Earlier in the season, you might not have picked Emil Frey Racing as a major threat for overall victory at this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa.
Having embarked on a new programme with the Lexus RC F GT3, the Swiss outfit was stilllearning about its car while competing against vastly experienced opposition. 2018 was expected to be a transitional year for the team, with 2019 presenting a better chance to fight at the front of the pack.
Then came the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km and a dramatic breakthrough victory for the #14 Lexus of Albert Costa, Christian Klien and Marco Seefried. Now, many consider the two-car Emil Frey Lexus effort to be a dark horse for victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
There is no denying that many of the key ingredients required to conquer Spa are present. The team is a tightly-knit unit that relishes its underdog status, as demonstrated by the emotional scenes of celebration that erupted in the garage following their victory at Circuit Paul Ricard.
Their machinery is up to the task as well. Though still relatively new, the RC F GT3 has already proven its calibre in the Blancpain GT Series and should find a circuit that suits its characteristics at Spa. Factor in a highly accomplished group of drivers – including past Spa winners Stephane Ortelli and Markus Palttala – and there is clearly big potential within this small squad.
For team principal Lorenz Frey, Spa represents the ultimate goal. A driver himself with several starts at the 24 Hours to his name, Frey has a particularly keen understanding of what the race means.
“Winning Spa would be like winning the world championship,” says Frey. “It is the toughest test in GT racing. With so many GT3 cars on the grid, the driver line-ups, and on such a special track, winning means a lot. We’re working day and night to hopefully achieve it.”
The team is undertaking extensive preparation to make this dream a reality. Despite being among the smaller outfits on the gird, the Emil Frey squad has already completed a number of long-distance tests with the new Lexus to address any potential issues. Thus far, the Japanese machine has run without fault.
“Like all races, Spa is about preparation, and we try to run through the processes,” explains Frey. “The big difference is that everything starts much earlier.
“We have trained for a lot of procedures: installing the lights, changing the brakes when they’re very hot, running through pit stops,” he continues. “It’s important for the whole group to simulate the conditions we’ll experience at the 24 Hours.
“For sure it’s not like the real race, but it’s really good to have this opportunity. We’re a private team and a 24-hour test is really costly, so we can’t do it all the time. When we have the chance, we have to make sure it pays off.”
There are plenty of obvious factors to consider when preparing for Spa, but few appreciate just how long the list stretches. Frey reels off a series of tasks, large and small, that must be dealt with long before setting off for the Belgian Ardennes. From marketing to mobile phones, each forms a part of the team’s challenge.
“From the marketing side, this is a very big event for us when it comes to hospitality and guests. The interest from sponsors is very big. They want to invite a lot of people and some special marketing activities take place, so just like from a technical side there is special preparation.
“A lot of other things have to be covered. You need a really good physiotherapist for the drivers, you need rooms for them to sleep in close to the track, you need food available at the right time.
“We try to make sure that everything around the team is settled so the drivers can focus on their job. In a 24-hour race, the challenge is already big enough.
“For example, the drivers and the team need to know how to get the car back to the pits in case of a problem. There are tools in the car that you would never have for a Sprint Cup race, because there you have no chance to make repairs as it takes so long.
Having shown their best form at Silverstone and Circuit Paul Ricard, it follows that Spa’s characteristics should suit the RC F GT3 and allow the Emil Frey drivers to be competitive. They are clearly geared up for the event as well, with Albert Costa – who made the race-winning pass at the French venue – stating that a top-10 grid position should be the squad’s target for qualifying.
Team boss Frey remains cautious, however, suggesting that the know-how built up by their rivals over many years could prove decisive during the 24 Hours.
“We have to learn a lot. Our target is to constantly improve and not fall back and this is a big challenge for us,” says Frey.
“The teams with experience are the experts at 24-hour races. We’re a really young team, but we have experienced drivers who have done this race many times and won it, so this helps us. We’ll try to provide them with the right car so that they can do it again,” Frey concludes.
While no one wishes to set unrealistic expectations, there is a quiet confidence about this small, competitive team. The Total 24 Hours of Spa will be their greatest test to date, but they are enthusiastic about meeting the challenge. After the rapid progress already shown this season, Emil Frey Racing and Lexus simply cannot be discounted.