Michael Christensen says he’s been left with a “bitter-sweet” feeling after a penalty-affected Total 24 Hours of Spa that saw the Team75 Bernhard squad narrowly miss out on the overall podium in the team’s 24-hour debut.
Christensen and fellow factory Porsche drivers Laurens Vanthoor and Kevin Estre brought the lone Pro class Porsche 911 GT3 R to a hard-fought fourth place finish, 1 minute and 7 seconds behind the overall-winning Sainteloc Audi R8 LMS after facing two early race penalties that set the car nearly five minutes back.
The No. 117 Porsche was handed a three-minute stop-and-hold penalty in the fourth hour after Christensen hit a Team HB Racing mechanic on pit-entry, followed by a drive-through penalty for a collision with the No. 76 ISR Audi.
While benefiting from a series of overnight safety car periods, the trio rallied back to contend for the win, in a five-way fight that ultimately saw the Porsche fade late.
“Of course it’s a little bit of a bitter-sweet feeling,” Christensen told Sportscar365. “The setback from the beginning of the race was never ideal.
“I guess it’s also to be discussed on how to judge maneuvers and driving standards on the race track. But the referee is the referee. We can’t complain about what the referee says.
“You’ve just got to live with it and that’s how it is.”
Vanthoor, who pitted the Porsche from the lead with less than 50 minutes to go for its final stop, admitted he’s questioned the “what if” scenarios had they not faced the penalties early on.
“You never know,” he said. “In theory we finished one minute behind and we obviously lost some time with the penalties.
“But I think the team did really, really well strategy-wise. They were perfect. In the night we were really strong. In the end when it was really warm we were struggling it a bit.”
The Belgian ace explained that he struggled in the closing hours, in the heat of the day, and was unable to match the pace of the winning Audi and the other podium finishers.
“In the end, we got some kind of [tire] delamination,” Vanthoor explained. “In the cold in the morning, we were really good and the car was awesome. But in the heat we had to be careful with the rears.”
While struggling in the final few hours, the family-run squad, led by Timo Bernhard and team manager Klaus Graf, excelled with race strategy, in utilizing several safety car periods to help make up lost ground.
“We had to use the Full Course Yellows and safety car procedures,” Graf said. “We know this from the U.S. so we’re quite familiar with the procedure on how to do it.
“That certainly helped to be smart there and make the right decisions and get our laps back.
“But the on-track performance was also fantastic. The three drivers really, really pushed to the limits. This was a very demanding race for driver and crew and they all gave it 110 percent.”
Estre, meanwhile, lauded the braintrust on the pit wall for helping put them back into contention.
“Having Timo and Klaus Graf with our engineer on the pit wall is mega,” Estre said.
“They have so much experience together and it’s really nice for a driver to be part of a team where racing drivers are managing it because they know what it’s all about and what you need and everything.
“We’ve shown we are there in the top five and we could have done better on our first participation.
“I’m really proud of the team. It’s a really young team and they started the GT3 program last year in ADAC GT Masters which is really different from here.
“From one year to another they’ve gone to the 24 Hours of Spa and finished in the top five and been there to win the race the whole time.”
The comments were echoed by the former ALMS champion-turned team manager Graf, who said he’s still “totally happy” with the result, despite the possible different outcome.
“This is certainly a milestone in the history of this young team,” he said. “It’s a proud moment for everybody.”