In what is still a very short 24H SERIES program, Atlas BX Motorsport has garnered an impressive number of wins and could secure a championship title in its first full year of endurance racing. Just the next step for the South Korean team in a targeted global motor sport program, as CREVENTIC discusses with team staple Steven Cho.
Words – James Gent
Images – Nico Mombaerts / Petr Frýba
In February this year, Hyundai Motorsport held a press day at its headquarters in Seoul to celebrate a first World Touring Car Cup drivers’ championship for Spain’s Mikel Azcona and a 2022 WTCR teams’ title for its official factory entry, BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse. It was the third WTCR title for a Hyundai driver in five seasons and the second Teams’ title for the Korean brand. Hyundai was on a similar roll in the World Rally Championship too, the i20 Coupe WRC having secured two manufacturer crowns in 2019 and 2020, as well as a first world drivers title for Estonia’s Ott Tänak in 2019 and a seventh for WRC legend, Sébastien Ogier.
On stage in Seoul, Park Joon-woo, the brand’s global marketing strategy team manager, spoke openly of his hopes that Hyundai’s motor racing accomplishments would spike interest in motorsport in Korea. “We are living with a sense of duty that we need to do our part for the Korean people who like cars.”
One could, with a suitably generous pinch of salt, claim that Atlas BX Motorsport has made its own contribution to that spike over the last few years as well.
Don’t misunderstand. Hyundai Motorsport’s position to do so, as an OEM, a multi-time world champion across multiple disciplines, and with its own official ‘Korean Junior Driver Program,’ is in an incomparably stronger position to do so. Even so, Atlas BX Motorsport has far from disgraced the ‘Taegeukgi’ since its arrival on the world motorsport stage.
Of the 10 CREVENTIC events Atlas BX has entered thus far for example, the Yongin-based outfit has taken a class win at eight of them. Moreover, in its first full endurance racing campaign, Atlas BX currently leads not just the 24H SERIES’ GT4 Teams’ standings but the Overall GT Teams’ ‘Europe’ rankings as well. That’s a pretty impressive record when you consider Atlas BX only ventured outside its native South Korea for the first time in 2020, and, prior to 2023, had just three endurance race entries to its name.
“I had a look at those stats the other day actually and thought, ‘wow, that looks really good!’ I’ll definitely take that! I mean, if you look deep down into each result, yeah, we did have some luck and some of our competitors had issues along the way too. So these results perhaps don’t accurately show how much we still have to learn. But, at face value, it’s still pretty impressive!”
That’s Steven Cho, by the way. As well as being a prominent member of Atlas BX’s driver line-up this season alongside Roelof Bruins, Jong-kyum Kim and Taekeun Yang, Steven has been the team’s managing director from the very beginning, and is all-too aware of its potential.
He’s also impressively modest. When we try diving into his own national racing record, which includes seven national championships between 2007 to 2017, Steven gently nudges the conversation towards the hardwork of both his team and his teammates instead, and how crucial that’s been to Atlas’ on-track success thus far.
It’s a valid point. Founded in 2009 as a joint-venture between Hankook Tires and the company’s official battery developer – “we’re an affiliate of Hankook&Company, and we are named after our battery brand.” – the team was already a frontrunner in South Korea’s domestic GT racing series, Superrace, come the end of the following year. By 2013, Atlas BX had taken Steven to overall victory at the inaugural Korea Speed Festival and, one year later, his fourth Superrace championship. As of 2022, the team has racked up a record five overall teams’ championships – a series record – and overall ‘Super 6000’ drivers’ crowns with Steven (‘14 and ‘17) and Jong-kyum (‘18, ‘19, ’20 and ‘22). Don’t forget Roelof and Jong-kyum’s GT1-class titles in ’16 and ’17 either.
That’s a record, incidentally, that’s far easier said than done. All-but the most ardent Korean motorsport fans could be forgiven for thinking that Superrace, and its 2006 Korea GT Championship predecessor, lack a strong depth of field, given the country’s still-relatively-new grassroots structure compared with the more tenured likes of Europe and the USA. The Everland Speedway for example, South Korea’s first permanent racing facility, was only opened in 1995.
Far from beat-up jalopies and second-hand Daewoos however, Superrace’s ‘Super 6000’ top class is instead dedicated to high-performance stock cars, at the base of which are Cadillac’s BMW M3-baiting ATS-V and, more recently, Toyota’s GR Supra. Designed specifically for racing, these raw machines take no little amount of mettle to control: “It’s Korea’s top category, and it’s based on a tubular spaceframe, so it’s almost like racing a Brazilian stockcar.”
Then there’s the expenditure involved with national motor racing in Korea…
“Korean motorsport is a strange combination,” Steven continues. “It’s not a hugely popular spectator sport, but it exists at a pretty high level because Korea has a big auto industry. You’ll find that most of the different companies that support Korea’s auto industry” – Hankook&Company being one of them – “also participate in national motorsport as part of their development.
“So, it’s small in some sense, but it’s very intense. The teams are well-funded by big corporations. It’s pretty much all sprint racing, and there are only a handful of PROs or SEMI-PROs available. So you can imagine the intensity and the pressure to get results!
“At Atlas BX, we’ve been focusing mostly on GT sports car racing. This is our… I think it’s our 14th season now, and there was no further we could go from a results perspective. It’s been our target and our ambition to grow and do racing overseas. Our first steps to achieving that we’re seeing today.”
Having effectively came, saw and conquered Superrace – “my Asian background wouldn’t allow me to be that forward(!), but, yeah, our target has always been to do well and to win.” – and with nothing further to prove on South Korea’s national racing scene, it was only fitting that Atlas’ next step would be Europe.
“We were actually taking our first steps towards doing a full campaign in Europe a few years ago, but of course the pandemic pushed our schedules back quite a bit. But we’re really enjoying our first campaign out. We chose CREVENTIC, obviously, because it’s a great championship and we thought it would be a great place to get our feet wet.”
Again though, this would prove easier said than done. Prior to 2020, Atlas’ endurance racing experience for example was pretty thin, with Superrace’s one and only night race – per year – only being held for the first time in 2012.
There’s also the logistics to consider. Unlike their European counterparts, can transport car and equipment in their own motorhomes from easily accessible headquarters, Atlas BX didn’t have the same infrastructure and were effectively starting from scratch. This season, the team is even fielding its own in-house pit crew, for each race, all the way from Asia. Challenging, though as Steven argues, a potential “blessing in disguise” in a year when there’s been so much to learn.
“It does take a little bit of juggling and puzzling, for sure, because we didn’t have any facilities here. If you’re moving from one market to another that’s not separated by an ocean, you can leverage a lot of your existing assets. Before we could even get started, we had to set up a basic infrastructure, invest in transporters, etc.” – Atlas BX Motorsport now has a satellite base of operations in Germany. – “Initially we were planning to use more local staff in Europe, because our original plan was to run our Korean program and our European program simultaneously with hybrid staff. But, fortunately and unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, we weren’t able to compete in our Korean championship this year, so that gave us the opportunity to bring our Korean staff – guys we know and have worked with – over.
“If you take a look at our guys, they’re all quite young. Part of how we operate in Korea is that… not to say that we actively avoid experienced mechanics, but we like to bring new kids into the fold. They’re a blank sheet of paper, and so long as they have the willingness to learn and the passion for racing, we like to bring on a lot of young guys in and mentor them.”
A lack of endurance racing experience certainly didn’t slow the team down on its 24H SERIES debut in Dubai in 2020. Incredibly, on its maiden 24-hour outing, Atlas BX Motorsport won in the GT4 class, the first victory for a team from South Korea in 24H SERIES history.
“Yeah, that’s wasn’t something we expected! The Dubai grid is so big – a lot of cars, a lot of experienced teams – that we just didn’t think a win was possible at the first attempt.”
Given the monsoon-like weather that forced the 2020 Hankook 24H DUBAI to be stopped and not restarted after just seven hours, even Steven admits that an ineradicable asterisk attached to Atlas BX’ first 24H SERIES win. Still, the team’s MD nevertheless feels strongly that issues faced before the event had even started, and a strategic call that left the #403 Mercedes-AMG GT4 in good stead early on, makes the team’s win at the shortened 2020 Hankook 24H DUBAI more laudable than it otherwise might appear on paper…
“It definitely felt like a win. Like a REAL win, because of all the challenges we had coming into the race.
“We only took delivery of the car at the circuit!” – The Mercedes, like its Super 6000 Cadillac brethren in Korea, was, and still is, decked out in a striking chrome livery inspired by the chrome Mercedes-AMG C-Coupé that raced in the DTM in the early 2000s. – “Our container was being dropped off after everyone was already setup. So, to receive a new car for the first time and shake it down was a difficult start, because our lap times just weren’t there. It was also the first time at the [Dubai Autodrome] for all of us, apart from one of our drivers. So, yeah, I think the win was a combination of luck as well as good preparation by our guys.
“Internally I’ve always thought, yes, the race was stopped early, but we had a full tank of gas, we had new tyres, and we were still ahead after the pit stops. I realize, having done a couple of 24-hour races now, like, there’s a lot of racing left and anything can happen. But a win is a win, man, and I’ll take it!”
The Covid wrecking ball meant a planned full-time schedule for 2021 had to be shelved, and the South Korean team had to wait until 2022 to make its 24H SERIES return. Gearbox issues eliminated the Mercedes early on its second race in Dubai but, remarkably, Steven, Roelof, Jong-kyum, Taekeun, and HA Tae Young took another class win later that year at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA. Two wins from three in the 24H SERIES, and at two of the series’ most formidable 24-hour event, no less.
“Between you and me, there weren’t a ton of cars in Barcelona, and at the end, we were running by ourselves.” – Senkyr Motorsport was the only other GT4 entrant that weekend, but retired on lap 196 when a stone punctured the BMW’s radiator. – “But even then it’s a challenge. Running for 24 hours, with or without competition, we set ourselves a target of running consistently, hitting the target lap times, having no issues with the car, and having no on-track issues. And none of that is easy! So at the end of 24 hours, that felt like a win too!”
Despite immense competition from the equally driven Buggyra ZM Racing this year, Atlas BX has carried that momentum into its first full 24H SERIES season. Though the #403 Mercedes lost its right rear wheel right at the end of ‘part one’ at the Hankook 12H MUGELLO, a consistent recovery drive, plus gearbox issues for Buggyra in the closing stages, meant Atlas BX started its European season with a GT4 class win. Alternator failure dropped the team to 5th at Spa, but the Mercedes was nigh-on unstoppable in Monza, and romped to victory five laps clear. In Estoril’s 6H Qualifying Race meanwhile, Steven, Roelof, Jongkyum, Taekeun and new teammate Donggi Noh – who’s also driving the #403 Mercedes at Barcelona – were beaten fair and square by the Buggyra Mercedes, but were given a reprieve when the Emirati-entered team was handed a post-race penalty. A broken wheel hub and a small fire meant Buggyra was unable to challenge on the Saturday either, opening the door for Atlas to take its fourth win of the season at the Hankook 12H ESTORIL too.
Four wins from five races has vaulted Atlas BX Motorsport to the top of both the GT4 Teams’ standings and the Overall GT Teams’ rankings, albeit by just two points over Buggyra ZM Racing in the former, and level-pegging with GTX Teams’ standings leader RD Signs - Siauliai racing team in the latter. A championship, at the first time of asking, is clearly the goal in Barcelona, although Steven, full of praise for his rivals at Buggyra, knows that’s going to be tough.
“Our competitors are super strong! If you look on a lap time basis, we still have some work to do. The Buggyra guys are really quick, and it takes a lot to stay with them. A lot of respect for those guys. They’re doing a good job.”
A championship run in 2023 – successful or otherwise – is unlikely to mark the end of Atlas BX’s 24H SERIES adventures either. Just as the nine-time Superrace champion made the jump from national sprint competition to European GT4 endurance racing in 2023, the next step up the GT racing ladder could arrive as early as next year.
“For sure we’d like to get our Korean program back up and running, and that looks quite likely. That’s our backbone program. And we definitely want to maintain our presence in Europe, which hopefully will be with CREVENTIC. We’d like to move up in the car categories, and GT3 would be the next logical step for us, but it all depends on whether we can get our partners onboard. ‘Like to’ and ‘will do’ are two very different things at this point!
“From the very beginning, our target was to go as high as we could go. For the first few years, of course we had to focus on our initial challenge, which was our home market in Korea. Then we started looking overseas. Our chairman supports us very well, and we’re still in baby steps in terms of where we want to go. We’ve set ourselves a really high goal, which is probably going to be difficult to achieve. But the target is big.”
“I feel a little sheepish to actually articulate it, because it sounds so ridiculous from where we are today! But, if you think about any well-known global motorsport organization, whether it be in European GT or operating in the US, that’s our target.”
A South Korean team, on the worldwide stage, mixing it with the best GT teams that Europe and the US have to offer, spiking an interest in national motorsport in the process? Hey. It could happen…