I started racing in America. Despite being born in the country of touring cars, historic tracks like Silverstone and the birthplace of Formula One, I’d never raced in Europe. Since I started turning the wheel of a competitive race car, a European destination was always on my racing ‘bucket list’ and this past race I ticked that item off the list at one of the best; Spa Francorchamps.
Racing with good friends, we’d signed up to compete in a Sorg Rennsport (German word for Motorsports) BMW M235i Racing in the Creventic Series 12 Hours of Spa. The car was built specifically for racing by BMW - I’m guessing in the past year or so - and had all of the latest technology, the most notable for me; paddle shifters! My first time, beyond a simulator (and street cars) without a gear stick and manual transmission. I have to say, it was so nice.
We arrived at the track on Thursday for a practice day. Our team was on track with a Driver Education day and all had turns getting used to the car in the relative peace and quiet on track that only a DE day can provide. As expected in October, it rained nearly all day but we all got to grips with the car, the track and the Hankook rain tyres, which we all said were pretty good, tons of grip, predictable and easy to drive on. The M235i also had a race traction control which proved very helpful in the rain. We played with having it on and off throughout the day and found out what we liked.
Friday morning and the rest of the 50 or so cars entered in the 12 hour had arrived. It was still raining. We didn’t get much track time on Friday. 40 mins practice (for 3 drivers to run) and then a 20mins qualify (for our final driver to qualify the car) was all the race was afforded due to other track commitments. All I had was an out lap, fast lap, in lap for the whole day. That being said, I managed to top practice with my time in our class (CUP1) which was later eclipsed by our fastest driver Seth who put are car on pole by a clear 4 seconds. We all left pretty happy on Friday night.
Despite being a 12-hour race, it was split over 2 days. 3 hours on Saturday and 9 hours on Sunday. Our race began at 2:45pm and would run until 5:45pm. Restarting the next day at 9am. The cars would go into Park Ferme’ overnight meaning no work, refueling or tire changes were allowed. The goal on day 1 is to not go a lap down on your competition or go a lap (or more) up.
Seth started the race and after his excellent driving and some good pit work with Code 60s (where all cars have to circulate at 60 kph) we were a clear 2 ½ minutes up when I jumped in for the final 90 mins or so of the Saturday race. It all started well, my times were as fast, if not faster than the leading contender in our class, and things were great. Our issue all weekend had been no radio between us and the pits due to differences in US standards vs. European standards. This made it hard to judge what to do if the unexpected happened; which then happened! A Code 60 fell with me being in the car for about 50mins. I was close to the pits so I opted to come in for fuel, giving us a fuller tank in the morning. As the cars all go to Park Ferme after the 3 hours race, it meant we could run a longer stint on Sunday morning. I could see the team happy with my choice as I ran through the pits but as we approached the fueling station there was nobody there to refuel me after a communications issue. Nightmare! After waiting for a whole minute, the track went green and I left, without fuel, knowing I couldn’t lose any more time in the pits! This put us even on lap times with our nearest competitor. Then, 2 laps later, I came in again and this time refueled. The strategy was still right but we had lost all of our advantage and started even on track the next day (vs. almost 2 laps up!).
On Sunday morning, we felt confident for the win. Dan had put together a solid strategy and it was all to play for. Then a 3 second error nearly cost us the race right then! Our engine was started early. At Spa this is all but a criminal offense due to the agreement the track has with local residents. Unfortunately, the race director was standing next to our car and even though it was a 3 second error we were awarded a 2 lap penalty. As it was STILL raining, this was almost a 6 ½ minute penalty. Terrible luck. It was later reduced to a single lap but it still meant we had a mountain to climb. The weather was changeable all day. Each driver did their part and had we been head to head, we would have lost the race by 10 seconds. Not bad after 12 hours of racing. It was a heroic effort in the car, especially from Chris, who head to deal with balding tires on a wet track and then from Seth who clawed back 70 seconds of time on the leader in about just under an hour.
In the end we had to settle for 2nd but it was an experience I will never forget. Sorg Rennsport were delightful and had such a great energy to them. I really enjoyed spending time with friends and their families and above all, driving Spa in a superb race car.
I bet we’ll all be back next year to finish the job!