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Monday, December 4, 2023

The tough questions that would influence the Spa 24’s trendy king

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The Spa 24 Hours has seen loads of change since its first iteration in 1924, one yr after the inaugural around-the-clock occasion at Le Mans, and never simply to its well-known undulating ribbon of tarmac. The occasion fashioned a part of the SportsCar World Championship in 1953 and 1981, however for many of its historical past, it was a touring automotive occasion because the European Touring Automobile Championship’s crown jewel earlier than taking over its present guise as a GT race in 2001.

The onset of the GT3 period a decade later has bumped its attraction up a notch or two, as the largest GT3-only occasion going recurrently attracts a bumper grid of 60-plus automobiles which might be all able to producing the identical lap time relying on their calibre of drivers.

Whereas Le Mans not too long ago endured a number of years of minimal producer illustration within the high class, the Spa 24 Hours hasn’t confronted the identical situation with outright wins unfold round between 5 totally different producers since 2011. Audi and BMW prepared the ground on 4, Mercedes and Porsche have two apiece whereas Ferrari scored its first since 2004 with its beautiful late triumph in 2021.

Given its years of tin-top domination, BMW has comfortably probably the most wins of any producer within the race’s historical past, so maybe it was solely becoming {that a} third win this yr made Philipp Eng probably the most profitable driver of the closely-fought GT3 period to date. Solely Eric van de Poele (5), plus four-time winners Jean-Michel Martin and Thierry Tassin, have received it greater than the amiable Austrian, part of the lineup each time a BMW has crossed the road first since his maiden triumph in 2016.

Every has been with totally different team-mates too. He was joined within the profitable M4 GT3 this yr by Nick Yelloly and Marco Wittmann, Eng’s second victory for the Rowe group with which he gave the M6 GT3 its first main accolade in 2016 alongside Martin’s nephew Maxime and Alexander Sims. The now 33-year-old additionally prevailed in a one-off entry fielded by Nurburgring specialist Walkenhorst in 2018 with Tom Blomqvist and Christian Krognes, a end result that put the group firmly on the map.

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Eng’s file is maybe much more spectacular given he’s not entered the race yearly, placing his conversion price with BMW at three wins from 5 begins (his first with McLaren pro-am group MRS GT Racing in 2013 led to a DNF). So, what’s his secret?

Eng (proper, with Wittmann and Yelloly) is probably the most profitable driver of the Spa 24’s trendy period

Photograph by: BMW AG

“I don’t wish to faucet my very own shoulder, however you might additionally say that each time I completed this race I received it,” he tells Autosport. “We had a difficulty in 2017 on the first pitstop the place the wheelhub broke, so we have been laps down very early within the race. And in 2020 considered one of my team-mates had a crash.

“It’s really easy to say and we preserve telling the identical factor over and over – in each 24-hour race, you simply must minimise the quantity of errors and minimise the period of time spent in pitlane, which wasn’t significantly the case for us this yr as a result of we had this refuelling situation early within the race.

“I can’t actually let you know. I similar to this place and I just like the monitor. However there are such a lot of drivers who like this monitor too! Sitting right here proper now speaking to you, it seems like a really huge honour to have received this race thrice as a result of it’s, with the Nurburgring, I’d say probably the most troublesome race to win.”

“I didn’t actually know what to anticipate, being with a producer. BMW gave me the belief to signal me up and to win this race in my first yr as a works driver was very particular” Philipp Eng

Eng wasn’t instantly conscious that he’d pulled freed from the group of GT3 period double winners comprising Rene Rast, Markus Winkelhock, Laurens Vanthoor and Jules Gounon who every scored at the very least considered one of their victories in an Audi. As an alternative, he says considered one of his first ideas was of pleasure for team-mate Wittmann, “furthermore for him being my good friend additionally”, as his karting rival from the age of 10 acquired to have a good time the primary 24-hour win of a glittering profession that to this point has yielded two DTM titles.

Perception: How an in-form GT star defied numerous full stops to reach stardom 

“Not less than when it comes all the way down to my very own statistics, I’m fairly dangerous,” reveals Eng. “I’m doing the F1 commentary for Austrian TV [with Servus] and for some unusual purpose I’m superb on statistics in F1, however when it comes all the way down to my very own statistics, I don’t actually know.

“I couldn’t let you know – properly, now I can let you know as a result of for my newest assembly in BMW, I added up what number of races I did for BMW and what number of races I received and what number of podiums. However earlier than that assembly, I had zero concept!

Like Rast and Gounon, Eng is a product of one-make Porsche racing which has lengthy been a proving floor for high sportscar skills. Two German Carrera Cup titles, combining his 2015 success with the Supercup championship, caught the eye of BMW and he turned a manufacturing unit driver for 2016.

Eng became a factory BMW driver in 2016 and won the Spa 24 Hours in his first year with the marque

Eng turned a manufacturing unit BMW driver in 2016 and received the Spa 24 Hours in his first yr with the marque

Photograph by: BMW AG

However the M6 GT3 was a restricted weapon on the majority of circuits on the Blancpain Endurance Collection calendar and proved commercially unsuccessful in buyer racing, with few Am drivers in a position to get one of the best from it. As ex-BMW works driver Sims places it: “The M6 was clearly good in fifth and sixth gear corners, it was just about one of the best GT automotive. However in first and second gear corners it was clearly the worst GT automotive I’d say.”

PLUS: The unpopular BMW stalwart built for the big occasion 

Nonetheless, the M6 package deal was well-suited to Spa, and Eng rewarded BMW’s religion with a faultless drive at Spa along with Sims and Martin because the Mercedes that dominated qualifying have been delayed by five-minute penalties (attributable to non-confirming ignition maps) shortly after the beginning, whereas Bentley’s lead automotive was dogged by operational errors.

“I didn’t actually know what to anticipate, being with a producer,” Eng admits. “BMW gave me the belief to signal me up and to win this race in my first yr as a works driver was very particular for myself as a result of I realised that I had what it takes to win that race, which was very cool.”

After inserting a disappointing thirty third with Sims and Martin in 2017, because of the aforementioned wheelhub delay, Eng’s main programme for 2018 was within the DTM. However in what was “a really last-minute resolution to run that automotive in that race”, he joined Walkenhorst for its first time fielding a Professional entry at Spa and beat the Rowe M6 of Sims, Nicky Catsburg and Jens Klingmann by simply 10.4s as hotter temperatures within the latter levels swung the stability in Eng’s favour for his marathon closing stint.

“It was a really small group again then they usually solely had expertise on the Nurburgring Nordschleife,” he remembers. “To win with an operation like that felt very cool. I feel as a group they completely exceeded all people’s expectations. We rolled her out of the truck and he or she was instantly quick.”

Eng missed Spa in 2019 when he added a partial IMSA schedule to his DTM programme and made a second look as a 3rd driver in BMW’s short-lived World Endurance Championship programme with the M8, however his 2020 Spa 24 return wasn’t a memorable one. Contact whereas Catsburg was on the wheel of their Walkenhorst M6 induced heavy injury to the entrance finish and radiator that put paid to any hopes of a end result earlier than necessitating retirement.

He then skipped every of the previous two editions of the 24 Hours because the M6 gave option to the M4, which Eng campaigned final yr within the DTM. However this yr each Eng and Yelloly mixed racing BMW’s RLL-run M Hybrid V8 GTP automotive within the IMSA Sportscar Championship with a full marketing campaign for Rowe within the GT World Problem Europe Endurance Cup – Eng’s first since 2016 – which meant their preparation for Spa was immaculate.

Eng, together with Blomqvist and Krognes, scored his second Spa victory with underdog Walkenhorst team in 2018

Eng, along with Blomqvist and Krognes, scored his second Spa victory with underdog Walkenhorst group in 2018

Photograph by: BMW AG

Having “sorted the automotive out very properly in pre-season testing”, Eng, Yelloly and Wittmann broke the M4’s sequence duck on the first time of asking at Monza, then completed third within the Paul Ricard 1000km. By the point they reached Spa, Eng says the crew had an intrinsic understanding of one another’s necessities.

“I do know Nick and Marco so properly once they come out of the automotive and say ‘it’s oversteering two out of 5’, I do know precisely how a lot oversteer there’s within the automotive,” he says. “I do know precisely what my direct team-mates really feel and what they want from the automotive to go quicker.”

Though they got here away with the specified end result, the 24 Hours itself didn’t run totally easily for the #99 Rowe crew. Beginning twenty sixth, the M4 didn’t tackle sufficient gas at both of its first two pitstops attributable to an issue with the connector on the tip of the hose and dropped a lap down. However the response couldn’t be faulted because it fought again to beat ASP’s Mercedes that ultimately received the Endurance Cup title by 11s.

“After I did Class 1 DTM, I used to be at all times concerned in GT programmes as a result of I actually just like the races, I actually just like the automobiles, and perhaps I’m a driver who can cope higher with it” Philipp Eng

“Put it this fashion, I used to be fairly relaxed once I knew [Eng] was doing the final double stint that he’d been in that scenario earlier than with somewhat lead,” remembers Yelloly, who clocked a second 24-hour race victory for BMW after his 2020 Nurburgring 24 success.

What may have been: How Yelloly’s missed prototype chance led to a BMW career 

The twin marketing campaign in 2023 for Yelloly, Eng and his full-season IMSA team-mate Augusto Farfus, as a part of the GTWCE lineup with Valentino Rossi and Maxime Martin at WRT, comes in opposition to the backdrop of BMW’s imminent return to the WEC within the high class with Vincent Vosse’s group. And it poses some attention-grabbing questions.

As BMW seeks to derive the utmost return from its funding in a primary prototype racer since its 1999 Le Mans-winning V12 LMR, will conquering Le Mans outright take precedence over the GT3 classics in figuring out how its drivers are deployed? Will the complexity of the brand new breed of Hypercars demand that prototype drivers give it their whole consideration? How would doing so influence performances if prototype drivers have been to leap in for one-offs within the huge GT3 enduros? Would a fuller marketing campaign be essential to nonetheless be on the tempo, and can the drivers be given some say in any of those choices?

After all, these aren’t solely questions that will likely be contemplated round boardroom tables in Munich. Lamborghini as an illustration may have the identical quandary with DTM runner-up Mirko Bortolotti and his full season Iron Lynx GTWCE team-mate Andrea Caldarelli forward of its arrival into the Hypercar ranks subsequent yr.

Will BMW's involvement in hypercars force its GT cohort to prioritise?

Photograph by: BMW AG

Will BMW’s involvement in hypercars power its GT cohort to prioritise?

Some have argued that Hypercars are much less advanced than their LMP1 forebearers, which explains Toyota’s willingness for its WEC drivers to get further mileage in IMSA in current seasons. However relating to producers stepping up from the GT ranks to Hypercar as BMW has carried out, there are some attention-grabbing factors of reference.

Ferrari solely had Nicklas Nielsen and Antonio Fuoco from its Hypercar contingent on responsibility at Spa, whereas Porsche’s sole LMDh representatives in Belgium have been Vanthoor and Kevin Estre as Weissach’s whole IMSA roster had the weekend off. It was a distinct story on the Nurburgring 24 nevertheless, the place Matt Campbell, Mathieu Jaminet, Michael Christensen and Fred Makowiecki joined Vanthoor and Estre in tackling the Inexperienced Hell. As for BMW, its whole IMSA cohort together with Eng, Farfus and Yelloly shared an M4 that failed to complete when Connor de Philippi incurred injury.

Eng has loved one of the best of each worlds in 2023, and his current victory within the Indianapolis 8 Hour spherical of the Intercontinental GT Problem means he enters December’s 12-hour Yas Marina finale simply eight factors off championship chief Gounon. However there aren’t any ensures Eng will accomplish that once more subsequent yr, though he’s clear that his choice is to race as a lot as attainable.

“My opinion on that’s that the extra you drive as a racing driver, the higher you get,” Eng says, citing his adaptability as “an asset that I’ve”.

“Some drivers can cope higher with a double programme and a few cope worse, or they don’t even wish to do it. I can’t converse for others however I’m positively proud of the programme I’ve with BMW doing additionally all kinds of GT3 races.

“Additionally once I did Class 1 DTM, I used to be at all times concerned in GT programmes as a result of I actually just like the races, I actually just like the automobiles, and perhaps I’m a driver who can cope higher with it. Once you look again in my profession, we by no means actually had the price range to go racing so I needed to drive no matter got here up. Someday it was a McLaren, at some point it was a Porsche, so I felt many alternative automobiles and this positively helps me now to adapt from one automotive to a different.

Perception: How Eng recovered from losing Red Bull’s patronage 

“So I’d be very completely happy to do each programmes once more subsequent yr, but it surely’s nonetheless too early to speak about it.”

His Porsche GTP rival Nick Tandy has an attention-grabbing view on the subject too. The 2015 Le Mans winner additionally has outright wins with GT automobiles at Spa (2020) and the Nurburgring (2018), and says “I do not see it being an issue for one of the best drivers” with the ability to mix prototypes with GT automobiles.

Eng feels comfortable doing dual programmes and hopes this continues in 2024

Eng feels comfy doing twin programmes and hopes this continues in 2024

Photograph by: BMW AG

“Particularly for those who’ve already acquired expertise of racing a variety of GT stuff on the occasions, say like a Spa or a Nurburgring, I feel it is nonetheless attainable to return again in for a one-off occasion and try to go for the win,” he tells Autosport.

Yelloly reckons that leaping in for a one-off at Spa, “you’ll wrestle greater than for those who did the entire season”, some extent Eng broadly agrees with. For achievement at Spa, “it at all times helps while you’re doing the total season”, he says, earlier than instantly countering that 2018 was “a pure one-off, I hadn’t pushed that Pirelli tyre in any respect that yr, so it may well additionally work like this”.

Eng describes an IMSA marketing campaign that peaked with fourth at Lengthy Seaside as “an up-and-down rollercoaster”. Neither he nor Farfus had carried out a full season within the US previous to 2023, so each needed to study a lot of the tracks for the primary time, whereas the BMW LMDh programme itself solely started in earnest with a rollout on the finish of July 2022 which left the RLL group with loads of catching as much as do relative to the competitors.

“I’ve received in Daytona [the GTLM class in 2019], I attempted thrice in Le Mans, so sure I’ve received Spa thrice however there are various extra races and plenty of extra 24-hour races to win” Philipp Eng

On high of that, their #24 BMW bore the brunt of reliability woes. Cooling issues pressured retirement at Sebring and electrical gremlins struck each at Street America and Indianapolis, the previous ending in retirement and the latter a prolonged delay. Essentially the most irritating non-finish was arguably at Watkins Glen, when Farfus misplaced management on the opening lap with chilly tyres, souring a day that BMW’s tempo was rewarded with victory for Yelloly and de Philippi’s sister automotive.

Subsequently, conquering prototypes is unfinished enterprise for Eng, who offers a clue as to his priorities ought to he be pressured to decide on when Autosport broaches the subject of van de Poele’s outright file being in his sights.

“I imply no, not likely,” he replies when requested if it’s one thing he’s actively concentrating on. “I wish to win as many races as attainable and then again I’ve tried so many instances to win on the Nurburgring and it simply didn’t occur for me personally.

“I’ve received in Daytona [the GTLM class in 2019], I attempted thrice in Le Mans, so sure I’ve received Spa thrice however there are various extra races and plenty of extra 24-hour races to win.”

The place the Spa 24 Hours’ trendy king is anxious, a racing automotive is a racing automotive. And that’s a refreshing angle to have.

Eng's approach suggests adding more Spa wins to his tally is of little concern against his wider goals

Photograph by: BMW AG

Eng’s method suggests including extra Spa wins to his tally is of little concern in opposition to his wider targets

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