Round three of the 2019 24H SERIES powered by Hankook is decided inside the final six minutes of the event in one of the most dramatic events CREVENTIC has ever hosted.
Where: Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
When: 20 April, 2019
The players: Bohemia Energy racing with Scuderia Praha (#11, Ferrari)
Herberth Motorsport Porsche 991 GT3 R (#91, Porsche)
The tension is unbearable.
Heading into the final 20 minutes of the 2019 Hankook 12H SPA, just 15 seconds separates the leading Herberth Motorsport Porsche 991 GT3 R from the pursuing Bohemia Energy racing with Scuderia Praha Ferrari 488 GT3.
Despite being two laps down on the GT frontrunners at one stage, Herberth Motorsport, as is traditional, had played their pit stop strategy to perfection during the event’s myriad Code 60 caution periods to leapfrog their way to the front. Scuderia Praha meanwhile was one of the few Ferraris to have survived a spate of punctures across Spa-Francorchamps’ unforgiving kerbs, but had still been forced to fight back from a deflated right rear earlier in the event.
But having made their final driver changes over an hour beforehand, both the Porsche and Ferrari had also squeezed everything they had from their respective tanks, and the question now was whether both – or either – could make it to the chequered flag on fumes. With 15m 45s left on the clock, it was a resounding ‘no’ for Scuderia Praha’s Matteo Malucelli, who brought the #11 Ferrari into the pits for a very late-race splash and dash.
Advantage, Herberth: if Ralf Bohn, at the wheel of the #91 991 GT3 R, could nurse the Porsche to the line, he could at least do so with a little over two minutes, or one lap, in-hand. If he couldn’t, Herberth Motorsport could at least marginally extend that 15s gap simply by fueling one or two laps less than the now charging Ferrari, and hope the gap was too great for Malucelli to overhaul.
On pitroad for just 2m 24s, Malucelli was soon back on-track and had the hammer down. Each of the six absolute fastest laps across the 12-hour event belonged to the Italian, and his quickest of them all – a 2m 20.603s – was THREE seconds quicker than any Bohn had managed at any point in the race. Josef Král, at the monitors with Scuderia Praha teammate Jiří Písařík, could barely watch.
“We were just, all the time, looking at the screens and counting the laps down,” Josef explains. “It was just pure emotion as Matteo did one good laptime, and then another, and another. He was really catching [before his pit stop] and we realized that he might be able to do it, so we were really cheering him on and sending him all the energy we could to make him even quicker! He was still catching and catching right up until the Herberth Motorsport Porsche went for re-fuelling.”
With 8m 50s on the clock, and with the buffer now just over two minutes, Ralf Bohn brought the Herberth Porsche onto pitroad for a late-race splash of fuel, his admittedly traffic-delayed in-lap already five seconds slower than Malucelli had managed.
No-one could bear to look. After 11 hours and 51 minutes, victory at the 2019 Hankook 12H SPA had come down to the very last pit stop…
“Everyone was under big pressure wondering if we could make it or not, and what was going to happen in those last few laps,” Josef continues. “We were still calculating if it would work or not, what should we do, how much we should push, etc, because Matteo at that moment was flying! He was doing really well, and in the pits, all we could do was ‘hope’. We knew that, if anything went wrong, that would decide the race.”
Live TV coverage flitted between Herberth’s Robert Renauer, transfixed by the timing screens, and the #91 Porsche, hampered by Spa’s 60kph speed limit, crawling down pitroad. A little under 7km behind, the Ferrari was heading through Raidillon and gearing up to hit 265kph down the Kemmel Straight. On the fringes of the Herberth garage, radiolemans.com’s Joe Bradley summed up the atmosphere as the Porsche hit the re-fuelling station: “Let’s watch that two minutes ebb away. This is tension boys.”
6m 55s. The Porsche is still stationary in the re-fuelling area as the Ferrari rounds the Bus Stop onto the start-finish straight.
6m 46s. “Porsche on the move!” cries radiolemans.com’s Jonny Palmer as Bohn begins his agonizing 20kph crawl to the end of the refueling area. The Ferrari flashes across the start-finish and dives into La Source at close to 210kph.
6m 32s. Bohn, 2m 32s after he’d first driven onto pitroad, stamps on the throttle as the Porsche starts its run out of the pits and up the hill towards Raidillon. The Ferrari is on the approach to Eau Rouge.
6m 28s. Bohn, on pit exit, appears as a blip in the Ferrari’s windscreen. “Now [the Porsche] is getting back up to full speed and will motor up the hill. In fact you can see it away in the distance from the on-board camera of the Ferrari!”
6m 18s. The Porsche disappears from view from the Ferrari’s onboard camera. “We might have side-by-side cars here down the Kemmel Straight, this is quite incredible!”
6m 16s. The Scuderia Praha Ferrari emerges onto the Kemmel Straight.
6m 15s. The Herberth Motorsport Porsche appears behind it, less than three cars lengths back.
In an extraordinary turn of events, the lead for the 2019 Hankook 12H SPA changes hands with just two laps left to run. The anguish in the Herberth garage is almost tangible. Across at the Scuderia Praha monitors, the sounds of euphoria are deafening, and the exact moment is caught by CREVENTIC’s resident photographer, Petr Frýba.
“It wasn’t really relief. It was more like pure happiness! On the other hand, you always want the fight to be on the race track, and I think that what the guys at Herberth Motorsport did was a fantastic job. And the race had been great up until the last minute. But [Jiří and I] were just super happy that we had made it!”
To this day, the 2019 Hankook 12H SPA remains one of the closest victories in 24H SERIES history and easily one of the most dramatic as Matteo Malucelli eventually crossed the line just 7.871s ahead of Ralf Bohn. Brutal bad luck for Herberth Motorsport is later attributed to a faulty fuel pump, the EIGHT seconds lost in the process proving the difference between victory and the runners-up spot.
Sportsman and professional that he is though, Josef does admit that, while Scuderia Praha was a deserved winner at Spa-Francorchamps – the Ferrari’s pace throughout the weekend more than validates that – luck was also not with the normally peerless Herberth Motorsport on 20 April 2019. It’s for this reason the Hankook 12H SPA remains one of the most significant results of the Czech team’s championship-winning season.
“We weren’t really sure if we would get this win, and that meant the emotions were even bigger because of this! Nobody really expected a mistake [from Herberth] or that something would go wrong, and that is something that does make me a little sad. On the one side, we were cheering that we had won, but in the end, it’s mostly because of a mistake. Which counts, of course, because the winner is the team that makes the least mistakes. But we still went to say congratulations to [Herberth Motorsport] because they were super-fast all weekend, and without that mistake, we probably wouldn’t have made it.
“Every win, or even every finish, in an endurance race is nice because the emotions are big and you can really enjoy [the celebrations]. And that season was mega! From the beginning we were fast, quick everywhere, and mostly trouble free. We just kept on going and going and going without any mistakes. That was the key to winning the championship in the end. But yeah, Spa was really close!”
- Words – James Gent
- Images – Petr Frýba
You can also check out this story in the 2021 Hankook 12H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD magazine, available for download at the link below.