Phil Hanson is one of a select number of drivers at Paul Ricard who is not starting his season here. The 18-year-old already has 36 hours of racing behind him after contesting both the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, and the 12 Hours of Sebring with United Autosports in a Ligier JS P217.
Those races form part of an extraordinary season plan which will see the young driver contest the full ELMS, complete the NAEC in IMSA’s field with the enduros at Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans and, of course, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all with United.
Coupled with that, is his final year of school, Hanson coming towards the end of a high level Economics course. That’s quite a tricky balance to maintain, but so far the plan is working.
The first part of the plan though was to find a new team after parting from Tockwith Motorsport in the middle of the 2017 season.
“The decision to go to United was made towards the end of last year, pretty soon after the final ELMS race of the season.
“I’d been doing some testing with Ligier, but under the supervision of United, that was the main link, United were assisting with an arrangement we had with the Ligier factory.
“It was a pretty big step up from the previous year with Tockwith, obviously through the factory link it gave me opportunities that otherwise would not have been there. It meant that I had the opportunity to sample the new development quick very early, a really good introduction and a head start because I was going to be running with it throughout this year.
“There’s been plenty of track time, and at a lot of tracks, including a lot of the tracks that we’ll be racing at in the ELMS this year too with is doubly useful.
“Away from the track I’ve been coached by (coaching legend) Rob Wilson whilst most of my time testing on track was spent with Filipe (Albuquerque). I didn’t know at the time that he would be my teammate this year but the time spent with his has been excellent.”
I take it you hadn’t been to either Daytona or Sebring before this year? What was your experience of the to early season enduros?
“The first and most obvious change for me was the lack of a European-style pit box at Daytona, there is a garage of course but it’s pretty open-plan with the rest of the teams.
“In that respect it seems like its all under one roof, there’s no real opportunity to individualise the team in that space, and in some ways it seems to even things out a little.
“The pit lane too is very different, the pit wall was new to me, with just a pop up marquee behind – but then gain their pit equipment is a lot more advanced than what we would use in Europe as a result of having the pit and the garage separated.”
In the USA you’ve been working alongside the Andretti part of the United/ Andretti alliance with a core group of the Garforth guys?
“Absolutely, the arrangement with Andretti is what has made this all possible. The NAEC programme would have been a real headache without that connection. The car stays in the USA and whilst one of the three cars is owned by my family it’s pretty difficult from my perspective to keep track of which is which, the tub and fuel tank tend to stay in one place, the Gibson engines are leased and the rest of the parts are just interchangeable – I just get on with the job in hand!”
Sebring really couldn’t be more different?
“The fans though, that’s nothing like Europe, a huge contingent of people who come for days in advance in their RVs to be part of an event, not just a race! At home most people people just come for a day, maybe two.”
Beyond the event though, in the two big US races, you’ve had the experience, and the challenge, of working with two completely different sets of pretty high profile team-mates in those races.
At Daytona it was Fernando Alonso, a huge story, and Lando Norris. What was that experience like, and what did that do in terms of pressure and your learning curve?
“The pressure doesn’t come from their status – it comes from not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of them, or to let them, and the whole effort, down.
“It’s certainly not a popularity contest, it’s about ensuring that you can give yourself the room in amongst all of that to concentrate on your pace and make a real contribution. And, not to make a huge mistake and be a part of the story in the worst way possible!
“It turned out not to be an issue for me at all, in fact in some ways I think it all helped. Almost all of the external pressure was on the other guys and I just got on with it, and my race went well partially as a result.”
And how was the atmosphere within the team?
“Pretty good. Both of them understood immediately that the relationship with team-mates in endurance is very different from that in F1. There there’s an argument that your team-mate is sort of your worst possible adversary, the baseline comparison by which the team, and pretty much everyone else, determines your success or otherwise.
“In endurance of course it’s totally different. We rely on each other in so many ways, to share data and information, to look after the car, the compromise on set-up that’s required to get the best result across two, three or more drivers, all of that, and they both got it really very quickly.”
On to Sebring and you raced with Paul di Resta and late signing Alex Brundle, how was that?
“I knew Alex a little via karting, and then as part of United’s LMP3 effort, but I got to know Paul (di Resta) rather more through being in the other car at Daytona, we were in the same debriefs, shared much of the same space there and therefore the transition was pretty smooth.
“It was a new track (Only Brundle had raced there previously) and a new driver line-up, but that was much the same challenge at Daytona. It can be the very little things, sense of humour, whether and when they need their own space. It’s those kinds of things that make a difference when you adapt to new people, almost never the job in hand because the level of professionalism is so high.”
And both races went very well, the car led at Daytona, and was up in second place at Sebring and running in and around a podium position for an extended period. That’s again a fair amount of pressure?
“We were just trying to run our own race, take all the opportunities that such a long race presents, and seeing where that left us in the run to the flag. In both cases, pace from us, mistakes elsewhere, and the yellow flag periods saw us rising up the order. And as that continues to happen there’s a real motivation to stick with a plan that’s working!
“It’s all about speed and consistency in a stint, looking after the car, tyre management, keeping the car on the lead lap.
“You get good information, and that helps you to adjust. I was told only once that we were at risk of that, that the leader was 20 seconds behind as I was going into my second stint, that is the cue to up the ante, to go into qually mode! In that stint the leader took just 5 seconds out of me rather than the 10 seconds he took in the first and we stayed on the lead lap.”
How easy has it been to maintain your consistency as your speed has improved, particularly in the big US races where there is so much traffic?
“There is more of a challenge at Sebring, simply because the track is narrower, and because of the bumps – Daytona was easier because you had the banking where there was the opportunity to pass pretty easily.”
You’ve had the opportunity to test and race the Ligier both with, and without, it’s recent updates, what difference can you feel?
“In fairness it is a pretty marginal difference in most scenarios because, with the exception of Le Mans there really wasn’t a huge difference previously. Certainly the ORECA was quicker, but it was in the same ballpark. Now though I can close when I am in the tow, something the original car couldn’t do.”
Now here we are at Paul Ricard, with the first round of the ELMS this weekend, what’s the plan?
“We’re aiming for the ELMS Championship, there’s never been any doubt about that. We have a great package but the level in LMP2 is huge this year, plenty of cars with good teams and driver line-ups. The racing is going to be hard, ELMS with the mix of cars we have and the level of so many of them will be a war. The 4 hour race length really suits what I call Sprint Endurance and I really like it.”