This article first appeared in the 16th January edition of Autosport magazine
I suppose a lot of people would expect me to choose the 1998 Le Mans 24 Hours that I won with Allan McNish and Laurent Aiello in the Porsche GT1 as the Race of my Life. For sure it was a special race but there is another that was special for me – the Spa 24 Hours in 2003.
That year I was doing the FIA GT Championship with Freisinger Motorsport. They were the team that I joined after Bob Wollek, my mentor, friend and ‘racing father’ died. Bob taught me so much the first time I went to Spa.
In 2002 I finished on the overall podium in an N-GT car, so we knew that under the right circumstances a win might just be possible. The big boost for us in 2003 was that Norbert Singer joined us. The man! The legend! Porsche had won Le Mans with Norbert’s expertise and it was an honour to be a part of that.
For Spa, the spirit was very good with Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas who are both great guys. We had a very intelligent race with Norbert calling most of the shots. Early on I remember Mike Hezemans crashing and I thought if a driver of that experience can go off I need to be careful. As Bob used to say: ‘A 24-hour race, starts at midnight, before that you are a taxi driver!’
From the start we were saving fuel and getting laps back on our opponents through better economy. It was classic endurance racing.
Spending as much time away from the pits is the way to go, especially when the weather is poor and there are safety cars, which is exactly how it transpired in 2003. As the race went on we were still in the top three. Nobody thought we could get an overall win.
There were crashes during the night with many safety car periods and this actually became the key point
I had just got into the car before one of the accidents. The safety car would be out for a long time and I heard Norbert say on the radio: ‘Stephane, I don’t want to see you back in the pits before the race actually restarts.’ So, I started to switch the engine off at Les Combes to see how far I could go down the hill free-wheeling. And then I would accelerate to join the group of cars.
I also turned off the lights to save the battery. I was doing the same trick lap after lap. And the only thing Norbert said was, ‘great job, you did what I asked you to do, well done Stephane, intelligent!’
We won the race – the first win for an N-GT car in FIA GT. It was very satisfying. The podium was fantastic. I was so pleased for the Freisinger guys who were real racers and deserved the win so much. I looked down and saw Norbert wiping away a tear. It was his first Spa win too and he was very emotional.
Monegasque Stephane Ortelli began his international career in French Formula 3 in the early 1990s before a lack of funds led to a switch to touring cars and sportscars. He has since won in every discipline in which he has competed, including at Le Mans, FIA GT, ALMS, LMS, Blancpain, Porsche Supercup and in the Spa 24 Hours. He won the 2013 FIA GT title in an Audi R8 at the age of 43.