Frantic action under the sun
2012 Spa Classic report
- Mattijs Diepraam (words & photography)
- June 4, 2012
- Spa - The Transit-and-trailer revival, 2006 Spa Six Hours report, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Spa - Inhaling enthusiasm, 2008 Spa Six Hours report, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Spa - A different world, 2009 Spa Six Hours report, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Spa - Rain, beer and champagne, 2010 Spa Six Hours report, by Mattijs Diepraam/Frank van de Velde
- Spa - Agreeable circumstances, 2011 Spa Six Hours report, by Mattijs Diepraam/Frank van de Velde
Christophe D'Ansembourg/Hervé Regout
Brun Porsche 962C
2012 Spa Classic (May 27, 2012)
So Spa treated us on the second sun-drenched classic event in a row. After the deluge of blazing hot sunrays that burned down on the 2011 Spa Six Hours, that big yellow ball in the sky did it again during the 2012 Spa Classic. What was the action like? And how did the Spa Classic atmosphere compare with that of its more famous autumnal counterpart? Let’s find out.
Getting to Spa was a challenge in the first place. In its infinite wisdom, the region of Wallonia had decided that after decades of neglect half of the roads surrounding the Francorchamps circuit was in sudden need of reconstruction – all at the same time! We hope they will be finished before the Grand Prix in August, otherwise the traffic chaos will be stratospherical.
Once at the circuit itself though, all was quickly forgotten. The paddock smelled of efficiency unseen at the Spa Six Hours (which, we must say, is part of its charm) but on the other hand it feels nice to see an organisation like Peter Auto making a difference. In fact, the Six Hours versus the Classic is almost a comparison of British enthusiasm versus continental workmanship. The Six Hours headliner does attract most of the European racers present in Peter Auto’s Sixties Endurance championship but its support programme is very British-orientated, mostly around the various Masters Series and Motor Racing Legends categories. In contrast, the Spa Classic feels very Franco-Germanic, with a couple of mediterrenean and Benelux influences, although the English language is never far from ear’s distance. The historic F1, F2 and Group C championships guesting on Peter Auto’s bill are all truly European while the emphasis on the organiser’s own four historic championships – CER1, CER2, Sixties Endurance, and Trofeo Nastro Rosso – very much lies on the continent.
Laurent Timonier's E-type Jag charging up the Raidillon in Saturday's Sixties Endurance race. (photo 8W)
This means that the Spa Six Hours and the Spa Classic are perfectly complementary, so there is no reason to skip one in favour of the other. But they both have F1, you say. They do, but the FIA Historic Formula One Championship, or HFO, is not the same as the Grand Prix Masters, even though a prominent historic F1 racer such as Joaquin Folch is now doing both. They could be the same, though, if the two could beat out their (financial) differences, since the embarrassingly weak HFO entry at Spa could have used a couple of Masters guests. No doubt the insertion of the Monaco GP Historique and the Le Mans Classic in this even-numbered year had something to do with it, the Spa Classic neatly lodged in between the two. One can only afford to enter so much races on a given budget, and Monaco will usurp a lot of that in entry money alone. Also, over at the other side of the Channel, the Masters Series was having its own festival at Brands Hatch, precluding any thought of Masters regulars filling in the gaps.
So after a fairly boring race on Saturday, easily cleaned up by Folch, we were fortunate that Jean-Michel Martin made the Sunday sprint into something more of a race, pressuring the Spaniard all ten laps long. In the back, it was great to see that epic Samson-liveried Shadow DN9B flash past at speed, although not that much speed. Martin fighting a Brabham with his Fittipaldi may have been historically inaccurate, Michel Baudoin propping up the rear with his Shadow was entirely the way Jan Lammers will remember that dog of a car.
Hugues Taittinger's Surtees attacking La Source in the Saturday HFO race. He would have a big shunt here on Sunday. (photo 8W)
As we stood next to it in the garage, we briefly spoke to Tony Southgate about ‘his’ design – although he was quick in assuring us that that wasn’t his car at all. Alluding to the 1979 B version that John Gentry and Richard Owen created from Southgate’s original 1978 design, Tony said that “They changed practically everything – the nose, the sidepods, everything. Only the tub remained as it was.” Riccardo Patrese’s amazing early-1978 form in the carbon-copy Arrows FA1 proved that there was nothing much wrong with Tony’s design, so the changes Gentry and Owen made probably weren’t changed for the good. Even if they had been, continuing with a year-old car in a time when ground effect was changing the face of Grand Prix racing was never going to helpful. In fact, Shadow was in its death throes already and failed to make it to the end of the 1980 season, before owner Don Nichols sold out to Hong Kong entrepreneur Teddy Yip.
The Group C event was much more of a highlight, its entry still well up with numerous 956s, 962s and their Spicy C2 equivalents in ubiquitousness. Variety was offered by the Sauber-Mercedes C9 and Lancia-Ferrari LC2 run by Chamberlain-Synergy, another LC2, a Nissan R90CK, and several Tigas and Argos to offer C2 competition to the Spice cars. The race was exciting as well, when eventually a lead battle developed between Gareth Evans in the C9 and the ex-Brun Jägermeister Porsche run by Belgian team MecAuto and raced by Christophe D’Ansembourg and Hervé Regout. That was after the sensation of a C2 Spice SE89C leading them around: it was a shame when Andy Meyrick had to give up the fight. Watching these cars thunder through Pouhon was a true sight to behold but seeing (and feeling) them flash by through the Fagnes esses was even more envigorating to the nostalgic soul longing back to this great era of sportscar racing.
Gareth Evans in the race-winning Sauber-Mercedes C9 as he guns the Silver Arrow into Fagnes. (photo 8W)
The good stuff from the two F2 races came on Sunday morning when Matthew Watts in the March 772 duelled for victory with Philip Harper from France in the Ralt RT1. At one time, Harper seems on course to T-bone the March in the Bus-Stop chicane, so frenetic did the pair battle but they kept their wheels clean. Harper went on to narrowly win, while Watts running into trouble in the second race allowed the Frenchman to easily notch up his second victory of the weekend.
Martin O’Connell and Sandy Watson were the heroes of the two CER races. In their Yacco-liveried Chevron B36 the pair dominated proceedings in CER2, leaving sometime LMP2 racer Patrice Lafargue in his Lola-BMW T298 to wage battle for second place with Loïc Deman in the Osella PA4. The epic struggle was decided when Deman had to park his Osella one lap from the end. Out front though, O’Connell hanging it out through Blanchimont was another kind of testimony to how these cars could (and should) be driven. In CER1 the Watson/O’Connell Chevron (a B19 this time) were run much closer by David Hart’s Lola T70 Mk3B but still the Dutchman couldn’t mount a serious challenge for the lead, eventually finishing eight seconds behind.
Hart's team mate Hans Hugenholtz had no such problems in the first Trofeo Nastro Rosso race, though, clocking up a fighting win in the pair’s striking Ferrari 250 GT Drogo, fending off Eric Mestdagh’s Bizzarrini to the line. In race two, however, it was a different matter. Hugenholtz initially battled with Vincent Gaye in the beautiful Ecurie Francorchamps 250 GT, with Adrian Kraft leading out front in his Maserati Tipo 63. Soon, however, Gaye stretched the silver-and-yellow car’s legs and disappeared out of sight, leaving Kraft and Hugenholtz to battle it out for second place.
Hans Hugenholtz in the glorious DHG/RTH Ferrari 250 Drogo taking the shortest route through La Source
in Sunday's Trofeo Nastro Rosso race. (photo 8W)
Hart and Hugenholtz were heading for victory as well in the Sixties Endurance race, a smaller two-hour version of the Spa Six Hours. Hart was well out in front, leading DHG team mate Alexander van der Lof in the team’s second Cobra, when we spoke to Hugenholtz. Between the Drogo and the Cobra he was driving on the weekend, the former chairman of Spyker Cars confessed that he very much preferred the Cobra, also because of the long-distance character of the Sixties Endurance race. Monza was coming up next, he said, before he would be heading to the Le Mans Classic with the Racing Team Holland GT40. The season’s highlight, however, would be the Spa Six Hours – of this there was no doubt. “We really want to win it this time”, Hans said. “We won with the Mustang in 2007, of course, but we still have to win with the Cobra.” In 2011, the car broke, but 2010 was a near-miss when guest driver Jeroen Bleekemolen almost caught up with the leading GT40 that was limping home to the finish. “That’s the thing with those GT40s”, according to Hugenholtz. “You can’t keep up with them but they are fragile over six hours. That’s our opportunity. But if only one of them survives…”.
So why would the team have better shot at victory this time? “We’ve done a lot of work on the car. It’s extremely well prepared now”, Hans said while pointing to Cobra wizard Gary Spencer who has overseen the team’s Cobras for several years now. It was precisely at that moment, however, that the interview was suddenly over. All sorts of noises were coming from the pit wall, and they weren’t coming from the cars. What was wrong?
Slick E-type pit action during the Sixties Endurance race. (photo 8W)
It soon transpired that the timing system had Hart coming through in 12th. One team member had him seen fly past, though. A problem with the transponder then? No, that must have been the team’s second-place Cobra since minutes later Hart was walking up the pitlane, his arms raised in misery. So what had gone wrong, we asked Hugenholtz when we ran into him a few minutes later. “The clutch failed”, he said. “David had lowered his pace by three seconds so he wasn’t putting any strain on the mechanics. But these things happen. A pity, a one-two would have been nice.”
The Dutch team still had reason to celebrate. After former German F3 Cup racer Shirley van der Lof took over from her father, she brought their Cobra home to a popular win over Blancpain Endurance Series driver Henri Moser guesting in a Swiss Cobra run by Charles Firmenich. How good a job the girl racer had done was soon made clear at post-race scrutineering, where the Firmenich/Moser was found to contravene the rules: as we watched the scrutineers measure the cars' engine capacity using a tube-shaped device that would gauge the air displaced by two cylinders, it soon transpired that the Swiss team had been running a 302 (5.4 litre) instead of a 289 (4.7 litre) engine... It was also at scrutineering that we heard that the Hart/Hugenholtz Cobra had succumbed to a broken crankshaft. How they wished it had been the clutch…
The three winning Cobras lined up in front of the podium. The Moser/Friderich example (no.31) would
later be excluded from the results. (photo 8W)
The action over, we retreated to the paddock, which was now emptying quickly. Some were still very busy, though. At first, we felt sorry for the guy who had to chisel away at a bolt stuck in one the gearbox mountings while his fellow mechanics watched helplessly, but then we came across a Jaguar V12 engine change, the work on which had just started. The old unit lay useless on a bed of cardboard, one of its cylinder heads missing. That had been dumped in the trailer and looked in bad shape.
Over in the CER1 paddock, however, we stumbled upon a Porsche 911 with just about everything pulled out underneath. The Ferrari mechanic sitting next to it was happy to be simply polishing his employer’s mount…
911 undergoing open heart surgery. (photo 8W)
The true enthusiast still exists, though, doing the driving and fixing all by himself. In the Historic F2 paddock we had a brief encounter with Lyncar driver – and mechanic – Bob Sellix, part of the two-man team that is he and his wife. He wasn’t looking particularly pleased. The nose of his unique 005 chassis was severely battered. What had happened? Sellix explained that he had run wide at Blanchimont. “So no-one else’s fault”, we said, perhaps a bit too harshly. Sellix looked back ruefully and concurred. Still, he was adamant he would have this fixed before tomorrow, and his face cheered up at the mere thought of it. And sure enough, the nose of this John Nicholson baby looked pretty healthy again when I visited the pits next morning.
There was more enthusiasm over at the Group C garages. At Chamberlain-Synergy, tending to both the Sauber-Mercedes and a Lancia, the mechanics were quipping right back at remarks that it was scandalous how they in their silvery grey Mercedes shirts could be busting their gut repairing an Italian car. “We’re Jacks-of-all-trades, sir!” one of them answered, and laughter filled the barren concrete shell that is a Spa pit when it was returned by a “So no trade secrets then!”.
Later that night, we returned to the very same garage, now totally abandoned by all team members, confident that their work for tomorrow was done. Only the sound of our footsteps and the clicking of our camera surrounded the Group C machinery, as it sat still, waiting to be breathed into life the following day. It’s that prospect that turned the Spa’s Saturday evening silence into gold.
Silence is golden: Group C cars waiting for action in their garage. (photo 8W)