FEATURE: Fenny Compton-based Century Motorsport take pride in their reputation, says team owner Nathan Freke
HAVING competed in British GT and the Ginetta SuperCup for the last 11 years, you’d be wrong to think there has been little progress at Century Motorsport.
The Fenny Compton-based outfit, which moved to the village from Kidderminster in 2011, is on an upwards trajectory and there are exciting plans ahead for team owner Nathan Freke and the rest of the crew.
From 2010 to 2020 the team enjoyed an “exponential growth” and then all of a sudden the brakes put a halt on that progress.
After a highly-successful 2019 season, Freke revealed the team was struggling to find drivers for 2020. They somehow squeezed in a season of racing and then the pandemic hit, something which strangely came as a “bit of a saviour” for the team.
Fast-forward to the present and things could not be better, the relationship with BMW is going from strength-to-strength, the team are going to run a GT3 car next year for the first time since 2019 as well as joining the Porsche Carrera Cup GB grid for 2022.
And the ultimate aim is to take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the near future. It’s safe to say exciting times are ahead, but let’s go back to the very beginning and look at how Century, officially formed in 1995 by Nathan’s father Clive, came into existence.
Picking up the story in the team’s reception office, Freke told the Herald: “I started racing in karting in 1993 and we were just an average family. Dad worked in the importing and exporting of bearings and belts, while my mother was a nurse.
“We did not have the best first year, in the second year we moved up to a different category and bought a new kart with a guy that took a bit of a shine to me.
“He told me that if I wanted to do well I’d have to race pretty much every weekend. In 1994 we did 47 race weekends. It was quite expensive, but by the end of the season people started coming to us saying ‘what sprocket are you running?’ or ‘what tyre pressure are you using?’ and my dad saw an opportunity to start a business to pay for my racing.
“In 1995, Century Motorsport was officially formed and we continued the success from 1994 and started to grow. We started off with an awning big enough for three karts and rented it out for £50 a day, which bought a set of tyres per race weekend.
“The karts we were racing at that time were 100cc so that’s where the name Century came from. Dad had a particular eye for building engines then I started to build my own engines and that’s where the business gained traction. We started building engines for customers and in 1996 we grew a little bit more.
“Come 1998, we had this huge octagonal awning which we ran ten karts out of. We used to call it the ‘Temple of Doom’ but it basically started paying for my racing, which was great.
“We had a great group of customers who we are still friends with now 25 years on and Century Motorsport just grew and grew. I left school in 2000 and I’ve done nothing but Century Motorsport since, so I’ve worked for the team for 21 years now.”
Century always had a focus on karting, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Freke and the team started to shift into the realms of sportscar racing. Over the next couple of years the team phased out of karting and in 2008, following a disastrous move to single-seater racing in the US, Freke decided it was time to put all his time and effort into sportscar racing.
Looking back on that transition, Freke told the Herald: “When I moved into cars in 2005, we still stayed as a karting team as that’s where our core business was. However, as I started doing more and more cars, we had customers that wanted to transition with us and we actually became a Formula Ford team.
“We won the championship in 2006 when we ran a Kent car for some customers. Things were ticking along nicely doing karting and cars, but in all honesty we were never a massive kart team.
“I had issues that karting was a case of ‘who is onto the next cheat?’ all the time. I’ve always been a person that bats with a straight bat and that sometimes meant we had a clear disadvantage.
“There was a clear issue of could I look a customer in the eye and think am I giving them the best chance of success because we are not cheating? The answer was no. As we morphed into cars I wanted to seize the opportunity to switch completely to that side of the business.
“That took a few years and 2008 was our last year of karting. By that time my career was floundering because we were always budget-limited. The budget in cars is exponential at each step you make and the race team was nowhere near paying for anything, it was a bit of a strange time.”
Freke continued: “I tried a spell in America but that failed miserably. That was a period where it was the land of opportunity for Brits. If you could win in the UK you could win anywhere in the world and the US at that time was the tail end of when it was easy to make money.
“The level of racing was not that great, but we went over there with a meagre budget and it backfired in my face massively. Off the back of that a customer bought us a Ginetta, which springboarded us into what we are now.
“We won the championship in 2009 and it immediately made us hot property in the Ginetta paddock. In 2010 we were running four cars and we just burst onto the scene from there. If you look at the history books, we’ve not done much in terms of expansion. We’ve done British GT and the Ginetta SuperCup for the last 11 years, but we’ve come so far and as an organisation and business, Century Motorsport is ten-times the size it was when it first started.
“We’re now running BMWs in British GT and we’re the only UK team to be doing that. We’re building a relationship with Aston Martin and we’re switching to Porsche next year for the Carrera Cup GB, so there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. We had grown exponentially from 2010 right up until 2020.”
Strangely, before the pandemic even hit, Century were struggling to find drivers for 2020. With budgets tighter than usual and several teams fighting over drivers, Century’s ten-strong team were faced with running just two cars when they needed to be running seven or eight for the championships they competed in.
It seemed like the appetite for racing had just dissipated. Freke was left in a position where he had to let five staff go and tell the other five to “sit tight” due to the uncertainty over where the team was heading. Then the first lockdown came and everyone was put on furlough.
Century benefitted from the relevant grants and breaks for rates, something which Freke labelled as a “lifeline”.
“It’s a strange thing to say that the Covid-19 pandemic almost saved us,” he said. “We came back in August 2020 and got a full season’s worth of racing. Because no-one could travel, the appetite for racing in the UK was colossal. We ran in two championships with one car in each and that turned into three cars in one and two in the other. On top of that we were then doing a load of guest races, so it actually turned out to be a good year for us.
“The last time I remember we had a similar year in 2013. You have to be proactive over the winter to get drivers. It’s not easy. You have to research them, get their contact details, send a speculative email and then there’s a lot of back and forth. You have to remember, though, that every other team is doing that and there are only a finite amount of drivers.”
Freke added: “In 2013 there was no appetite and we had it tough. We started out very small, but you’re always going to gather momentum. I don’t know what it was, but in 2019 the phone was not ringing, we were struggling to get interest in seats and there seemed to be a lack of money out there.
“I get on well with all the team owners and I know some were in the same boat as us and you start getting a bit of a twitchy bum. We had a couple of guys sign and we knew it was going to be quiet compared to the year before and it was a little bit worrying.
“Covid-19 happened and put us into hibernation and then we bounced back. Then we got the golden ticket. An American with an open chequebook arrived. He was flying high while we were licking our wounds. We had a long chat and I told him I just didn’t understand what was happening after we had worked so hard.
“He said to me he had experienced something similar two years ago and that things like that make you focus harder. That resonated with me, so we knuckled down and our ethos is to always be the best. We want to be the first car to the assembly area, first in the paddock and want everything shiny.
“We were overstaffed for what we had but we had fantastic drivers and that’s the shop window. Before we knew it our awnings were full again. It’s part and parcel, the trial and tribulations of running a motor racing team. It just so happened Covid-19 was quite timely for us.
“I’d never thought I’d say that because it’s a terrible thing to have happened worldwide, but to us it was a bit of a saviour.”
Having been forced to let staff go, Freke has been able to rebuild and while some teams have just one or two key members in the workshop and then sub-contract the rest of the work out, the Century boss would prefer to have more than enough employees for the job.
“If you look at it as a business plan for the season, say you’re running eight cars and one guy per car, that’s eight guys, but what happens when a driver crashes and the car is smashed to pieces?” said Freke.
“All of a sudden you need four guys for that car. I always overstaff and for sure that means we’re not as profitable, but it gives us a good reputation in the paddock of being a good company to work for.
“The job is always done, nothing turns up late and we don’t let customers down. There’s been a few times where I have questioned how I do things, but on reflection I’m glad I run it like the way I do and that stems from my own racing experience.
“I had a spell racing for other teams and I’ve seen the other side of the coin. Going to the USA was a bitter experience as I was spending family money. I saw not how to do things. It was not a nice feeling spending my parents’ pension fund and for me, I wanted things to be right.
“I want to be able to look a customer in the eye. Yes, issues happen, but if I had an inkling something was not done right by the customer I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. We’ve gathered a good reputation for that and it’s nice to hear people speaking highly of you. We want to do an honest job, we enjoy what we’re doing and it’s working well.”
Since the pandemic the team is going from strength-to-strength both on and off the racetrack, and Freke explained that for sustainability, he stressed the importance of the ‘gentleman driver’.
“There are two types of driver in sportscar racing,” he explained. “You’ve got the young buck who is trying to create a career for himself, funded by mum and dad or very small sponsors.
“They always find it difficult to get budgets together and it’s hard work to get them in the seat, but they’re super fast and rewarding to run. Then you’ve got your middle-aged man that’s just sold his business for £50million and wants to fulfil his dream of being a racing car driver.
“They will pay the young buck to sit next to them in endurance races and from our point of view for sustainability, those guys are important. It’s the backbone of sportscar racing and we traditionally have been orientated around young drivers.
“We’ve had some fantastic talent come through our hands who have gone on to do major things, but we’re now starting to move into the realms of the gentleman driver. That’s where it’s starting to springboard us forward because if we pick up a gentleman driver who wants to do GT4 in year one, then GT3 and then Le Mans, he’s the guy that can take you forward if the relationship is there.”
Talking of relationships, it’s safe to say Century and BMW are a match made in heaven. The partnership started in 2018 and since then, both Century and BMW have never looked back.
Century have won British GT twice in the last four years – both the GT4 teams and drivers’ championships – and are now looking forward to mounting a challenge in the GT3 category next year with the BMW M4.
“GT4 is traditionally a small category and up until 2018 we ran Ginettas,” said Freke. “We’d grown over a few years and all of a sudden manufacturers started taking a big interest in GT4.
“We could see the writing was on the wall for the Ginetta. The legality of the car had a grey area and when you’ve got big manufacturers, the balance of power was always favoured against you.
“At that point we knew it was time to make a change and BMW was not actually our first choice – Audi was.
“I went out and tested their R8, but I did not like it. Mercedes did not have any options and McLaren was problematic at the time, so I got in touch with BMW and immediately they were very keen. That sounds strange because some manufacturers want you to be lucky you’re buying their car, not the other way around.
“They invited us to Hockenheim, I tested the car and I loved it. I knew it was a good bit of kit and I bought two of them, and in the first year we finished first and second in the championship – we whitewashed it.
“BMW have been really good to us and they’re very supportive. They send a truck from Munich on every race weekend and they fly engineers in to help us. We’re the only UK team to run these cars, nothing is stopping anyone else from doing so, but for whatever reason we’re the only team so it has made us bigger than we are.
“We’ve won the championship twice in four years and we’re moving up to GT3 next year. We’re going to be the only team to have that car, as they simply can’t supply them. We’re getting a lot of fringe benefits and we’re now starting to work closely with BMW UK to try and consolidate that relationship. If we’re one of five teams running BMWs we wouldn’t have those benefits, but as we’re the only one, it gives us a bit of leverage.”
Freke added: “We want to align ourselves more and more with BMW. We do run an Aston Martin and that’s fine. If a customer wants us to run something different we have no issue with that. At this moment in time, though, consolidating the BMW relationship is important to us.
“We’re exploring other avenues and seeing if we can get some rebranding to make ourselves more BMW-orientated. It has to be good for BMW as well. Let’s be honest, the car is in its fifth year and no-one else has bought one, without us flying that flag the UK market is dead.
“It’s a little ironic really when the UK is the second-biggest BMW market. For the Germans, it’s important they have a UK representative and it’s important we leverage that.”
Looking at how far Century have come, Freke admits it may not look like there’s been a lot of progress given how they’re still competing in British GT and the Ginetta SuperCup. However, the team has moved within that sector and Freke puts that down to him not being a “big gambler”.
“I’ve got a lot of responsibilities with staff and everything I do is very calculated,” he said. “The arrival of Covid-19 was a year of reflection in terms of how I wanted things to go. I’m probably seizing opportunities more than I did before.
“We’ve had good opportunities presented to us by customers and/or manufacturers and we’re seizing those. I think we’re on a good trajectory to fulfil our ambition of getting to Le Mans, which is the pinnacle of sportscar racing. We did GT3 in 2019 and the ambition was to get back to that, and in 2022 that will happen.
“There’s a regulation shift in Le Mans where GT3 cars will be eligible to race. We’ve got the infrastructure and for sure we’ll need other bits and pieces, but GT3 is not a brand new car to us.
“We’ve already got one in the stables and suddenly reaching Le Mans comes tangible. We’ve got great partners and customers who I believe will take us there, whether it’s 2024 or 2025 I don’t know, but I’m sure we can be competing at Le Mans very soon.”
On the subject of opportunities coming up for Century, alongside running a GT3 car, the team will also be breaking into the world of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB. This does mean that Century’s allegiances to the Ginetta SuperCup will loosen, but Freke stressed the departure would not be immediate.
“Ginetta supports the British Touring Car Championship and so does the Porsche Carrera Cup. The layout of the weekend works out really well for us and we want to stay on that package,” he added. “Ginetta have been great. I love Ginetta and what they do. We’ve done it for 11 years now and seen teams come and go, but I think it’s time to make that next step.
“We looked at Porsche several times in the past, but with established teams that had the data and set-up, how exactly do you break into that world as a new team? It’s very difficult. However, for 2022 there’s a brand new car that is radically different to all the other ones, so this is the perfect time as everyone starts at zero.
“We’ve got a fantastic young driver lined up, but he’s waiting to see if he’s won the Porsche Junior Scholarship. We will probably be a two- or three-car team and it’ll be nice step for us, as we will be aligning ourselves with another big manufacturer.
“Being honest, to fill a seat in Porsche compared to Ginetta, there’s more of an appetite for it. In some form we will still run Ginetta, we’ve got one guy signed for next year and he’s very quick. We’ve got a nice vision of winning Ginetta and Porsche next year, but slowly but surely we will be phasing across to Porsche.
“Ginetta have been really good to us and we’re their longest-standing customer so it feels like a relationship break-up, but it’s not. Sometimes you want a change and this is the opportunity to do so – and we’re grasping it with both hands.”