Christian England announced at the annual Autosport International that he will be defending his European Le Mans Series title in 2017, and expanding into new horizons.
The reigning 2016 ELMS LMP3 sportscars Champion used the racing car show at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre to confirm he will remain with the United Autosports team for a second season, but sharing with two different teammates.
2016 had been such a ‘fairy-tale’ year for the Barnsley 35 year-old race ace in his un-planned return to the track following a long layoff.
“Last year was such a phenomenal season, and it will be tough to surpass it, but our aim has to be to try and win races”.
Having finished runner-up in the British Formula Ford Championship with Team JLR in 2002, his progression into the British Formula 3 Championship stopped mid-way through the 2003 season, as he struggled to get sufficient finances together, “the usual budget problems”, sighed England.
“Motorsport has always been my passion and I missed it hugely during my 13 year absence. It was difficult not being involved: having hung up my helmet, I couldn’t bear to even visit a race meeting. I didn’t do any trackdays, nor any karting, I didn’t even read any motor racing magazines. Instead I threw all my efforts into developing my successful family pub/restaurant and hotels businesses. These took my time – I chose that as my new route!”
Even though not involved in racing anymore, England continued to keep in touch with Team JLR boss, Richard Dean, and in November 2015 they met up for one up of their regular coffee and a chat sessions.
In passing, Dean mentioned to England, “Do you fancy doing some racing, as you still look lean and as fit and able as you did when you last stepped from a racing car?”
Thinking it over England messaged Dean to ask, ‘was his question serious?’ and got a firm ‘YES’ in reply.
Of course after 13 years his racing licence had lapsed, “there was no guarantee I’d get a race licence, but it worked out well”, with his experience he only had to do the Theory part of the ARDS test and got his new licence at the same level of experience as before.
Fortuitously able to find himself a budget from the Rotherham-based, Gala Tent company, he signed up with the team, and was on his way to doing the European Le Mans (ELMS) series at circuits across the continent, including the famous French circuit.
Now just 12 months later and amazingly he is a champion in the European Le Mans LMP3! – “what a dream”, England adds with a grin.
In what would have been deemed too far-fetched for even a Hollywood film script, “We won the initial three races, giving us a strong position for the year, then had two more podiums”, England explained with massive understatement, “We had the pace, so we could have won them all, but a 50% win rate isn’t too bad”.
Two of his highlights of the season were winning the season opener at Silverstone and racing partnered by ex-F1 driver/Sky TV F1 pundit Martin Brundle on the Le Mans circuit, in the Road to Le Mans Series race just hours before the 24 hour race started.
“It was one of the best seasons I had ever had”, England commented with pride - Perhaps everyone should take 13 years off!...”
“While I kept myself in shape, I only had a few weeks’ notice before the 2016 season, during which I had to learn not only the tracks, but also how to drive the cars”.
Knowing full-well he was competing again this season, he has stepped his fitness up and learned all the tracks, “so here we go again for 2017!”
This year as well as doing the ELMS Series, when possible he will also contest the new UK-based LMP3 Cup Championship in its debut season which has a £40,000 prize fund.
Having previously only done single-seaters, “sportscars were never on my radar, but LMP3 is so achievable on costs for the amount of racing: they look and sound the part with proper downforce too. While they are rewarding to drive they are vastly different to a Formula Ford single-seater racing car”.
These will be exciting times for me and the team as with the 2016 LMP3 Championship win, we – United Autosports - won a free entry to the 24 hours of Le Mans in an LMP2 car.
LMP3 prototypes are a low-cost sportscar formula designed to keep the costs down (that phrase is always said very much ‘tongue-in-cheek’ in motor racing where a man can make a small fortune…out of a very large one), using spec €206,000 Euro chassis, tyres and Nissan V8 engines all with the same gearbox, electronics and Pirelli tyres.
As the cars are all roughly the same, it is down to the skill of car set-up and driver performance, “just as it was in Formula Ford 13 years ago, but on another level”.
With 3 drivers per car - this year his team-mates are Wayne Boyd and Mark Patterson - it is best if they are all similar in size and ability, so that it does not compromise trying to accommodate them in the car.
“They are easy cars to drive, but not to get that last bit of performance, but achieving it is very rewarding”.
Drivers tend to do 1 hour stints and it can be stifling in the enclosed cockpit, but they do have drinks system. As a sign of his stature in the team, “All last year I was doing double – 2 hour – stints in the 4 hour races. It feels like I never stopped, but the only thing is I have never raced on the various circuits where they’ve changed the configuration”.
With a wistful sign of contemplation, England remarked, “I just wish I had been able to stick at Formula Ford as I was beating all the others who are now in top-level drives…”
“We just lost out on the 2002 Formula Ford Championship and this put Richard Dean’s Team JLR on the map and I like to think that we’ve put his latest team, United Autosports, on the map now too and now JLR can do the Le Mans 24 hour!”
“When Gala Tent stepped in and said they would sponsor me it felt like my racing career had started all over again. Motorsport is an obscenely expensive sport and without a sponsor such as Gala I know I would have never been able to race again”.
A mutual contact led me to my sponsor, Gala Performance based in Wath. It was perfect timing to go and see Richard Dean and Gala Performance as their products cover all the needs for a team in motorsport, so their involvement it is a perfect match for both companies. Plus, Gala showed an interest in ELMS.
With the team - United Autosports – being Leeds-based and the sponsor both pretty local so it is a perfect fit.
“To make it in motorsport you not only have to be extremely talented and have a near endless supply of money, but you also need luck too and the chances of making it are slim. I count myself very lucky to have this chance again, especially as Jason and Gala Tent were able to arrange becoming my main sponsor in such a short space of time.”
It is such a wonderful opportunity for me. This is something I never thought would happen and to call Formula 1 legend Martin Brundle a teammate for the second race of the gruelling endurance series I have to pinch myself every time I say it! I can’t thank Gala enough and I am profoundly thankful of the way they stood up and became my main sponsor in such a short space of time.”