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09/08/2008 - YYEEESSSSS...!

Spa 08 podium

Eric van de Poele On Another Spa 24 Hours WinA Fifth For The Fine Belgian

As the draft of this piece is typed up, Eric van de Poele is on his way to his next meeting, this week's 200 mile event at Watkins Glen, in the Krohn Racing Lola Pontiac – and he heads there as the only five-time winner of the Spa 24 Hours, he and Michael Bartels, Andrea Bertolini and Stephane Sarrazin having taken a conclusive victory on August 2-3, in the #1 Vitaphone Maserati MC12.

For van de Poele and Bartels that makes three wins in four years in the MC12, Bertolini sharing the wins in 2006 and 2008, Timo Scheider having partnered vdP and the team owner in the first MC12 win, in '05.

“I'm just a little piece in a very good team,” says the modest Belgian. “All credit to Michael and his incredible team. Four times with the Maserati, with the same team and almost the same mechanics – and we have hardly had a problem with the car throughout the four 24 hour races. Consistency is the key, just like Audi at Le Mans.

“That means that pit stops, for example, are just perfect, time after time. The team is superbly organized, and for the drivers, the situation gets better every year. In the first year, 2005, we slept in the trailer, but then the next year, we had motorhomes to sleep in – and the hospitality gets better every year too.

“It's hard for Michael to be a driver and a manager, but he knows exactly what the drivers need: for example the atmosphere around the team, and psychologically he knows exactly what we need. It's also hard for him because there are two Vitaphone entries, and he can't give priority to his car – the two cars are treated absolutely fairly.”

The commentators at the track made the point more than once during the race that the pair of Vitaphone cars were always there or thereabouts in the opening stages of the event, but never acted as ‘hares'. So what was the race plan for the Maseratis, Eric?

“Our strategy before the start was never to get more than a lap behind any of our rivals: up to half a lap behind the leader was fine, we were happy with that. For the first six hours, the battle was perfect for us, because we saw some close racing, but some of the other cars met problems, and we were first and second after a quarter of the race – we went from sixth to first in 35 minutes! - so we scored maximum points. We certainly didn't set out to go very fast from the beginning – but the plan worked perfectly.”

And the Maserati 1-2 1-2 at 6 hours was repeated at 12 hours – and at 24 of course.

Talking about his three partners, Eric van de Poele describes Andrea Bertolini as “a wonderful person with a perfect attitude. He is very serious when we have to be serious, he has a lot of experience and like Michael, he as exactly the right mentality for endurance racing. It is no good looking for a set-up that suits one driver – you have to be like four drivers in one.”

‘New boy' Stephane Sarrazin, unsurprisingly, did nothing but impress vdP. “I knew him a little bit before the Spa 24 Hours – and found him to be a fantastic person. We really had a dream team.

“Stephane did an incredible stint in the night, to get away from the #2 car, and that was one of the significant factors in our victory. The other car also had a problem on Sunday with a brake duct that was damaged by chunks of rubber, and that cut a tyre, so they had to do an extra stop compared to us.

“But overall, we had a perfect strategy, and we were very consistent. The other car was very well driven though: the eight drivers were all capable of the same lap times, and although Miguel Ramos didn't drive at night, he was very fast during the day. Stephane Lemeret is fast and experienced, and Pier Guidi and Negrao are very fast.”

van de Poele describes the MC12 as “the perfect 24 hour car. The only problem I had was a wheel coming loose, just before Blanchimont. It felt like a puncture and I had a big moment. I backed off and came straight into the pits, three laps before the end of the first half of my second double stint.”

His first double stint had also taken place in darkness – but then one of the four drivers was bound to be in this position, with the race starting at 16.00, and double stints being the order of the day.

“It wasn't ideal (to start my first race stint in darkness), but I'd set decent lap times in darkness on Thursday evening, and I was happy to fit in with the team.”

Andrea Bertolini had started the #1 car, Michael Bartels was second man in and Stephane Sarrazin was (obviously) third.

“The track was a little damp off-line (in my first stint), but there was a dry line so I was on slicks – and in my second stint the track was completely dry.”

As things turned out, Eric van de Poele had the honour of crossing the line at the end of the 24 hours, and the reason why illustrates how this team adapts to prevailing conditions.

“I drove the last 2 hours and 45 minutes, having started that period behind the wheel on slicks. But the weather was changing, and my choice of tyres was intermediates – but I wanted to know what tyres our #2 car was on. The priority was to be on the same tyres as our other car, so that we could preserve our lead. The weather was changing all the time, and both of our cars stayed on inters to the end. In the last hour, the track was drying, and the plan then was for Andrea to take over, on slicks – but then it rained again. In those circumstances, it is always best to stay with the same driver, who is used to the conditions. They asked me over the radio if I was happy to finish the race, and to stay on inters, which of course I was.

“I owe a big thank you to Michael for the faith he showed in me. He trusted me 100%, even after what happened last year. It was fantastic for me to be behind the wheel at the finish, and to finally put last year's events behind me.”

That's a reference to the dramas on Sunday afternoon a year ago, when “I put a rear wheel on the white line at the end of a stint. With less fuel in the car, the brake balance changes, and I put a wheel on the white line under braking. I had to push because I had to stay with the Corvette, but I wasn't pushing any harder than before.

“I was obviously very happy that the team still won the title at the end of last year, but Spa last year was terrible for me and the team. Michael was fantastic about it though: he never reproached me for what happened, and between drivers, we have an agreement that it's easy to forgive your team-mate for whatever happens.”

2007 was something of a contrast to the conclusion of the 2006 race, when Eric van de Poele set the track alight with his mastery of the slippery Spa-Francorchamps track – and kerbs. That was one of the greatest finishes to a 24 hour race ever, and if you get a chance, go back and look at DSC's 2006 archive material from that race. 2008's 24 Hours didn't match 2006 or 2007 for drama, but we couldn't reasonably have expected it to. As it turned out, last weekend's race saw the Vitaphone cars unchallenged into the second half, but the win was no less worthy for that.

The only contact suffered by the winner last weekend was, oddly enough, at La Source on lap 1: “ ‘Berto' had the door closed on him by the Corvette, they touched and #5 spun. Other than that nothing – but we never intended to race other cars too closely. If I have a car close behind me, I let him pass and follow him, and with the GT2 and GT3 cars, we had agreed not to take any risks.”

So the commentators had summed up the approach of the Vitaphone team pretty accurately in the opening quarter of the race: no dramas, almost low key – but didn't that tactic pay off beautifully, especially when compared to what happened to, say, the SRT Corvette, from Thursday to Saturday?

2005 and 2006 had seen the winning Vitaphone Maserati driven by a threesome, while 2007 and 2008 had #1 with a quartet of drivers. Which does Eric prefer, three drivers or four?

“I definitely prefer three drivers, although it was fantastic to race with Pedro (Lamy) last year and Stephane this year. But three is the maximum for me. It is a championship for two drivers (in all the other races) and I think a third should join for the 24 Hours. I've got nothing against Michael's decision to race with four, and four drivers is maybe the safer choice. For example, at the end of the 2006 race, I was approaching the three hour time limit in the car, and although Andrea was supposed to be following me, he was sick – so Michael finished the race.

“But with four drivers, it's hard to get enough time in the car – and it's hard to manage eight drivers in a two-car team. And five drivers at Daytona is ridiculous!”

Five wins at the Spa 24 Hours puts Eric van de Poele at the top of the pile: before this year's event, he was tied on four wins, with Jean-Michel Martin and Thierry Tassin. It wasn't GT racing when vdP scored his first two Spa wins, but the stories behind each of those two victories were real endurance tales too, so let's find out how the Belgian took his 1987 and 1998 victories, both in BMWs.

1987 saw him racing the CiBiEmme BMW M3, with fellow Belgians Jean-Michel Martin and Didier Theys – but that year saw him fully involved in the DTM… to the extent that he became the Champion driver.

“Together with my sponsor, Lease Plan, we decided that I could just about manage to race in the 24 Hours, and in the DTM at Wunstorf, near Hanover, on the Sunday. Peter Flohr, BMW's Director of Motorsport, wasn't terribly keen, but he gave his permission for me to try and race in both meetings – so with Lease Plan's help, I organized a helicopter to take me backwards and forwards. I also persuaded Jean-Michel Martin to race with me in the M3 and not the 635 (CiBiEmme ran four cars – two M3s and two 635s).

“It turned out to be an incredible weekend, beginning at Spa on Thursday, with practice and setting my night laps. Friday morning and I flew off to Wunstorf, for free practice and first qualifying, hoping that if that went well, I could go back to Spa the same day – but I wasn't terribly happy with my (first) qualifying time, so I decided to wait and try again on Saturday – and then madly rush off to Spa. I was actually timing my best lap on my watch, so I knew approximately what time I'd set, but didn't know what the others had set, because I jumped straight out of the BMW and into the helicopter. Hugues de Fierlandt was waiting for me at Spa, and he told me that I was on the pole at Wunstorf.

“The Spa 24 Hours was already underway of course, and I drove two double stints in the night in the M3 (about seven hours), leaving the rest of the race to Didier and Jean-Michel. But it was raining like hell at dawn, foggy too, and it was impossible for the helicopter to take off.

“I had to get to Wunstorf somehow, and managed to track down a little plane – and the pilot was Christian Tarin, who died in 1991 on the Pharaohs Rally, when Jacky Ickx's Citroen caught fire. With all the delays, I was bound to be late getting to the DTM event – I just had to hope that the schedule was running late too – especially as there was no one at the airport to meet us!

“We found a taxi, which happened to have a lady driver: I wanted to do the driving, but she drove and did a fantastic job – and we got to the track 10 minutes after the race should have started. But historic cars were still on the track, so putting my helmet on while still in the taxi, I found my car on the pre-grid. The team members were all there – looking upwards for a helicopter arriving!

“After all that drama, I finished third in the race, behind Harald Grohs and Marc Hessel, and ahead of Manuel Reuter, and simultaneously took the lead in the championship.”

At the end of the season, van de Poele beat Reuter by three points, 127 to 124, so that third at Wunstorf was a vital score.

“But I had to go to the podium before leaving Wunstorf, and that took a long time. We rushed like crazy back to the airport, and at that time, all I knew about our position at Spa was that we were second, one lap behind Boutsen's Eggenberger Ford Sierra.

“We landed back at Liege at 16.10, ten minutes after the end of the 24 Hours – but who had won? The weather was still horrible, and there I was at an empty airport – and a guy with a cap on approached the plane. Did he know who had won at Spa? I mentioned Theys' and Martin's names, but he didn't think it was them…. I mentioned some other names, but he didn't think it was them… so Nadine, my fiancée at that time and my wife today, mentioned my name…

“Yes, yes, it was van de Poele!”

“Now the challenge was to try to get to Spa for the podium, so Nadine and I jumped in my M3 and drove flat out – 250 kph, on the rev limiter, but we were stopped by a policeman, who explained that 80,000 spectators were leaving the circuit, and I couldn't get through. I had to leave my car on the road, and run to the paddock. The spectators were thoroughly confused: here was the race winner – apparently arriving at the track!

“Anyway, I missed the podium and the press conference, but what an incredible weekend!”

The list of famous drivers (beaten by the CiBiEmme trio) in the '87 Spa 24 Hours reads like a who's who of European racing: how about this group? Jo Winkelhock, Steve Soper, Pierre Dieudonne, Klaus Ludwig, Thierry Boutsen, Klaus Niedzwiedz, Andy Rouse, Thierry Tassin, Win Percy, Jean-Denis Deletraz, Hans Heyer, Frank Jelinski, Anders Olofsson, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Jesus Pareja, Marc Duez, Ivan Capelli, Roberto Ravaglia, Emanuele Pirro etc. etc. Runners-up were Luis Perez-Sala, Olivier Grouillard and Wilfried Vogt, in a Bigazzi M3.

1998's win for vdP, in the Bastos Racing 318i (with Alain Cudini and Marc Duez) wasn't as out of the ordinary as the '87 victory, but was memorable in its own way, not least because “the car was little more than a Group N car. We qualified 14th, 3.5 seconds off the pace – but we had a secret weapon. Bart Mampey was the team owner, only his second year running his own car, and we had a very special strategy.

“We thought it would be impossible to win, but by making perfect pit stops, not making any mistakes and by running two stints on the tyres, we won.”

Perfect pit stops, no mistakes – not unlike the strategy 10 years later. Well done Eric van de Poele, the only five time winner of the Spa 24 Hours.MC

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