This son of a ’70s saloon hero has beaten his own path to a Le Mans factory seat. But it’s taken time, he tells Damien Smith
Is Alex Buncombe best known for twirling a bronze Jaguar C-type around Monaco and Le Mans or for his antics in modern Nissan GTs? That’ll depend on where you watch your racing. What is certain is that he’s a breath of fresh air, as current racing drivers go. A year on from winning three of his four races in JD Classic’s hot C at Le Mans Classic, the 33-year-old will return to La Sarthe for the 24 Hours proper, this time as a fully paid-up member of a factory prototype team. Now that doesn’t happen very often.
Buncombe’s rise to the elite has been a slow burn. This third-generation racer – he is the son of popular 1970s ‘saloonatic’ Jonathan – plugged away in his older brother Chris’s wake, first in junior single-seaters, before a chance encounter led to a fruitful alliance with Bob Neville’s RJN concern when it was embarking on a high-profile GT campaign with Nissan. Eight years later, Buncombe finds himself rewarded with a berth in Nissan’s radical front-engined GT-R LM NISMO.
Beyond the family interest, it was a future F1 champion who sparked the trail that led to Le Mans. “Chris and I started out in motocross until John and Jenson Button let us have a go in their kart at Clay Pigeon,” he says. “We loved it.”
The Jim Russell and La Filière schools fanned the flame, but not even backing from childhood friend Jenson would catapult Alex beyond intermittent Formula Renault campaigns. The brothers then changed tack, linking up with Worcester-based Chiron to try sports cars.
“In 2006 things started to kick off,” says Alex. “Chris had driven JMB Racing’s Maserati MC12 in FIA GTs, and that link led me to the Maserati Trofeo Cup. I did the first round at Monza and won, but then the sponsor pulled out.
“The next year Bob Neville asked Chris to do Spa in the GT4 Cup. It clashed with his LMP2 commitments, so I asked Chris to twist Bob’s arm and get me a seat. I didn’t have any money. It took some persuading, but in the end the answer was yes – and I finished second in both races.”
Buncombe’s subsequent alliance with RJN’s Nissan Z-cars stepped up a mark with the advent of the GT Academy in 2008. Thanks to the faith of Nissan motor sport boss Darren Cox, Alex found himself central to the high-profile success story of taking PlayStation gamers directly from consoles to race tracks, partnering and mentoring Academy winners in the European Blancpain and British GT series. The most notable of these, Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordóñez, step up to LMP1 this year, too. “In the first year with Lucas I was concerned,” Buncombe admits. “I wanted to do well for myself and was apprehensive having him in the car. We didn’t know how fast he would be for real, but he was quick. We nearly won the GT4 series, and for a gamer to do that in his first year in a car that wasn’t easy to drive…”
Since then, Buncombe has become a YouTube sensation thanks to in-car footage of a monster first lap at Monza and has tutored Britain’s most successful Olympian, Sir Chris Hoy, as the cycling legend turns his focus to motor racing. The wide-ranging nature of Nissan’s global motor sport interests has led him to Japan for Super GT and Australia for V8 Supercars.
And those historic racing exploits? “Initial contact with JD came through Jenson’s manager, Richard Goddard,” he says. “Chris drove one of their Group C cars at Silverstone Classic, but again had clashing dates. He convinced Derek [Hood, JD boss] to give me a go.” No wonder he’s so close to his brother. We think he owes Chris a pint or three.
Career in brief
Born: 28/08/81, Taunton, Devon
1999 La Filière
2001 Formula Honda (champion)
2000-03 Formula Renault
2006 Maserati Trofeo (1 race, 1 win)
2007-10 GT4 European Cup
2011-14 Blancpain Endurance (GT4 champion, 2011), British & FIA GTs
2015 Le Mans (Nissan LMP1), Blancpain Endurance