The Big Interview: How Sir Chris Hoy’s Le Mans dream came true
On the brink of his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut, Motorsport.com talks to cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy about how his childhood dream to race at the Circuit de la Sarthe is about to become a reality.
Early in 2013, Hoy announced his retirement from track cycling after accumulating six Olympic gold medals and 11 world titles. But instead of enjoying some well-deserved rest, the Scot goes off on a new adventure in motorsports.
What starts off as a hobby, racing in the Radical SR1 Cup, quickly becomes more serious when Nissan comes around and offers him to help him fulfill his long-standing dream of racing in Le Mans.
After getting to grips with the basics in the British GT Championship, scoring a second place in Spa along the way, Hoy makes the step to the European Le Mans Series in 2015 to race with Charlie Robertson in the all-new LMP3 category.
A win at Silverstone is followed by victories at the Red Bull Ring and Paul Ricard, ultimately leading to Hoy’s first title on four wheels.
Then, in March of this year, the announcement comes that the most successful British Olympian ever joins the Algarve Pro Racing Team to race in the LMP2 class of the European Le Mans Series, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing a Nissan powered Ligier JS P2 with Michael Munemann and Andrea Pizzitola.
Motorsport.com meets up with Hoy in the hospitality of the Portuguese team at the back-end of the paddock to talk with him about his road to Le Mans.
How did your passion for motorsport start?
“I suppose, like all kids, I was interested in cars. I used to play with little toy cars. I had a little Scalextric car set. That was the first time I became aware of Le Mans, because I had cars with lights on the Scalextrics.
“I asked my dad: ‘Why do these cars have lights?’ He said: ‘Because they race in the night’. And I was like: ‘Oh, OK.’ And I never thought that I would get the chance to race there.
“But I followed motorsport. I liked rallying. I loved Colin McRae. He was my hero in motorsport. He was the person who really attracted me to racing.
“I did a track day in 2008 and as soon as I did that, I just knew: ‘I got to do this again, this is amazing’. It was at Bedford and they have lots of different cars, so Caterhams, Atoms, M3’s, single seaters. And you drive all the different cars to get a feel for them all. That really sparked the interest.
“I bought a Caterham and I did track days in the Caterham five or six times a year. At the end of the cycling season I would have a month to spend driving. I went to Oulton Park, near my house, just to do track days. That was all I thought I could do. I didn’t think I would get a chance to race.
“I was the presenter of a documentary about Colin McRae, on his life and his career. It was when we were filming that documentary that there was a novice race series in Radical, the SR1 Cup, that said: ‘Do you want to come and have a go?’ And I was like: ‘Yeah, of course!’ So I started racing in 2013 in the novice race series.
“The next year Nissan said: ‘Do you want to come and race our GT-R GT3 in the British GT Championship?’ This was a big step up on all levels really: the car, the power, the standard. And I got to race with guys like Jann Mardenborough, Wolfgang Reip and Alex Buncombe.
“I had great drivers to learn from. And Nissan really helped me to make that transition and that progression through. The following year, last year, it was the European Le Mans Series, LMP3, and this year LMP2, so it has been a very steep learning curve.”
Why did you chose to go cycling instead of pursuing a career in motorsports back then?
“I think it was more accessible. It was easier to get into the cycling and more affordable then four wheels. I never tried karting because I never really had the opportunity.
“But BMX was how I got into cycling. So I raced BMX bikes from seven years old through to fourteen. Then I did road cycling and then velodrome racing. So I think it’s because it was easier to get into.
“I think if I had the opportunity I would have loved to have done karting from a young age, but it was just easier for me to get into cycling.”
When was the moment when you realized that things were getting more serious than you anticipated?
“I think it was when Nissan came onboard, really. I was working with them as an ambassador for their Olympic partnership for Rio and I was doing some mentoring of some of their athletes that they were supporting. And I said to them: ‘Can I do some racing with you guys? I know you are into motorsport. Is there any opportunity to do some driving?’
“They went away, thought about it, came back and said: ‘Well, come to Silverstone, do a test day and see how you go.’ It was really that kind of support from Nissan that started the journey.
“I never thought I would go to Le Mans until Nissan came onboard and really made it possible.”
How do you look back on your first steps in motorsport?
“I was terrified! The first time on the grid, at my first race, it was a standing start, we were all watching the lights and I remember just thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It was a moment of: ‘How did I end up here?’. I felt like a fish out of the water for the first race.
“But the second race I started to feel more comfortable and by the end of the season it felt like I had done it for a long time. And then, when I came on to the GT racing the year after, it was a big step up again, but I just felt more comfortable.
“Because at the first race everything is so different to anything else you do, even if you raced at the highest level in another sport. It can be quite intimidating. But it’s so exciting, it’s so much fun. And then you realize how great of an opportunity it is.”
How different is the motorsports scene from the cycling community?
“There are lots of similarities. Just the commitment from the athletes, the desire to win as a team, the attention to detail in the teams in terms of looking at every possible area to improve, it’s the same as cycling. And working together as a team is very important in cycling too, even though it’s an individual sport.
“In terms of the driving and the racing, I would say to build up the focus and to block out distractions is just as important in both sports. And being able to deal with the pressure and take on instructions, take on guidance and coaching and process it and then apply it, it’s all similar transferable skills.”
Are there also things your teammates can learn from you?
“I don’t know. Maybe. I suppose when things aren’t going so well and there’s lots of pressure. Or in a very stressful situation – it could be a problem with the car or something happening – it’s about dealing with something and making a decision and accepting what you can have control over but also recognizing what you don’t have control over and not worrying about that stuff.
“So it’s more the mental side of things. But most of the guys I raced with are very experienced already, so guys like Buncombe, Reip, Mardenborough and even Andrea Pizzitola, they are all very experienced drivers, so they’ve been through a lot already in their careers.
“So you have to ask them what I bring to the table, but I certainly feel like I’ve gained more from them than they have from me.”
Your season in British GT must have been a huge learning experience?
“It was the biggest step up. The biggest change was going from the Radical SR1 Cup to the British GT. That was a huge step. Initially it felt like I had taken on too much. It was a big change. The standard of driving, the size and the weight of the car, the driving style.
“But then, I basically just tried to listen to what I was been told. By the drivers and by the driver coaches. The GT Academy built their whole model around taking inexperienced people with potential and guiding them to the very highest level, so it’s not a new challenge for them to take somebody like me and trying to improve their talent.
“I was not in the same bracket as someone like Jann or whoever, who made it from the complete novices to the highest level, but they helped me to get some way of the way there. And make it all the way to Le Mans.”
In 2015 you won the ELMS class title – what were the key ingredients for that success?
“A good team mate, I think! I think the key ingredients were getting to grips with the prototype car. I felt a lot more comfortable in the prototype than in the GT.
“I think because I come from Radicals and smaller cars and a little bit of downforce, I felt more at home with a more direct car. Also just getting experience at every race. Every race I felt a bit more comfortable and a bit more confident.
“Charlie Robertson was an amazing team mate. He did a fantastic job. He put the car on pole for every single around apart from one. I think it’s just building on every race and learning, even if the race wasn’t a massive success personally. It’s about learning from your mistakes and getting confident.
“So each time I got in the car I felt more comfortable and I was using less brainpower to think about what I had to do in terms of the actual physical process of driving and more to focus on strategy and passing and dealing with traffic.”
That must have been immensely satisfying?
“Oh, it’s amazing! When I got on the podium at Silverstone at the first round… We really didn’t know what to expect on the first round. Seven cars, LMP3, new category, new car. I didn’t know what the potential was.
“I knew that we had as good a chance as anybody but you don’t think about things like winning or getting podiums, you just think about going as fast as you can. And when we won it, I remember standing on the podium thinking that I passed those days of being on the podium and hearing the national anthem playing.
“Once we won that, and we won the third round at the Red Bull Ring, we realized we could be on for the championship. If we get two more consistent results, we could be potentially be winning the championship. And that’s when the focus became winning the title.
“I definitely didn’t expect to win the European Le Mans Series at the first attempt. So far that has definitely been the highlight of my career, with Charlie winning that championship.”
Did fighting for the title make everything more intense for you?
“It’s always intense, it doesn’t matter. You don’t really get motorsport that isn’t intense. That’s part of the draw. That’s why it so exciting. Because it is intense. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s scary, it’s fun. That’s why I do it.
“The adrenaline, the feeling you get when you’re wheel to wheel battling with another car. There’s nothing like it. So it’s always been intense, but I think when you are actually fighting for a championship, there is something special with that.
“You’re not just driving for your personal goals, you’re actually in the hunt for a trophy and a bottle of champagne.”
How did you enjoy your first 24-hour race at Silverstone?
“It had pretty much everything you could expect from a 24-hour race. We got the car on pole, we had the quickest car, we were miles ahead and then we had problems with the ventilation and the car steaming up when it got wet. Then we had contact and the car broke.
“We mended it and we fought back. Then we had a fire and the car was out for three hours. I thought we were ready to go home, but they fixed the car. They got it back in and fixed it. Then we realized we were in a possibility of getting a podium in our class, so we could finish the 24 hours on a high with potentially a trophy to show for it.
“And then, right before the end, the car broke when I was in the car. They managed to fix it and get us out on the circuit when literally just the checkered flag came out. So I was on the circuit with a car that had no back on it. They had taken the whole casing off to get back out as quick as possible. And all the teams came out and gave us a round of applause because they could see that we were struggling to get the car back out in time.
“It was brilliant. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t realize that it would be quite as emotional as it was just completing it. You think, well, it’s 24 hours, you expect to finish it. But when you realize what the car has to go through, what the drivers go through, all the challenges with the bad weather in the middle of the night, all these different things that happen.
“To make it to the end was actually really special. I really enjoyed it. I have no idea how much more intense it must be at an event like Le Mans, if you make it to the end. How elated you must feel. But I’m not thinking too far ahead at the moment. I just want to take it one step at the time.”
What are the major challenges that came with the step up to LMP2?
“The biggest challenges would be, I suppose, managing traffic in a different way. You have to pass the traffic as opposed to being the one that’s getting passed. The downforce is greater and, if I’m being honest, I would say the LMP2 is actually a more intuitive car to drive.
“It’s more balanced. It encourages you to push even harder. I found it easier to get on the limits of the P2 car than the GT or the P3. But it’s faster and it rewards you for being committed and really trusting the aero package and really using the downforce. And when you do that, it’s incredible.
“It’s by far the best car I’ve ever driven. It’s amazing.”
What is it like for you to be able to measure yourself against experienced rival drivers?
“Yeah, that’s one of the best things about it. Because you know that there are some of the best drivers in the world in the same category and that their car is very comparable to yours. So you’ve got a very realistic bench mark of how good you are. A lot of guys who do track days, a lot of them think they are pretty handy. ‘If I had the chance I can drive a P1 car.’ Whatever!
“It’s only when you progress through these ranks that you realize how amazing the top drivers are. I mean, Andrea [Pizzitola], he won the R.S. 01 championship last year. He’s an incredible talent and I’m sure he’s a big name for the future, but already he’s a championship winner. To have somebody of his calibre to measure myself against, is incredible.
“If I can get within a second and half or a second of his lap time then I’ve done an amazing job. Two seconds used to be the bench mark, to get within two seconds. But you understand your limitations and you don’t go beyond them, but it’s nice to have pretty much the best in the world to measure yourself against.”
Is there a whole different mindset involved in endurance racing?
“The biggest change is just accepting that you’re not getting psyched up for one big moment. It’s like the difference between doing a qualifying lap and doing a two-hour stint. There is a different mindset for that, same as the cycling to the driving.
“But you still have to approach every corner like that’s the only thing you do. You don’t think beyond the next corner, well, you think maybe two corners away, but you don’t think ahead of this lap, you don’t think about the next ten minutes, the next hour or the next 20 hours. All you think about is what you’re doing right now.
“It’s still the same level of concentration and the same level of focus, but you just accept that it’s gonna go on until someone says ‘Box!’. You don’t think too far ahead, basically.”
Do you ever wish you made the switch to motorsports sooner?
“I don’t think so, because it would have meant that I wouldn’t have achieved as much in cycling. I really can’t complain. I had pretty much a 20-year cycling career and then to be able to do something like this at this level, in a really short space of time, is great.
“I can’t think of any other major global sporting event in which an amateur can compete alongside a professional athlete, and the best in the world, at the same time. It’s like getting subbed in for the last five minutes of the World Cup final in football and getting to play alongside the best players in the world. Or getting to play a round of golf during the US Open or the Masters. It’s amazing.
“And I think the key thing is that this is all part of the heritage of the sport. So it’s not like that it’s suddenly been done for TV or to get more people interested. It’s just the way of the event and the way of the sport.
“The amateur/pro, the coexisting of the two, has always been central to the success of the event. And that’s why it’s amazing. You can be part of something that you only ever watched on TV or watched as a fan from the sidelines. If you work at it, you have support and you have good people around you, it’s feasible.”
So how does it feel to be here now?
“Exciting! It’s hard to not get too carried away, because there is so much time between now and the race itself. I think it’s about managing energy and not wasting too much. But yeah, the overriding feeling is one of excitement.”
Did you do any special preparation for this race?
“We did a night test at Jerez, eight hours of driving through the night, which was really useful, and just the usual sort of fitness work. And I’ve got a 20-month-old boy, so you don’t get much sleep. So that’s good practice for lack of sleep!”
What do you think you can achieve in the race?
“I really don’t know. I used to go into cycling events with very clear in my mind what the expectations were. Usually it was to win, because you’ve proven you were the best in the past. But with this and with motorsport in general… I was chatting to Mark Webber earlier and even though they are realistically pushing for the overall win, they never state that, because you can’t. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. There are too many variables.
“So all you can say is: ‘Well, we’re happy with preparations, we’re happy with the car, we’re going to do the very best we can and hope for the best’. I suppose my real true dream is to be in the car when the checkered flag comes out, to finish the 24-hour race and to have done a really good job.”
What comes next?
“What happens beyond, who knows. I think if you have done it once, you just want to come back again, don’t you?
“Whatever opportunities I can get, I will happily grasp them with both hands. I imagine I’ll finish here just wanting to be thinking about next year and how I can be back on the grid again.”
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