United Autosports
Credit: © JAKOB EBREY PHOTOGRAPHY

The European Le Mans Series rounded off at the 4 Hours of Portimão, confirming three 2020 sportscar championship titles for United Autosports.

United Autosports has already established itself in the ELMS when it won two consecutive LMP3 titles in 2016 and 2017, but had failed to their collection until now.

It was also a maiden LMP2/overall ELMS title for the already successful #22 Oreca.

The ELMS recently concluded its 2020 calendar at the Autodromo do Algarve for the fourth year in a row, having begun the season earlier in the year at Circuit Paul Ricard.

The Anglo-American team ran their usual three main sportscar campaigns in 2020: full-time LMP2 entries in the ELMS (both the #22 and the #32) and the WEC (only the #22), and two LMP3 entries (#2 and #3).

The team had been running a lineup of Ligier JSP217s (and JS P2s before that) for their LMP2 commitments, but had made the switch to the Oreca 07 chassis.

Through all of these efforts, they managed to find success in each of these journeys and claim three championship titles (drivers’ and teams’), in addition to a Le Mans 24 Hours class-victory nearly two months ago.

Analysing the 88th Le Mans 24 Hours

Truthfully speaking, the momentum stretched back as far as the 8 Hours of Bahrain in 2019, four races into the 2019/2020 running of WEC’s Season 8.

The #22 driver crew of Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson, and Paul Di Resta were set to begin a five-race winning streak for the team.

The team qualified the #22 on pole with an average time of 1m45.357s from the usual fastest lap times from two drivers (Hanson and Di Resta).

This maiden WEC pole was only 0.292s ahead of the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing and the time from Gabriel Aubry and Will Stevens.

They were keen to override the recurring reliability struggles that had prevented them from strong results from the prior Silverstone, Fuji and Shanghai races.

They wanted to end 2019 on a high note.

After the initial first-corner drama that scattered the LMP1 order, the #22 led most of the race and took a mistake-free and dominant victory; they won by 21 seconds ahead of the second-placed #38 Jota Sport.

For the first time that season, the team were able to show strong pace in both their qualifying and race form.

#22 Paul Di Resta, Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson – Credit: FIA WEC / Joao Filipe

The next race on their calendar was the WEC’s Lone Star Le Mans race at the Circuit of the Americas.

Whilst the six hour race would appear almost deprived of action in LMP1, the same could not be said for the class beneath.

For added context, Gérard Neveu expressed the contractual difficulties that N/Duch Motorsports were experiencing to host the intended 6 Hours of Sao Paulo.

Eventually, news came out over its cancellation and the Lone Star Le Mans replaced it.

Other venues considered to take the replacement were Kyalami (South Africa) and the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City.

Ahead of the weekend in Austin, Filipe Albuquerque shared his pre-race thoughts: “I’ve been racing in America for the last few years so I am looking forward to racing there again”, he said reflecting on his IMSA DPi commitments.

“Since the beginning of the season we have been catching up to the leaders and now we are only three points away (from leading the championship).

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t be competitive in COTA so I’m really looking forward to getting there.”

This time round, the #22 car qualified second in the LMP2 category with an average time of 1m50.073s, behind the #42 Oreca 07 of COOL Racing.

From the beginning, the Toyotas ahead struggled with their lack of pace due to the success handicap, thus mixed briefly with the field of nine LMP2s.

During the opening stint, Paul Di Resta experienced issues concerning both tyre pressures and the setup of the car.

They were forced to make a pitstop which put them off-sequence for the rest of the race, with a predicted late move for a splash of fuel during the final hour.

Through a recovering drive by the trio, they soon put themselves back into contention for the win rather than for a podium as it emerged that many others would need to make a splash-n-dash pitstop.

By the end, they took another win by 20 seconds over second, and was the first time an LMP2 team claimed two consecutive wins since Rebellion in 2017.

As the global COVID pandemic reached its peak, it was inevitable that the 1000 Miles of Sebring would face cancellation after President Trump’s travel ban.

It was due to be a collaboration between IMSA’s 12 Hours of Sebring and the WEC’s 1000 Miles of Sebring, plus unveiling LMDh details throughout the race weekend.

If it had taken place, Albueruque would have been put to the test at the famously demanding Sebring International Raceway with his DPi and LMP2 participations.

During the six-month gap until the next WEC race at Spa-Francorchamps, with the initial 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 13-14 deferred until September, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was put in-place to align with many other championships briefly going virtual.

Why the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was a success

United Autosports took part in this sim-racing event, in a LMP class of 30 Oreca 07 Gibson entries based on the rFactor 2 platform.

Their sole #22 entry qualified in 28th and finished in 24th in the hands of United Autosports regulars Alex Brundle, Filipe Albuquerque, Job Van Uitert and Tom Gamble.

Back to the world of real-life sportscar racing, the ELMS kicked off at Circuit Paul Ricard; firstly the Prologue (testing) took place days prior to the 4 Hour race and its weekend.

By the end of two morning and afternoon sessions, and one night session, both United Autosports LMP2s topping the times with Brundle setting a 1m38.158s in the #32 (second afternoon session).

#32 United Autosports (LMP2) – Credit: ELMS

In LMP3, the #2 followed the #3 United Autosports in second and third; the fastest time was set by Wayne Boyd in the #2 with a 1m48.132s.

Onto the 4 Hours of Le Castellet weekend, the #22 United Autosports took pole position in LMP2 and the #2 took pole in LMP3, thus granted one point each ahead of the race.

After an action-packed opening round of the ELMS, the #32 found its way to win as the #22 claimed third having made an extra pitstop in their strategy.

Due to drama concerning clashes between competitors and those in different categories, the #32 of Will Owen enjoyed a battle with Albueruque in their sister car, as well as against the #26 G-Drive Racing.

“Filipe has obviously taught me a lot and we’ve been racing together for a while and usually, when he’s behind me, he’s catching up”, said Owen post-race.

The #2 United Autosports crew of Wayne Boyd, Tom Gamble and Rob Weldon also claimed victory in the LMP3 class.

The WEC and the #32 was still on the wait until the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in August, but the ELMS 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was a week prior on August 9th.

For the third time in a row, the #22 (duo crew) of Albuquerque and Hanson took another pole position in its consecutive streak of endurance races.

Hanson started the #22 just ahead of the sister car and began to establish an early gap as Will Owen piloting the #32 fell under pressure from Mikkel Jensen in the #26 G-Drive Racing.

Jensen asserted his strong pace to make it up to second.

Meanwhile in LMP3, their #2 Ligier-Nissan with Wheldon behind the wheel made the most of his two hour stint as he continued his form from his pole in qualifying.

The race was full of drama, with the first of two safety cars being deployed (then to a red flag) relative to Martin Hippe in the #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier going into the tyre wall on the exit of Bruxelles, attempting to avoid a spinning #10 Nielsen Racing Duqueine of Rob Hodes.

On the restart 20 minutes later, Jensen got the better jump to make a pass on Hanson to take the lead.

These two cars jostled back and forth for the lead as the rain kicked in.

In the final hour, Jensen was back in the #26 and on the leading #22 until he made a mistake at Blanchimont, running wide onto the kerbs and putting the car into a spin and straight into the barriers.

The Dane was deemed okay, but the car was far from that same description.

The #22 led by a minute over the field behind and eventually secured its third sportscar victory.

The #2 also ended up victorious after a dominant drive, finishing 55 seconds over the #77 Nielsen Racing Duqueine.

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Then came the return of the WEC proceedings with the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.

The #22 was driven by Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson, and Paul Di Resta.

Once again, they secured another pole position as the prior ELMS-Spa experience came in handy.

Albuquerque drove the #22 for its opening stint and built up a strong lead for the first 43 laps.

The LMP2 category were stricken with intense battles, but the first for the #22 was the #29 Racing Team Nederland which made a comeback after starting at the back of the field.

It made up 23 positions to fight wheel-to-wheel with the #22 United Autosports, also having a number of pit-crew/pit-stop battles as well, with one having 0.5s separating them, and the next being 6 seconds for wet tyres.

Later on, a battle between the #36 driven by Thomas Laurent against the #22 emerged for the lead too.

How the WEC delivered on its long-awaited return to racing

Eventually, the #22 United Autosports tasted victory once again, after getting pole too, and were ready to win Le Mans and the championship title in the following month.

Unsurprisingly, they claimed LMP2 Hyperpole position in the hands of Paul Di Resta with a 3m24.528s.

The Le Mans 24 Hours was filled with reliability issues throughout but the #22 kept their cool as they were accompanied into numerous battles, but the most notable was in the final hour between themselves and the #38 JOTA.

Sky Sports F1 pundits Di Resta and Anthony Davidson (#38 JOTA) battled hard but stayed together, with the tension relieved after the #38 had to pit for fuel.

The #22 finally won Le Mans, and represented a special seventh consecutive victory to claim the WEC LMP2 drivers’ and teams’ championship title.

Credit: FIA WEC / Marius Hecker

The ELMS returned to Circuit Paul Ricard but for a night race in the form of the Le Castellet 240.

The heavy rain prior to the start meant that the safety car lead the start, with Hanson in the #22 leading from pole and establishing an early gap to second.

Throughout the four hours, there were numerous changes for the lead.

On approach to the first pitstops, many teams were wary of the drying conditions but opted for intermediate tyres; United Autosports gambled the #22 and #32 for slicks.

This led to be a wrong move as Owen and Hanson both struggled behind the wheel with a shower returning 10 minutes after the pitstop.

Fast forward after a safety car period and with 90 minutes to go, Hanson made a comeback to the front and took the lead before handing the #22 to Albuquerque.

It was a game of chase on the leading Jean Eric-Vergne in the #26 as Albuquerque made the move at Signes in the final minutes, therefore taking the win.

As for LMP3, the #3 found itself battling hard for the class lead but eventually took home second place. The sister #2 United car retired little over two hours into the race.

The next stop on October 11 was the 4 Hours of Monza.

It was business as usual as the #22 of Albuquerque claimed a pole position, a fourth in the four ELMS races for the Portuguese driver.

The LMP3 championship leader of the #2 (Wayne Boyd) secured the team’s third LMP3 pole of the season.

A combination of overnight rain and colder ambient temperatures had made the track surface more tricky and as teams decided whether to fit slick or intermediate tyres for the race.

It was action-packed as usual with Phil Hanson getting caught out when he briefly went off, recovering but falling down to 13th.

The race was filled with drama such as the #3 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan LMP3 getting tangled with the #60 Iron Lynx Ferrari which brought out a Full Course Yellow.

Hanson concluded his stint having climbed back to third before pitting.

Much later, Albuquerque chased down the #31 High Class Racing down from 31 seconds to 8 seconds after 30 minutes. A far more quicker pitstop allowed the Portuguese driver to take the lead.

Alex Brundle of the #32 made it a United Autosports 1-2 having closed the gap to his teammate to 3 seconds at the finish and 52 seconds ahead of the soon-to-be disqualified #27 DragonSpeed.

The #2 finished third in-class whilst the #3 was further down the order one position from the bottom of the overall order after its earlier issues.

The 4 Hours of Portimão season finale came, with the #32 coming out on top with a 1m28.627s.

The race ran its course as Hanson of the #22 shortly got tagged by the #37 COOL Racing to fall down to 13th.

Simultaneously, the #26 of Roman Rusinov swept past Owen for the lead from his grid spot of sixth after a strong start.

After what was a challenging race, the LMP2 cars finished in third and fourth but confidently secured an ELMS title.

As for the #2, they also secured a championship title and was their third in LMP3.

Credit: United Autosports

The Leeds-based team took the crown away from reigning champions IDEC Sport and also earned themselves an invitation to the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours.

They are automatically invited from their recent Le Mans victory plus their LMP2 class wins, ELMS championship winners, and being runners up for the LMP2 ELMS title.

“Well what can I say,” said Zak Brown, one half of two co-owners at United Autosports.

“This is a fantastic result for the whole team to win not one, but two championships in the same series.

“That has never been done in ELMS before so I am super proud of everyone.

“Huge credit obviously goes to Richard [Dean] for putting this team together.

“A great day to end a great year for United Autosports.”

Richard Dean, co-owner of United Autosports added: “It’s quite incredible.

“The competition has been really fierce.

“It’s hard to absorb it at the moment, everything has come thick and fast and to win both titles, Le Mans and WEC and it’s three LMP3 titles in five years so it’s nice to have that back.

“A huge credit to everybody.”

Having asserted such a hard-fought, dominant ELMS and WEC campaign, all that awaits for them is the Season 8 finale in Bahrain to fully round off their 2020 duties.

2020 ELMS LMP2 – Teams’ Standings (five out of 15 teams)
Position Team Points
1 #22 United Autosports 109
2 #32 United Autosports 70
3 #26 G-Drive Racing 61
4 #31 Panis Racing 47
5 #39 Graff 43
2020 ELMS LMP3 – Teams’ Standings (five out of 12 teams)
Position Team Points
1 #2 United Autosports 94
2 #13 Inter Europol Competition 73
3 #8 Realteam Racing 68
4 #11 Eurointernational 55
5 #3 United Autosports 46.5
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