2019-spec Vantage has looked faster with each passing round.
The other Aston comes from brand newcomer Garage 59. There's no shortage of talent here either, both in the cockpit and behind the scenes. Between its two Pro squads, the British brand has realistic hope of a first Spa win since 1948.
A pair of Japanese marques complete the contenders for Pro class honours this term. Nissan is represented by a brace of cars as part of its Intercontinental GT Challenge programme. They will be run by Hong Kong squad KCMG, whose pedigree on the international stage places them among Asia's leading competitors. There is also plenty of driving talent, including 2015 Endurance Cup champion Katsumasa Chiyo in the #35 GT-R NISMO and the hugely experienced Oliver Jarvis in the #18 machine.
Last but by no means least, we arrive at Honda. Indeed, when it comes to machinery, there is huge fan interest in the new NSX GT3 Evo. The brand ran in the Pro-Am class last year, but for 2019 steps up to the top tier as part of its Intercontinental GT Challenge campaign. With a stellar driver line-up led by local favourite Bertrand Baguette, Honda's #30 machine looks strong. In fact, the brand's only real weakness against the competition is that it must rely on one car.
These are the contenders, but we are still no closer to working out who will clinch top honours at this year's race. As ever, the only solution is to follow the battle as it develops from 16.30 on Saturday. Perhaps by the time Sunday afternoon arrives a favourite will have emerged – but even then we may still be left guessing.