After scoring a hard fought victory in last year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa, defending Spa 24 champions HTP Motorsport return to the Belgian Ardennes with no less than three Mercedes SLS AMG GT3s to defends its crown.
The German-based team split up its winning trio, with both Maxi Buhk and Maxi Götz sharing the No. 86 car with newcomer Jazeman Jaafar and Bernd Schneider, who celebrated his 50th birthday last Sunday, joining full season entrants Nico Verdonck and Harold Primat on the No. 84 car, while Dutchman Xavier Maassen replaces Lucas Wolf in the No. 85 Lukoil liveried car.
Renaud Dufour, the team’s technical director and one of the main driving forces behind the effort, remains confident that a repeat of last year’s result is certainly possible.
“I think we have a bit less opponents this year. Porsche are not here with a factory car, Ferrari is also lacking a pro lineup, so for sure it’s better for us,” Dufour told Sportscar365.
“The level is a bit less than last year, but still very high. For sure the Bentley seems very reliable and the Audis will be very strong with their new BoP, I still think they are our main opponents.
With the team tripling its efforts this year, extra reinforcement was needed, which is supplied by Fortec Motorsport.
“Basically the three cars are run with the same engineering staff from HTP, the only point is we didn’t have enough people to run a third car in a proper way,” he said.
“It’s a good thing for us to work together with Fortec. Supplying us with extra mechanics and pit material.
“In the end it’s only HTP and it remains one team, but it’s a bit separated with a different box for the third car, also because sponsoring reasons with Lukoil and Petronas clashing.”
Regarding the strategy for the race, Dufour remained on the surface, but admitted that unlike last year, there’s also a championship at stake.
“We will have to see for the strategy; maybe we’ll split it a little bit and use a different philosophy, but the preparation is still the same for all three cars,” he said. “It’s only during the race we can adjust in function of the points.
“We also have to think of the points for the overall Blancpain GT Series, combining both the Sprint and Endurance Series, where we are leading the drivers and team championships.”
While the Balance of Performance wasn’t as controversial as during the previous seasons, a new change mainly giving Audi a performance break that didn’t go unnoticed.
“We all know more or less where we are and when people are hiding something,” he said. “If you look at all the Sprint and Endurance races you know what’s going on.
“For us the BoP is not bad and I think it’s fair, nothing changed, but we are certainly not advantaged by it.”
The team also welcomes two new drivers this weekend, with the Malaysian driver Jazeman Jaafar new to the GT racing scene.
“For sure it’s a bit of a risk,” Dufour admitted. “We tried him out during the test day and he was really ok, and also driving in the traffic with gentlemen drivers he had a very easy approach, very calm.
“It’s not like he did 20 or so endurance races before, but he has the speed and it’s also our job to make him understand how everything works in this kind of racing. This is what we do, we always try to develop new drivers, as we did with Maxi Buhk for example.
“We trust in him and he’ll drive the same amount of time as both Maxi’s, we have to see how he behaves and how he copes with the exhaustion. But with only three drivers on the car, we can not compromise one driver.
It’s a different story with Xavier Maassen joining the No. 85 car. While it’s the first time the Dutchman is driving the SLS, he certainly has the experience required for endurance racing.
“We can count on him and that’s why we chose him above Lucas Wolf, he’s still a bit young and we didn’t want to compromise his confidence by putting him immediately in a big race like this with so little mileage,” Dufour said. “But he will probably do some races in the Sprint Series later this season.”