Team WRT is “convinced” that its factory-supported No. 32 Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo can compete for victory in the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa despite qualifying down in 55th.
The Audi Sport Team WRT car driven by Kelvin van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts set the fastest laps of Free Practice and Pre-Qualifying but its momentum took a blow on Thursday evening when Vanthoor failed to set a time in Q2.
This dropped one of the expected front-running cars to the back end of the 58-car grid, however WRT sporting director Kurt Mollekens has expressed optimism that the No. 32 crew can fight to the head of the competitive field with an adjusted approach.
“We came into this weekend really confident,” he told Sportscar365.
“Starting 55th kind of tempered those ambitions a little, but I’m still convinced that the No. 32 will come through and run at the front in the end, if we avoid trouble.
“We’ve just made the life of the drivers harder by putting them out there in 55th and them needing to go through the field [and] not have contact.
“They are going to be smart about it, and we are putting a lot of faith in their hands. But I honestly believe we have the best driver lineup in the field. If anyone can, they can.”
Vanthoor was unable to set a lap time in qualifying due to a pair of red flags hampering WRT’s strategy. The first red flag occurred with eight minutes left on the clock after Tim Zimmermann crashed at Raidillon, just as Vanthoor was starting his opening flyer.
Mollekens explained that WRT followed its usual policy for sending a car out after a red flag, but this backfired when another stoppage occurred due to an accident for the team’s No. 31 Silver Cup Audi driven by Ryuichiro Tomita.
WRT usually waits to be last out of the pits, with its out-lap starting as the first cars come around for their flying laps, thus ensuring a clean track for the best possible time.
“The engineer always tends to find the gap for his driver to be sent out in, so he can attack straight away and the tires stay warm,” said Mollekens.
“He was looking for a gap. He knew what the window was to give [Vanthoor] two timed laps. He sent him out in that window, into a gap.
“Dries was in sector three on his hot lap when the second red flag happened, so he was past the incident. I like the system in ADAC GT Masters where if you are past the incident, they will wait until you pass the line. Here that’s not the case, and that bit us.
“Yes, you could argue that we should have just sent him straight out at the restart, then we would have had a lap – it may have been in traffic. Looking back at it, we should have.
“In qualifying you try to optimize everything from your car, to your drivers, to your gaps. That’s what the engineer did: he sent him out within the timeframe to give him two timed laps at the end of the session. Then the second red flag hit us too hard.”
WRT “Don’t Have a Choice” But to Be Aggressive
When asked how the No. 32 Audi crew will approach the race in light of its grid position, Mollekens said: “Quite aggressive, we don’t have a choice now.”
WRT is set to use Vanthoor and van der Linde for the first two double stints, before handing over to the less experienced Weerts once the race has settled into a rhythm.
“We don’t want them to divebomb and go into too narrow gaps,” said Mollekens.
“We want them to be sure of the passes they make. It’s 24 hours so there will be safety cars, Full Course Yellows and opportunities to catch up. The priority is to stay on the lead lap.
“In terms of strategy, if there is a safety car that will depend on where we are compared to the leader. If we are half a lap behind and we are going to box but they don’t, it puts us out of the lead lap. Then we cannot do it. So it does have an effect on the strategy.”
Van der Linde, Vanthoor and Weerts have had a choppy start to the Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS Endurance Cup season, despite sitting fifth in the points.
They retired from podium contention at the 3 Hours of Monza due to a puncture, while at the Paul Ricard 1000km they managed an engine-related technical issue to finish second.
“I think it shows that even if you’re on the back foot in this championship that you can still pull a result out of it if you do everything right,” van der Linde told Sportscar365.
“If it comes to a point where we are maybe struggling for pace during the race, you still have in the back of your mind the Paul Ricard result so you can always work a miracle if you do everything right. That’s a nice kind of thing to motivate us.”
Mollekens added that WRT expects not to make massive inroads in the early stages of the race, due to Pro-Am and Silver crews starting with some of their strongest drivers.
“You’re not going to drive past those drivers,” he said. “What we count on, is that once our drivers have done their three double stints after six hours, and everybody has been in the other cars, then we should hit the top 20.
“And then you’ve got another 12 hours up to the 18-hour point when you keep relaying your drivers, by which point we hope to be in the top five.
“The first 18 hours we should now consider staying on the lead lap as priority number one.
“The final six hours after the final safety car is when it will really start heating up and is when the race will be really run.”
John Dagys contributed to this report