Audi Sport Team Attempto driver Frederic Vervisch pinpointed ROWE Racing’s fuel-only penultimate pit stop as the moment Audi “lost the race” at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Vervisch’s co-driver in the No. 66 Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo, Patric Niederhauser, led on his arrival into the pits under Full Course Yellow conditions late in the 23rd hour and took a new set of wet Pirelli tires plus fuel.
Vervisch told Sportscar365 that the decision to forgo tires at his last stop when he swapped out for Niederhauser – which enabled Attempto to grow its lead over Audi Sport Team Sainteloc – meant the Swiss driver needed to take tires next time through, unlike the ROWE Porsche 911 GT3 R.
“I would say we lost the race with one hour and 15 minutes before the end when we decided to go for a full stop with tires and the Porsche jumped us because they didn’t do the tires,” said Vervisch, who also believed Nick Tandy’s pace near the end was key.
“For us that would have meant a triple stint on the same tires. Maybe it could have been possible, maybe not.
“We had many issues at the test days on the rain tires [having punctures]. I think at the end it was also a safety issue.
“To be completely honest if you saw the pace of Tandy, when I saw the last two hours, I [knew] it was done. There was no chance. He was so much quicker.
“Even if he was behind, he had so much more pace he could overtake anywhere.”
Attempto’s status as a victory contender emerged just before the 18-hour mark when both it and Sainteloc made short-fuel stops to establish an Audi one-two.
With the weather starting to deteriorate Attempto switched to wets while Sainteloc and the others remained on slicks, resulting in a thrilling duel that saw the lead swap around four times between Vervisch and Markus Winkelhock as the performance of their different tire compounds rapidly peaked and troughed during a remarkable sequence.
Soon everyone had transitioned to wets, which gave the early-switching Attempto crew a huge advantage although this was quickly evaporated and overturned by the Audi pitting just before a safety car that came at the right time for the other contenders.
Attempto regained the lead in the 22nd hour when Vervisch passed Sainteloc’s Dorian Boccolacci approaching Blanchimont and it stayed ahead until the penultimate stops.
Vervisch explained why he switched to wets before the other front-runners and admitted that he felt Audi “deserved” to have seen the race go its way after that strategy call.
“It was really dangerous and I almost lost it at Eau Rouge and Les Combes,” he recalled. “I said to the team, ‘It’s really getting dangerous and I’m losing a lot of time.’
“We had a weather station that was informing us. I asked. ‘Do you expect more rain or will it dry out and do I need to survive or not?’ We said together, ‘OK, we will go for it.’
“We expected some more rain ten minutes from when we had the tires. Then I had to keep my tires alive, not to burn them when it was dry.
“It was a great call. I thought there that we deserved the win because if it didn’t work we’d lose one minute and a half on the others.”
Niederhauser “Nearly Binned it” Tailing Tandy
After getting ahead at the penultimate round of stops, the ROWE Porsche and the rest of the leaders pitted again – most for a fuel splash – under the safety car.
This helped keep Niederhauser behind Tandy for what turned out to be two safety car restarts when a new incident bunched the field up with around 40 minutes remaining.
Niederhauser then struggled for grip as Tandy’s Porsche leaked oil all over the racing line from a gearbox problem, which made for a tense run to the checkered flag.
“I saw he was having an issue,” Niederhauser told Sportscar365. “But there was so much oil coming from it so I couldn’t follow him at all. I needed to find a way around it.
“I nearly binned it two times, and then I was thinking, why risk it? Because he might not finish the race. Up to the end, I was giving it absolutely everything. I think we’re a bit disappointed but very proud.
“I gave absolutely everything I had but I still saw him pulling away and was asking myself, man, where does he get the pace from?
“I saw that my engineers were saying I was doing really well, so I just did my best. But it just seemed that the Porsche had a lot more pace in the wet.”
Vervisch added that Niederhauser’s ability in the wet gave him a renewed hope that Attempto could still grab the win despite it relinquishing the lead in the pits.
“When I saw [Tandy’s] pace, I thought we had no chance,” he said. “They were so quick on older tires I was sure they would be quicker [with new ones].
“Then the weather came to us and they had some issues. Patric did a great job and gave us hope again. He really gave me hope.
“You never know. Maybe one lap more and something would have happened with their car.”