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Tough return to the Total 24 Hours of Spa for Rob Bell and the McLaren 720S GT3

25th October 2020

Rob Bell returned to the Total 24 Hours of Spa this weekend for the first time since 2017, debuting the McLaren 720S GT3 in a 24-hour endurance event for round 3 of the GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS. The experienced British GT driver lined up as part of the sole McLaren entry with Customer Racing team Optimum Motorsport alongside season-long teammates Joe Osborne and Ollie Wilkinson, but damage caused by a debris strike ultimately determined the team’s fate in the early laps and saw the trio forced to retire shortly before the 10-hour mark, robbing them of a potentially strong result.

The revised calendar saw a shift in dates for the GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS blue riband event, adding a new dimension to the already challenging prospect of racing at Spa-Francorchamps for 24 hours. Famed almost as much for its micro-climate as it is for its close racing over the years, the change to October would see even more changeable conditions along with extended racing in darkness.

Qualifying for the weekend followed the similar format from the previous rounds of the season, with an average laptime taken over the three separate sessions. After an earlier rain shower, the sessions would prove tricky for each of the drivers as the wet track became drier. With Ollie running first, followed by Joe and Rob completing the sessions, the final grid would see the #69 Optimum Motorsport 720S GT3 line up in the middle of the 55-strong field in P30. The further night test session would see the Y.CO-sponsored McLaren running through the Ardennes Forest in the dark for the first time, with the trio making final setup and settings adjustments ahead of its first 24-hour event.

Rob took the opening stint for Optimum Motorsport, and the rolling start saw the full grid cleanly away underlining the quality and competitiveness of the assembled grid. Firmly in the middle of the pack, Rob’s race experience paid dividends over the opening laps as he made an immediate impression and moved up the order running well and pushing for a top-20 position. However, less than halfway through the opening hour of running, Rob was unsighted while battling closely for position and, as the leading cars avoided a tyre carcass, he made contact at around 120mph. While it was at a significant speed, the #69 McLaren appeared to have sustained minimal damage, but over the following laps it became increasingly apparent that the power steering unit had been affected as the steering became heavier forcing Rob in to the pits slightly earlier than the initial race strategy had planned.

Despite the setback, the Optimum Motorsport team worked to rectify the issue losing minimal time, and Rob was quickly back out on track, having lost just a handful of positions. However, further issues relating to the steering started to become apparent as the stint continued and, after working through various methods in an attempt to overcome the problems, Rob returned to the pitlane for further investigations.

On closer inspection, the pipework within the power steering system was found to be damaged and leaking and, while not directly linked to the earlier contact, it appeared to be as a result of an impact and prolonged repairs were required. This additional time in the pitlane dropped the #69 further down the order, but the Optimum Motorsport pitcrew worked quickly and efficiently to rectify the issues and the car returned to action, albeit several laps down on the leaders.

From here, Joe and Ollie pushed on as the darkness fell, steadily working to close the gap and climb back up the order. The time in the pitlane had seen the #69 McLaren drop to the back of the field, but dogged determination saw the team looking to recover with the aim of making it through the night and on to the chequered flag. The running was also used as an opportunity for Ollie to gain valuable track time and 24-hour event experience in challenging conditions, while both Joe and Ollie also worked through various testing and setup programmes in a live race environment.

However, with just over nine hours completed, and having recovered to P47, the #69 McLaren made a final entry into the Spa pitlane before retiring from the race.

Rob Bell -
“Spa is a cruel mistress for any car at any time, and it doesn’t get any tougher than the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The grid this year is as strong as I’ve ever seen, and it was always going to be the biggest challenge for the car and team that we have faced to-date. The team did a faultless job all weekend and we had a car capable of a good result, and we were running well in each of the sessions. We knew we didn’t quite have the pace of our rivals and struggled at times to get the best out of the new tyres, but we all felt we had a good racecar.

“Qualifying was tricky with the track drying, and the result put us firmly in the middle of the pack, but I stayed out of trouble in the opening laps and managed to move up the order and the car was running well. Hitting the tyre debris on track was unavoidable as I saw it at the very last second with the car ahead of me jinking to avoid contact, and I was fully committed to the corner with nowhere to go. We thought we had avoided significant damage, but it appears that it was this impact which then led to the other problems we experienced over the following few hours.

“Over the course of the season and in the build-up to the race, we have worked hard on reliability and race pace, and the overall aim for the weekend was to get the car to the finish on its 24-hour event debut. It was always going to be a tough event being the sole McLaren in the field and, obviously, it is bitterly disappointing that the race ended prematurely in the way it did, but the team did a great job with preparing and running the car and with the strategy, and there are a lot of positives to take from the weekend, and it was all invaluable experience for Ollie making his Spa 24 debut. We will now take stock and regroup ahead of the season finale at Paul Ricard and look to end the season on a high.”

The fourth and final round of the GT World Challenge powered by AWS Endurance Cup will see Rob back in action with the #69 Optimum Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3 at Circuit Paul Ricard, France over the weekend 13-15 November.