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INTERNATIONAL GT STARS PREPARE FOR BATTLE AT 24 HOURS OF SPA

The world’s foremost GT racing competitors will descend on the Belgian Ardennes next week in preparation for their biggest challenge of the season: the 70th edition Total 24 Hours of Spa (26-29 July).

Tracing its lineage back to 1924, the twice-around-the-clock contest has built its reputation on close competition, unpredictable weather conditions, and a breathtaking track that pushes man and machine to the very limit.

Now firmly established as the gold standard in long-distance GT racing, this year’s event will feature 13 different automotive brands represented by 65 cars across five classes, while in excess of 200 drivers will test themselves on the undulating 7km circuit.

No fewer than 30 of those cars will contest the top-tier Pro category, where teams and drivers alike represent the established benchmark in global GT racing.

Many can be considered strong contenders for overall victory, while every Pro entrant has a legitimate chance of taking at least a podium finish in the Belgian Ardennes. Several will enjoy manufacturer support, be it through technical co-operation or the use of factory drivers, highlighting the importance placed on securing victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.

Having triumphed in last year’s race, Audi returns in 2018 with seven Pro class entries – more than any other brand in the top tier. Three of their R8 LMS machines will race with manufacturer support, including defending winners Audi Sport Team Sainteloc.

In Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase, the French effort has two of the drivers who clinched victory last year back among its line-up. They will be joined by experienced Belgian racer Frederic Vervisch to complete a formidable crew.

But back-to-back team victories at Spa are rare, the last having occurred in 2005/2006, and there will be no shortage of challengers looking to take Sainteloc’s crown.

Among them will be a pair of Audi Sport Team WRT entries. The #1 crew of Christopher Mies, Dries Vanthoor and Alex Riberas has shown impressive form in 2018 and arrives at Spa on top of the drivers’ standings, while the sister #2 R8 LMS features a crack one-off line-up of Robin Frijns, Nico Mueller and Rene Rast.

There is further quality spread across the other four Audi entries at this year’s race, suggesting another strong assault from the Ingolstadt brand.

In terms of numbers, Audi’s biggest Pro class rival is Mercedes-AMG. The German marque will be represented by six Pro entries at Spa, four of which will race with official backing.

AKKA ASP Team will field two cars, with their #88 machine supported by Mercedes-AMG and the #35 running under the SMP Racing banner. Factory ace Raffaele Marciello will lead the line, having proven instrumental in securing a third-place finish for AKKA ASP in 2017

British squad Strakka Racing will also field a two-car Pro effort, one of which will be the manufacturer-supported #43 entry for Maxi Buhk, Maxi Goetz and Alvaro Parente. The sister #44 will feature Brazilian motorsport legend Rubens Barrichello, who is set to make his maiden appearance at the 24 Hours.

There are additional Mercedes-AMG-backed entries from Black Falcon and Mann Filter HTP Motorsport, with the latter including Gary Paffett and Edoardo Mortara.

Lamborghini has once again placed its faith in Grasser Racing Team. The accomplished Austrian squad will field a trio of Huracan GT3s at Spa, led by the #63 machine of reigning Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup champions Mirko Bortolotti, Christian Engelhart and Andrea Caldarelli.

Aston Martin’s top-tier representation comes from Swiss outfit R-Motorsport, which has clinched two pole positions and a race victory from three Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup rounds this season. The team will field a pair of V12 Vantage machines for an impressive crew of drivers, which includes 2016 Spa winner Maxime Martin.

Porsche will be present with a pair of cars, one for the full-season Manthey Racing squad and another fielded by one-off entrants KUS Team 75 Bernhard. Both crews consist of all-Platinum driver line-ups, with a past Spa winner aboard each 911 GT3 R. Indeed, Manthey ace Romain Dumas has conquered Spa twice, first in 2003 and again in 2010.

Bentley is also represented by two Pro class cars as the British marque looks to go one better than the runner-up finish it secured in 2017. It will do so with a pair of new-spec Continental GT3s run by the M-Sport squad, while the driving talent is bolstered by Jules Gounon, who was part of the crew that narrowly defeated Bentley 12 months ago.

Bentley is not the only manufacturer set to give a new car its first taste of the Total 24 Hours of Spa this year. Nissan’s new-spec GT-R Nismo GT3 will run under the guidance of marque specialist GT Sport Motul Team RJN, which has vast experience of running the Japanese brand’s machinery at the race.

Lexus will not only be giving a new car its first run at Spa, the manufacturer will be entered into the race for the very first time, working in partnership with Emil Frey Racing. The Swiss squad currently tops the Endurance Cup teams’ standings and will take a brace of RC F GT3s to the Belgian contest. There is no shortage of experience on the driver front either, with past Spa winners Stephane Ortelli and Markus Palttala among the impressive six-man crew.

There will be just one Ferrari in the Pro category, though with its line-up of Mikhail Aleshin and factory drivers Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina the #72 SMP Racing entry has serious talent to call upon. The Italian brand is well equipped to fight for its first Spa victory since 2004.

McLaren is represented by a 650S GT3 run by the Garage 59 squad. The crew has been tweaked slightly for Spa, with international endurance racing star Olivier Pla joining Come Ledogar and Ben Barnicoat. Regular driver Andrew Watson remains with Garage 59, switching to its Am Cup programme for the 24 Hours.

Last but by no means least, BMW will seek to add to its record 23 wins at Spa with a three-car assault on the race. Two of these entries come from Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup squad ROWE Racing, which will include past Spa winners Alexander Sims and Nicky Catsburg. Two-time DTM champion Marco Wittmann will make his debut at the race, having contested a preparatory Blancpain GT Series event for ROWE at Monza.

The third Pro class M6 GT3 will come from Am Cup regular Walkenhorst Motorsport, which expands its effort to encompass a top-tier entry for the 24 Hours. The German squad will field an impressive crew for the occasion, with 2016 Total 24 Hours of Spa winner Philipp Eng anchoring its line-up.

For its 70th edition, the Total 24 Hours of Spa can look forward to an epic sporting contest worthy of such a significant landmark. The competition is fiercer than ever, with a wealth of factory drivers and world-class teams ready to battle it out on a truly iconic circuit. Whichever crew stands on the top step of the podium on Sunday afternoon, they will have earned the honour.

Source. SRO Motorsports Group

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