Between 2006 and 2011, Chris Buncombe was at the top of his game, racing with either top privateer teams like Jota, or for Aston Martin Racing as a works driver, and winning his (LMP2) class at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2007 (below). All of a sudden though, he dropped off the radar. He was still around racing, but not as a driver, his career put on ice as he opted to focus on business commitments.
Then came 2018, Buncombe’s big return to motorsport, driving with Strakka Racing in the Blancpain Endurance Cup in its Pro-Am entered Mercedes AMG GT3. After such a lengthy hiatus, Buncombe got the bug to go racing again after a short drive at Silverstone in a Nissan GT-R with his brother – Alex. That he says, got him the bug again.
“The last time I raced before this year really was after my last Le Mans in 2011 in GT, and things slowed up in terms of opportunities, and I’d started a business that was gathering momentum,” he revealed to DSC. “It just became hard to find a consistent drive, so I was just doing odd races here or there. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop racing, but it just naturally happened.
“My first time back in a car was about this time 12 months ago, I did about eight laps of Silverstone in one of the RJN GT-Rs, which was great fun, and made me realise how alien it all was. I felt I really wanted to get back into it.”
Buncombe, who is a long-time friend of Strakka owner and driver Nick Leventis, got the chance to race in Blancpain due to his driver rating being downgraded to Bronze this year, it was a programme which proved to be a huge success.
“I’ve known Nick for about 10 years, back when I was doing LMP2 and we spoke back then about chances to do stuff with him, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “We’ve always kept in touch as mates and ultimately when I was downgraded this year they needed a Bronze driver, so once I knew that option was there I jumped at the chance. They have become the benchmark in terms of GT teams in Blancpain, they did a great job.
“The other thing is that as a team they helped me get up to speed, they’ve got great facilities away from the race track, great engineers to work with, a sim, it’s all been valuable. I feel so grateful for such a great season, I’m loving being back in racing.”
To put it lightly, it was a very strong season, Buncombe along with Leventis and Lewis Williamson winning the Endurance Cup Pro-Am title, headlined by a second place finish at Silverstone on the team’s home soil, and a strong run to second in class at the Spa 24 Hours.
During the season, Buncombe was keen to stress how impressed he was with Leventis’ performance, in such a tough series.
“He’s done really well, he has a great approach to racing, he has a great balance between absolute professionalism, going in and doing the job, but also enjoying it. I’ve seen it through being part of that, fighting for the Pro-Am title, everything has to be right, it’s a super competitive category, you have to be on the ball. And the crew are great with setting up the cars, doing quick stops and because of that, we could end up getting the result.
“I definitely feel Blancpain has grown in every way, it’s under-rated generally by those outside of it. The depth of talent is crazy, it’s one of the most competitive championships out there, with most of the field fighting for podiums. That level of GT racing has evolved an awful lot and it’s become so attractive for young guys, it’s now accepted.
“The cars have come on too, the reference for me this year was when I was in a GT3 car round Silverstone, going quicker than the times we were doing in GTE back in 2011, by quite a margin.
“It wasn’t a culture shock coming back, but with Blancpain, there are big grids, so it’s a busy track, the big thing has been getting comfy with so many cars around. There’s always someone in your mirrors!”
Once his Blancpain campaign finished up in Catalunya, Buncombe secured a drive with United Autosports in the 2018/19 Asian Le Mans Series, to race in one of its Ligier JS P3s in the hotly-contested LMP3 class.
Getting winter track time was a big draw for Buncombe, as well as getting the chance to get back into prototype racing. Despite having experience racing at the top level of prototypes with Aston Martin back in the day, he’s been impressed with the JS P3 so far.
Heading into the third round of the championship in Thailand next month, Buncombe and his teammates Garrett Grist and Wayne Boyd sit third in the standings, 16 points off the leaders.
“It’s been good to get back into a prototype for the first time since 2009. When Richard (Dean) rang me with the opportunity I wasn’t actively looking for a prototype opportunity, but it’s great to be back in a sportscar. First and foremost the aim is to win Asian Le Mans in my comeback season. And if that can lead to something else in LMP then I’d love it to.
“I really want to get back to Le Mans, the nature of the WEC and how that all works now is tricky, I’m aware of that.”
He also wants to find a way to drive with his brother Alex, and his life-long friend Jenson Button, who has hit the ground running in sportscar and GT racing since his Super GT debut last year.
“I spent pretty much all of the latter years of his (Button’s) F1 career doing most Grand Prix,” he said. “Having been on the F1 ride with him from the beginning, we’re close, we’re best buddies. He’s always on the other end of the phone.
“And what’s interesting in his transition from F1 to endurance racing is that whilst I’ve never been at the level he’s at there’s a lot of experiences he’s been through this year like sharing a car with other people, that I have, and I can pass that on.
“For years, we’ve spoken about doing the Spa 24 together with Alex (Buncombe), I’m sure at some point we’ll be fortunate enough to all share a car together. It’d be nice to race together as mates.”