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Raising the benchmark: 10 editions of GT3 racing at the Total 24 Hours of Spa

9 December 2020

This year's running of the Total 24 Hours of Spa is in the history books. The latest chapter took a little longer than expected to write, but once cars were on-track the contest was as fascinating as ever. 

This marked the 20th edition since GT rules were adopted in 2001, a move widely credited with restoring the event to its former glory. For the second half of this period Spa has been a GT3 race, attracting the best in the world to compete at one of the sport's most iconic tracks and, in a normal year, bringing tens of thousands of spectators to the circuit.

GT3 cars were already an established part of the 24 Hours before 2011, but their promotion to premier class status transformed a supporting character into the star of the show. There was a small GT4 contingent in 2011, while the GT Cup and Groupe National classes have sometimes added single-make cars to the grid, but we can nevertheless speak of this as Spa's GT3 era.  

Of the themes to emerge during this period, perhaps the most striking is the dominance of four German manufacturers. During the previous decade (2001-2010) we saw four wins apiece for American and Italian brands, while Germany accounted for two victories thanks to Porsche; British brands were also on the podium, courtesy of Lister (2002) and Aston Martin (2006 & 2008).  

The move to GT3 regulations has shifted the balance of power dramatically. Not only has a German brand won each of the past 10 editions, they have also locked out the podium on nine occasions. The sole exception came in 2017 when the #8 M-Sport Bentley took second place, sandwiched between an Audi and a Mercedes-AMG.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the mighty Italian marques have not registered a single top-three finish during the past decade. But a final result never tells the whole story, and the 2020 race was a good example of this: the #51 AF Corse Ferrari led the most laps across the race, while the #63 Orange1 FFF Lamborghini had emerged as the favourite for victory when it crashed heavily at Raidillon.

Of course, we must give the German heavyweights their due. Audi has amassed four wins in the past decade (2011, 2012, 2014 & 2017), followed by BMW with three (2015, 2016 & 2018). Porsche's recent triumph made it back-to-back victories for the Stuttgart marque (2019 & 2020), while Mercedes-AMG won in 2013. 

Porsche and Audi are therefore level with four wins across the entire GT era, making them the most successful brands of the past 20 years. But if we zoom out further, the picture becomes rather better for BMW. A trio of victories during the GT years, added to the incredible haul of 21 that the Bavarian marque took prior to 2001, produces an astonishing 24 overall wins in the Ardennes. Porsche's all-time total of eight is next best.

While four brands have won overall, a total of 16 have tried their luck during the GT3 era. Seven of these have been present at each edition: Italian marques Ferrari and Lamborghini, the mighty German quartet of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche and British brand Aston Martin. McLaren machinery has been absent just once (in 2019), while Bentley has been ever-present since 2014. 

More recently, Japanese firms Honda and Lexus have become established participants, competing in the past three editions of the race, while Nissan was a fan favourite between 2012 and 2019. There was also great affection for Emil Frey Racing's GT3-spec Jaguar XKR, which ran in 2012 and from 2014-2018. A trio of American brands were also involved at the start of the GT3 years: both Ford and Dodge were represented in 2011 and 2012, while a lone Chevrolet Corvette was on the grid in 2011.

Among the teams, two have emerged as the stars of the past decade. Belgian Audi Club Team WRT finished on the podium each year between 2011 and 2016, claiming victory in 2011 and 2014. The squad has not been back among the top-three since, but you can always guarantee that a WRT car will be in the mix come race day. 

The other is ROWE Racing. The German squad took victory with BMW in 2016 and won the most recent edition with Porsche, becoming the only team to triumph with different brands during the GT era. ROWE was also runner-up in 2017 and 2018, cementing its status as an endurance racing heavyweight.  

Another key theme of the GT3 era has been record breaking. Indeed, the most recent edition established two new benchmarks. Firstly, the fastest race lap in GT3 machinery was set by Marco Mapelli (Orange1 FFF Lamborghini), whose 2m18.146s was more than half a second quicker than Nicky Catsburg's previous best.

More impressive still was the number of cars that finished on the lead lap. Over the past three editions the average had been five, but this year's race saw no fewer than eight cars take the chequered flag on the same lap to set a new all-time record. The rate of change has been dramatic: in 2011 the triumphant WRT Audi won by two laps, while the car that finished in eighth came home 18 laps behind.  

Entry lists have grown too, with a record 72 cars on the grid in 2019. There were 13 different brands represented in 2018, which also saw a record 76 percent of the field classified at the chequered flag. The closest finish of the past 20 years came in 2019, when 3.347s separated the two leading Porsches, though this was aided by a very late safety car. This year's gap of 4.687s, with no safety car in the final half-hour, is arguably more authentic.

The number of drivers that have contested the 24 Hours over the past decade is enormous, but just two names have appeared on the entry list at each of the past 10 editions: Maxime Martin and Louis Machiels. The son of race legend Jean-Michel Martin, Maxime debuted in 2006 and has been ever-present since 2008, winning as a BMW factory driver in 2016 and representing Aston Martin since 2018.

Machiels has not missed an edition since 2009 and has driven a Ferrari for the past 10 years, winning the Pro-Am class in 2012 and 2014 with the crack AF Corse squad. It seems appropriate that the two ever-presents of the GT3 era are Belgian drivers with winning pedigree at the 24 Hours. 

Another home favourite to enjoy significant success at Spa is Laurens Vanthoor, who clinched victory this year to become the fourth two-time winner of the past decade. The others are Markus Winkelhock, Rene Rast and Philipp Eng. Unlike that trio, Vanthoor won with two different brands: Audi in 2014 and Porsche this year.

A total of 26 drivers have triumphed since GT3 became the top tier. Remarkably, 2013 winner Bernd Schneider had previously conquered the 24 Hours in 1989, when the event ran to touring car rules. To put this into context, Schneider shared the winning HTP Motorsport Mercedes with Maxi Buhk, who was born in 1992! This also meant that 20-year-old Buhk became the race's youngest overall winner.

We’ve seen a simplified class structure emerge during the past decade. Throughout this period Pro-Am has been a staple of the event and was the biggest category from 2011 through 2015. The Am Cup (known as the Gentleman Trophy between 2011 and 2014) has also been ever-present, while the Silver Cup was introduced in 2018.  

Two teams stand out as being particularly strong among the class contenders. Ferrari squad AF Corse has collected five wins – once in Am and four more in Pro-Am – during the GT3 era. The squad also holds the best finish for a 'class car' during this period, taking a superb fourth overall in 2015. 

More recently, Barwell Motorsport has emerged as a Spa specialist with its pair of Lamborghini entries. The past three editions have seen the British squad take three wins in as many classes, securing Am Cup honours in 2018 and following it up with the Silver Cup in 2019 and Pro-Am this year.  

During this run, two drivers have achieved a pair of class wins for Barwell: Leo Machitski (Am Cup in 2018, Pro-Am in 2020) and Sandy Mitchell (Silver Cup in 2019, Pro-Am in 2020). They are not alone, with eight others having bagged multiple class wins during the past decade. Marco Zanuttini and Niki Cadei took back-to-back Am Cup wins with Kessel Racing in 2016-2017. For the latter they were joined by David Perel, who added a Pro-Am win with Rinaldi Racing in 2018.  

Jean-Luc Beaubelique won Pro-Am in 2011 and Am in 2013, while Stéphane Lémeret took the same Classes in 2015 and 2020. The AF Corse trio of Niek Hommerson, Louis Machiels and Andrea Bertolini were Pro-Am winners in 2012 and 2014, while Bertolini was also a two-time overall winner during the GT1 years. Maxi Götz has also won overall and in a class, triumphing alongside Schneider and Buhk in 2013 before taking Pro-Am in 2017.

GT3 has been crucial to the success of the Total 24 Hours and there is no question that GT racing will continue in the Ardennes for years to come. Could GT3 remain the premier class for another decade? In such a fast-moving sport, it really is impossible to guess. What we can say for sure is that the current ruleset has produced huge grids and epic racing. However long it lasts, this will always be remembered as a vintage period.