24 Hours of Spa - the greatest endurance race for GT cars
The 24 Hours of Spa is one of the oldest and greatest endurance races in the world, taking place at the famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps since 1924. The race is currently a part of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup (since 2011).
Through the history, the race was the non-championship event or it counted for different championships such were FIA GT Championship, European Touring Car Championship, World Touring Car Championship or World Sportscar Championship. Until 2000, the race was reserved for touring cars, since then it’s the world’s greatest endurance race for GT cars exclusively.
In 1924, a year after the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans took place in neighboring France, Jules de Their and Henri Langlois van Ophem from the Royal Automobile Club Belgium (RACB) conceived the 24-hour race on the 15-km public road circuit between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. The circuit hosted its first event two years earlier. Over the years, the 24-hour race became one of the several major events at Spa-Francorchamps circuit, together with Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix (since 1925) and 1000 km of Spa (since 1953).
The first Le Mans winners were successful also at Spa
The first ever winners of the 24 Hours of Spa were Frenchmen Henri Springuel and Maurice Becquet in a Bignan 2-litre car. A year later, in 1925, Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard won the race in a Chenard-Walcker 3-litre car. Two years earlier, Lagache and Leonard earned their place in a history of motorsport as the first ever winners of 24h Le Mans.
Attilio Marinoni was the first three-time winner
An Italian Attilio Marinoni became the driver with multiple wins at 24h Spa. He was working as a mechanic for Alfa Romeo and served as a co-driver in three consecutive wins for Alfa between 1928 and 1930 with different versions of Alfa Romeo 6C. In 1928, the driver was Boris Ivanowski, a year later Robert Benoist was driving and then in 1930 Pietro Ghersi was a victorious driver.
Seven victories for Alfa Romeo
In 1931, Mercedes-Benz SSK was a victorious car, interrupting the winning streak of the Italian brand. Alfa Romeo captured four more wins between 1932 and 1938, becoming the most decorated marque at Spa for many years.
There were no races during the World War II. In 1948, the first post-war winners were St John Horsfall and Leslie Johnson in an Aston Martin 2-Litre Sports. In 1949, Luigi Chinetti scored his second win in a Ferrari 166MM, sixteen years after his first win in 1933 with Alfa Romeo 8C 2300LM.
24-hour race as a part of the World Sportscar Championship
Between 1950 and 1963, no 24-hour races were held except one. It was the 1953 edition which was a part of the FIA World Sportscar Championship. The race took part on July 25-26, with forty cars running at the circuit which was shortened to 14.1 kilometers.
European Touring Car Championship at Spa since 1966
The 14-km circuit had been used when the race was revived in 1964, with Belgians Robert Crevits and Gustave Gosselin as the winners in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SE. Two years later, the race became a part of the European Touring Car Championship and it remained in that status, with some exceptions, until 1988.
The first ETCC winners were Hubert Hahne and Jacky Ickx in a BMW 2002ti. In the following years, victorious cars were Porsche 911, Ford Capri RS, different BMWs (2800 CS, 3.0 CSL, 530i). Some of the notable winners were Toine Hezemans, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Pierre Dieudonne, Jean-Claude Andruet, Gordon Spice or Teddy Pilette.
Racing on the 7-km track since 1979
In 1979, the current 7-kilometer race track was introduced. Jean-Michel Martin and Philippe Martin won the race, called a Trophee de’l Avenir, for two years in a row with Ford Capri III 3.0S. In 1981, the race was a part of the World Endurance Championship, with Tom Walkinshaw and Pierre Dieudonne as the winners in a Mazda RX-7.
Between 1982 and 1988, the race was a part of the European Touring Car Championship again, with exception of 1987, when the race counted for the World Touring Car Championship. In those seven editions, multiple winners were Hans Heyer, Armin Hahne, Roberto Ravaglia, Dieter Quester and Altfrid Heger. BMWs dominated the race with six wins, Jaguar XJS was the winning car once.
The race was reserved for touring cars until 2000
Between 1989 and 2000, the 24 Hours of Spa was the greatest touring car endurance race but without championship status. In that period, BMW continued to be the most successful brand, with seven wins. Other victorious cars were Ford Sierra RS500, Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R, Porsche 911 RSR and Peugeot 306 GTI.
In 1993, the race was stopped after 15 hours because of the death of the Belgian King Baudouin. Uwe Alzen, Christian Fittipaldi and Jean-Pierre Jarier were pronounced winners in a Porsche 911 RSR. The last ever touring car winners were Didier Defourny, Frederic Bouvy and Kurt Mollekens, who won the 2000 edition of the race with Peugeot 306 GTI.
FIA GT Championship from 2001 to 2009
In 2001, the 24 Hours of Spa became a part of the FIA GT Championship and the only endurance races on the 11-race calendar. The first ever GT winners were Marc Duez, Christophe Bouchut and Jean-Philippe Belloc in the #7 Larbre Competition Chrysler Viper GTS-R. Larbre Competition’s Chrysler Viper repeated a win in 2002.
In the following FIA GT seasons, race winning cars were Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello, Maserati MC12 and Chevrolet Corvette C6.R. Following the break-up of the FIA GT Championship, the 2010 race was a part of the FIA GT2 European Cup. BMS Scuderia Italia’s Porsche 997 GT3 RSR won the race.
Part of the Blancpain Endurance Series since 2011
In 2011, the Blancpain Endurance Series was formed and the 24 Hours of Spa became the highlight of the five-event competition. Audi Sport Team WRT’s Timo Scheider, Mattias Ekstrom and Greg Franchi in an Audi R8 LMS took the inaugural BES victory.
In the following years, Audi triumphed two more times (2012, 2014), Mercedes-Benz won the race in 2013 and BMW took the victory in 2015 and 2016 with two different cars (Z4 GT3 and M6 GT3). With those two wins, BMW increased the number of Spa 24h wins to 22, confirming its status of the most successful manufacturer.
Eric van de Poele is the record holder with five wins
Among drivers, Belgian Eric van de Poele is the record holder with five overall wins at 24 Hours of Spa. His first win came in the 1987 WTCC race with a BMW M3 he was sharing with Jean-Michel Martin and Didier Theys. He waited eleven years for the next win. In 1998, Van de Poele was sharing a BMW 318i with Marc Duez and Alain Cudini.
After seven more years of waiting, Eric van de Poele scored two wins in a row driving Vitaphone Racing’s Maserati MC12 in 2005 and 2006. His co-driver was Michael Bartels in both races, with Timo Scheider joining them in 2005 and Andrea Bertolini as the third driver in 2006. Maserati MC12 was a victorious car again in 2008, with Eric van de Poele, Michael Bartels, Andrea Bertolini and Stephane Sarrazin as drivers.