BACK TO THE BIG TIME
After 13 years out, Christian England is back racing, and better than ever. By Rob Ladbrook
Back in January Christian England wasn’t thinking about motorsport. At all. He was busy working a nine to five job, concentrating on business, and watching the occasional Formula 1 race on TV.
Racing himself was possibly the furthest thing from his mind, until a random Facebook message opened a door. Now, halfway through the year, he sits atop the European Le Mans Series LMP3 Championship points, having won three of the four races this season with the United Autosports team. What a difference a few months make.
For fans of single-seater racing in the early 2000s, England’s name isn’t a new one. He established himself as a rising talent in 2001 when he signed for Richard Dean’s Team JLR British Formula Ford concern. A second season in 2002 brought six race wins and second place in the championship, beaten narrowly to the glory by Westley Barber.
His career was starting to unfold ahead of him when he was nominated to the Mclaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award that year. A Formula 3 deal waited, and from then on the plan was to ascend the ladder to F1.
Except it never happened. Beaten to the MABA award by now-dtm racer Jamie Green and the budget boost that went with it gone, the doors slammed shut. Nothing.
England managed to scrimp a seat in the British F3 Scholarship Class with the Promatecme team, but it lasted just a handful of races before he called it quits.
Little did England know, that when he stepped out of that Dallara Mugen- Honda for the last time after a retirement at Silverstone, it would be the last time he drove a single-seater. And the last time he drove anything anywhere near resembling a racing car for the next decade in fact.
England walked away from the sport entirely mid-2003, and never looked back. “It was heartbreaking really,” says the now 34-year-old from Barnsley. “Everything was going for me and I felt I was proving myself, and then it all went wrong very quickly.
“Back then it was ‘F1, F1, F1’, all about F1. You were blinkered by it and you honestly believed as a junior driver you’d get there if you kept winning. The minute I didn’t get the Mclaren award things fell apart. The F3 deal didn’t work out. We were a single-car team with nobody to compare data with and I felt I wasn’t learning anything so we left it, and then the money ran out.
“My only reaction was to completely cut myself out of the sport. Not being able to race, and knowing the F1 dream was over – however foolish it was – was hard to take. So I just withdrew from it all. I didn’t even sit in a go-kart.”
Having spent 13 years outside of the sport, and rarely even looking in, England thought his racing days were well and truly behind him. Until social media intervened.
“At the start of the year I got a random Facebook message from Gazza Elliott, who used to work with Team JLR and now works for United,” explains England. “It was just the typical ‘long time no speak’ sort of thing, but it led to an invite to the workshop in Leeds where I met with Richard and the rest of the team – many of who I remembered from the Fford days. It was like a reunion.
“In truth I went in secretly thinking ‘I wonder if they’ll offer me a lap in a Ginetta or something?’, but the next day Richard contacted me saying he had a plan to get me into United’s new LMP3 programme and there was an interested sponsor. I was stunned, and completely unprepared for something like that. But it came together very quickly. In the space of a few weeks we’d gone from a cold call to a full international race programme. It’s surreal.”
With main sponsor – Gala Performance – signed up for the year, England was back in a race seat for the first time in 165 months. And it was at a level he never even dreamt of.
“It’s beyond a dream,” he says. “I’m not from a racing family, so when I was racing as a kid I had nobody to guide me really, nobody saying ‘there are places outside F1 you know’. Oddly if I’d stayed in the sport I think sportscars would have come onto my radar pretty quickly, so it’s like I’ve been away for 13 years, yet somehow managed to fall into a career progression!
“The car is stunning to drive, but at the start of the year it was totally alien. It’s completely unrelatable to a Fford, and I didn’t do enough mileage in F3 to be able to use that experience, so it was in at the deep end for the first test and the first race.
“Learning to trust the aero was the big thing for me, but it was also trying to keep calm about it all. At the first race at Silverstone I drove last so I didn’t get in the car until 1630hrs, by which time I was knackered already!
“It was trying to switch my brain back on to it all. Racing is like riding a bike, you never forget the basics, but it’s tuning the errors out. I was missing braking points and this year is the first time I’ve left-foot braked in anything, and a few times I’d be hitting the brake pedal with both feet and telling myself to calm down. In the first race I knocked the windscreen wiper on accidentally, and spent a lap wrongly hitting the rain light switch to turn it off again as I just saw the word ‘rain’. It was a big adaption process.”
Regardless of the hurdles, England hasn’t taken long to get back up to speed. He and team-mates Alex Brundle and Mike Guasch won the first three ELMS races at Silverstone, Imola and the Red Bull Ring, and finished third in the recent Paul Ricard round.
“My team-mates have been a big part of it,” says England. “Alex is a great driver and being able to watch him and talk through his data has really helped edge me on and Mike is a great, quick gentleman driver, so we’ve got a great mixture.
“To be leading the LMP3 points is unreal, and beyond anything I think any of us expected, let alone me in my first year back. It’s a testament to the strength of the team. The target this year is winning the ELMS title and not getting complacent sitting on our one-goal lead. After that I guess the ultimate aim is to get to the Le Mans 24 Hours. I raced in the Road to Le Mans LMP3 support event this year alongside Martin Brundle, which blew my mind. Driving in front of 240,000 fans was an experience I’ll never forget. Hopefully I’ll get it again. And hopefully it won’t take another 13 years.” ■