Palmer unbowed by tough 24 Hours of Spa debut

Andrew Palmer endured a character building debut at the 24 Hours of Spa last weekend (July 21-26) before an accident ended his hopes of recording a result in the Blancpain Endurance Series’ blue riband round.

Having already notched up class victories this year in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s two biggest tests of endurance, the 21-year-old was eager to impress in GT3 racing’s most coveted event.

Indeed, the Californian and GRT Grasser Racing Team arrived at the historic Belgian venue brimming with confidence for the week ahead after finishing second at the event’s official test day in late June. However, it was soon clear from Tuesday’s initial running that work would be required if the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was to pose a threat against entries with greater experience of the daunting Ardennes circuit.

But having worked hard to find a suitable set-up in Thursday’s first practice session, a heavy accident suffered by Palmer’s co-driver – Fabio Babini – at the start of the second necessitated lengthy time in the garage. So significant was the damage that the car didn’t return to the track until midway through night qualifying having missed all of the first timed session despite the very best efforts of GRT’s mechanics.

A decision to replace the engine before the start of Saturday’s race meant the #19 machine would have to line-up at the rear of the 58-car grid. However, it wasn’t long before the combined efforts of first Babini and then Jeroen Mul, as well as help from a number of Safety Car periods, saw the crew running on the fringes of the top-10.

Palmer climbed aboard for the first time as night fell just as the track conditions were at their most challenging. Although slowly drying, the circuit still featured plenty of damp sections that required a considered approach from those, like Andrew, running on slick tyres. What’s more, he was also struggling more than most with reduced visibility in the gloom.

“Our compromised night qualifying session meant we didn’t have time to properly set up the car’s headlights, so picking out the apexes was very difficult,” he revealed. “I couldn’t quite exploit our full pace but was still able to maintain position.”

Then, in the mixed conditions at around 22:30, the Spyder Active Athlete was coming up to pass one of the Mercedes.

“We were going through Pif-Paf and I had to move off line where it was still a little damp,” explained Andrew. “I touched the kerb and just went off into the barriers. There was nothing I could do. It’s pretty fast through there and the car took a hefty whack but I managed to get it back to the pits. Unfortunately there was nothing the guys could do and we had to retire. It looked like a few other drivers were similarly caught out by the conditions, although that didn’t make it any easier to take.

“It was a real shame for them after working so hard on Thursday and then changing the engine, too. They were first class all week and gave us a car that might well have finished in the Pro Cup top-five were it not for the accident.”

Wednesday’s traditional parade, where each car is driven along country roads before gathering in Spa’s town centre, was an unusual but welcome experience for Palmer who’d never previously encountered anything like it Stateside.

“There’s something very unusual and cool about seeing all those GT3 cars on open public roads,” he said. “The parade’s also a great opportunity for fans to get up close to them and us drivers. I couldn’t believe some of the photos they had for me to sign from my earliest days racing. Everyone was just so passionate about their sport and GTs in general. Obviously the race didn’t go according to plan but I’ll definitely still treasure my first trip to the 24 Hours of Spa.”

The Pomona College student’s Blancpain Endurance Series campaign concludes with a three-hour race at the Nurburgring on September 19/20