28 July, 2015
Rob Bell, McLaren GT factory driver, joined fellow factory drivers, Kevin Estre and Shane Van Gisbergen for the 67th running of the Total 24 Hours of Spa, driving with Von Ryan Racing in the No.50 McLaren 650S GT3 racer. It was Rob’s sixth appearance at this tough endurance race and after a grueling day and night of racing the No.58 finally finished in 29th position, after running in the lead at the start and a comfortable fifth place at half distance.
The week-long event began with the traditional fan activities in the town square with the cars being driven from the circuit to the town centre amid plenty of spectators.
The field of 58 cars started the racing in earnest with free practice on Thursday, the first opportunity for the No.58 drivers to evaluate the impact of the Balance of Performance. An accident in the first session left the car back down in 37th place, although the sister No.59 car with 10th fastest lap was more representative of the achievable pace of the car. The second practice session gave the team further time to prepare for qualifying and the race itself. The No.58 car recorded 11th quickest time in qualifying for Super Pole and in that session, Kevin Estre put in an outstanding lap to qualify second on the grid for the race.
Rain had fallen all day at Spa and with the 4.30pm start, when the drivers lined up for the grid, it was a heavily soaked track. At the green flag Kevin Estre, driving the No.58 car for the first stint, emerged from the spray in the lead, with the sister No.50 car in hot pursuit in second place. After less than 30 minutes of racing the safety car was on track and after returning to racing, it was only one lap before it was another safety car period, an opportunity for a pitstop for the No.58 McLaren 650S, with the entry dropping to third place after all the stops had been completed. With a drying track the team opted to switch to dry tyres, but it was only a few laps later that the rain fell again and the car was back in the pits for wets, resulting in a drop back down the field. Over the course of the next few hours the drivers made their way back up through the field and into the top ten.
After six hours of the race, although with a considerable amount of time under the safety car for barrier repairs following incidents, the car was lying in sixth position. Improving to fifth place by the eight hour mark and up to third as the field neared 10 hours of running. However at half distance an incident with a Ferrari forced an unscheduled pitstop for the McLaren and with the crew hard at work to make the repairs, the car had dropped to 13th place. A drive-through penalty later in the night dropped the car further back down the order. Despite their woes, the trio of drivers continued to steer the car through the hours, but after 22 hours of running it was Rob behind the wheel when the car came to a halt trackside, with terminal technical issues.
Rob said after the race, “That was a tough one. The weather was atrocious and caused so many problems, it was very challenging mentally and physically. The high number of safety car periods just showed how tough it was. It was really disappointing not to have made it to the chequered flag, especially with less than two hours remaining. Up until that point we’d had really good reliability and our problems were more because of racing in the extreme weather conditions than any performance issues. The car was great to drive and we showed we had really good pace, especially in the early stages, so it’s a shame for everyone in the team that we didn’t make it to the end. The other car achieved a top ten class finish though, so that’s good for the team and a reward for all their efforts. It’s been a long, hard week, but also really enjoyable with some great team mates, crew and, of course, the fans. I hope we can come back next year and have another crack at it.”
The final round of the Blancpain Endurance Series will be at Nurburgring in late September and ahead of this Rob will travel to the Algarve for the fifth round of the Blancpain Sprint Series in Portugal in the first week of the month.