It wasn't a win – although it might well have been but for a mechanical issue in the later stages – but United Autosports had a lot to be satisfied with on the first visit of the American-owned GT squad to the Spa 24 Hours.
The team's No. 68 Audi R8 LMS rallied back following a power steering failure to claim a place on the rostrum with third place in the GT3 class by Mark Blundell, team co-owner Zak Brown, Eddie Cheever and the squad's other co-owner, Richard Dean. Meanwhile, the team's sister Audi of Emil Assentato, Stefan Johansson, Alain Li and Mark Patterson fought through a series of problems of their own to finish fourth in class, the team claiming ninth and 10th overall in the 40-car field.
“I'm a little disappointed with only third place after leading GT3 and when a win looked realistic, but that's endurance racing," reckoned Blundell, who was making his first pro race start in years in seven years but soon shook off the rust. "It looked like a win," he added.
Indeed, the No 68 Audi had looked poised to take the lead with four hours to go when a power steering pump failure forced Cheever into a lurid slide coming out of Eau Rouge corner. A lengthy pit stop to replace the broken components cost the team 16 laps to the class leaders, but the car rejoined at the same brisk pace, and moved back up to third in class by the finish.
“The United Autosports team did everything and more than anyone could have expected in its maiden 24 hours." said Cheever, who cut a 25sec lead for the class leader down to seven before the mechanical failure. "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., 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 help the driver to use whatever grip is available."
Meanwhile, the team's No. 67 Audi endured an eventful night, but its drivers also came away with a sense of accomplishment. Assentato visited the gravel trap at Les Combes twice, the second resulting in a Safety Car to retrieve the Audi shortly after 1 a.m. Li also had a harmless spin, while Patterson contacted a backmarker necessitating an 11-minute stop for bodywork repairs around 3:30 p.m. and Johansson had a puncture at 4:45. Despite these dramas, Li had the car back up to sixth (14th overall) by 8 a.m. and persevered to fourth behind its sister by the finish.
“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," said Johansson. "I started the race and managed to get past the 68, 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.”
Team co-owner Brown admitted to some disappointment at losing the shot at victory, but said it was swept away by the satisfaction of the comeback,
"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," he said. "I had the honor of bringing the Audi home at the finish. I'm absolutely delighted with what our team has achieved this weekend."
Brown hinted that there could be more to come for his all-star GT squad, too. "We're already talking about the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring," he grinned.