Owens Takes RS01 Endurance Victory at Spa
Stavelot, Belgium – Raoul Owens soared to victory alongside teammate Fredrik Blomstedt at the fifth round of the 2016 Renault Sport Trophy (RS01) in a weekend of sunny weather, break-neck speed, extreme crashes, the return of a F1 hero and large crowds of motorsport fans from across Europe.
There is no question that a special feeling greets you when arriving at Spa-Francorchamps. In fact, this weekend was the round that Raoul has most looked forward to all season. Not only does Raoul have his own racing history and memories from Spa, the circuit is regarded as one of great challenge and merit for those who succeed there.
Arriving on Thursday with the R-ace GP team, Raoul hoped the team would demonstrate good pace from the start of Free Practice on Friday morning. Sadly this would not be the case, as Raoul and his teammates suffered from a loose rear balance to their cars during the first two practice sessions. Responding urgently to the need for radical change in car setup, both R-ace GP cars went faster in the third and final practice session on Friday afternoon, finishing P5 and P7.
“In the last practice session we made a big change and that improved the setup significantly,” said Raoul. “Both myself and Kevin [Korjus] closed the gap to the front guys. We thought we had fixed earlier setup issues, but in qualifying the car was not hooked up as we expected.”
The oversteer problems from Friday returned on Saturday morning, combined with an overwhelming vibration that shook the car while travelling through the high-speed sections of the track. The peculiar vibration was later attributed to a cracked front splitter following an off-track excursion by fellow #2 driver, Fredrik Blomstedt, earlier that morning. The damaged car impeded Raoul’s ability to qualify well and he could not improve upon P12 – a result far off the Briton’s usual Top 5 pace.
Having been able to repair the #2 car in time for the Endurance Race, Raoul’s teammate would begin the 70-minute race from P2. A shocking crash on the first lap involving no less than six cars resulted in an immediate safety car period. Fortunately both R-ace GP cars got away unscathed and the remaining active cars continued in procession behind the safety car for over 15 minutes while debris was cleared from the track and Diederik Sijthoff was attended to by medical staff for precautionary measures.
Once the safety car returned to the pit lane and the race resumed, Blomstedt made chase for the lead against his title rival Fabian Schiller of Team Marc VDS. Both drivers stretched a gap over the rest of the pack and Blomstedt eventually concluded his stint in P2. As the #2 car came in to box for its mandatory driver change, Raoul completed a faultless pit stop at the end of Lap 13 and rejoined the circuit in P4, splitting the Schothorst brothers of Equipe Verschuur.
“The safety car probably did us a bit of a favour because it reduced our tyre degradation quite substantially and that helped to be consistent [in race pace]” says Raoul. “I knew that the Verschuur cars were so quick that it would be almost impossible to keep the same pace as them, so I just kept my head down for the remainder of the race and tried to maintain the gap to them.
“We had 50kg more ballast than the guys in front and the front end was experiencing more understeer towards the end of the race.” However, after a lost victory at Paul Ricard in the previous round of the season due to a gearbox failure on the final lap of the Endurance Race, the #2 car held strong and probably grinned as it spotted and passed the slow car of Markus Palttala nursing back to the pit lane after being shunted by Steijn Schothorst on the penultimate lap.
What had not been communicated to Raoul during the race by his engineer was the fact that the two Equipe Verschuur cars ahead had earned themselves time penalties of 15 and 25 seconds to the end of their total race time. Therefore, Raoul would win the race if he finished within a 15 second margin of Pieter Schothorst (issued due to an infringement to the minimum pit stop time equally assigned to all competitors).
Despite their dominance in speed all weekend and the lack of ballast in their cars, the Equipe Verschuur duo could not pull away from Raoul in the closing laps of the Endurance Race. The Schothorst brothers had eaten through their tyres, while Raoul and Blomstedt had taken care of theirs, and Raoul received the chequered flag not knowing that his 12 second gap to Pieter Schothorst had earned him his first race win of 2016 on one of his favourite circuits.
“The team had decided not to tell me about the penalties and I’m glad they didn’t,” said Raoul after the race. “We have had such bad luck this year, including the race we should have won at Paul Ricard. I think everyone receives a bit of bad luck at some point, so it’s great to have a bit of fortune go our way. I’m really glad for me and the team. A podium would have been good, but a win is that much sweeter. With [Robert] Kubica on the podium too, there was even more hype about it which was great.”
On Sunday, Raoul and the team knew the 25-minute Sprint Race would be difficult considering a P12 start position. Another first lap crash took place at the La Source hairpin as Anders Fjordback got hot on his exit, oversteering and collecting other cars in the process. Raoul found time to react and got through the danger zone of the wreck, gaining five places in the process and tucked up behind Jordan Grogor of V8 Racing.
“I basically got stuck behind Grogor and being stuck behind him was a nightmare,” said Raoul. “I already had understeer and this was compounded by the dirty air from the car in front. [My] car was really good in the first four laps and we chased down the leaders, but as the front runners went faster, Grogor was going slower and I couldn’t capitalise.
“I think going into Estoril we have a very good base setup. We did very well there in pre-season testing. I don’t want to over hype it because I think Verschuur has found something in the setup during the course of the year, but I have high hopes and I really think we can win another Endurance Race.”
In fact, another endurance win in Portugal next month could promote Raoul amongst the top three finishers of the Endurance Championship. The final round at the former F1 venue will take place from 21-23 October.