Michael Christensen could just be one of the most underrated factory GT drivers around. Ahead of the final round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge in Malaysia, James Newbold found out why.
For Intercontinental GT Challenge points leader Laurens Vanthoor, this weekend’s Sepang 12 Hours will be an emotional occasion as he bids farewell to Audi after five years with the four rings, but he’s not the only one who might get a little teary-eyed after the chequered flag. Calendar clashes between the Australian Supercars and Blancpain Endurance Series in 2017 mean this will be Shane van Gisbergen’s final appearance as a McLaren factory driver, while Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy will graduate to LMP1 full-time after taking the Porsche 911 GT3-R for one last spin.
However, there won’t be any room for sentimentality in the sister No. 912 Porsche, which Michael Christensen will share with Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki. The Dane may not be the biggest name in Porsche’s works line-up, nor the most experienced. Indeed, having only been appointed to the works team in late 2013, Christensen is still a relative newcomer when compared with the likes of Lietz, Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long. But while his esteemed colleagues are perhaps a bigger draw for the media, Christensen simply gets on with the job at hand and does most of his talking on-track, impressing the Porsche top brass with his humility and strong work ethic.
Of course, it helps that he’s been schooled in Porsche’s way of thinking since 2012. As a junior driver, Christensen placed seventh in the ultra-competitive Carrera Cup Germany and fared well against Konrad team-mate Norbert Siedler, taking a first victory in the final race of the season at Hockenheim. He continued his progress in Supercup the following year where he was again the top rookie, winning once at the Nürburgring, before making the step up to the works team for 2014. If Porsche had any lingering doubts, they were soon banished as Christensen won at Sebring on only his second start with the factory.
Since then, his stock has risen to such a point that he doesn’t look at all out of place next to the old guard – it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 26.
“It’s fair to say that you’ve got to earn your respect and I feel that I have a lot of experience already from the past before I came to Porsche, but a different kind of experience let’s say,” explains Christensen, who raced single-seaters with mixed success in Formula BMW and GP3.
“You’ve basically got to start from zero from getting the trust from people like Richie, Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister. These guys have been there forever and the people from Porsche know these guys, but they don’t know Michael Christensen, so I had to earn my respect in that way. A year like last year was a good thing for me as I did well and I never said no to anything, I think they liked that.”
By rights, Christensen should already have a WEC GT Drivers title to his name, having accompanied eventual champion Lietz in seven out of the eight rounds in 2015. But in Porsche’s hour of need, it was Christensen who stepped up to deputise for IMSA regulars Tandy and Bamber at Laguna Seca, while they were completing their warmup for Le Mans at the Spa 6 Hours. Starting in the No. 912 car he shared with Bergmeister, the Dane then took over Patrick Pilet’s No. 911 and finished as the best of the non-BMWs in third.
Although the exercise cost him any chance of winning the WEC, it was a test of character which he passed with flying colours, proving that loyalty to the brand would take priority over personal achievement. He was rewarded with an integral role in developing the both the 2016 GT3-R and the mid-engined 911 RSR, which is due to make its competition debut at Daytona in January, and will team up with Lietz in the WEC for a third straight season.
All told, 2016 was a tough year for Porsche in GT racing. In the WEC, Christensen and Lietz fought a losing battle with an old car against the brand new designs from Ferrari and Ford (plus a heavily upgraded Aston Martin), while Pilet surrendered his IMSA title and the factory suffered a disastrous run at the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
However, with Porsche serving notice of its intent in GT racing by adding Vanthoor and Dirk Werner to the factory driver roster and sending the works Manthey outfit to contest both Macau and Sepang, Christensen is confident that there are exciting times ahead – for the marque and for GT racing as a whole.
“I think GT racing is a healthy environment, we see other categories all around the world are struggling a little bit, where GT is only getting stronger year after year,” he said. “The competitive side of the category is also only growing – I think GT racing is the future. We are always going to be there because it’s something you can relate to and the manufacturers would find interesting.
“Of course I’m excited that [Porsche] are going to strengthen the effort, or at least take it as seriously as they have done before, it’s only a good thing for me. Porsche is doing well and hopefully things will continue that way.”
Christensen is under no illusions about the challenge facing Manthey on their first visit to Sepang. With searing heat and humidity, unfamiliar Yokohama rubber and strong opposition from Pirelli World Challenge champions K-PAX and two Phoenix-run Audis (which filled the podium last year) to contend with, all bets are off, but after a tough year, Christensen has eyes only for the top step of the podium.
“It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be humid and it’s going to be very interesting,” he said. “I’ve never been there, so I’m looking forward to learning the track and it’s the first time for me in Malaysia as well. We try to do it as serious as we can, as you’ve seen in Macau, we try to win the big GT3 races and show the potential of the car and hopefully have a good result.”
If they do so, then it may not be possible to overlook Michael Christensen for very much longer.
— Porsche Motorsport (@PorscheRaces) December 8, 2016