Records will show that the #51 Iron Lynx Ferrari, driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi, Nicklas Nielsen and Come Ledogar led at the 6 hour, 12 hour and 24 hour marks to win the 2021 TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa, but it will not show the full story of how they got to achieve that result.
On a dry track and sunny skies, the race started with the front row cars of Raffaele Marciello in the #88 Mercedes and the #63 Lamborghini of Mirko Bortolotti fighting from the green lap. However, proceedings were quickly interrupted on lap 10 when Jack Aitken in the #114 Emil Frey Racing Lamborghini lost control at Radillon, and was hit by the #163 sister car of Franck Perera, leaving both cars badly damaged. Also involved in the melee were the #71 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Davide Rigon and the #21 Rutronik Racing Porsche of Kevin Estre. Thankfully, Aitken was the only one to sustain physical injuries that requires a stay in hospital to mend broken bones.
After an hour running at reduced pace, the field was released, only for the heavens to open on a field running on slicks. Opinions varied as to whether to pit early for wets or to be a hero and try to ride out the storm, with WRT’s Nico Meuller undercutting the leaders by three laps to change, and taking the lead at two hours as a result.
At this point, the #51 Ferrari had made up some 6 places from its thirteenth grid place, while the much fancied but out of place WRT Audi #32 of Kelvin van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor, and Charles Weerts, which started 54th, rose initially to around 40th place before needing to stop at La Source to restart the engine which caused it to fall back again. However, by stint of good planning and fortune in the wet conditions, they had elevated themselves to 12th by the end of the second hour.
The race then settled down, with the #51 Ferrari continuing its forward progress, taking second place at the four hour mark behind the #63 Lamborghini of Marco Mapelli, before Pier Guidi took the lead in a move around the outside at Les Combes, and was holding this position at quarter distance. Martin Tomczyk was running third in the #35 Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW, followed the #38 JOTA McLaren, #32 Audi Sport Team WRT, and the #3 Schnabl Engineering Porsche sixth, while the #37 Audi and #88 Mercedes-AMG remained together on-track, running off-sequence in seventh and eighth.
As Saturday turned into Sunday, the #63 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini led chased by a pair of Audi Sport Team WRT entries, while several front-runners hit problems during this phase of the race. The #51 Iron Lynx Ferrari received a drive-through penalty for a pit infringement, which dropped the car back to fifth, almost 40 seconds behind Mirko Bortolotti in the leading Lamborghini. And the #88 Mercedes-AMG AKKA ASP received the same penalty for another pit infringement, costing the pole-sitter more than a minute. Raffaele Marciello was at the wheel on the eight-hour mark, a further 50 seconds in arrears of Ledogar.
The #35 Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW was a victim of the night shift while running a strong third when it was wheeled into the garage to repair a broken lower front-left wishbone, losing several laps and out of contention. Phil Keen was another in difficulties, the #19 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini losing its headlights before sliding into the gravel in an unlit section of the track.
A car making steady forward progress was the #95 Garage 59 Aston Martin entry of Nicki Thiim, Ross Gunn, and Marco Sorensen, often seen as fastest through the speed traps, especially with Thiim behind the wheel.
The #63 Lamborghini lost its place at the head of the listings when it stopped under a full course caution to put it on a different strategy. However, driver Marco Mapelli was caught speeding in the pitlane, resulting in a drive through penalty. Worse was to follow, a further caution period meaning the car had lost a lap to the leader which it would not be able to reclaim.
At the end of the Safety Car-period the leading four cars were separated by a mere six seconds, with the #51 Iron Lynx Ferrari leading the pack. Even though several corners of the Ardennes track were shrouded in fog, Pier Guidi did not waste any time in increasing his lead, setting a fastest lap just before half distance to create a 16-second gap at the halfway point of the race, over the #32 Audi, #95 Aston Martin, and the #88 Mercedes.
In the two hours after the halfway point, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Come Ledogar more than doubled the lead of the #51 Iron Lynx Ferrari, the crew of the Italian machine now had a 40-second lead over the #32 Audi Sport Team WRT car. However, both cars still have to perform their mandatory Technical Pitstop, which is also true for the third pace the #88 Mercedes-AMG Team AKKA ASP. By taking a 4m41s Technical Pitstop at 5.10 AM the #95 Garage 59 Aston Martin dropped off the lead lap, but the car was still in fourth.
The main casualty of the early morning was the #88 Mercedes-AMG Team AKKA ASP car, which was forced to retire with a problem with the left-rear damper that had been causing the team concern throughout the early morning hours, but broke for good and put the pole-sitting AMG GT3 out of the race.
One of the more bizarre incidents occurred in the paddock when Laurens Vanthoor was knocked off of his scooter by a quad bike. He received facial injuries which required him to visit the local hospital, and then withdraw from driving duties, leaving Nick Tandy and Maxime Martin no choice but to take extra driving duties in their #47 KCMG Porsche 911 GT3 R.
Over the next few hours, the status quo was maintained, the #51 Ferrari remaining at the head of the field with the #32 Audi slowly closing, and it was just before the completion of the 20th hour that the Ferrari pitted a couple of laps earlier than expected which finally put the Audi into the lead for the first time. It was, however, short lived as the order reverted back after the Team WRT pitstop, but the fact that the Ferrari was pitting before the Audi was to cause consternation approaching the final hour.
Under darkening skies, the Ferrari made its final pitstop, taking new slicks, but the weather intervened prior to the Audi’s stop, the typical Spa rain falling intensely so that WRT were able to for wets on their final stop. The rain was of such proportions that the Ferrari had no choice but to then make an additional stop for wets and drop behind, and then race control had to call for a caution period to recover the various cars that had slipped off the course.
The pack was released with thirty minutes to go, the #32 Audi leading the #51 Ferrari with 5 lapped cars between the cars at the restart. And Pier Guidi was driving at his very best, reeling in Dries Vanthoor at each and every sector, while fighting for visibility on the sodden track.
The winning move came with 8 minutes remaining, Pier Guidi in the tracks of the Audi as they exited Paul Frere Curve. Vanthoor kept to the left, lining up for the inside at Blanchimont, so the Ferrari moved to the right, taking the outside line into the lefthander and into the lead. And from there, a gap opened up, the Audi not having the means to re-close the gap, and Ferrari, by four seconds, scored its first victory at the event since the 2004 edition, and the first no-German victory in the GT3 era.
Pier Guidi was naturally in high spirits after the race. “We led the race for most of the time, but in the last half an hour everything looked lost.
“After the restart, I gave everything. I had no choice. I tried and when I had the possibility, I had just one shot and was able to go in the lead again and achieve such an amazing result for Ferrari, Iron Lynx. It’s an incredible feeling. I think it will take a bit of time to understand what we did.”
WRT Team Principal Vincent Vosse was also a happy man at the end: “There are podium finishes that taste extremely good, and this is one of those. For sure, we would have preferred to win and got very close to it, but we were beaten by a very strong competitor, and I want to congratulate Ferrari and Iron Lynx for their success, and in particular Alessandro Pier Guidi, with whom I shared the podium here at Spa in 2009 with a Maserati, for his impressive last stint."
Into third place came the #95 Garage 59 Aston Martin, Nicki Thiim summed up their effort as “not what we aimed for, but with the fastest lap/stint in the race, we proved the stunning performance of our Aston Martin GT3!”
The next round of the championship is at Brands Hatch on 28th/29th August.
Report Text: Steve Tarrant
Photographs: SRO Photography