A gruelling first encounter with the 24 Hours of Spa for Optimum Motorsport
Fielding the sole McLaren 720S in the field, whilst making its debut in the 24 Hours of Spa, it has quite a challenge for Optimum Motorsport this weekend (22 – 25 October 2020) at the famous Belgian venue, ultimately resulting in a race retirement following an issue originating in the very opening laps of the race.
The seventh round of the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Championship, the third in the Endurance Cup, saw the team field the #69 all-Pro driver line-up of Rob Bell, Joe Osborne, and Ollie Wilkinson.
The team completed the garage setup on Tuesday ahead of the race weekend, with Wednesday given over to scrutineering of the 56 GT3 entries. Thursday saw the team run through the practice and pre-qualifying sessions, before qualifying itself as night fell.
An unexpected – as it can be at Spa – rain shower doused the circuit ahead of the three 15-minute qualifying runs. Ollie was first out to explore the track conditions, then Joe and Rob. The average time between the three drivers set the grid position of 30th ahead of Saturday’s race in the 56-car field.
The race start was predicably chaotic with several cars suffering punctures, perhaps due to low pressures and temperature. Rob made a good getaway picking off a rival, while a few ahead had incidents. Unfortunately, there was plenty of Pirelli debris on the circuit, and exiting Blanchimont, Rob was unfortunate to strike a large piece of tyre carcass.
With the splitter damaged, Rob continued in 26th position, but as his stint progressed, the power steering became heavier and heavier. Clearly suffering with the issue, the team brought him in at the one-hour mark, repressurised the system and he went back out.
20 minutes later the #69 was back in, splitter replaced, and in the process a total of 39 laps were lost whilst a replacement part could be sourced and fitted. Resuming after 3 hours 20 minutes, hopes of a proper race result was over, but the Spa 24 is a special race and Ollie and the team wanted to learn as much as possible, whilst maximising the experience. Ollie was soon lapping competitively, running a largely trouble-free double stint on his debut at the event.
Joe took over for another two-hour run, making numerous stops to try differing wing and damper setups in what at this point had become an extended test session. The team cycled through the stops with Ollie jumping back in for the final two stints. After nine hours of racing, as much as was possible had been achieved, with plenty of data collected for the team and McLaren for future use. Optimum Motorsport together as a team agreed to call the race.
Next up is Barcelona for the final round of International GT Open, with the following weekend given over to the British GT Championship finale at Silverstone, where there may just be a surprise or two.
Shaun Goff, Optimum Motorsport Team Principal
“It was just one of those weekends where we need to look at the positives and put the negatives behind us and move on. The unfortunate incident, so early on, made it all but impossible to come back with a result, even in a 24-hour race. A good result was always going to be a big ask as we feel that the Balance of Performance was slightly off again with an extra 20-kilos on the car which I feel was uncalled for after Nürburgring.
“We have done many 24 hour races before and some come relatively easy to get the win and some come pretty hard, but either way it’s always the same level of commitment from the team that go into it. This has been a tough one, with a lot of effort from McLaren, the team and drivers but we leave sadly with not a lot to show for it sadly. On to the next one.”
“We knew from the testing that we did, that we didn’t have the ultimate pace on the fresh tyres, so it was always going to be difficult to compete at the highest level this year. We had still hoped for a top-ten, and even a top-five on a lucky day. So our plan was to keep it clean and to stay out of trouble.
“However, there wasn’t anything I could do to avoid the tyre debris and that clearly knocked something out at the front and then the power steering problems. After that, we’re almost 40-laps down and we just moved to testing different things with the car in race conditions. It’s brilliant to have the opportunity to give Ollie the chance to try things and run at night in the race but we used our track time wisely to gather information.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but it’s also the first time the 720S has raced here and we were up against the big boys in global GT racing.”
“It was definitely the unluckiest incident that I can remember in a 24-hour race but I’m also a believer that you make your own luck, so if you’re down in the pack for whatever reason in GT racing, things happen. Had we started in the top-15 or so, where we think we deserve to be, we wouldn’t have been where we were at the time and we wouldn’t have had to retire the car.
“Rob couldn’t have done a single thing differently, it’s just a freak accident in terms of damage to the car, so there’s nothing we could do or nothing McLaren could do in terms of design. It’s just been a very difficult race.”
“Apart from the damage from the debris, the car had been great all week long. The team put in so much effort, from the look and feel of the garage space, to the turn-out of the McLaren and the efforts that went in to keep us running. It’s naturally disappointing to have to retire the car from my fist 24 Hours of Spa, but it’s due to circumstances beyond our control and we did at least get to learn a lot, experiment with setup in race conditions – something you normally get a chance to do – so at least there are some positives to take away from the weekend.”