News feature: Spa Turn

Spa United AutosportsMost people are familiar with Le Mans. If you’re handy with a PlayStation you’ll also know of the Nurburgring 24 Hours, an equally punishing race that takes no prisoners.

The Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium is a popular F1 venue, and is famous for its many elevation changes and weather system – rain one minute, sunshine the next. It’s here that the other famous 24 hour race is held; Spa is host to close-to-production race cars.

This year saw a battle royal between Audi, Mercedes, Aston Martin, McLaren and Ferrari. And it was an Audi R8 that won – don’t worry I haven’t spoiled the ending. Disappointingly, TV coverage trails that of F1. Still, to fully enjoy a 24 hour race you’ve really got to be there.

Spa United AutosportsWhich is how I found myself in the pit garage of United Autosports, an Anglo-American team co-owned by Richard Dean and Zak Brown. Both have raced single seaters but soon found running teams and securing sponsorship money better matched their talents. They’re still handy behind the wheel, and having chosen Audi’s R8 LMS car as their weapon of choice, finished the 2010 event as third and fourth overall.

Back with a trio of cars and a who’s who of racing talent, the goal was to improve on their 2010 result. And with the likes of Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell, Stefan Johansson, Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk the potential was there.

Alas it wasn’t to be; mechanical gremlins put paid to a repeat performance. Losing two cars didn’t help but one did finish: the 23 R8 driven by Dean, Brown, Herbert and Johansson in a creditable 13th.

Spa United AutosportsThe conditions were typical Spa: raining one minute and sunny the next. A nightmare for race engineers, they earn their money making judgment calls on the correct tyres for pit stops. For 24 hours the crews are slaves to the pit stops. Everyone has to be ready to contribute to the tyre changing, refueling, or driver change routine.

It’s a surprise to learn some have ‘proper’ jobs – working for United Autosports is a form of paid escapism. If you’d like to spend five weeks on the road between race and test venues, including a 24 hour assault and be responsible for manhandling tyres then you need to meet Geoff.

Taxi driver by day, Geoff says the buzz and camaraderie is hard to beat. He vowed never to do another after the team’s 2010 Spa outing, but here he was again organising tyres and surviving on a diet of Lucozade, pasta and fish finger sandwiches.

Spa United AutosportsRace engineers are known to muck in, too. It was particularly disappointing to see the 11 car retire on track before nightfall; its four-man crew included Mark Blundell and US Indy veteran Eddie Cheever. Race engineer Erik was soon hauling tyres with Geoff and checking temperatures after pit stops. For a man who has engineered cars for numerous rising stars and established pros, Erik was proof that there’s no room for fifth wheels in a pit garage.

I wasn’t going to be allowed to stand around and observe for the duration either. There’s a steady stream of wheels that need washing and tyres that need regrading if they are to be reused.

It’s an important task as it’s only when they’re clean can you spot any damage, plus if you run out of fresh tyres the used ones need to be in top condition as a back up. That’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you’re elbow-deep in cold, soapy water at the back of the pit garage, in the dark washing filthy wheels though.

Crucially, though, I was part of the team. I even had the fetching team shirt and fleece to prove it, with the latter essential to keeping the drizzle at bay sometime around midnight on Saturday. Living the dream? For some it can be.

Spa United AutosportsEndurance racing is never dull and the final hour was the perfect example. United’s 12 car was forced to retire and the team’s disappointment was obvious to see despite it bing classified 19th. Still, the 23 car was on course to finish with, fittingly, co-owner Richard Dean at the wheel.

After it crossed the line the team’s spirits improved. One out of three was a good result, as was 13th place in the face of stiffer competition this year. Next stop: home.

Talking to Johnny Herbert before the race it was clear that sports car racing’s appeal is unmatched elsewhere in motorsport. He viewed it as a challenge and there’s clearly some unfinished business to attend to as he looks for more future wins.

His upbeat attitude was in stark contrast to his behavior after stepping out of the car after a mammoth Sunday morning stint. Hobbling and moaning, you could tell he’d given his all. For him and the rest of the team that’s what it’s all about.

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