Next up in our short series of tales from three young men heading to Le Mans the week comes United Autosports’ Phil Hanson.
Phil will be crewing the #22 Oreca 07 alongside his regular ELMS and WEC co-pilot Filipe Albuquerque and their almost equally regular ‘third man’ Paul di Resta.
That’s proven to be a potent combination, winning five of the last six LMP2 races that they have contested across both the ELMS and WEC (the other was won by the #32 United Oreca!).
That means they come into Le Mans with the Championship lead in both ELMS and WEC!
This season really couldn’t have gone any better so far, could it?
“It couldn’t have to be honest. I think we’ve we’ve been in the hunt on every single weekend and we’ve been able to capitalise on other people’s mistakes. We haven’t made them. And I think when you look at where we were at the start of the season in Paul Ricard with the puncture, it looks like every single team has had one big issue.
“But what’s interesting about our car in particular is that the only issue we’ve had hasn’t been self-inflicted, the puncture was a debris related issue whilst the G-drive for example has crashed, our sister car has had contact and had a penalty for it and so on.
“So I think whilst we’ve not had the perfect run we’ve been pretty much there or thereabouts in terms of our performance and how cleanly we’ve run all the races.”
To say that the partnership with you and Filipe has gelled would be an understatement. The odd thing though is that there has not quite yet been the perfect race run? It’s been dominant. It’s been convincing. But could Le Mans be the one?
“I don’t even want to think about that! But I know what you mean. There hasn’t been a perfect one – Spa looked like it was going to be a really hectic battle in the last stint between me and Mickel (Jensen). We typically, not always, but we typically depending on how the race is looking, push and put our cars together at the end of the race.
“That’s when it matters. That’s what we saw at Paul Ricard in the last race with Filipe, and normally the races we’ve run up to that point we’ve had the lead or capitalised on other people’s mistakes then had to bring the car home.
“But in those last stints we haven’t really yet been able to show, apart from at Paul Ricard, our true strength when everything comes together, and the last stint is normally our biggest push for the win.
“We’ve not though had a faultless race, we’ve just been able to be there at the end and capitalise on other people’s mistakes.
“So we’re still yet on our part, to be able to really have that sort of tough, tight competition where we’ve had the perfect strategy, the perfect race, and all of the others not having had issues and to beat them absolutely categorically on track.”
You’re one of the very few that have actually won races in international LMP2 competition with more than one different chassis.
Tell me a little bit about the differences you found now with the Oreca with the team. now well bedded in with it to previously where you got to with a successful campaign with the Ligier.
“There’s been a lot of things that have changed from the time I was driving the Ligier to the Oreca.
“I think the level of competition has been seen to get increasingly tough over the last three years. Year on year on year, the team performances, the quality of team, the way people are racing.
“People have been talking about it being a four hour sprint race, but literally it’s now exactly that!
“And that mixed in with driver line-ups like we’re seeing now, with Formula E champions, Formula Two champion, ex F1 drivers – you really can’t beat that category and that calibre of drivers in any other championship in the world apart from F1 and maybe IndyCar and DTM – only the top, top professional manufacturer works sports car, or single seater categories are able to match that sort of level of competition and driver calibre, which is amazing seeing it’s a privateer class.
“And then we’re also seeing a lot of very fast Silvers. So it makes it seem like it’s a completely professional category.
And I think that’s also changed the way in which it’s showcased the gap between Oreca and Ligier because the Ligier was able to win races a couple of years ago when driver line-ups were less strong and there was more margin to be made in other areas of winning a race – the driver lineup, the team’s performance and strategy.
“But now with there being such big grids and such efficient grids in terms of drivers not making mistakes and strong teams. It means that you don’t really have that ability that if you’re not quite there on pace you can make up for it in other areas.”
You’re the ideal guy to ask – Is the ELMS the best endurance racing series on the planet right now? Is it is it actually better racing than in the WEC?
“Yes I do think so. I think it probably is. You can’t beat what is intrinsic to the WEC, it’s got FIA in front of it, and its a World Championship which means that even if it has half the grid, or quarter of the grid, the level of professionalism that you take into the championship increases.
“Quite often a team can move into LMP2 from LMP3 and do a good or OK job in ELMS because they would have done all the tracks, they would have had the references.
“When you go to WEC, you’re going to Asia and to the Middle East, you’re going to America, you’re going to tracks that a lot of drivers wouldn’t have encountered before, apart from the top drivers. Teams wouldn’t have encountered that apart from the top teams and preparation is needed to be able to do 10 hours at Sebring, or night races in Bahrain, preparation that would not normally be done on the European stage.
“So although it’s the tightest and probably in terms of viewing, the best racing to watch, it might not be as clear cut for actual level of professionality and level of performance.”
So talking about Le Mans, it’s a bit of a strange one. And it’s not your first! What are you expecting of the experience and about the race?
“For obvious reasons it’s going to be different with no fans and how that is going to impact the sheer occasion of it.
“I think it’s going to take a bit away from the fact that it’s such a special event. It’s a doubke-edged sword – the fans go because Le mans is so huge and so special, and Le Mans is so huge and special because the fans come in such numbers!
“So it won’t be the same. But it is still Le Mans, it is still the most important race of the year, and the on-track challenge is still the same. And the results will still be in the history books!
“I’m really lucky that I’m going back to Le Mans, with all the differences and potential extra challenges, up to four hours more in the darkness and with the weather more likely to be changeable with the three Le Mans 24 Hours previously under my belt.
“Experience is just so much more rewarding at Le Mans just because there’s so many different circumstances which you need to prepare yourself for.
“You could be getting in the car and the balance could be slightly different because its the night now. You could be getting in the car never having experienced darkness like Le Mans because it’s incredibly dark, and it’s going to be even darker this year!
There will no be any of the ambient light pollution from the fans around the circuit.
“You could be driving Le Mans for the first time with the sunrise, the sunset and you’re going to be blinded for an hour.
So I think experience plays so much more an important part here.
“Remember you can’t test here, and there’s no test day this year either so that too means that experience is so, so important.”
Tell us a bit about that learning curve after three races here before?
“Yeah, this is my fourth and it has been a learning curve.
“My first Le Mans (with Tockwith) was just about taking part and learning was very much just taking part learning because we weren’t competitive that year.
“Then, my first Le Mans with United was a hoped for podium, which unfortunately turned into a DNF which we learnt from and came back.
“We did almost the perfect Le Mans last year with just a couple of small issues away from the perfect races. But, unfortunately, as I said with the difference in level changing in LMP2 for teams and drivers, you can’t now not be there in all the different avenues and make a successful race.
“Last year we did the perfect race in terms of drivers not making mistakes, strategy being perfect, almost no issues, one minor issue in a couple of stops.
“There wasn’t enough pace in the car to really be able to get a reward for it so fourth was above and beyond what we could have accomplished there. And it’s a shame though, because you want to really save that perfect race for this year, when you have the pace in the car and you have confidence in the team and and we’re doing the job that we’ve been doing for the last few races. You wish that you could just have the perfect clean Le Mans but there’s so many variables this year.
It’s a very different season this year, we’ve got another race to come in Bahrain for WEC, you’re in a very good position in the championship.
If you have to make the decision to put yourself in a position where the championship is beyond reach, or take a Le Mans win, which would you take?
“I can’t. I really can’t. It’s such a difficult question. I want both. I think the only thing that you have to consider when trying to come up with an answer to something like that is the fact that the effort and the performance around the entire season is is very different to just Le Mans itself.
“I think Le Mans, if you have put in a good performance, you can in some ways luck into a win, whereas a season’s performance and the performance over the course of events of a full year changes people’s perception on you as a driver as opposed to one event.
“So I think for me, it’s it’s always a bit more challenging to win a championship than it might be to win Le Mans. But at the same time, what makes Le Mans so difficult is the fact that it’s so difficult in a different way, because of the variables, there’s so much that can go wrong. It’s 24 hours of non-stop racing. There’s so many things can go wrong out of control of the driver or the team.”
Let’s talk finally then about you and your career path, because it’s an interesting moment. We’ve got what feels still like a long journey before the cavalry arrive in international sports car racing.
Pretty clearly at the moment factory interest is at a low ebb. WEC looks sustainable until LMDh arrives. But that’s a long time for young man like you to wait.
You’re talked about in the in the paddocks in a very positive way in terms of your pace.
It’s a tricky moment, isn’t it? Beyond potential Le Mans success and Championship success what next?
“It’s an impossible question because we don’t know how many teams and manufacturers are going to come into it. We won’t know until until we know and unfortunately, this whole COVID situation is throwing in another variable. If there wasn’t COVID it was looking like you would be hearing about things a year early because you’d have teams beginning to reach out to drivers and lock in contracts and begin the development programme or maybe even enter LMP2 or GT just to get the endurance side of manufacturers’ projects up and running to make sure that the hitting the ground running. But this COVID whole saga is throwing things up in the air. So I really have no idea how it’s all gonna play out.”
Is it a matter of just having, at the moment, to be patient?
“Patience is part of it, but also, I think there’s always going to be a limbo yet between a year where you think you are ready to do it and then the year it actually happens. And I think what’s really important, for me at least, is to make sure that limbo year doesn’t detract from my true performance, showing how good I think I am and the level which I set myself and perform to.
“So if I set myself expectations which I’m meeting some but not all the races, I need to make sure that I’m meeting them at all the races next year.
“But what also might happen is that I’m reaching my expectations, but it’s not getting as much notice because I’m not winning the races. So it’s just this trade off between being noticed at the front, but also fulfilling your own actual performance when because what the media might see is that I’m winning races, but what I might see is a stint average that isn’t as quick as my teammate.
“What I needs to be making sure of is that they are both aligned, which is a very difficult balance to make in endurance racing, because you need to be in a good lineup with a good team, but also to be able to stand out in that team.
“That’s good for me at the moment because I’ve got very good references next to me, I’ve got Paul and Filipe. So if I match or exceed them at certain events, then it means that I am standing out in my own respect.
“But at the same time, we need to be winning the races. So I think if it gets pushed back into this one becoming a limbo year to COVID and the repercussions of COVID I think it’s going to be another difficult conversation to try and see where motorsport is and where LMP2 is and what’s going to happen because to progress I need to be noticed.
“At this point, I really have no clue as to what I’m going to do.”
There are basically two elements that matter in terms of catching the eye of someone who’ll make that call or take that meeting that could change your life. One of them is a racing record. In other words, what have you won, and we know at the moment, you’ve won championships and you’ve won races. The second thing is – it’s a team game. What is your contribution within that wider picture? Are you happy with where you are on that curve at the moment?
“I am very happy with where I am. I think it’s good to build up a reputation.
“People in the paddock are talking positively about me in a very negative way! People are complaining, which I love to hear! I love hearing people whinging “Why is he a Silver?” “Can he change in the middle of the year, this isn’t fair?!”
“That’s music to my ears – it means two things: One that people are noticing my performance and if anything hyping me up but at the same time it’s also detracting from their own performance because they’re getting into every weekend a bit pissed off that I’m a Silver!
“That’s not going to last obviously at the end of the year I’ll get moved to Gold and I don’t think there’s a way around that.
“But what I’m trying to get at is the fact that when that all changes and when that will stops I need to find a way of still being talked about in that same manner. I won’t have the same appeal because they won’t be talking about that annoying Silver that’s just overtaken them and gone down the road by about 10 seconds!