12 hours into the first touring car-exclusive endurance race at Spa-Francorchamps in close to two decades and the 500-lap event has not disappointed!
That AWESOME fight for the lead
Maybe – just maybe – someone should have mentioned to Pepe Oriola, Rory Penttinen, Charles Espenlaub, Vincent Radermecker AND Aurélien Comte that the TCR SPA 500 wasn’t a sprint race.
Maybe. But given the sensational five-way TCR battle for the lead that emerged during the opening 45 minutes, we certainly weren’t going to tell them!
‘First blood’ could well have gone to Espenlaub in the Vmax-Engineering Opel Astra TCR (#85) had the move around the outside of La Source on lap one paid off. Still, 4th to 2nd in the first corner was an impressive start, and the lead could well have gone to the American had it not been for a scintillating slipstream-assisted three-way pass into Les Combes by Penttinen in the GDL Team Australia Audi RS3 LMS (#9). A hare for the pack to chase, the Finn then spent the next six laps disappearing 3s up the road, until the track dried fully and the Audi started eating its tyres.
By lap six, Oriola in the Red Camel-Jordans.nl CUPRA TCR (#101) was crawling all over the back the leading Audi, Radermecker’s attempts in the AC Motorsport Audi RS3 LMS (#8) to get past Espenalub making them equally as big in the Spanish veteran’s rearview mirror. Ultimately Penttinen couldn’t sustain his electric early pace, and Oriola eventually squeezed his way past.
He’d be followed shortly afterwards first by Comte in the DG Sport Compétition Peugeot 308 TCR (#308), who’d already had a terrific scrap with Radermecker to work his way up from 5th, and then Espenlaub. Aping his earlier move at La Source, the American even attempted a stupendously brave move around the outside of Eau Rouge (!) before thinking better of it and making the pass into Les Combes for 3rd position. Radermecker swiftly followed suit.
The lead quartet, sans a grip-less Penttinen, continued to circulate, separated by no more than 1.5s lap after lap until, finally, the deadlock was broken by the first opening of pitstops.
“I’m definitely going to lose my voice if they keep this up,” exclaimed a delighted Joe Bradley for radiolemans.com, and few could argue with that. If fans were wondering what the TCR SPA 500 could offer on its maiden outing, Oriola, Penttinen, Espenlaub, Radermecker and Comte had delivered in spades.
The pace of Red Camel-Jordans.nl
This probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given that the #101 CUPRA TCR started on the front row of the grid, took outright TCE victory on its last visit to Spa-Francorchamps in April, and boasts a two-time World Touring Car Championship Independents’ Trophy winner (Tom Coronel), a multi-time TCR International Series race winner (Pepe Oriola) AND a two-time Daytona 24 Hours class winner (Rik Breukers) on its driver line-up this weekend.
Still, the pace of the orange CUPRA has been particularly impressive across the opening 12 hours. A combative opening stint for Oriola, during which he took the lead on lap seven, segued into an equally impressive first run for Coronel, a pacesetter despite having no previous seat time in the #101 TCR tin top (TV commitments in The Netherlands meant the Dutch WTCR and TCR Europe frontrunner missed yesterday’s official practice sessions). Throw in Rik Breuker’s typically metronomic pace, unusually solid reliability for the CUPRA, which has been prone to suspension issues this year, and some well-timed Code 60 caution periods, and Red Camel-Jordans.nl has proven tough to keep pace with. All this in spite of a last minute repair that cost the team 10 minutes of the 30-minute qualifying session.
Need any more proof? Of the 164 laps completed before quarter distance, the #101 had led all but eight of them.
TCR SPA 500 pole sitter ends it day early
The CUPRA that started alongside Red Camel-Jordans.nl on the front row, however, endured a dismal run at Spa.
Signs looked strong during qualifying that the NKPP Racing by Bas Koeten Racing CUPRA (#175) – dubbed ‘yellow peril’ thanks to its striking livery – would be the tin top to beat, Jaap van Lagen managing the difficult conditions perfectly to set a pole lap, at one point, 2.5s faster than any of his nearest rivals.
Even places lost at the start of the race went according to plan, Bas Koeten having elected Harry Hilders to take the opening stint, thus freeing PRO chargers van Lagen and Christiaan Frankenhout to regain time during the night. Indeed, the Dutch gentlemen driver offered robust defence into La Source at the green flag, but struggled to rebuff a two-way attack down the Kemmel Straight (see point one). Struggling with his tyres, Hilders soon found himself swallowed up by the midfield chasing pack too, and had already dropped to 13th on the road after the first hour.
Time that no doubt would have been made up. But on lap 27, the back-end of the aptly named ‘yellow peril’ overtook the front, and Hilders hit the tyre barrier hard on the exit of Raidillon. The Dutch driver fortunately emerged unscathed, but that was all she wrote for NKPP, less than two hours in.
Trouble strikes early podium contenders
CREVENTIC’s metaphorical Sword of Damacles – the fated ill-timed Code 60 caution period – struck once again during the opening half of the TCR SPA 500. Its first ‘victims’ were the DG Sport Compétition Peugeot 308 TCR (#308), which pitted early for front tyres while running comfortably in the top three, and GDL Team Australia (#9), which pitted twice under caution to brim its tanks only for the green flags to emerge while the Audi RS3 LMS was still in the refueling station. The pacesetter during the opening slick six laps, the Aussie tin top found itself at the tail of the field and with a lot of work to do.
Ditto the Peugeot, exceptional stints from 2017 TCR Europe champion Aurélien Comte and some solid pit work thereafter having brought the 308 from the cusp of the top 10 back into the fight for victory. A clean run albeit with extra time spent chasing a workable dry-weather setup means the GDL Audi had worked its way back into the top 10 come quarter distance.
In contrast, having timed its pit stops beautifully, Red Camel-Jordans.nl’s lead had ballooned from just 3s after one hour to almost a full minute after two.
Also feeling the pain was Vmax-Engineering (#85). Similarly poor luck during the opening two Code 60s, the only Opel Astra in the field once again found itself battling with the DG Sport Compétition Peugeot, though admittedly for 8th and 9th. Things came to a head just after the fifth hour when Steven Cho ground to a halt on the exit of Raidillon, the Opel’s four-cylinders having lost all drive. Close to four hours were spent on repairs.
AC Motorsport’s redemption?
One team notably under the spotlight this weekend has been AC Motorsport (#8). And not just because the Belgian team is competing on home turf, or has local legend – and Nürburgring lap record holder – Vincent Radermecker on driver detail alongside TCR UK promoter, Stewart Lines. Just over a month ago, regular gentleman driver Stéphane Perrin suffered injuries in an accident at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA, severe enough that many thought he would be absent at Spa.
This could not be further from the truth. Having hastened his recovery, Perrin has now completed his first stints in the Audi, Radermecker even demonstrating the Audi’s potential by keeping the four-ringed nose in the fight for the lead in the early going.
After a lengthier than expected pit stop, AC Motorsport has dropped to the fringes of the top five. Few fairy-tale stories though would be more meaningful than if the Belgian team, and Stephane Perrin, can its trials behind it, and finish on the podium.
Tough race so far for Bas Koeten Racing
The Dutch team probably couldn’t have predicted that, as its eponymous Audi RS3 LMS (#125) was being pushed off the grid during the formation lap, the floodgates had just creaked open.
Admittedly Bas Koeten Racing managed to re-fire the Audi on pit road, and though the RS3 was now plumb lost, it was still on the lead lap at least. Solid double stints from Erics Lo and Kwong even meant the #125 was running 7th as the third hour ticked by. Heading into the night stages though, Kwong was unceremoniously punted off-track by an overly ambitious move from Chris Allen in the Ferda Automotive Audi (more on that in a second). Cue an extended period in the garage for a good long look at the right rear wheel hub and repairs to a badly dented rear panel. Back out, and now running outside the top 10, the Audi lost even more time when it ground to halt on the exit of Raidillon 5.5hrs in.
With NKPP having already made a high profile exit from the race – “we’re not in the business of crashing” explained an understandably frustrated Bas Koeten to radiolemans.com’s Dianna Binks – it was now the turn of the TOPCAR Racing-branded CUPRA TCR.
This one had to sting. A brilliant opening stint by newly crowned 24H TCE SERIES Continents Drivers’ champion Fabian Danz meant the CUPRA had scythed through the field from 7th and was running comfortably in 2nd place and slowly closing the gap to the leading Red Camel-Jordans.nl entry before mechanical problems cost the Dutch team close to 15 minutes in the garage.
Character-building race for Ferda Autosport By QSR Racing
Much like Bas Koeten Racing, Ferda Autosport’s Spa weekend has been one of highs and lows. Coming into the race, the #54 Audi RS3 LMS had already missed official Night Practice thanks to an electrical problem, and though the team was confident the problem had been alleviated, few could miss the Audi being pushed into its starting grid with crossed fingers.
Problems started to unravel quickly. A slow pit stop was blamed on the right front wheel that refused to budge from its mounting pins, yet more damage being done to the hub when Chris Allen suffered a puncture on the same corner of the car. A few laps later came his unfortunate clash with the Bas Koeten Audi.
Were that not enough, Jon Miller, who’s pace had been enough to actually put the Ferda Autosport RS3 into the lead for one lap during the opening pit stop shuffle, complained of a problem with the ABS. Disappearing into the garage after 127 laps, the fated Audi has yet to resurface.
The turn 15 gravel trap magnet
So far the TCR SPA 500 has spent just under an hour under Code 60 caution amassed through eight different incidents. On a track as challenging as Spa-Francorchamps, that could hardly be considered surprising. Admittedly though, the three most recent purple patches did raise one or two eyebrows.
Just after hour seven, Ferda Autosport – yep, really not their weekend so far – seemingly, though not yet officially, ended their weekend in the turn 15 gravel trap. An hour later, the #852 Teamwork Huff Audi RS3 LMS made its first trip into the kitty litter while Sunny Won Yat Shing was running 9th, but was recovered to the pits shortly afterwards. Bizarrely, just 10 minutes later, the sister #22 entry bearing the name of the 2012 World Touring Car Champion also disappeared nose first into the same gravel trap, almost in sympathy, and shortly after the car had received a brand new pair of brake pads. A notable blow, as this time the #22, which had been running in the top eight, spent 40 minutes in the garage in the aftermath.
These, regrettably, were not the first issues for Teamwork Huff this weekend either. Sunny Wong (oops!) lost the #852 Audi under braking into Les Combes during qualifying, and Rainey He had been running in the top 10 before a drive issue forced him to tour back to the pitlane after the second hour.
Experiencing new levels of stress at “probably the biggest 24-hour race we’ve done”, team principal Rob Huff, at least, still has both chargers on-track heading into the final half of the TCR SPA 500.
*Check out results from the 2019 TCR SPA 500 HERE