United Autosports scored a stunning top-three GT3 rostrum finish on the American-owned team’s 24 Hour race début when Mark Blundell (GB), Zak Brown (US), Eddie Cheever (US) and Richard Dean (GB) steered their Audi R8 LMS home into third place in the annual and historic Spa 24 Hours this weekend (Jul 31-Aug 1).
The Leeds (GB)-based team’s “sister” Audi of Emil Assentato (US), Stefan Johansson (Sw), Alain Li (F) and Mark Patterson (US) added to United Autosports’ superb achievement by finishing fourth in class, the team’s brace of R8 LMS GT3 sports cars claiming ninth and 10th overall in the 40-car field.
A power steering issue on the #68 Audi of Blundell/Brown/Cheever/Dean, just four hours from the finish with Cheever poised to re-take the class lead, cost them a possible GT3 victory following a lengthy pit-stop for repairs.
At one-quarter distance, the #68 and #67 United Autosports cars were placed fifth and 10th in class respectively – the latter surviving two harmless spins. Cheever’s 128min stint saw him remain on “slick” dry weather tires, the American reveling in the treacherously slippery conditions as rain fell in varying degrees of intensity which saw the #68 hovering just outside the top-three.
With 6hr 25m gone Dean, who had qualified 10th in class on Thursday evening and who had begun the race, was up to third in the #68 (9th overall) with Johansson, who qualified the #67 Audi 13th, eighth as heavy rain fell.
The #68 Audi enjoyed a relatively trouble-free night apart from a puncture and lay third (eighth overall) in the 16th hour in contrast to the “sister” #67 Audi which endured a more eventful night. Assentato visited the gravel trap at Les Combes twice, the second resulting in a Safety Car to retrieve the Audi (0115hr), Li suffered a harmless spin, Patterson contacted a backmarker necessitating an 11mins pit-stop for bodywork repairs (0324hr) while Johansson had a puncture (0445). Despite these dramas, Li was sixth (14th overall) at 0800hr.
Blundell swept the #68 into second place (sixth overall) during the pit-stop phase shortly before three-quarter distance (1000hr) prior to his own scheduled stop, with Patterson placed fifth (12th). But the honor of taking the GT3 class lead (fifth overall) for the first time fell appropriately to United Autosports’ Chairman & Co-Owner Brown 19hrs into the race (1100).
With four hours remaining, Cheever and Assentato lay second (sixth overall) and fourth (10th) in class but moments later Cheever in the #68 Audi and poised to re-take the GT3 lead, Cheever controlled a massive “moment” exiting the high speed Eau Rouge, a power steering issue diagnosed after two subsequent pit-stops costing 43mins and dropping the #68 to third in class (ninth overall) – one place ahead of the “sister” car – with three hours remaining.
Emil Assentato (USA): “I feel exuberated – it’s a great result for our car – on my first 24 Hour race in Europe. My first stint which was in the dry, was conservative, getting to know the track and the car. The second stint was okay then I was in again for the night hours. After pitting for ‘slicks’ on the drying track, I spun into the gravel trap exiting Les Combes on my ‘out’ lap. But with just three laps remaining in that stint, I became over confident and spun at La Combes again, losing about three laps while I got towed out of the sand trap. That was disappointing because I let the team down. Later on Sunday I had a much better stint and was much happier with my lap times. The track was hot with plenty of rubber down for my last stint resulting in the car ‘pushing’ a lot while the brakes were going off. You always think as a driver you’re prepared for a 24 hour race but in reality you never are.”
Stefan Johansson (Sw): “The first goal in any 24 hour race always has to be to get both cars home and that’s exactly what United Autosports did. I started the race and managed to get past the #68 Audi but then had a big, big ‘tank slapper’ of a spin at Blanchimont caused by debris and gravel on the track. My second and third stints were good. We had no technical glitches to speak of with our car. I’d love to race this Audi again.”
Alain Li (F): “It’s been an eventful 24 hour race début for me as you’d expect – especially at a place like Spa – and an incredible experience. I steadily picked up speed throughout my stints. I had to contend with light and heavier rain on “slicks” in my first stint. My second stint in darkness was a little chaotic. I was spun around at La Source by a slower car I was lapping, thankfully without damage to the car, but then had another spin. I was really pleased with my third stint, setting some good times and gaining places. To summarize a fantastic opportunity with a great team.”
Mark Patterson (USA): “I was fourth in to the car after Stefan, Emil and Alain and despite a spin early on, settled myself in quickly after that balletic move. I was back in the car in the early hours and was hit as I attempted to lap a backmarker at La Source causing left side rear bodywork damage which earned us a pit-stop for repairs. I was very happy with my third stint, a double, setting good, consistent times.”
Mark Blundell (USA): “I’m a little disappointed with only third place after leading GT3 and when a win looked realistic but that’s endurance racing. It looked like a win, I had one moment when another car hit me during the race. Double-stinting [approximately 140mins] after seven years out or a racecar has been tough. I must admit I’m tired. The team has done a tremendous job to get onto the winners’ rostrum in its first 24 hour race and I’m personally very happy to be in the best-placed Audi.”
Zak Brown (USA): “I had a [lazy] spin but in a 24 hour race that’s not too bad! I did a stint and a half to begin with in varying weather conditions on “slicks” and managed to stick it out which was pleasing. On Sunday morning I just wanted to keep out of trouble – I’m glad I wasn’t told I took the GT3 lead as that would’ve been pressure I could do without. I had the honor of bringing the Audi home at the finish. I’m absolutely delighted with what our team has achieved this weekend.”
Eddie Cheever (USA): “The United Autosports team did everything and more than anyone could have expected in its maiden 24 hours. Our strategy, pit-stops and engineering were all good. My first stint, getting in the car after Richard, Mark and Zak was difficult due to the conditions with the track going from wet, drying, getting wetter again etc etc, but that was the same for everyone. With a track as long as this, you get half good and half bad in terms of track conditions so you may as well suck it up and stay out [on slicks] which is what I did. The Audi R8 LMS was very good in those conditions. It has a lot of electronics that helps the driver to use whatever grip is available. That stint allowed us to put a dent in to the others and put us in the game. I didn’t have any problems in the second stint. Around lunchtime on Sunday, I had a power steering problem coming out of Eau Rouge and I was lucky not to crash.”
Richard Dean (GB): “The United Autosports did not exist six months ago. To achieve third and fourth places and be the best placed Audi team with both cars finishing, I have to be proud. That said, it’s tinged with a little disappointment because a win was beckoning for a while. I started and my opening stint was trouble-free, the balance of the car improved as the stint went on. I then did a double stint behind the wheel in the wet which went well apart from near the end when I was on “wets” and the racing line was bone dry. It was looking like a three stint session in the car next time out but I picked up a punctured left front tire bringing my stint to a finish.”