The BMW factory driver joined ROWE Racing team-mates Alexander Sims and Nicky Catsburg to score BMW's 20th success in the event, 50 years on from its victory in the maiden 24 Hours in 1970, and its first since 2010 with a GT2-spec M3 E92 after a barren stretch in the current GT3 era.
Their #99 M6 GT3 overhauled the #3 Car Collection Audi R8 LMS as the track dried on Sunday morning, before taking the lead when the rain returned in the closing stages in what BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt called “a magnificent comeback”.
It came after the two leading Mercedes, the #4 Haupt Racing Team and #9 GetSpeed entries driven by Manuel Metzger and Raffale Marciello both crashed out in the tricky conditions, which N24 rookie Yelloly branded the toughest of his career.
“It was really very hard out there; certainly, the worst conditions I have experienced,” the Racing Point Formula 1 team simulator driver said. “Every lap threw up a challenge and a moment, around here if you’re not nearly off then you’re not going fast enough and [this] was no exception!
“I was disappointed in 2019 to not get the chance to drive the M6 in the 24-Hour race, so this year to win at my first attempt is extra special. A big thank you to the team and BMW and all involved in delivering this result.”
Sims, who had previously won the Spa 24 Hours for BMW in 2016, had finished second in 2017 with Catsburg.
“It is simply fantastic to have won this race," said Sims. “It almost feels a bit strange to be relatively refreshed at the end of such a tough race, because we had the break in the night.
"We have been trying for a long time – first with the BMW Z4 GT3, then with the BMW M6 GT3. That makes today’s success special.”
Three M6s finished inside the top four places, with Schnitzer's #42 machine completing the podium in third after what Augusto Farfus described as “a squeaky-clean race” and ROWE's #98 car fourth, while BMW's junior squad topped the SP8T class and finished as the best non-GT3 entry with Porsche Carrera Cup champion Dan Harper among the drivers.
Marquardt said that the result was “an incredibly emotional highlight of what has been a difficult motorsport year so far” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant the race was held without fans in attendance.
“They stuck to the plan, despite all the difficulties we mainly had in the wet, and then made a magnificent comeback in the final few hours when the track first started to dry out before the rain returned,” said Marquardt. “Thanks to a perfect team effort, everyone responsible made all the right decisions at the right time.
“The closing stages, when every second counted, were incredibly nerve-racking. We have tried many times with the BMW M6 GT3 to win this iconic race, which is extremely important to BMW Motorsport.
“Now we have done it, and the joy at this achievement is huge.”