Af­ter 13 years out, Chris­tian Eng­land is back rac­ing, and bet­ter than ever. By Rob Lad­brook

Motor Sport News - - Feature: Christian England -

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.” ■

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For­mula Ford run­ner-up in 2002 Short-lived 2003 F3 cam­paign L-r: Team man­ager Max Gre­gory, Brun­dle, Guasch, Eng­land

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