If 2016’s ELMS and WEC seasons proved anything, it’s that Alex Brundle is very much back on the scene. Fully recovered from the muscular issues that kept him sidelined for most of 2015, he went on to win the ELMS LMP3 championship with United Autosports and won three races on the trot to close out the WEC season in LMP2 with G-Drive Racing. It was a tour de force of sorts, and one that he looks back on with pride.
But there was a lot more too it than just jumping in Ligier prototypes and winning races, it was a learning experience for him in a multitude of ways, but he stuck at it and has set himself up for another successful season in 2017.
“It was an interesting year,” he explained to DSC, “it was a bit of a comeback story, there was a time when I was sitting there with my issue, and it was hard to put a finger on how to sort it out. Obviously there’s physio and that kind of thing. But essentially my muscles decided that they didn’t want to play ball. You can have physio and seek help for it, but wether that sorts the issue is neither here not there.
“You see a lot of people who say: “we’ll do our best” which when you’ve got a race career on hold is not the ideal scenario. Luckily when it was sorted it was indeed sorted and I was able to get back in a race car.”
Back to full strength Brundle put on a memorable show in a one-off FIA WEC race at Shanghai at the tail end of 2015 in the wet driving a Pegasus Morgan, which provided him with a confidence boost heading into 2016. He dominated the first half of the race in the healthy P2 class, before the team’s chances of winning faded as the circuit dried; he, along with David Cheng and Ho Pin Tung finished the race fifth.
“After Shanghai, I looked to 2016, and the United Autosports programme developed from the thought that they’d wanted to go prototype racing. My dad (Martin Brundle) who knows Zak (Brown) well, spotted and helped them. When we got in touch initially I signed up as a gold driver for LMP3; that was before the permutations for the driver lineups were released.
“Essentially the team took a punt on me as a Gold,” he explained. “They knew they needed somebody to drag the programme forward, who has experience in prototype racing to give them direction. It kind of worked from there, when we found Christian England, which was a masterstroke from Richard Dean to be honest, in the middle of silly season, and Mike Guasch to secure the lineup.
When the lineups were announced we rang each other up when the deal was done and we were actually pretty sombre
“When the lineups were announced we rang each other up when the deal was done and we were actually pretty sombre and up against it then, to put a potentially championship-winning lineup together. Despite that he developed something which turned out to be the best in the series.”
In the end the trio of Brundle, Guasch and England won the title at the penultimate round in Spa, having won the opening three races and finishing on the podium at Paul Ricard and in the Ardennes forest. It was a show of force against one of the most dense and competitive grids in the world, that often featured over 20 cars.
“Success is down to chemistry sometimes,” he revealed when asked about the factors behind the team’s dominant season. “We got on very well, never had any issues. Mike is a great guy and perhaps as the real Am of the team, he actually brought tremendous benefits organisationally. Often these true businessmen coming into motorsport as amateurs know so much about personnel management that they can be real assets because they make sure a team of people gel.
“A race team is a glorified operational structure, and someone like Mike knows how to make one function to their highest potential.
“Christian was very very competitive as a Bronze driver, and had a bit of an cool head on him in delivering at the end of the races under pressure. ELMS races had a habit last year of throwing us a curve ball with rain or a safety car, or close racing, and that alongside a good car and engineering team who knew what they were doing, made for a formidable combination.
“It was an incredibly competitive class, and you’re going to see those guys moving up into LMP2 cars in the next year or two. Look at Graff, they’re a really professional team.
“LMP3 turned essentially as spec series, which wasn’t the intention, but it was the end result because one chassis ended up being dominant. So grinding out an advantage against the guys I was racing against, like Nigel Moore was a real challenge. The fact that the cars were pretty reliable too, meant we had a race on our hands every weekend.
“When you look at it from a results standpoint, you’d think it was easy, but when you look at each win, the last one we won by pit stop error and the other two we had a car near us at the end.
“I just had to slot in and drive the car at Pro pace and assist a little elsewhere. I couldn’t believe it when we wrapped up the title early in Spa.”
But as Brundle went on to explain, racing in LMP3 requires a different mentality to that of LMP2. Far more a Pro/Am formula, it’s necessary to make sacrifices as the pro in the lineup to ensure that the amateur drivers are capable of getting the most out of the car.
“It’s different in current WEC LMP2, where it feels like a full works environment as a driver because you’re maximising the car and it’s focused on the pace of the car. In LMP3 there’s a real compromise towards the gentlemen driver’s performance and ensuring the car is suitable for them,” he explained.
In LMP3 there’s a real compromise towards the gentlemen driver’s performance and ensuring the car is suitable for them
“Without a doubt there are times during the year when you have to recognise that there’s a level where the car has to be functional, and you have to give up a bit of performance in your stints and qualifying to make sure that the tyres, amateur drivers and race-long performance. It took me a couple of rounds to get used to that sort of routine.”
“There are several key decisions during each weekend in terms of the setup direction, where the Ams have to be taken into account. There were several times during the year where lower downforce levels were available and several circuits where I perhaps would prefer the car turning on its own without steering input and able to go really deep into the braking zone, turn the car on its nose and get out. That would make the car for me a few tenths quicker, which over a WEC stint in an LMP2 car when you’re up against Lapierre, Albuquerque and Rast would be really important time and critical.
“But those three tenths had to be sacrificed because Mike would dislike the car that way and had a different driving style. To be honest that happens between professional drivers as well but you tend to all gravitate to a similar kind of set up.
“In the LMP3 class though, the cars are relatively tricky to drive when you had them on the absolute edge of performance.”
Alongside his ELMS drive with United Autosports, Brundle also stepped into the G-Drive Racing team’s WEC programme which had championship aspirations heading into the season. It didn’t go to plan early for the G-Drive-Jota squad though, with no wins to show for after the opening rounds despite multiple flashes of brilliance.
However, with Brundle onboard from the Nurburgring onwards, things began to turn around, and the Russian-flagged outfit went on to win at Fuji, Shanghai and Bahrain to close out the season.
The winning streak came at a time in which the WEC’s LMP2 field was at its most competitive, with the on-track racing also the best it’s ever been. It was somewhat of a fairytale ending to the season for Brundle, who now aims to replicate his performance in 2017.
“The Jota Sport outfit is really a benchmark for running a sportscar at that level,” commented Brundle. “They hadn’t got the results they wanted when I arrived and they were frustrated. That was understandable for an outfit of that quality, the people within Jota are all standouts in their field and are used to winning.
“It made the team atmosphere very interesting. From the driver’s side we were focused all the way till the end of each race. It took us a couple of races, then everyone relaxed and worked to a point where they knew they could perform and I think from there it took off.
“The level of the teams were up against was was excellent though, so it wasn’t easy to achieve what we did. If you look at where LMP2 was a few years ago, it was very Pro/Am, drive around at 90% and he who finishes wins.
“Now it’s incredible, and it is a very high level. You couldn’t give a tenth away. You had drivers like Giovanazzi, Blomqvist and Lynn straight from GP2, DTM and they were dropping in and making it stronger. It demonstrated the level that prototype racing is at now.
Saying you can win races is like standing at the bottom of Everest and saying you can climb it
“It was a great experience and will stay one of the highlights of my career. Winning three one the bounce, with the last one coming from the back in Bahrain when we sat looking at each other saying “that was the perfect sportscar race!” Everything went perfectly and we didn’t know how how we pulled it off.
“That was a great way to finish up 2016, being able to say I was capable of winning races and challenging for a title in the WEC. But saying you can win races is like standing at the bottom of Everest and saying you can climb it. All your mates go ‘go on then, we’ll hold your beer!’
“So I’ve got to find a way to get back there and prove that now.”
Look out for Part 2 very soon on DSC.