In 2019, the TCR SPA 500 revives the ‘touring car era’ of endurance races that dates back more than half a century in the Ardennes, one that only drew to a close in 2000. We take a look through some well-thumbed pages of history to bring you 10 of the most significant races from that period.
1964 – Rebirth
The premise for Hubert de Harlez of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium and journalist Paul Frère, inspired by the latter’s 2nd place finish at the 1963 Nürburgring 12 Hours, was a simple one: resurrect the now 40-year-old ‘Grand Prix de Belgique’ for the following year, establish the event as touring car exclusive, and build a 24-hour reputation on par with Le Mans. Simple, right?
…sort of. Dwindling interest had already put Francorchamps’ endurance epic on ice for 11 years, and world war meant the race had only been run five times since 1934.
The turnout for Spa’s inaugural 24-hour touring car race though – one no longer afforded championship status, don’t forget – leapfrogged expectations. Factory entries from Alfa Romeo, BMW, Citroën, Ford, Lancia and Mercedes were the backbone of a 52-car field, and the 14.1km road course from Eau Rouge to Stavelot via Malmedy delivered drama – and, unfortunately, tragedy – in spades.
Italian Piero Frescobaldi perished just a few hours in when his Lancia Flavia left the road at high speed. Those Lancias not already incapacitated were respectfully withdrawn, and so the fight for victory came down to Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
BMW’s Hubert Hahne and Rauno Aaltonen lost three laps to brake failure, but recovered to eventually finish 2nd. Daimler’s Eugen Böhringer and Dieter Glemser meanwhile were less fortunate, retiring from the lead, also with brake problems, with only an hour left on the clock. All this left teammates Robert Crevits and Taf Gosselin nursing a Mercedes 300 SE to the finish devoid of all but two gears, incredibly.
Drama and tragedy. A precedent had been set.
1965 – First win for BMW. A legacy begins.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, Belgian teammates Pascal Ickx and Gérard Langlois van Ophem’s victory in the BMW 1800 Ti was the first of, what to-date has been, an astounding 27 outright wins at Spa’s 24-hour race. To put that into context, Porsche’s lauded tally at Le Mans is a ‘paltry’ 17, and few would argue Spa’s 24-hour race is any easier.
While not quite as frenetic as the inaugural ’64 event, the difficult second album certainly didn’t want for drama. A late decision to limit engine sizes from 3,000cc to 2,500cc saw almost a third of the field disappear overnight. During the race proper, the factory BMWs suffered with overheating engines, pole-sitters Hubert Hahne and Willy Mairesse even retiring from a comfortable lead at half-distance when their four-cylinder engine died. In the end, only two 1800s finished in the top 10. Even the humble Mini Cooper managed to sneak 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th.
Not wanting to overshadow big brother, Pascal Ickx’s win was replicated by Jacky just one year later with the brand new BMW 2000Ti (teammate Hubert Hahne also put the previous year’s heartbreak to bed), who became the first winner of the event’s European Touring Car Championship era. Save a switch in 1987 to the (then) one-off World Touring Car Championship, and a couple of brief tenures with the Trophee de l’Avenir, Spa’s 24-hour race remained on the ETCC schedule up to and including 1988. A swansong that, yes, BMW won.
1969 – Three in a row for Porsche, and a sign of things to come
In 1964, Mercedes took its second 24-hour race win at Spa-Francorchamps as a semi-works entrant. Five years later, expectation was understandably high when the 300 returned as part of a full works assault for 1969.
The new 300 SEL was admittedly huge and unwieldy compared with its more nimble rivals, but the brute strength of its 6.8-litre V8 was Mercedes’ ace in the hole around Spa-Francorchamp’s 14.1km Grand Prix layout. As was the presence of a certain Jacky Ickx on the entry list. Problem was, while the power and brakes were on point in the Ardennes, the tyres categorically were not, as a few tentative practice laps demonstrated. Quite literally driving the wheels off its new 300 SEL at Spa, Mercedes had no choice but to withdraw.
Thus the door was left cavernously open for BMW, Porsche, and even Chevrolet to ‘steal’ victory. Briefly. The pole-sitting Camaro’s insatiable thirst for fuel, plus starter motor problems, dropped the bow tie out of contention almost immediately. Turbo problems would be the bane of the BMW 2002s, and while the debuting Mazda R100 threatened an upset, a fatal accident for Léon ‘Eldé’ Dernier, a former Le Mans class winner, derailed the Japanese marque’s strategy. There was thus little to stop the metronomic Porsche 911 repeating its ’67 and ’68 wins and securing 1st, 2nd, 3rd AND 4th overall in the process.
Incredibly, it would be another 49 years before Mercedes-Benz took its third 24-hour win at Spa.
1973 – ‘Batmobile’ takes victory on debut
The 1970s at Spa was all about Ford vs. BMW, with both monopolising the 24-hour top step at Spa-Francorchamps. But one year after future Le Mans winners Jochen Mass and Hans-Joachim Stuck finished at the head of a Ford Capri 1-2-3, the needle shifted firmly in BMW’s favour in 1973 when the now legendary 3.0 CSL took a maiden win on its debut.
During the opening stages, the works BMW CSLs and the Alpina CSLs went tooth and nail around the 14.1km Belgian road course at speeds nosing nearly 260kph. A four-way dual in front of almost 100,000 spectators that continued well into the night, and only ended when, tragically, two separate accidents cost three drivers their lives. Hans-Peter Joisten in the leading BMW CSL collided heavily with Roger Dubos’ Autodelta Spa Alfa Romeo, killing both. Brutally, Italian Massimo Larini later succumbed to injuries sustained at Les Combes in the sister Autodelta GTam. BMW Alpina’s sister entry withdrew, as did Autodelta Spa, but the race continued.
Come daybreak, and with a sombre atmosphere enveloping the paddock along with light rain, the pole-sitting Hans-Joachim Stuck / Chris Amon BMW retired with valve problems, leaving the sister Toine Hezemans / Dieter Quester-driven CSL unchallenged to take the win. Ironically, despite being thoroughly outclassed, and nursing a broken cylinder, Ford’s Jochen Mass and John Fitzpatrick benefited to claim 2nd place overall, albeit 15 laps back.
Even with questionable reliability, the gauntlet had been thrown down, and the CSL went on to take four of BMW’s five consecutive 24-hour wins at Spa between ’73 and ‘77. Ford, however, would recover…
1979 – First race around the ‘safer’ 7km circuit goes to Ford
Famous for two reasons, the 1979 Spa 24 Hours was the first time the annual endurance event switched to the shorter, and considerably safer 6.9km Grand Prix Circuit still used today, give or take a tweak or two. It was also the first victory at the event for Belgian Jean-Michel Martin, who went on to secure three more 24-hour wins at Spa over the next 13 years.
As for the ’79 race itself, it featured Ford’s second win on the bounce courtesy of Belgian brothers Jean-Michel and Philippe Martin, and a Gordon Spice Racing-prepared Capri III 3.0S, the man himself having taken the win as a driver one year earlier. Victory seemed sewn up early for the ‘Juma’ entered BMW 530is, only for a snapped belt to severely delay leaders Jean-Claude Andruet and Eddy Joosen, and a failed head gasket to eliminate the sister car altogether on Sunday morning. Through to take the garlands went the Martin brothers after a solid run.
That the ‘safer’ Spa-Francorchamps witnessed some of the most hellacious accidents the Spa 24 Hours had seen was beyond ironic. Rivulets of standing water on the entry to Eau Rouge was responsible for five substantial accidents and more than 90 minutes behind the pace car. Former European Formula 2 champion Jean-Pierre Beltoise meanwhile was lucky to escape uninjured when his BMW 530i burst into flames against the Eau Rouge barrier.
1984 – Jaguar’s only win at Spa ends the drought
Boasting a socking great 5.4-litre V12 under the bonnet, few believed the Jaguar XJ-S was capable of being a truly competitive race car. A ‘Group 44’-entered example had born little fruit Stateside, and it was only after constant badgering from Tom Walkinshaw that the seven-year-old model made its debut in the heavily revised European Touring Car Championship in 1982. Amidst the derisive scoffs, the TWR privateer collected five wins against seasoned veterans BMW, and five more the following year. Suddenly the Big Cat’s bigwigs were sitting up and taking notice.
No win from an impressive seven in 1984 was more important for Jaguar though than the 24-hour race at Spa. Together with endurance racing legend, Win Percy, Walkinshaw and Hans-father-of-Kenneth-Heyer took their second win of the ETCC season at Spa-Francorchamps, the only classified Jag in the field finishing three laps clear of five pursuing BMW 635 CSIs – of an almost ridiculous NINETEEN in total – and the 5th placed Toyota Supra of, rather fittingly, ’78 winner Gordon Spice, and ‘79/’80 winners Jean-Michel and Philippe Martin.
Despite rival team protestations and lingering reliability problems, and with memories of near misses at the event in ’82 and ’83 still fresh, the XJ-S had finally secured Jaguar’s first 24-hour race win since Le Mans in 1957, and, impressively, Heyer’s third Spa 24 Hours win on the bounce. The European Touring Car Championship beckoned for TWR.
1987 – Ford falters and BMW reigns on event’s only WTCC appearance
To look at the results of the 1987 Spa 24 Hours would suggest the event was a BMW walkover. M3 teams locked out the overall podium after all, the winner was a full 13 laps ahead of the first non-Bimmer runner in 4th (Allan Moffat Racing’s Holden), and a further four BMWs finished comfortably inside the overall top 10.
Up until hour 20 though, the almost torrentially wet 24-hour race was in the pocket of Eggenberger Motorsport before head gasket failure eliminated Steve Soper, Pierre Dieudonné and Philippe Streiff in the Ford Texaco Racing Team Sierra RS 500 at half-distance. Brutally, having been handed the lead and with just four hours to go, the sister Sierra Cosworth succumbed to the same issue. Ford’s seemingly insurmountable lead thus fell to Gianfranco Brancatelli, Johnny Cecotto and Mauro Baldi, only for the works BMW M3 to suffer terminal engine failure almost within sight of the flag.
Victory – eventually! – fell to Belgian compatriots Eric van de Poele, Jean-Michel Martin, and Dider Theys in the Waterloo Motors BMW M3 after an incredible closing four hours.
Fittingly, van de Poele’s popular home win, during the inaugural World Touring Car Championship no less, was the first of an eventual five across three decades that would eventually pull the Belgian one clear of former record holder Jean-Michael Martin – his teammate for that ’87 win, no less – in 2008. Ironically, van der Poele didn’t even attend the rostrum celebration as he’d already left to compete in a DTM race!
1991 – Skyline dominates for Nissan’s only win
21 laps. It remains one of the most dominant wins of the touring car era at Spa-Francorchamps when the Team Zexel Nissan Skyline GT-R crossed the line to take only the second 24-hour win for a Japanese manufacturer at Belgium’s most famous racetrack. Such was the technical superiority of the 540bhp-plus, twin-turbocharged R32 though around Spa’s fast, flowing, technical layout.
Several thousand kilometres away, the lightweight R32 gained deity-levels of respect by winning the Japanese Touring Car Championship four times in a row from ‘90-’93, despite ‘Godzilla’ only being in production for five years. Add to that Bathurst 1000 wins and tin top titles in Australia for true cult status, and a qualifying lap around Spa-Francorchamps nearly a full second faster than its nearest rival, and even the Porsche 911 Carrera 2 didn’t stand a chance.
At a time when the 24-hour race at Spa was without championship status, it was a performance that helped put the endurance classic back on the map.
Still, behind the victorious Anders Olofsson, Naoki Hattori, and former F1 man David Brabham, the fight for 2nd place was considerably more nail-biting. And brutal. Engine failure with just five minutes to go saw Bernard Béguin, Eddy Joosen and Jean-Michel Martin’s BMW M3 passed in the closing stages by the first of five Porsche Carrera 2s to finish in the top seven.
1993 – A win for Porsche. In the touring car era?
‘Nobody’s perfect.’ A decade after Porsche’s oh-so-cheeky but thoroughly brilliant poster celebrating its eighth win at Le Mans – an event in which the Group C 956 took nine of the top 10 places – Porsche was at it again at Spa’s 24-hour race. A factory Toyota Racing Carina was the only marauder in an all 911 / 964 Top 10 in 1993.
Yep, Porsche. In a ‘touring car only’ event. Relaxed and more ‘GT friendly’ regulations to help bolster grid sizes inadvertently left convenient 911-sized holes in the grey areas, and suddenly, Porsche was in high demand for Spa’s 24-hour race. Fearing a one-make whitewash, race officials were also met with threats from Porsche management and customer teams alike to boycott the 24-hour race at Spa if kneejerk balance of performance revisions were introduced the night before the green flag was due to be flown. Unwilling to lose more than half of its 50+ car grid, officials relented, and while 1st and 2nd place finished on the same lap, there was little to stop Jean-Pierre Jarier, Uwe Alzen, and Christian Fittipaldi cruising to Porsche’s fourth victory at the event.
Unsurprisingly, Stuttgart’s domination of the ’93 event begat change at Spa’s 24-hour race as 2-litre ‘Super Touring’ regulations were introduced for 1994 in an effort to level the playing field. Ironically, BMW went unbeaten at the event from ’94 to ’97.
Sadly, Spa’s 1993 24-hour race remains the shortest in the event’s history at just 2,154km. Following news of the death of Belgium’s King Baudouin, the race was red-flagged after 15 hours as a mark of respect.
2000 – Swansong for Touring Cars
Didier Defourny, Frederic Bouvy and Kurt Mollekens unexpectedly wrote themselves into the history books in 2000 when the Belgian trio – how apt! – took the final outright win at the Spa 24 Hours for a touring car. Fittingly, Bouvy did so with his second event win on the trot.
As was becoming commonplace at Spa, victory once again went down to the wire, and though Peugeot Team Belgique Luxembourg was unable to replicate its podium lockout from one year earlier – a result that marked Il Lione’s return to the top step in Belgium for the first time since 1926! – two of the team’s 306 GTIs nevertheless sandwiched Düller Motorsport’s BMW M3 to collect the win and 3rd place overall.
A tight fight for victory however wasn’t enough to save the touring car-only era. Spiraling costs, a less-than-satisfactory switch from Super Touring regulations to Super Production two years earlier – a factor that also diluted manufacturer interest – and dwindling fan support meant that, from 2001 onwards, Spa-Francorchamp’s longest-running endurance race would become an official round of the FIA GT Championship. While many leapt at the opportunity, and the event has grown from strength to strength ever since, endurance racing in the Ardennes lost an intrinsic part of its character when the chequered flag flew in 2000. One that would remain buried for 19 years.