“It’s a new team, we’ll see if they can digest everything they’ve bit off.”
Eddie Cheever is enjoying a light lunch in the United Autosports hospitality area at the Spa 24 Hours. Approximately 48 hours later, the American former F1 and World Sportscar Championship driver and 1998 Indy 500 winner will stand on the GT3-class podium with his co-drivers Mark Blundell, Zak Brown and Richard Dean. The Anglo-American team, which only came together at the beginning of this season, had been heading for GT3 victory at the Belgian classic, when, with just four hours to go, power-steering failure necessitated a lengthy pitstop that demoted them to third in class. It was nonetheless a very satisfying result for the Leeds, UK and Zionsville, Indiana-based outfit, particularly as its second car, driven by Stefan Johansson, Alain Li, Mark Patterson and Emil Assentato, came home fourth in class. United was one of several customer teams running Audi’s R8 LMS GT3 car at Spa, but with former F1 heavyweights Cheever, Johansson and Blundell on the driving strength, they garnered more attention than most in the run-up to the event. And although they are a new team, expectations were high, thanks both to that illustrious driver line-up and the extensive 24-hour experience of various team personnel.
The outfit is co-owned by American Zak Brown and Englishman Richard Dean. Brown achieved respectable results in the cut-throat UK and European junior single-seater ranks in the early ’90s, where he was sponsored by TWA and put a great deal of effort into ensuring his backer got the most out of the deal. When he received an offer to return home to the US to race, TWA asked Brown if he could place their sponsorship with someone else. And thus the seed that would grow to become Just Marketing International (JMI) was planted. Today, JMI is one of the major corporate deal-brokers in Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar and GT racing, and although Brown now has to deal with a whirlwind executive schedule, he never lost his love for driving a racing car on the edge. And so he called on Dean, a friend from his British racing days who had begun to develop a team management career in parallel with his driving exploits, which have included winning the GT2 category of the British GT championship in 1998 and GT2 victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2006. Director-level positions with UK racing firms Ginetta and Zytek made him ideally placed to take the reins at United when the call came through from Brown late last year.
“Zak came to me and said ‘right, I’ve got some catching up to do and I want to race.’” remembers Dean. “He’d done a year in the Ferrari Challenge in the States, but his business had shifted from being predominantly American-based with GrandAm and NASCAR, to the majority now being in Europe with Formula 1, so he found himself spending more time in over here… His travel schedule is immense, he couldn’t do a full 15- or 20-race series, so the GT3 European Championship looked good. With just six events, all in mainland Europe, it was achievable for his schedule.”
The United Autosports workshop doors only opened on January 14, but far from making tentative first steps, the squad has already expanded on its planned events for the year. “We added a British GT round and this race at Spa, so it has already expanded and we’re only halfway through the first season,” says Dean. “The second half of the season doesn’t look any different, because we’ve got both cars in Macau in November and we’ve got one or two other events that we’re looking at. We definitely have ambitions beyond the GT3 championship. Next year we will run with Audi in GT3 and we’ll take in two 24-hour races, Spa and the Nürburging. We’ll be keeping an eye on the GT1 World Championship and maybe even GT3 in Asia. The real goal is to do some GT3 in the States as soon as GT3 is expanded there. GT3 is the best supported and strongest GT class out there, while GrandAm and ALMS look to be struggling for cars, so I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t open up to GT3 sooner rather than later.
One of the challenges facing United in the run-up to Spa was the fact that two of its three high-profile ‘guest drivers’, although possessed of impressive racing CVs covering the highest levels of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic, were potentially ‘ring-rusty’ having been away from racing for seven (Blundell) and three (Cheever) years respectively. With more recent racing experience, Stefan Johansson was placed in United’s second R8, in order to share his vast 24-hour racing experience with less experienced gentleman drivers Alain Li, Mark Patterson and Emil Assentato.
“As we have fairly limited experience, it has maybe been a little bit more difficult for us to get dialled in,” admitted Johansson ahead of the race. “We only had a chance to go for a time in the last five minutes of the qualifying and I don’t think we were quite ready in our car.” Having missed out on the podium this time out, Johansson is not ruling out a return to the United Autosports lineup at future round-the-clock events. “Right now it’s a one-off, but if the opportunity came up I would certainly be keen to drive for them at another event of this kind, absolutely,” he says.
For Cheever, the 2010 Spa 24 Hours marked his first visit to the demanding Belgian road course since retiring the works Jaguar XJR-9 with a fuel pick-up problem in the 1988 1,000-kilometre WSC race there. “The track’s a little bit different nowadays,” he says. “I liked the Bus Stop chicane before but the corner there now seems silly to me. The Bus Stop was very difficult to get right, you had to fly over one kerb and then another one very precisely. But it’s good fun, I still love the circuit. Eau Rouge is still amazing, you really have to suck it up every time you go through there. It’s a beautiful circuit, it has a lot of flow to it and it changes completely in the wet.”
Speaking of the wet, Cheever’s most vivid Spa memory is the damp second qualifying session in the 1983 Formula 1 race, and a wet qualifying session in the Audi R8 this year took him right back to that day. “I was furious, because the day before I’d made a mistake in one corner and missed a time that would have put me on the front row, so when the session started I was full of adolescent vigour and anger. I took it out on the track for a few laps. [Keke] Rosberg was second by about five seconds I think - that was good fun!”
Cheever describes the Audi R8’s wet-weather handling as ‘lovely’ and, far from being frustrated by the intrusion of traction control, he professes to quite enjoying the possibilities it opens up. “I had the traction control working in Eau Rouge - a fifth-gear corner! I came into it and thought ‘there’s no way this is gonna work, I’ve made a mistake’ and then it just went ‘prrrr’ and slowed the car down. Initially you think, ‘well, that’s no good, that’s too easy,’ but then you find a way to push the limit even further. You start carrying more speed in, getting more aggressive on the throttle and changing your line, so once again you’re right back to where you were before and you can’t go any quicker. The first step is hard to get used to, but I liked it, it was a lot of fun. A lot of thought has gone into the Audi.”
Mark Blundell, meanwhile, stepped out of the driving seat at the highest possible level - a works drive with Bentley at the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours. Since then, he has worked to build up a driver-management business with former F1 commentating colleague Martin Brundle (who recently ended his involvement to focus on his BBC duties). Despite the seven-year layoff, Blundell was not short on confidence ahead of the race.
“If we’re not sitting in the overall top 10 within the first hour, I’ll be disappointed,” he said. “Once we get into a rhythm there’ll be a bit of progress made. Overall, the team are doing a good job, taking on board a 24-hour race is not an easy task. I think there’s a lot of stress and pressure for Zak and Richard as co-owners. We’ve got the easy bit - just sit in and drive it!”
Blundell is keeping his options open as regards a return to more regular competition. “I left at a good level with factory cars and on a professional basis, and coming back here definitely has the word ‘enjoyment’ written underneath it, but at the the same time it’s about understanding whether I’ve got enough to do something professionally again. That would mean me getting back into some sort of proper shape, so let’s see how I feel after the 24 hours!”
‘Tired’ was the simple answer to that, but Blundell and his co-drivers also hinted at disappointment that the #68 car lost a possible class victory due to the aforementioned power-steering problem. Nonetheless, third and fourth in GT3 and both cars in the overall top 10 is both a satisfying conclusion to an arduous build-up to the race and a serious statement of intent for forthcoming 24-hour races in 2011 and beyond.
Thanks to Martyn Pass of United Autosports for securing the interviews for this feature
“It’s a new team, we’ll see if they can digest everything they’ve bit off.”