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Cycling great Chris Hoy on his Le Mans debut

TG speaks to Nismo driver Sir Chris Hoy as he lives out a boyhood dream at Le Mans

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So the dream is now reality. How many times have you pinched yourself this morning?

It’s been a while since I had this feeling where you wake up in the morning and think “today is the day”. It’s not quite the same level as the Olympics, but it’s not far off. Everything has been building towards this and every race and test day has been referencing Le Mans. It’s everything we’ve been working towards.

How did you become interested in Le Mans?

My dad bought me the Le Mans edition Scalextric when I was five or six, which had a little Dunlop bridge and two little 911s with lights on them. I had to ask my dad why these cars had lights, and he said “because they race in the night in the 24-hour race at Le Mans”. I think I’ve still got hat set somewhere. I never dreamt that I’d actually get the chance to race here.

How is the car?

It’s been great. We’ve had a few issues getting the brakes and the balance of the car set up, but it felt perfect in the warm-up this morning. It’s such a great feeling when you go into the race knowing that the car is okay. A lot of teams are still having problems but we are really happy.

I had to come in because the session got stopped for a red flag but I was on for a 3:47 lap, which, for me, is really good. That’s only a couple of seconds of my team mate Andrea, the pro driver. On a lap that long, to be a couple of seconds down, is pretty handy so I’m delighted with that.

And how is the track?

It’s great. There was a bit of oil dropped at Indianapolis and some of the kerbs were a bit moist but it felt great to get out on a dry track and all the fans are out there already. It’s definitely a different feel driving today. You can smell the barbecues as you drive past the campsites. People talk about it and you think “nah, you can’t really smell that”, but the smell does waft across and even in a closed cockpit car like ours. One of the joys of Le Mans.

How have been coping with the traffic?

The LMP1 guys are always saying don’t change your mind, stick to your line and that’s the golden rule. Check before you turn in and you should be okay 90% of the time. There’s always exceptions to the rule. There’s times when there’s a dry line but it’s wet everywhere else then it gets a bit dodgy because nobody wants to come off the racing line, but I think at night the LMP1s are actually fine because their lights are so bright.

It’s incredible how bright they are. You see a flashing coming towards you and you don’t have to look in your mirrors, you can tell they are there, and once they’re past you it goes dark. The difficulty is with the cars that are closer to your pace, like the LMP2 cars and the GT cars. When you get two or three cars together and there’s an LMP1 car approaching that’s when it gets tricky. You have to decide whether to make the pass before the LMP1 gets there, or lift and lose some time and let the LMP1 through. For me personally I’ve got to try and be conservative and not take any risks.

A bit more complicated than a trackday, then?

Yeah it is, and in the blink of an eye the race could be over. There’s so much work that’s been put into this and so many people involved that you want to do your best, and you know that it can happen at any point, so you have to minimise the risks while pushing as hard as you bloody can to go as quick as you can.

How does the mentality differ from cycling?

For what I lack in driving experience, the sporting experience is definitely helping me to deal with all the fanfare and distraction and excitement. It can totally drain you and take your mind off what you’re supposed to be focussing on.

Even in the warm-up a car had gone off right in front of me at the Porsche curves, and there was a red flag and I could see the skid marks and a puff of smoke in the air as I approached that point. Your brain wants to look at it and see what it is but you can’t because at that point you’re doing 130mph in fifth gear coming through this fast section of track. You have to focus on what you have control over and not worry about stuff that’s out of your control. It’s not easy.

Physically we assume that this would be easy for you. But has it been?

It’s probably been the least challenging thing. You’re tired after you’ve been in the car but it’s a mental fatigue due to the concentration required. The muscular fatigue at the end isn’t huge but it builds up over time and you get aches and pains in your neck, hips and shoulders but it’s not like your muscles are on the limit. It’s tough but it’s lowest on the list of things I’ve got to worry about.

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