Spa Classic

Friday 24th May – Sunday 26th May 2013 – Spa Francorchamps Circuit, Belgium

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Race Report – Mark Howson

Mercedes takes the Win, But The Spices Sparkle

Spa Classic, late-May 2012: Sunshine, warm temperatures, dry running.
Spa Classic, late-May 2013: Rain, snow (yes, snow), fog, bitter cold.

Although the Classic festival at the Ardennes took place on the same weekend as the previous year, conditions could not have been more different for the Group C runners gathered ahead of the first hour-long race of the season; and, as things would turn out, there would be a very different pattern to the race, even if the results sheets would suggest ‘business as usual’.

With this being a three-day event, 150 minutes of track time had been allocated to the series, with Friday seeing the first 45-minute qualifying session, Saturday the second, and Sunday the race.  But the sight of a scattering of snow on the paddock floor at the start of session indicated just how cold it was in the hills on the Belgium/Germany border; a fact Pierre-Alain France discovered in painful fashion as his #45 Porsche 962C went off on cold tyres and hit the barriers just six minutes into the session. The damage sustained was severe enough for the car to be withdrawn from the meeting, but happily the driver was uninjured.

The loss of the 962 was particularly regrettable following the non-appearance of two other regular and popular Porsches; Christophe D’Ansembourg unable to race the #17 Jägermeister car due to its engine not being ready, and Henrik Lindberg having to reluctantly withdraw his #33 Tic Tac 962 at the last moment due to unforeseen circumstances. But that still left us with three 962s – Tommy Dreelan’s #14 Leyton House Porsche, the #51 Kenwood car of Stéphane Verbeeck and Hervé Regout, and the #53 962 of Jean-Marc Merlin – and Pierre-Alain was the only casualty of the day.

After missing Donington with food poisoning, a fully-recovered Bob Berridge was back in his driver overalls for this race and would again be sharing the so-far-undefeated #31 Mercedes C11 with Gareth Evans; and he announced his return to the track with a 2:09.816 – the quickest lap of the day and a time that would ultimately secure pole for the Silver Arrows.

Second quickest on Friday was the #20 Spice SE90C of father/son combo Peter and Andy Meyrick – Andy setting the 2:11.376 – while third fastest was the first of the C2 runners; not the #111 Spice SE88 of Mike Donovan, but the #107 SE88C of Thomas Dozin and Eric Jamar, with the latter of the two setting the 2:16.844.

Donovan was fourth overall, just under half a second further back, while Regout was fifth (third in C1) in the #51 Porsche and Paul Stubber – fresh from a Nürburgring 24 Hours that had itself had more than its fair share of grim weather – sixth in the #21 Veskanda.

Adrian Watt wheeled out his #15 C1 ‘Applebee’s’ Spice SE89 for the first time since it retired with engine failure at Barcelona, but it could only manage a single lap as starter motor issues ended its session early.  The second session on Saturday would be much more encouraging, however; the car claiming sixth on the grid with a 2:18.196 before ignition problems (diagnosed as the main HT King lead burning out on the exhaust manifold) intervened after 25 minutes.

Kent Abrahamsson had brought along his newly-acquired Jaguar XJR 8/9, as well as his usual Nissan R90CK, and drove the British car during Friday’s session. A 2:37 was his best lap in Q1, but when he subsequently managed a 2:21 in Q2 in the Nissan, he opted for the Japanese machine for the race.

Conditions were much improved for the second qualifying session, with no rain and sunny skies. But it was still cold, with a reported high of 11°C (the highest temperature of the three days, incidentally), and with Adrian Watt reporting that the overnight temperatures had fallen so far that three continental quilts had not been enough to keep him warm as he slept in the back of his truck.

For the first time this season, the official timing sheet for a Group C session did not have the words ‘31 G. EVANS / B. BERRIDGE’ in P1. Instead, it was the Meyrick/Meyrick Spice which held that slot, with a 2:12.052 bettering the Mercedes by just under two-tenths. Mike Donovan hit back at the Dozin/Jamar Spice by going third overall and first in C2 with a 2:15.690 in the Rexona Spice, but the two cars would share the second row on the grid.

Despite Watt’s Spice being quicker in Q2, Hervé Regout’s first session time was enough to secure fifth on the grid for the #51 Porsche by just under a tenth of a second from the British driver, while Paul Stubber and Kent Abrahamsson would share the fourth row.

Tommy Dreelan improved from a 2:27 on Friday to a 2:22 on Saturday as he got used to Spa in a 962 (“I would have been down to 2:17 on Sunday, if we’d had another session!” he joked), and he was joined on the fifth row by the Cheetah of Eric Rickenbacher.

Jean-Marc Merlin beat the #3 Jaguar XJR16 of Richard Eyre to 11th on the grid in his orange Porsche, while  the #22 Spice SE89C of Claus Bjerglund shared the seventh row with the #116 C2 Spice SE89 of Pierre-François Rousselot, who hadn’t enjoyed the best of luck over the weekend.

“On Friday the car was beautiful but the driver was not – I was very ill; out of order – while on Saturday the driver felt much better, but the engine don’t want to say a single word during 14 hours of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!”

With Pierre-Alain France not making the race, Dan Brockdorff rounded out the grid in his #117 Argo JM19C.

The weather changed again for raceday, but not in a positive manner; rain persisting all day and fog threatening to shorten or even cancel the Group C race. Fortunately, visibility improved about an hour before the scheduled start and the teams hurried into action to prepare for the start. The rain didn’t improve, however, and it was very wet indeed as the grid formed up.

Adrian Watt’s Spice was late to the grid after needing last-minute work on the rear rain-light, and with the organisers in a hurry to keep the schedule on track the #15 SE89 found itself in eighth place rather than sixth as the pace car moved off.  Alas, Jean-Marc Merlin’s Porsche didn’t make it to the grid at all, with late issues stranding the car in the garage.

Gareth Evans led the field round the seven-kilometre circuit and was in the fortunate position of having a clear track ahead as the lights changed to start the race; those behind being immediately engulfed by the huge plumes of spray thrown up. However, this view lasted no more than a couple of seconds as Andy Meyrick darted ahead in the #20 Spice and took the lead before the cars reached La Source for the first time; and the Mercedes lost another place in the same breath as Eric Jamar followed through in the #107 C2 Spice.

Hervé Regout grabbed third shortly afterwards in the #51 Porsche and we suddenly had a most unexpected scenario emerging, with the C11 ending the first lap some 22 seconds off the lead in fourth.

And it wasn’t just the Mercedes that was struggling in the conditions – the C2 Spice of Mike Donovan was also falling back through the field, as first Paul Stubber went by in the Veskanda on Lap2, and then both Kent Abrahamsson’s Nissan and Richard Eyre’s Jaguar were ahead by the end of Lap 4.

Adrian Watt, meanwhile, had found himself back in tenth after one lap having been unable to see a thing in the #15 Spice; his task not helped by this being a new experience for him in the C1.

“It was the 1st time I had ever driven this car in the wet, so it took a little time to establish the available grip and scrub in the brand-new wets,” he explained. “Trying to tame approaching 700 horses is very interesting in the wet!”  And Tommy Dreelan was in a similar position in his Porsche 962, and a half-spin on Lap 2 dropped the #14 to 12th place. Both drivers quickly adapted, however, and would soon be making progress up the standings.

At the head of the field, Andy Meyrick was taking full advantage of a clear road to pull out an ever-growing lead, with the aim being to hand the car over to his father with a significant advantage.  Eric Jamar, meanwhile, was attempting to put as much distance between himself and the Porsche of Regout, even though he could do nothing about the car ahead.

Paul Stubber, though, was flying in the Veskanda. The Australian car had not raced at the Belgian circuit before (suspension issues in practice having prevented it from taking part in the 2012 Spa Classic) and it appeared to be revelling in the conditions; the #21 passing the C11 on Lap 4 and then beginning the task of closing down the 13-second deficit to the Kenwood Porsche.

Suspected electrical issues forced both the #22 Spice of Claus Bjerglund and the #28 Nissan of Kent Abrahamsson into the pits at around one-third race distance – neither to return, alas – but the rest of the field were really getting stuck in to one another.

The fight for second intensified with the Veskanda catching the Kenwood Porsche, which itself was catching the #107 Spice; while further back Adrian Watt caught and passed Mike Donovan for seventh overall.

On Lap 8, unfortunately, we lost the #107 Spice from second, with Jamar heading for the pits with a misfire; the car never returning and denying Thomas Dozin a drive. This left Stubber chasing Regout for second and the gap was coming down with every lap. By the time both cars headed for the pits on Lap 12 (the pit window being the 25th to the 35th minute) the gap had reduced to a mere 1.5s. But there was to be no continuation of this battle, as clutch failure brought an early end to the Veskanda’s race. Paul Stubber was understandably “Gutted!” by this turn of events.

Andy Meyrick also stopped on Lap 12, to hand the leading Spice over to Peter, by which point he had built up a 63 second lead, and his father was able to resume in the lead. Things were looking good for the first non-Mercedes win of the season. However, having completed just one lap in the hands of its new driver, the #20 failed to emerge at the end of Lap 15, having fallen by the wayside with a lack of drive.

“We don’t know what the problem is exactly, but it’s somewhere in the drivetrain; probably a CV joint or a driveshaft that’s failed,” said Andy. “It’s disappointing, but the car was brilliant. It’s only done 126 miles since its rebuild after we bought it and it was a relief to be able to race it at last.

“We were giving up loads to the Mercedes in a straight line, but in Sector 2 the car was mega. This was the first time we’d driven it in the wet as well, and we didn’t know if the set-up would work in the rain – I was thinking ‘H-pattern box, 600bhp, no traction control, and it’s raining! Hmmm!’ – but the car just felt great.

“These are proper cars, no mistake. I’d say we are doing LMP2 pace around here, and that’s not bad when you consider these cars are basically a quarter of a century old!”

Instead of the Spice, the first car to trip the timing beam at the end of that lap was…the #31 Mercedes C11! Despite having fallen as low as fifth, the silver car had kept pushing on and gained position as others faltered. Just as importantly, though, the team had executed the driver change from Gareth Evans to Bob Berridge some 26 seconds quicker than the handover from Hervé Regout to Stephane Verbeeck had taken in the #51 Porsche.

And with the Mercedes’ stop having taken place two laps earlier, Berridge was up to speed by the time Verbeeck rejoined and pretty much the first thing the Belgian driver saw were two very bright German headlights in his rear-view mirror; the pass coming at around the same time as the Meyrick car was making its exit.

Eric Rickenbacher had made his stop in the #60 Cheetah on Lap 8, a full 80 seconds before the pitstop window opened. Such an error would inevitably lead to a rather hefty penalty – most likely a stop/go or post-race time penalty of the same order – but electrical problems intervened before any notice came through and the Swiss car also retired on Lap 15.

Despite Watt’s Spice being quicker in Q2, Hervé Regout’s first session time was enough to secure fifth on the grid for the #51 Porsche by just under a tenth of a second from the British driver, while Paul Stubber and Kent Abrahamsson would share the fourth row.

A response from Verbeeck to the much quicker and hugely more experienced Berridge was unlikely, and so it proved; the Mercedes romping home to its fourth consecutive win of the season by a margin of 42.940 seconds.

But it was not the #51 Porsche that claimed second place; that honour instead going to a delighted but very surprised Adrian Watt in the #15 Spice.

“I was really determined to get a finish more than anything else, so I wasn’t really concerned with our position,” he said. “So I was completely amazed when my team told me I had second place right at the end of the race; and that the Porsche 962 I had just passed was third!

“It’s been a fantastic weekend at this amazing circuit racing these fabulous group C cars. I won a VW Funcup race on my very first visit here more than ten years ago, but the place hasn’t been kind to me since then, until now! And actually the weather was, if anything, a bit better than we could have expected given the earlier forecast.”

Despite dropping to third, there was much for Stéphane Verbeeck to be proud of as he brought home the powerful 962 to a podium finish – in dreadful conditions, let’s not forget – in only his second ever Group C race.

Mike Donovan took the C2 crown for the third time this season, fourth overall, after a race in which he hadn’t really featured for one reason or another. But he had kept the car on the road and stayed there to the end and that it is without exception a fundamental element of winning.

But Pierre-François Rousselot was very happy with his second place in C2 after a trying weekend; “After our problems in qualifying, I’m glad to say the car and the driver were both well and at least everything went okay,” he began. “In fact, I was very worried about just bringing home my Spice in the cold and wet and, in response, I was sleeping deeply in the car all the way until the last lap; then I saw the Donovan Spice in my mirrors. That was the ‘big wake-up’ of the weekend – there was no way I was going to be lapped by him!

“I see Mike did a best lap in the race of 2:51.589 and I held him off on that last lap with a 2:53.168; which, in front of the ‘C2 King’, at Spa and on a full wet track, wasn’t so bad!”

Tommy Dreelan separated the two C2 cars in fifth place at the close in the #14 Porsche, having thoroughly enjoyed himself on the Belgian track, while Richard Eyre was the last classified finished  in seventh in the #3 Jaguar, having been unfortunate to lose some four minutes with an issue at the pitstop.

The next stop on the Group C Racing calendar is just across the border in Germany in mid-June at the Nürburgring, where a one-hour race on the GP circuit awaits; hopefully, with markedly improved weather conditions.