Racing lines: how Phil Hanson plans to take on Le Mans

Phil Hanson at Daytona

Phil Hanson has raced all over the world with United Autosports

19 years old and about to race at La Sarthe for the third time, ‘Fast Phil’ isn’t hanging around

Teenage racing drivers don’t usually prioritise victory at Le Mans, but there’s nothing conventional about Phil Hanson. The 19-year-old only began racing five years ago, but is about to make his third start at the 24 Hours and already counts Fernando Alonso among his former team-mates. His fast-track story so far is remarkable.

Hanson caught the bug through arrive-and-drive karting, and at 14 started racing at club level. By his second season he was in a British Super One championship – and won a title, despite racing against kids with Cadet experience. “A lot of the credit goes to my dad because he wasn’t the typical pushy parent,” says Hanson. “He wanted me to take up golf! 

“It was tough. We started in Juniors, so I had to learn race craft quickly to be able to compete. That was the biggest thing because pace came quickly. One mechanic called me ‘Fast Phil’ because I’d drive straight up to the pack and then just sit there because I couldn’t overtake…”

By now hooked on motorsport, the choice to pursue a sports car career was a pragmatic one. “Where would we go next?” he says. “European karting? That would have sucked us into the single-seater route, but we jumped ship and went straight to cars. It was at a time when F1 seats were being bought by the likes of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin. Pursuing sports car drives offered a realistic opportunity to create a career rather than take a load of money to an F1 team.”

Such ambition, maturity and vision is remarkably common in mid-teen talents, but Hanson’s choices have still marked him out. LMP3 – the endurance version of Formula 3 – was a good place to start and instant success propelled him into LMP2. That rapid progress and an astonishing number of race starts across Europe and Asia in the past three years has landed Hanson a number of ‘youngest ever’ records, including the one for starting at Le Mans. 

He was just 17 when he finished 11th (ninth in class) at the 24 Hours, partnering ex-F1 racer Karun Chandhok and Briton Nigel Moore. Now part of Zak Brown’s United Autosports team, he has an overall Asian Le Mans Series title to his name (youngest-ever champion, natch) and is keyed up this month for his second Le Mans with the team, once again beside ex-Force India ace Paul di Resta and former Audi LMP1 racer Felipe Albuquerque.

“They’ve done a lot of work with me and a portion of my development is to be credited to them,” says Hanson. “Every driver brings a different approach. When you look at the data it’s all pretty similar and I’m not going to learn much from it. But the biggest thing is how they drive around problems because it’s rare to have a car that’s perfect.”

The Alonso encounter was at the Daytona 24 Hours in 2018, sharing United’s Ligier with the two-time F1 champion and now current McLaren star (and fellow teen) Lando Norris. “It was nice to see two different sides of high-level professional work, but both had less experience than me in the car, so it was an interesting dynamic,” says Hanson with a confidence that stops just short of sounding like arrogance. 

“I learnt a few things in debriefs, but not as much as I would have if the car had been more compliant. We spent quite a bit of time scratching our heads wondering what was going wrong. We weren’t used to the Continental tyre, which shocked everyone in the team. It was interesting to see how they handled the situation.”

So was Alonso generous with his time? “Yeah he was, but at the same time he was Alonso…,” says Phil. “It was amazing to see how much crazy attention he had around him and how he couldn’t move without fans stopping him.”

Expectations for United at Le Mans this month have to be checked by the context that its Ligier isn’t as effective around the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe as the class-leading ORECAs. “We have to work hard to optimise it otherwise we won’t be very competitive,” says Phil. “Although last year the driver line-up seemed to make up for it. We were running in the top five in the second half of the race after losing seven minutes in the pits. With my experience now getting stronger I think we can compete for a top three. Le Mans does open up for individual driver performances.”

Next up is a full World Endurance Championship campaign with United, as Hanson chases his goal of securing a drive in sports car’s premium class. The problem is no one knows quite what that will be, as confusion continues over the proposed ‘hypercar’ rulebook that should replace LMP1 in September 2020. 

Hanson can do nothing about that – so he’s not worrying about it. On his career gameplan, he says: “I’m not sure about the timescale because we’ll see what happens with the regulations, but definitely my goal is to be in the highest class at Le Mans and win Le Mans outright. But I’m not limiting myself to that. I need to see how sports cars pan out.”

Whatever, he says there are no regrets about his decision to avoid single-seaters. For Hanson, nothing can beat sharing with, and comparing himself to, top-line professionals. “In endurance racing you get this automatic comparison between you and your team-mate, which is not negotiable,” he says. “At what step of the [single-seater] ladder is a driver at the same level as the pros? F4, F3? It just makes you wonder how many years I would have spent to get where I am now.”

This is a young man in a hurry. Just watch him go.

Read more

Racing lines: Why hypercars are the future at Le Mans​

How Lando Norris became Britain’s youngest-ever F1 star​

Saturday night fever: experiencing the Daytona 24 Hours​

Source: Autocar

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