One of the highlights of the motorsport calendar has to be the Blancpain GT Series: Total 24 hours of Spa. The combination of 72 of the worlds greatest GT racing cars, with one of the most historic and epic motor racing venues in the world and you have a cocktail for a mega weekend of racing action.
I’ve been to the race twice before in 2015 & 2017. We now formally alternate each year between the Spa 24hr and the Le Mans 24hr. Both have their own pros and cons but my affections of late are all about this amazing event held at Spa-Francorchamps every July.
We set off early Thursday morning as a group of five, spread over two cars. Jamie took his Civic Type R and I took the Exige. The drive was meant to be a simple one: Essex-Dover-Spa Francorchamps. However the weather forecast was the peak of an European heatwave with unprecedented temperatures by midafternoon. This was to cause a real problem for the little Lotus…
By 2:30pm we were only 40km from our destination when trouble struck. Outside it was about 36C and the engine started playing up. No overheating warning, no engine management warning – but the throttle started getting lumpy and there was almost no acceleration whilst on a busy motorway. We luckily got to a service station within a couple of minutes and the inquest began. I cooled the car down and kept testing it over the course of an hour, but the result was always the same – it was lumpy! We decided we thought it was purely ambient temperature related and if we could get to Spa nice and gently, then I could come up with a Plan B for fixing it over the weekend.
We did make it there, even though the problem persisted. I was so happy to eventually get to our rented house and finally relax, I would try the car the following day and take it from there!
Aside from breaking down, the trip from Calais to Spa is really easy and only 350km’s. Allow 4 hours with a couple of leg stretches and fuel if you need it. You’ll know when you’re close as the motorway starts to rapidly climb uphill – this is when you’re heading into the dense Ardennes forest, one of features that makes Spa-Francorchamps so iconic.
We usually camp at weekends like these but for the first time ever, had booked a beautiful house just outside of the town of Spa. It was an absolute palace! Built to sleep ten, it was ample big enough for the five of us! With a setting like this, it would have been rude not to photograph the Exige from almost every single angle. Here are the results:
My Dad was due to arrive on the Friday afternoon and was driving over in Margot’s (his wife’s) Lotus Elise. After experiencing almost identical temperatures that we had faced the day before, the Elise faced a similar fate as my Exige, although this time worse! A radiator hose blew before it even got to Brussels! At least mine had made it the whole way, despite the long delay at the service station. So Dad ended up getting scooped into the back of a Bentley Continental GT that was part of his convoy and made it to Spa by late Friday night. The Elise – well that was going to be flat-bedded back to the UK!
In terms of the racing, the first real action kicks off Thursday night as the sun goes down. The 24 hour race has an evening qualifying session which whittles the field down from 72 to the fastest 20, which then then take part in a Super Pole the following night. The full 72 cars get to practice late into the evening on Thursday however and this gives the fans their first taste of night racing.
We stationed ourselves at the top of Eau Rouge the entire evening, waiting for the inevitable big accident that usually happens there every year. Of course, it never came. But it’s a hell of a place to watch from. It also helps there’s a lively bar there that also serves food! La Discothèque!!!
Friday is full of support qualifying and races with the likes of the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Euro F3 and Renault Sports Cars all in action. It’s the perfect day to make your first lap round the circuit, on foot, to scope out the best viewing angles. Although there are various food and drink stalls dotted around, I recommend taking a backpack with some water and snacks in case you find yourself out of reach of these. Spa is a huge place so it’s always good to have some backup supplies on you at all times!
Saturday has yet more support races ahead of the 24 hour race start which is at 16:30. Planning here is key, as you’ll expect, the crowds are at their largest just before the race kicks off late in the afternoon. So wherever you want to watch it from, get there early to reserve a spot or you’ll be staring at someone’s back for the first hour, I promise you!
I highly recommend choosing paddock tickets over the general admission tickets. It’s an extra 30 euros (estimated) for the whole weekend and not only grants you to the paddock and all it’s delights, but it also allows you up to the famous Pit Brasserie! This is the restaurant and outdoor viewing area overlooking the pits and final chicane. It’s a great place for a decent buffet meal, cold drink and general chill-out to hide from the crazy elements Spa often throws up, be it hot or biblical rain! Don’t be cheap and leave yourself outside at the top of Radillion for 4 days solid! You’ll thank me for it later!
Saturday night is another chance for “the big walk” around the circuit and an opportunity to take in the lights and sounds as darkness falls. Expect fireworks from the middle of the circuit at 10pm/11pm, I can’t quite remember the time as I’m usually too drunk by this point!
I’ve never managed to stay out the whole night at the circuit and this year was no different. We jumped in our car back to the comfort of our house and went to bed after a long day. This turned out to be a brilliant decision as the heavy rainfall actually red flagged the race for 4 hours whilst the organisers waited for better conditions. And it meant a nice lay in for us boys in the mansion!
When the racing did resume, boy was it a great finale! The race victory was being battled by 2 Porsche 911’s and was eventually won by less than 10 seconds. It was an epic last hour with the cars slipping and sliding their way round the soaking race track, all packed together nose to tail. The red flag early that morning did wonders for the end of the race!
When the 24 hour race is over, all that’s left to do is have a quiet meal on the Sunday evening and pack up ready to go home early the next morning. The question on my mind was, would the Exige make it? Short answer: YES. It ran like a dream all 350km home with the ambient temperature 12 degrees less! The only difference was I now had my Dad onboard as he was left car-less after in woes earlier in the weekend!
Conclusions of the 24 Hours of Spa
It’s simply a brilliant weekend and highly recommended. If the manic crowds, often poor racing and high expense of the Le Mans 24 hours puts you off that particular event, then consider going to Spa for their 24 hours event on last weekend of each July. It doesn’t have any of those issues I listed and Blancpain GT racing is just outright cool at the moment, so why wouldn’t you?