Ahead of an epochal touring car event at Spa-Francorchamps, Joe is reminded of a Clio Cup race at the same circuit 10 years ago, and some unorthodox tactical thinking that leaves him with mixed feelings to this day.
TCR SPA 500. The first ever endurance race reserved for TCR cars. It's rather apt when you consider that the inaugural race in 1924 was a 24-hour event for touring cars. It was won by French duo Henri Springel and Maurice Becquet in a Bignan 2L at an average speed of 48.67mph (roughly 78kph).
This race of course was run on the daunting old circuit utilising public roads between the towns of Spa, Malmedy and Stavelot. The modern version is no less daunting and challenging, but most certainly a lot quicker than the speeds witnessed in 1924.
The front wheel drive TCR cars are going to be fast and spectacular on this track. Doing well in the race is as ever going to be all about getting your car to the finish, and with front wheel drive machines, all about tyre management.
The Ardennes region of Belgium in early October will likely throw a few uncertainties with regards the weather. If it's cold it's going to be about switching those rear tyres on to balance the car. If it's hot (fingers crossed everyone), it will be all about saving the front tyres.
I have mixed memories of front wheel drive racing at Spa. The team I was working for entered two drivers into a 'Clio Cup Italia' race just over 10 years ago. At the time we were running five cars in the Clio Cup UK Championship. On arrival, myself and the team principal had a peruse around the paddock and noticed that pretty much the whole field of Italian competitors’ cars were set up with zero ride height at the rear. Absolutely slammed down.
We were concerned as our cars ran with quite a bit of rake, sitting up at the rear considerably more than the Italian cars. Clearly the Italians were on to something! This was their second season with the Clio 197 whereas it was the first season for the new car in the UK. They were ahead of the game. ‘Should we copy them?’ was of course the question. We probably would have but for the fact that the first practice session was about 15 minutes away. We had no choice and no time. We would have to see how we fared.
We had a great driver in Micky Doyle, a young lad from Glasgow in Scotland, and a mad fishmonger from the North East of England called Allan Taylor. Young Mr Doyle not only went P1 in the first free practice, but also followed that up with P1 in the second and took pole position for the race. Even the rear of the cars stayed up. That evening we had another peruse around the paddock and would you believe it? All of the Italian cars rear ends were now sitting up with lots of ride height at the rear. We went on to win the race with Micky.
As I mentioned earlier though I have mixed emotions from that time. After the race, we were protested by the Italian team who finished 2nd on the grounds that our car’s engine and gearbox were not sealed with the official 'Renault Sport Italia' seals but instead the official 'Renault Sport UK' equivalents. We ended up being disqualified. Arguably not sporting but a round of applause for this tactical thinking.
We did have to hand back the €500 cheque as well as the team and driver winners trophies, which I’d already asked my No 1 mechanic to pack at the front of our truck whilst I was summoned to the steward’s office.
We handed back the cheque, and I promised to hand back the trophies too. I may even do that one-day (my No 1 mechanic still has them, I believe).
So good luck to all of our TCR competitors in getting those tyres to work and I must say this is not a lesson in how to set up a front wheel drive car for Spa. I will know you've read the magazine if I see any higher than normal rear ride heights though!