The most experienced driver in Hankook 24H BARCELONA history will compete in his 23rd edition of the event in 2022, and since 1998, has secured two outright wins as well as multiple class victories. And guess what? He’s not done yet…
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba / Eric Teeken / francescgutierrez.com
There’s cause for momentary alarm when, with just one month to go, ‘Francesc Gutierrez Agui’ still isn’t on the provisional entry list for the 2022 Hankook 24H BARCELONA. A week later, fans of CREVENTIC’s biggest European event breathe a contented sigh as the Spanish driver – finally! – registers for the event with 24H SERIES stalwart, Vortex V8.
This may read like hyperbole to newcomers, but make no mistake, Francesc Gutierrez’ absence from the Hankook 24H BARCELONA would be seismic. Not only is the Girona native one of only 14 drivers to have won the event outright more than once – and that’s 14 from a total of 69 so far, just FYI – he hasn’t missed an edition since 1998. Understandable then that, looking ahead to his 23rd race start, Francesc Gutierrez considers the Hankook 24H BARCELONA to be “his race”…
“I think, for me, it’s ‘my’ race in general,” Francesc explains to CREVENTIC. “I do the Spanish GT Championship, I do rally, I do hill climbs… but for me, the race of the season is the 24H BARCELONA. I started in 1998, and in that first year I discovered a different ‘kind’ of race.
“It’s my first priority, every year, when I do my calendar. I’m the promoter of the Spanish GT Championship and the Spanish Endurance Championship, and I always make sure no race clashes with the 24H BARCELONA!”
First held on the 3.069km ‘National’ configuration of the then-named Circuit de Catalunya in 1998, the inaugural ‘24 Horas de Barcelona d’Automobilisme’ was a far-cry from the multi-class, multi-national behemoth it would later become. Organized by Spain’s RACC to reignite Montmeló’s history of endurance racing, Los 24 Horas was also a vehicle for ‘gentlemen’ enthusiasts and regional journalists to promote grassroots Catalan motorsport (the late Sebastiá Salvadó, RACC president from 1985 to 2015, even competed at the event). Independent ‘touring cars’ were thus the order of the day, the 24-car grid a mix of Audi A3 TDIs, Honda Integras, Citroën Saxos, and a multitude of SEAT Ibizas.
Fransesc, who already had nine years of professional hill climbing and/or Catalan Touring Cars under his belt by 1998, clearly had an immediate affinity for the event too. Teamed with long-time friend Javier Buch, Pau Romero, and future Spanish GT frontrunner Santiago Puig, Francesc took a commanding victory first time out aboard a Gamace Competición-prepared, ‘Auto Bétulo’-entered BMW M3.
“To be honest, that first event was pretty casual!” Francesc continues. “A friend of mine, Javier, said, ‘Francesc, I want to participate in the first edition of the 24H BARCELONA, do you want to join?’ And I said yes. So I called some friends of mine, and they were interested as well, but they were asking, ‘but which car is the best?’; ‘Well, within the rules, the best car is the BMW M3’; ‘okay, where can we buy one?’ And in Portugal, around 1995 and 1996, they had the Troféu BMW M3 which used this particular car. So the car we raced had at one point, been a Troféu car we prepared for 24 hours. I’d never driven the M3 E36 before, only the earlier M3 E30. But somehow, we won!”
So decisive was their performance, Francesc, Buch, Romero and Puig held a four-lap advantage over Carlos García Otín’s eponymously-entered Citroën after eight hours. By the end of the race, this had stretched to 17 laps (a broken bushing ended up costing Otín 45 minutes in the pits, dropping the Saxo to 3rd behind Catalunya Motor SEAT Ibiza).
“We prepared a very nice team, and I took pole during qualifying, but it was still surprising to win the first edition because there was quite a lot of competition: I remember Jordi Gené was there with a BMW that had just won the 24 Hours of Spa. So that first experience was absolutely incredible!”
The competitive fuse now lit, Francesc, Buch and Puig duly returned for the second edition – which had been rescheduled from June to its now-traditional September slot – in 1999, albeit this time alongside Joan Piferrer in an Escuderia GM-R Honda Integra. Though the trio couldn’t replicate their ‘98 win, they still finished on the podium after a spirited fight with Escuderia GM-R’s sister #4 Honda Civic. Slightly further back, a 19-year-old Fernando Alonso, just 18 months away from his F1 debut, finished his maiden 24-hour race in 6th.
In a sign of its burgeoning regional significance, 1999 also marked the last time the 24 Horas de Barcelona was held on the National Circuit. Indeed, when Francesc took the chequered flag to secure D1-class victory in an Equip Gabord SEAT Ibiza in 2000, the event had already moved to the globally-recognised, 4.7km Grand Prix layout. Fun fact, the 918 laps Francesc, Buch, Puig and Romero completed en-route to their ’98 win will almost certainly remain an event record.
“Yeah, for me, changing to the Grand Prix layout was a very, very good decision. The National Circuit, for 24 hours, was very short, and, to be honest, towards the end of a two-hour stint, it could start to get a bit boring. So to make a change like that felt important. Like it [acknowledged] the race was getting bigger.”
Unfortunately, 2001 coincided with a downturn in luck at the 24H BARCELONA, with one retirement, a 9th place aboard a Motor Competición Renault Clio RS in 2002, and retirement again in 2003. Then again, Francesc did at least make his debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2001 in a Haberthur-entered Racing Porsche, and he was back on the Barcelona podium again – 2nd this time – in 2004.
By then, Los 24 Horas was gearing up for another big change. Manufacturer interest, particularly from Spanish giant SEAT, was starting to take hold, and when refuelling regulations were made less restrictive for 2005, the previously shackled SEAT Leon Supercopas were nigh-on unstoppable: between ‘05 and ‘09, SEATs monopolized the podium, with the nimble, frugal, but lesser-powered Renault Clio – a three-time winner in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – shoved back into the mid-pack. Indeed, between ’05 and ’09, the highest non-SEAT finisher at the event was Cracs’ Renault Clio Cup in 2007. And even that finished 7th, 19 laps adrift.
“I think it was a great change for the race that would end a cycle of affordable budgets.”
Despite switching to a SEAT León Cupra R for 2005 (and a León Supercopa from 2006 onwards), Motor Competición and Francesc’s collective fortunes failed to improve at “his race,” and after a seven-year run, the Spaniard made the jump to the PCR Sport-run ‘Zener Racing Team’ for 2008, itself a winner of the 24H BARCELONA in 2006.
It proved an inspired choice. Francesc was teamed with 2006 race winners Eduardo Balcázar and Alfredo Palencia, and future Spanish GT class champion Antonio Puig, and, aided by his experience of SEAT’s then-flagship touring car, Francesc romped to a second outright win, one lap clear of runner-up Top Speed.
10 years after his first victory, Francesc was back on the top step.
“In 2008, I won because I was in a big professional team with a really good car. Also, that year, I’d done a full year in the Supercopa SEAT Leon, so I had a lot of kilometres with that car. The first win is always special, and 1998 was also a surprise because we were a small team: throughout the race, we just kept thinking, ‘okay, we are here, we are leading, but maybe something will happen…’ 10 years later, the win was still very special, but it felt completely different because PCR Sport was a lot more professional.”
As in 1999, while Francesc couldn’t replicate his win from the previous year, he was back on the podium with two of his three fellow winners in 2009, he, Palencia, Puig and 2005 race winner Manel Cerqueda Diez this time finishing 3rd. By 2009 though, regional fascination in Montmeló’s 24-hour motor race was wearing thin, the growing expense of hosting the event, ‘thanks’ to a worldwide recession, and SEAT’s dominance leading to dwindling grid numbers and tepid interest from teams. By November 2009, the plug had already been pulled on the 2010 edition.
Salvation however arrived just one year later with Dutch promoter CREVENTIC, who, using its proven model for the 24H DUBAI, revived, and rejuvenated, Los 24 Horas for 2011. No longer an event exclusive to touring cars and Spanish teams, the newly renamed ‘24H BARCELONA’ welcomed teams from all over Europe, Asia and even Australasia, opening up the class structure to include GT cars for the first time.
It worked. Just 28 teams had turned out for the 2009 race. In 2011, more than 40 were on a grid headlined by reigning 24H DUBAI winner, Schubert Motorsport. Then-reigning MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo (Francesc was his instructor and coach for the race) and future five-time Dakar Rally winner Marc Coma made their 24-hour track debuts, and a chap called Tom Coronel, who’s done one or two races in the World Touring Car Championship, ended up finishing on the podium.
While a little galling to some of the local teams, Francesc does admit that “his race” badly needed to adapt or die at the turn of the 2010s…
“For me, the 24H BARCELONA changed most when the GT cars were introduced. Obviously CREVENTIC came in with its own experience and new ideas, and the concept changed quite a lot. In the beginning, the 24 hours was only for small teams from Spain. Now it truly has an international name with very big teams, a bigger character, and a professional promoter.
“It got a bit complicated for local Spanish teams, because, with the GT cars coming in, the chance to win the overall race was absolutely dead. So that meant we had to refocus on winning categories instead, and some teams just weren’t interested in that. It would be nice if more Spanish teams started competing again, but going ‘international’ was important.”
For the reconceived 24H BARCELONA, Francesc stepped away from SEAT – briefly – and back into the Renault Clio in 2011. Successfully too, as he took ‘A2’ victory with fellow former winners (and team owners) Enric and Jordi Codony, Santi Navarro, and endurance racing debutant Laia Sanz. Like Javier Buch, Monlau Competición and SEAT before her, 14-time Women's Trial World Champion Laia Sanz is an intrinsic part of Francesc Gutierrez’s history at the 24H BARCELONA. Between 2011 and 2018, the pair contested the race together seven times, Francesc’ one-off dalliance with Breizh motorsport in 2013 the sole outlier.
“Laia is very professional. 2011 was her first experience in a car, and I was very surprised because, I was coaching her in the beginning, and found she already had absolutely everything that was needed to run a 24-hour race. She understands perfectly what’s needed, and we ended up doing seven races together. I think we made a good team.”
Indeed, one of Francesc’s greatest event accomplishments came with Laia in 2014, when the pair, both looking for a new challenge, approached Monlau Competición about running the full 24 hours by themselves. Incredibly, the #25 SEAT Leon Cup Racer came through to win the A3T class, just one lap shy of an overall top 10 finish!
“That idea was mine, actually. In 2013, I was with [Breizh] and I didn’t drive that much. So after the race, I thought, ‘I need something special for 2014.’ So I asked Laia if she wanted to compete in the 24 hours as a two-driver team, and she was keen – ‘that’s a great challenge, I like that idea very much!’ etc. Our sponsor, KH-7, said it was a great challenge, and we convinced Monlau too, so there was a lot of people involved.
“That race was absolutely exhausting, but the experience was absolutely amazing! 2014 was the first time I drove the SEAT Leon Mk.III, and from that, Laia and I started a relationship with SEAT Sport. I was actually a factory driver for them for a while.”
In an amazing run of form (and thematically apt for Francesc), the pair followed the ’14 win up with 2nd place finishes with Monlau and Baporo Motorsport in ’15 and ’16 respectively. So strong was the Gutierrez-Sanz-Baporo connection, the trio looked set to take another podium – and perhaps even another win – at the TCE-only Hankook 24H BARCELONA in 2017. That year’s event though remains the darkest yet for Francesc, who, despite completing close to six hours of driving, was lucky to escape the race without serious injury…
“Ah yes, my big crash! I had a problem with a brake pad during the night – one on the front broke at the end of the start-finish straight – and I ended up hitting the wall at 92kph.
“It was absolutely horrible! And to be honest, I try to forget this kind of bad experience. We had the pace I think to win the TCR category, but we lost a lot of time because the car was heavily damaged. I went to the hospital, and two days later, fortunately, everything was okay and I went home. Even then, I was already thinking about participating in the next 24 hours!”
If 2017 was his worst experience at the 24H BARCELONA, Francesc was repaid in kind the following year with a 6th win – 20 years after his first – alongside Laia, 2017 24H SERIES TCR champion Alba Cano Ramirez, and fellow two-time outright winner, Jordi Gené. So commanding was the performance, the #108 Monlau Competición CUPRA TCR ran comfortably in the top three, led uninterrupted from the 11th hours onwards, and finished five laps ahead of Baporo Motorsport. It was a fitting way for Francesc to draw his time with SEAT Sport to a close.
“That was a very special win. It was the last time SEAT/CUPRA helped us with this race, like a factory effort. And because of some problems, I drove more than any of the other drivers. I have a lot of fond memories from 2018.”
With nothing left to prove in the TCR ranks, Francesc has since set his sights on the Hankook 24H BARCELONA’s GT division, doing so for the first time with Vortex in 2019 and collecting 3rd in-class first time out. Things, sadly, went less well in 2021, when the PCR Sport Ferrari 458 Italia he’d been entered in hit the wall after just 16 laps. It marked the first time in 23 years that Francesc failed to complete even a single racing lap at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA.
This year, Francesc Gutierrez is back again with Vortex V8 in the GTX class, a 13th event podium the goal for 2022. To be back on the grid though means so much more than simply making up the numbers. The 24H BARCELONA’s most experienced driver yet – one with two outright wins, a further four class wins and six podium finishes to his name already – is still keen to prove that, after 23 editions, the speed is still there. The determination is still there. That 24 years after his first triumph, Francesc Gutierrez Agui has what it takes for one more shot at a third outright win at “his race.”
“My dream is to win for the third time overall. This is my big goal. This year's challenge is to help Vortex to win their category and I’m very excited to be with them. And an hour after we finish on Sunday, I will already be thinking about 2023!”
You can also check out this article in the Hankook 24H BARCELONA digital magazine below