Olympian Sir Chris Hoy conquered the cycling world. Now he’s relishing life as a humble rookie, racing at Le Mans and notching up another sporting ambition
Writer Damien Smith
He looks the part in his shiny Nissan overalls, and he certainly says all the right things. But does Sir Chris Hoy, the most successful Olympic athlete in history, a god of the cycling velodrome and the bearer of multiple gold medals and world titles, actually feel like a racing driver?
“Once I get my helmet on, yes,” he says with a glint of his trademark optimism. “On my Twitter profile I now have ‘races cars’ at the end of my description of who I am…”
It’s just as well he means it. ‘Our’ sport can never define him in the eyes of the wider world like his old one will, but this new chapter can no longer be dismissed as merely a hobby, a means of distraction following his retirement from the toe clips. And it can bite, too. There’s nothing half-hearted about Le Mans.
We’re in Nissan’s ‘Innovation Centre’ within the bowels of London’s O2 Arena to hear all about Hoy’s new adventure. Happily, his reputation as a friendly, down-to-earth bloke is precisely as we find him. Naturally we’re the last to get to him (after the man from the Daily Mail), but his excitement hasn’t tarnished as he welcomes us to fire away for a “proper” interview about what is clearly a genuine passion.
After just two full years racing within Nissan’s renowned driver development programme, Hoy will take his bow at the world’s biggest race. He’ll be driving a Ligier JSP2 in the prototype class’s second division, sharing the car run by Algarve Pro Racing with Frenchman Andrea Pizzitola and fellow Brit Michael Munemann. Naturally, power will be delivered courtesy of the Japanese manufacturer that has steered his second sporting career since he tackled the British GT Championship in 2014.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to race properly,” says the lifelong motor racing fan. “It was really after I retired from cycling that the opportunity arose, when I had more time on my hands to pursue it. I never thought it would be possible to get to Le Mans, or to have the support I’ve had. It wouldn’t have been possible without Nissan.”
Anyone who caught the BBC documentary Hoy made about his childhood hero Colin McRae will have noted how genuine the cyclist is about motor racing. Pedal power might have dominated his life, but cars were always there.
Edinburgh-born Hoy learnt how to win on BMXs (just like Alex Wurz), which he raced successfully until he was 14. The switch to track sprint cycling in 1992 would lead to his first world championship medal, a silver, seven years later. From there, the roll of honour is just astounding: 11 world titles, two Commonwealth crowns and those amazing six golds and a silver at three Olympics, culminating in the glorious London Games of 2012. In between, he brought velodrome cycling to the mainstream and claimed the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2008, the knighthood and MBE further embellishing this modest man’s status as a national hero.
His presence at Le Mans will deliver Nissan more headlines (and certainly more positive ones) than any over-ambitious and outlandish LMP1 project. It’s a coup for the race, too.
But any notion of dismissing him as a celebrity racer is unfair. He heads to Le Mans on merit, having won his entry fair and square by winning the LMP3 class of the 2015 European Le Mans Series with Charlie Robertson in a Ginetta. The baby prototype class offered Hoy his first taste of real downforce – and he liked it.
“When I got that extra grip through the faster corners, it felt like the first time I’d driven a proper racing car,” he says, while duly doffing his cap to the GTR “beast” in which he’d cut his teeth. “It took a bit of time to get the confidence, knowing that when you get to a fourth, fifth or sixth gear corner you can take it flat when your brain is telling you to slow down. But I’m quite a scientific person, so having all the data laid out and to see that someone in the same car has gone through a corner flat on the throttle does help me.”
LMP2 is a step on again, and although it was always the plan for him to graduate this year the deal has come relatively late – confirmed only 10 days before the London announcement in early April. Previous tests with the Greaves Motorsport Gibson and, subsequently, a run in his Algarve Ligier at the ELMS Prologue will at least give him something to go on before the Le Mans test weekend at the beginning of June. And lest we forget, he did get a taste of the great circuit during the test day last year in the LMP3 Ginetta.
“I find the prototypes much more intuitive to drive,” he says. “The GT cars with traction control and ABS are quite hard to read. You smash the brake and hold it. With the prototype it’s real fingertip stuff. It’s still very physical, but it communicates a lot more feel from the track through to the seat of your pants. To me if feels like a pure driving experience and one that I enjoy more, and I feel like I’ve got into the swing of that type of driving more easily than I did with the GT. The P2 is the most fun I’ve had in a car so far.”
Last year a fact-finding mission to the 24 Hours allowed him to taste an event of borderline Olympic scale. Seasoned sports car racer and Nissan driver coach Stuart Moseley points out a man of Hoy’s experience won’t be overawed: “Inevitably, for anyone going there for the first time there’s the massive distraction of the event itself. Having been there, Chris can get over the ‘wow factor’. But if anyone can turn off the distractions surrounding an Olympics to win gold medals, they are going to cope pretty well with Le Mans.”
Hoy admits this is where his previous life will help him. “It was the same thing with the Olympic Games,” he says. “It was still a velodrome and a normal track, but all this stuff around it could distract. It’s important to focus on what you can control.”
The cycling knight won’t be the first Olympian to race at Le Mans. Back in 1962 French skier Henri Oreiller started the race, 14 years after winning the Men’s Downhill and Men’s Combined Gold at the Winter Games of 1948. New skills come easier to those who’ve competed at the highest levels, whatever the sport, it seems. Hoy’s old cycling team-mate Victoria Pendleton is another example, following her recent exploits in horse racing.
Pendleton’s adventure was far from welcome among many in the racing stables, seasoned insiders decrying her efforts as dangerous in the wake of her relative inexperience (she sat on a horse for the first time only a year before her race debut). But was envy mixed in there too? She dominated the recent Cheltenham Festival headlines ahead of the leading riders, horses and trainers – but that was predictable. It was a great story, particularly when she proved the doubters wrong.
Will the same be true for Hoy at Le Mans? Professional racers who scrape away looking for drives each year could be forgiven for resenting a man who has walked in with manufacturer support at a higher level than he surely would have done without those gold medals. But if there is jealousy, it’s unlikely to be voiced publicly in motor sport. Hoy will be given an easier ride than Pendleton, but then he’s male… and it helps that he’s so humble.
“I’m acutely aware how lucky I am to get these chances and it’s not something I take lightly,” he says. “The general media might be sceptical that I won’t actually do it and that there will be excuses, but in my mind there has never been any doubt.
“It’s amazing to be here now talking about sitting on the startline of the greatest race in the world against some of the best drivers. They make it look so easy from the outside, the professionals, although it’s anything but. When you are absolutely on the limit and you feel you’ve extracted every ounce of performance from the car, you come in and look at a pro driver’s time and they are 2sec quicker… It’s amazing, they really are exceptional athletes who are so cool under pressure.”
He insists the only pressure he feels is from his own natural competitiveness. “It comes from me, not from outside. It’s the pressure to do a good job. I don’t want to be gifted a seat or a chance and just waste it, or for it to be that I got this job because I used to be a cyclist and won a few medals. I want to treat it with the respect it deserves, give it 100 per cent commitment the same way any driver would if they were given the chance I have. It’s the same pressure I put on myself when I did my first races in Radicals.
“It’s exactly the same feeling, whether you’re on a bike or in a car. From when I was younger racing BMXs, there was that excitement, nervousness, the adrenaline. I never thought I’d feel that again after retiring from cycling, I thought that was the end of that part of my life. I didn’t do this to replace my cycling, but in many ways I get to carry some of the enjoyable parts of my cycling career into motor sport.”
While he’s committed, Hoy is under no illusions that this is the beginning of a new professional career. After all, he’s just turned 40. “It’s definitely not like cycling because I can’t do it seven days a week. Cycling was the only thing I did. This is part of my life, but it’s not everything. When I’m in the car it’s everything, but I’ve got umpteen different things I’m trying to shoe-horn into my life. That’s the biggest difference.”
Still, those natural competitive juices are addictive. He relishes the fact he’s a rookie, after years setting the benchmark on a bike. “Yeah, I love that,” he says. “It’s cool because you see massive steps in improvement. You’ve been at the top for so long looking for the tiniest gains. If you could improve by half a tenth over four years at the Olympics, that was seen as significant. We were dealing with such small margins. Here, you see an improvement and you feel like you’re getting somewhere every time you get out on track. That’s exciting.”
He’s way beyond the point of feeling like “a fish out of water” in a racing car and describes his progress as a series of steps rather than a steady curve. “Last year I did the Red Bull Ring ELMS and the weekend before I was racing Radicals, and I had a lot of seat time, about five or six hours over the space of two days,” he says. “It was like a penny dropped, I suddenly gained this confidence. Also, in the test at Aragon this year, I did a time only a few tenths off the pro drivers. I couldn’t have dreamt of that back in British GT when I was three and a half, four seconds off Al Buncombe. I definitely feel it’s not this continual improvement. All of a sudden something clicks and you step up, then there’s another one. And there’s more to come between now and Le Mans, particularly in the high-speed corners. I was getting there at Aragon but at Paul Ricard [for the ELMS Prologue] we had some problem with porpoising on the straight just before turn-in. It didn’t give you the confidence to go flat. But it’ll come.”
Moseley mentions traffic as the biggest challenge Hoy will face, but that’s not news to him. He’s well versed in the “basic principles” of sticking to your line, about “not being indecisive” when LMP1s are upon you seemingly out of nowhere.
Again, he’ll draw on lessons from his previous life. “On the surface it’s a very different challenge, but there are so many simple things – not just in sport, but in life – that you learn from competing at a high level. You can deal with situations when you are under stress. Focusing on what you can control, on what you can influence rather than on what could go wrong or is happening around you. That’s crucial in traffic, or coming into a fast corner in the dark looking for your reference points.
“When it’s half past two on Saturday afternoon and we’re just about to get ready, there will be moments of doubt. But I used to have those on track at the Olympics. It’s normal. But you don’t dwell on them, it’s not the time to engage with these thoughts. It’s the time to say, ‘I’ve dealt with these six weeks ago, thought them through, so now I’ll put them away and focus on what’s at hand’.”
Hoy has been blessed by Nissan with more time in a racing car than any ‘normal’ newcomer. He’s had all the training and support anyone could want. He also has the competitive gene and winning mentality of history’s most decorated Olympian. He’ll be ready.