Our pre-season testing programme began at Paul Ricard back in January. At that point we only had four drivers, Alex Brundle, Matt Bell, Mike Guasch and Mark Patterson and one Ligier JS P3 car – this would turn out the be the one I’d run for the year. We had a great two days but unfortunately Mike had a nasty accident with an hour to go at the end of the second day – luckily he walked away with only a few bruises. It meant a full, ground up rebuild, which me and my team of guys did back at the workshop, till it was all ready to go for the Imola test mid-March.
As a team, we are very conscious to make sure the cars run the best they possibly can. Between both cars, we have covered over 3,000km of testing before the season officially began. I sit down with my engineer, the team manager and the number one mechanic from our second car and work out how many miles each part of the car has covered, to always make sure no part exceeds its recommended mileage during an event. If a part is close on its mileage, we put plans in place to replace it.
At the official ELMS prologue, we ended up fastest – another confidence boost for the team, especially as it was the first time we were up against the rest of the 2016 field. The other two drivers had joined us by this point – Christian England – who would be in my car, and Wayne Boyd, who would join the #3 car.
Ready for the opening ELMS weekend, the trucks were loaded back at the workshop and we made our way to Silverstone on the Wednesday. We set up our hospitality unit and the garage and the drivers all arrived on Thursday ready for scrutineering and their media duties.
On Friday, they got the chance to get in the car. I’m quite lucky to have a good team behind me. I’ve worked with my engineer, Gary Robertshaw for the last three years in various championships so we have a good relationship. Alex Brundle is obviously well used to racing prototype machinery, as is Mike Guasch. Christian, however, was stepping back into a race car for the first time in 13 years. I had no doubt in his ability, but it’s still a lot of pressure on the guy!
Race day came, but first we had to qualify. Alex set the time for my #2 car and put us fourth on the grid, with the sister #3 car behind us in fifth. We were a little disappointed we weren’t further up the grid, but four hours is a long race so we couldn’t complain too much.
Luckily it turned out to be the place to be. A number of cars spun on the start, and Alex did a magnificent job of weaving his way through them all. By the end of the first couple of laps he was up into the lead and stretching a huge gap out in front of him. You could feel the tension in our garage, there were people pacing up and down, nervous looks on faces – I don’t really think anyone knew what to do with themselves.
As Alex pitted, he switched to Mike who also did a fantastic job during his stint. He kept the lead and never put a foot wrong. It was great to have him back with the team.
As Mike’s hour-long stint came to an end, Christian got ready for his first racing laps in 13 years. We were still in the lead but knew we would have to pit Christian again for a quick splash of fuel. Christian went out for his double stint – at least one bronze driver in the team has to drive for two hours – and made it look effortless. You would never have been able to tell it was his first race in over a decade. Unfortunately, he slipped to second behind the Ligier JS P3 of the Graff racing team at one point, but not for long as Christian kept him in his sights and made a spectacular move on the opposition to regain the lead.
Christian had a lead of one minute and 15 seconds so we knew if we had to stop for fuel we could probably make it. Our only real threat at this point was our other car. Wayne Boyd had taken over from a double-stinting Mark Patterson and was catching us a bit too quickly! Luckily (for us, not them!) a Full Course Yellow was thrown so we could dive into the pits, fill Christian up and send him on his way again with no issues. Which we did.
That last half an hour was the longest I’ve ever experienced in a race situation. The leading LMP2 car crossed the line with five seconds of the race remaining, meaning Christian would have to do another lap on very little fuel. Thankfully, it all worked out and he crossed the line to win us our debut race in the European Le Mans Series. Having the #3 car finish second made the result event more special. The emotion in the garage – which had filled up with the 90-odd guests we had – was incredible and I’m so proud to be part of such a great team of people. You could see how much it meant to every single person there and they were all doing it to win, not just because they were getting paid. I went on the podium to collect the winning team’s trophy – another landmark moment in my career.
We’ve now got a test at Estoril before we head to Imola for round two. We are realistic that the competition is going to get stronger as the year goes on but we are also confident in our ability to produce great racing cars. Bring it on!
The Checkered Flag will be following the United Autosports team throughout the 2016 season with a series of unique blogs from different viewpoints in the team, you can see the first blog here.