Belgian stars ready to fly the flag on home ground @ 24 Hours of Spa

Belgian stars ready to fly the flag on home ground @ 24 Hours of Spa

 
New and established Belgian stars ready to fly the flag at 2023 CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa
The CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa has long held the status of Belgium's national endurance race. That remains as true as ever on the eve of the event's 75th edition, with a greater number of home teams and drivers on the 2023 entry list bolstering local interest.


Though there was plenty of Belgian participation during the inaugural editions, fans at the track would have to wait until the fourth running in 1927 to celebrate a Belgian winner. Nicolas Caerels had the honour of being the first, triumphing at the wheel of an Excelsior. This made the result doubly significant, as the Brussels brand became the only Belgian manufacturer to date to win the race.


Remarkably, Caerels was the lone Belgian winner during the event's first 16 editions, though the home team has more than made up for it since. From international ace Jacky Ickx to touring car and GT specialists, Belgian drivers have accounted for 48 overall wins. 


Indeed, the three most successful participants in the race's history all come from Belgium, with Eric van de Poele standing alone at the top with five victories. Hailing from nearby Verviers, his interest in the event began, like so many others, as a young spectator. 
 

“The very first edition that I went to was with my dad," Van de Poele recalled ahead of the 70th edition in 2018. "That must have been in 1973. I was ten and my dad was a marshal at the time. With wide-open eyes I stared at the duel between the Ford Capris and the BMWs. That is the very first image that I remember. 


“I was full of admiration for the guys driving these wonderful machines. At first I stayed with my dad, but then I started to walk around in the paddock and into the pit boxes. Obviously I was thrown out immediately!”


Since the race became a GT event in 2001, five new Belgian names have been added to the list of victors, while multiple touring car winners Van de Poele and Marc Duez added further triumphs in a new discipline. The GT generation includes Maxime Martin, who followed in the footsteps of his father Jean-Michel – a four-time winner at the 24 Hours – by taking an immensely popular win in 2016. 


"As a Belgian driver, this was my best win," recalls Martin. "The race has a lot of family history for me, and I was really close to winning a few times before. It's the most competitive 24-hour GT race in the world. A lot of manufacturers are there with a lot of factory drivers, so it's really intense. It's really hard, but that's why we love it."

This year, Martin will be joined by 14 of his compatriots, including two-time overall winner Laurens Vanthoor, three-time Pro-Am winner Louis Machiels, and class-winning Iron Dames ace Sarah Bovy. There are plenty of Belgian-entered cars, too, including four from Team WRT. Led by 2002 Spa winner Vincent Vosse, the Baudour-based outfit has been a perennial front-runner at its home event. This year, it will look to win on its very first outing with BMW machinery. 

"As a driver it was always my goal to succeed at this race,” says Vosse. “As a team, it was not the idea to compete here in our first year [2010], but we did. Since then we have always been here with a minimum of two cars.”


Victories followed in 2011 and 2014, while there have been plenty of near misses since – most famously the late drama that unfolded in 2021, when Team WRT lost out to the Iron Lynx Ferrari just 10 minutes from the finish. 


"It was more special to win as a team," says Vosse. "It is a target for a group of people, whereas when you're a driver it's more individual. Even in endurance racing, you're still more of an individual. But as a team you are planning with your engineers, your mechanics, your sporting directors, so it is much more a group effort. 


“As a driver, I remember having very good times in the car, taking the chequered flag. But celebrating as a team, with all the people who are involved, feels like more of a success. As a team boss, you have put everything together."


Alongside the four-car Team WRT operation, Boutsen VDS and Comtoyou Racing will also field multiple entries in 2023. The former is a new alliance, though both names are very familiar. Thierry Boutsen won three world championship grands prix during a decade in Formula 1, and also made several appearances at the 24 Hours. He acts as an advisor to the team that carries his name, which is led by his sister Olivia Boutsen, her husband Olivier Laine, and their son Amaury. 


The ‘VDS’ represents Marc van der Straten, whose eponymous team was among the most successful operations during the early seasons of Fanatec GT Europe. Famed for its eye-catching cat motif, Marc VDS earned six overall wins in the Endurance Cup, including a landmark triumph at the 24 Hours in 2015. 


While these established names have come together to create a fresh identity, Comtoyou Racing represents an entirely new addition to the grid. Led by team principal Jean-Michel Baert and manager François Verbist, the team was already known for its record in touring car competition and has now branched out to the elite level of GT3 racing. 


It has done so in a big way, with three cars set to compete at this year's CrowdStrike 24 Hours of Spa. They are led by a Pro crew consisting of 2017 race winner Christopher Haase, local ace Fred Vervisch, and Belgian rising star Gilles Magnus.  


"It's going to be very special for Comtoyou Racing to do this race," says Magnus. "There will be a lot of guests, family and friends, so it's something we are all really looking forward to. Of course, I first went as a spectator. I think I have been five or six times as a kid, so it's super cool to now be a driver there myself."


Technically, this will be Magnus' second attempt at the 24 Hours. However, as he explains, there is a sense in which 2023 will mark his debut. 


"Last year my car went out during the second stint and I was supposed to be in next, so I was ready but didn't have a chance to drive," he says. "Anyway, it was nice to experience the atmosphere, to go through all the practice and qualifying sessions. I know what it's about, but I don't yet know what it's like to really race, so this year will kind of be my first year – at least let's hope so!


"It's a super cool event, something I'm looking forward to so much," he adds. "It's not only because I'm Belgian and it's my home race: it's one of the most legendary races in the world and everyone wants to win it. And I'm in a line-up with Christopher and Fred, so it's a car that can do something."


Indeed, there are Belgian-entered cars in four classes – Pro, Gold Cup, Silver Cup and Bronze Cup – all of which have the potential to fight for a spot on the podium. There is no doubt, then, that Belgian hopes are stronger than ever this year. It would be no surprise to see a local winner at the event’s 75th edition. 


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