It takes talent and years of experience to race at Le Mans, but accountant Simon Dolan didn’t believe in the former and didn’t have the latter
Could you take anyone and teach them to drive well enough to be on the grid at Le Mans? The answer is immediate: “Yep.” Ex-Aston Martin works driver Sam Hancock even manages to keep a straight face while looking directly at me.
It might sound as if he’s just being overly optimistic – and there are of course some prerequisites, most notably cash and determination – but he speaks from experience. The softly spoken 2004 LMP2 Le Mans Series Champion has done exactly that with Simon Dolan (pictured above, right). What’s more it took only three years to put Dolan – who had never even been on a race track – on the grid of one of the most famous races in the world.
It all started with a Christmas present from Dolan’s wife Sabrina back in 2006. Hancock, who had been contacted via the concièrge services of Quintessentially and Harrods, was asked to take the businessman on a track day. He booked a day with a Mini at Bruntingthorpe. “You rent the track with the most run-off area,” says Hancock, “make sure there are no other cars and go hire yourself a little Mini.”
Dolan was hooked immediately, booked another couple of days and then went to Le Mans in 2007 as a spectator with Hancock. “I stood on the track before the race,” remembers Dolan, “and thought ‘Wow, this is really cool’, so I said, ‘Sam, this is what I want to do.’” After the experience of just two track days a plan was put into place on the flight home. “Sam came up with the idea of racing a Mini the following year, I came up with the idea of a Radical, so we raced Radicals.”
“Yes, a really good way to start your racing career…” counters Hancock.
Dolan embarked on an intense learning curve with Hancock guiding him every step of the way. “It’s not the number of years you’ve been racing,” says Dolan, “it’s the amount of stuff you can cram into them. If the average person is on the track once a month and I’m there once a week, then I’ve done four years of their training in one.” By the time he started racing Radicals in 2008 he had experience in a Lotus Elise, a Caterham and a Renault Spider. It wasn’t the type of car which necessarily put him on the road to Le Mans, it was clocking up 48 full days on circuits in 2007.
Yes, Simon Dolan was a successful businessman, had built up his firm SJD Accountancy from scratch and had become known as the ‘Twitter Dragon’, after investing in business ideas that were pitched to him on the social media website, but even for him this was an expensive hobby.
“I would never have considered racing without making it a business because you’re spending so much money it seems pointless not to,” he admits. Various ideas were evaluated – including setting up their own team, based at Silverstone – but Hancock had raced for a small outfit called Jota back in 2005. He remembered it as being particularly good.
At the beginning of 2008, as the Radical season was about to begin, Hancock brought Dolan to Jota’s HQ – a quiet farm in the depths of Kent. Very quickly Dolan and Hancock were signed on as partners and a new arm of the company – Jota Sport – was born.
Jota may have been a relatively small outfit, but by no means was it new. It was started by Sam Hignett and John Stack in 2000 and had run everything from a Group N Honda Integra in that year’s Spa and Nürburgring 24-hour races to a Charouz Lola LMP1 in the 2007 Le Mans Series. The recession was just around the corner and although Hignett is adamant that Jota would have survived, the arrival of Dolan provided the cash injection every team craves.
“Simon is now a massive player in all of this,” says Hignett when I visit the team’s base. “But we have very big contracts with Mazda for both its race cars – the little GT4 [which competes in the British GT Championship] – and for its GT MX-5 road car, which we have designed and developed ourselves.”
As well as the racing team Jota has recently branched into preparing and running historic cars, and even aviation. “I just got fed up with paying a fortune to fly people to Le Mans,” says Hignett. “It’s grown a lot over recent years and it’s now a fully fledged airline; we own three planes and manage two. A large percentage of our passengers and cargo are from motor sport and during Le Mans we can have up to four flights in one day, which is great. Simon is heavily involved in that company, and he’s the one that’s enabled it to make the leap from one airplane, piggy-backing on someone else’s licence, to being a licence holder with a fleet of aircraft.”
“The idea of Jota,” says Hancock, “was that it was two-pronged. On the one hand we would have a professional racing team that was trying to work its way up the ladder to the top levels of the sport. That started in 2008 with a two-car Carrera Cup team [which finished second overall in the teams’ championship] with Phil Quaife and me as drivers. Then the other parallel programme was Simon’s grooming which started properly with the Radical in 2008.” It was clearly working since Dolan won first time out at Snetterton in the Radical UK Cup.
The following two years were spent honing Dolan’s skills in the SPEED and European VdeV series aboard a Ligier JS49. After only three years as a racing driver Hancock was amazed at the level the accountant, who’d already bagged an outright win in the extremely competitive VdeV, had reached.
“With Simon the rate of progress was so much quicker than it is with most people,” says Hancock. “In fact it was faster because of the sheer focus he was giving it. We’d be doing weekly visits to the track in 2007 and he’d come and say ‘Have you read this? Have you read that?’ I think in two months he’d read more books on racing and driving than I had read in my entire life. He’d also watched endless YouTube clips and when you’ve got someone who’s living and breathing it, absorbing all the information like a sponge, the rate of progress goes through the roof. Combine that with the frequency we were on track and…” He shrugs.
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it,” Dolan says of his rise to Le Mans. “It helped when I saw some of the drivers at Le Mans – it’s probably derogatory to call them fat old men, but what I mean is that they weren’t all F1 drivers. If they had all been 19-year-old kids who weighed 50kg, then it would have been more daunting. I don’t believe in talent, though, I think it’s just how much work you put into it. I just think people don’t put enough work into things, they dabble, they never really think seriously about how they can be the best, and believe they can be the best.”
It seemed that the stars had aligned for Jota Sport in 2010 when they started a relationship with Aston Martin. The first year was spent racing the V8 Vantage GT4, while the second year brought the step up to the GT2 version. Come June 2011 and Dolan was on the grid at Le Mans, three years after first stepping onto a race track. After 74 laps the race was over – engine failure had claimed the Vantage.
The plan in 2012 was to use Aston’s LMP1 AMR One after the factory had raced it for a year, but as we all know, both the works cars in the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours had suffered the same fate as the Jota GT2, only 70 laps earlier. It was a disaster.
A new tie-up with Zytek provided the team with an LMP2 car and at the World Endurance Championship Spa 6 Hours on May 5 this year Dolan and Hancock won in LMP2. Le Mans didn’t go quite so well; a mechanical failure caused Dolan to crash out.
Remarkably, the lines between teacher and pupil have become less defined and Hancock admits that as well as teaching Dolan, he learns something from him when they are sharing a car.
The plan for next year is to run a two-car LMP2 team, but nothing has been signed yet. What has been decided, however, is that Dolan wants to win the LMP2 class at Le Mans. “Just finishing Le Mans, I can honestly say, is not an aim. I want to win it.” With the competitive Zytek-Nissan package there are few that would argue against the racing accountant.