The installation of more gravel traps at Spa-Francorchamps has produced one of the key talking points in the buildup to this year’s TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa.
One of the main off-season facility updates at the Belgian circuit has been the encroachment of gravel into some of the tarmac run-off areas around the 4.35-mile lap.
The type of gravel being used and a large drop from curb edges into the traps have generated concern about a higher chance of punctures and interruptions during the race.
Pirelli’s circuit racing activities manager Matteo Braga explained that issues encountered during the official two-day test in June prompted discussions between tire supplier Pirelli, competing teams, circuit management and event organizer SRO Motorsports Group.
Most of the curbs were modified after the test, while some gravel traps were overlaid with a gravel compound that has rounder edges.
“Starting from the official test days, we saw that it was an issue,” Braga told Sportscar365.
“What we discussed with SRO, and with the circuit, was trying to do some improvement for the race. Mainly about track limits.
“Some of the gravel beds were slightly modified; the shape of the curbs was rounded.
“Now it is only sharp at the exit of Turn 13 [esses left-hander] and 15 [Stavelot]. The rest has been rounded.
“We wanted to do some bigger modifications like making a gradient, not to have a step that can damage the tires.
“The real problem that we see, is that as soon the cars go out, a couple go in the gravel and bring it back on the track. You cannot avoid it. We have so many tires with cuts.
“We did some races during the SRO Speedweek with the new track limits. That was a big improvement compared to the test, but with 66 cars in the night it’s a different story.
“I know that SRO put in place some extra effort, people and systems to monitor it. We hope it’s enough, but we know the risk is there. You cannot remove the stones.”
Braga described the gravel stones at Spa as “smaller and sharper” than ones found at other tracks visited by Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS.
“The dimensions are now smaller, and usually are medium-sized,” he said.
“In some corners they tried to cover the stones with new stones, but as soon as someone drives on it, the old stones come up.”
Despite the implementation of more gravel, track limits continues to be a central point at the 24 Hours of Spa. SRO has stated that no part of a car can go beyond the curbs.
However, track limits can be exceeded twice in the race before a penalty is applied, while the count is reset every six hours. Limits are monitored by a combination of human judges and an electronic system that is fitted to every car.
Team WRT’s sporting director Kurt Mollekens, who like Braga had a collection of sharp stones in his pocket, expects the implementation of more gravel around the track to “change the race completely”.
“Punctures is one thing, but there are going to be a lot more race interruptions,” he told Sportscar365.
“What we did last year, coming from 55th to second, we were in the top five after six hours. This year, you can forget about that. Because in the first six hours you will have had three safety cars, maybe run 60 percent under race conditions.
“The gravel traps coming back is definitely going to cause a lot more race interruptions, inevitably.”
Mollekens added that he expects overtaking options to be limited by the hazard of attacking cars ending up in the gravel if they overstep their line.
“When you’re coming back through the field, you would send it around the outside at Pouhon and if he hasn’t seen you, go on the extra tarmac and be done,” he said.
“Now if you do the move around the outside, you’re in the gravel trap and the race is finished. The extra tarmac in case it doesn’t come off is gone, so now you have to send it up the inside.
“You can’t just stay on the lead lap for the last hours and send it for the last hours. You have to be at the complete front all the time.
“That is why it changes the dynamic of the race completely. And a lot of race interruptions. I cannot see this being in the record books for distance.”
ROWE Racing BMW team principal Hans-Peter Naundorf also expects the off-season circuit changes to impact the flow of the racing.
There was some indication of this in Free Practice, which was impacted by four red flags.
“It’s going to be like this in the race,” Naundorf told Sportscar365.
“The drivers don’t do it on purpose. They’re racing each other so you’re going to see more cars in the gravel, more gravel on track and more tire punctures because of that.
“The gravel here is very special. There were a lot of punctures in the tests because the gravel is not round; it’s sharp. You’re going to see a lot of track limits penalties as well.”