This year's Total 24 Hours of Spa promises to be more competitive than ever before, with a 73-car entry list establishing a new record for the GT era. Some of the world's most accomplished competitors will be on the grid, confirming the event's significance at the highest level of the sport. Indeed, almost two decades after the Total 24 Hours of Spa put its faith in GT racing, the decision continues to pay off.
Of course, keeping track of such a vast entry list could prove challenging. With that in mind, here is the key information that every aficionado needs to know ahead of the race.
There will be four categories on-track this year, all of which compete in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. One of Spa's unique features is that its classes are based solely on driver categorisation, with all but one of the 73 confirmed cars conforming to the same GT3 regulations. So, from a technical standpoint, there is no difference between the car that starts on pole and those that fill the final row of the grid.
The exception is Juliet, an additional entrant that will compete as a guest. Carrying #53, the car is a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup MR that has been modified to resemble a Volkswagen Beetle. It will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Herbie film, which was released in 1969, while also raising funds to support the VivaCité (RTBF) "Viva for Life" project and "Kinderarmoedefonds.be".
Juliet will be easy to spot, but identifying the other cars can be difficult at times, especially at night. To help with this, each will display a Lumirank LED panel on its windscreen. This shows its class position and the three-letter ID of the driver at the wheel.
In terms of the classes, Pro is the premier category and the biggest with 36 confirmed entrants. There is a maximum of three drivers per car but no stipulations on categorisation. Pro cars can be identified by their white LED lights.
In the Silver Cup each line-up consists of up to four Silver-graded drivers, with no additional limits placed on their driving time. Increasingly seen as a "Junior Pro" class, it has attracted 13 entries for this year's race and also uses white LED numbers. Following the race via live timing will also be easier this year, with the screens improved to include the full names of drivers and brands
In Pro-Am, a maximum line-up of two Platinum and two Bronze-graded drivers is allowed. There must be a Bronze driver behind the wheel for at least eight hours across the full race, and at least one hour during each six-hour period from the start. If the car races with three drivers then two must be Bronze. 11 runners are confirmed in the Pro-Am class for 2019, with blue LED lights helping to distinguish its competitors.
Am Cup line-ups consist of either three Bronze drivers or three Bronze and one Silver. The Silver-graded driver may only be behind the wheel for a total of six hours, and for a maximum of two hours in each six-hour period. There are 12 Am crews confirmed for this year's race, with orange LED lights setting them apart.
Entrants from each of the four regular categories are eligible to win the Total 24 Hours of Spa outright, though since the race became a round of the Blancpain GT Series in 2011 it has always been won by a Pro car. As such, the Silver Cup, Pro-Am and Am Cup runners will also fight for class honours in the Belgian Ardennes.
In addition to the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup, the Total 24 Hours of Spa represents the marquee event for the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli. While this is a separate championship, its record contingent of 28 nominated cars will fall under the same class structure as the rest of the field. In terms of the race, they are no different from any other entrant. Nominated cars will be easily identifiable thanks to a white Blancpain windscreen sticker, as opposed to the usual black decal.
Track activity begins on Tuesday with a three-hour Bronze test. As the name suggests, this is reserved for Bronze-graded drivers and allows them to re-familiarise themselves with the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Silver drivers who have not previously competed at Spa are also eligible to take part.
Wednesday is dedicated to off-track activities in Spa town, including the always-popular parade and driver autograph session. The next action on the circuit follows on Thursday – and it is a busy one.
A 90-minute free practice run will be the first chance for every competitor to sample the track, followed later in the day by a 60-minute pre-qualifying session. While similar to free practice, this serves a dual purpose: if qualifying cannot take place, the results from pre-qualifying will be used to decide the grid. As such, drivers have added incentive to bank a representative time.
Qualifying proper takes place on Thursday evening. There will be four 15-minute sessions, one for each driver (three-driver crews will bypass Q1). The final qualifying time will be the average of the fastest laps set by each driver in their respective session, with the same criteria applied to three and four-driver crews. Should one driver fail to set a time, their car will start behind all of the cars that have set a full complement of times. Later that evening, night practice gets underway at 21.50. In this session, each driver must set at least two timed laps in night conditions to prepare for the race.
On Friday there will be a 30-minute warm-up session open to the entire field. Then attention shifts to the fiercely contested Superpole, where the fastest 20 cars from qualifying battle to establish the first 10 rows of the grid. Each team must choose just one driver, who will complete two full laps. The final classification will set the top 20 starters, while the pole-winning driver also earns the ultimate bragging rights.
And, on Saturday, the main event finally arrives: at 16.30 local time the Total 24 Hours will begin its 71st running – and the biggest since GT rules were adopted in 2001.
RACE RULES AND REGULATIONS
The maximum length of any stint is 65 minutes, except if a full-course yellow or safety car period is in operation when the stint finishes. In this case, an additional five minutes is permitted to allow the car to get back to the pit lane at a slower pace.
A driver may only complete three full stints in a row. After this, he or she must rest for at least one hour. The maximum driving time permitted over the full race is 14 hours.
Three or four sets of tyres must be marked for use in qualifying, depending on the number of drivers in a crew, with each competitor able to use a new set. One of these sets must be used for the start of the race, but tyre choice is free after the first lap. Cars qualifying for the Superpole are allowed an additional new set of tyres to tackle this session.
TECHNICAL PIT STOP
On some cars, items such as brakes discs and pads can be changed much quicker than on others. To maintain an emphasis on competition, each car must make one Technical Pit Stop of at least five minutes from pit-in to pit-out. In a change from last year’s rules, the stop is no longer restricted to a pre-determined mid-race window, but must have begun before the end of the 22nd hour.
PIT STOPS AND JOKERS
A new addition for last year's race allowed refuelling, driver and tyre changes to all take place simultaneously during the same stop. This marked a shift from previous editions, when refuelling and tyres changes were carried out in sequence. There is a minimum time from pit-in to pit-out for any stop that includes refuelling, but no limit is applied to stops where refuelling does not take place.
To enhance the strategic element of the race, teams may also use one ‘joker pit stop’ every six hours. This can include refuelling and will not require them to meet a minimum time, allowing teams to perform a splash-and-dash if they so wish.
Additionally, during the race each car has four ‘joker seconds’ that can be used if they go under the minimum pit stop time by one second or less, but these cannot be combined.
POINTS AND PRIZES
One point is awarded to the team and drivers from the car that starts on pole overall and in each category. Half-points are awarded to the top nine runners in each category after six and 12 hours of the race on a basis of 12, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Full points will be awarded to the top 10 runners after 24 hours (25, 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1).
Last but not least, the Coupe du Roi rewards the manufacturer that scores the best result across the classes, with points awarded per car at six, 12 and 24 hours. Last year's winner was Mercedes-AMG thanks to its impressively consistent performance in the race’s 70th running.