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Chris Hoy: “I took out the hay bales at 70mph”
Sir Chris Hoy doesn’t hang about. The flying Scotsman was, of course, quick enough on a bicycle to win six Olympic gold medals and 11 world championships. And now, after one season driving a Nissan GT-R GT3 in the British GT series, Sir Chris is climbing the ladder into a proper racing prototype.
From 2015 Hoy will partner up-and-coming racer, and fellow Scot, Charlie Robertson in a Nissan-powered Ginetta LMP3 car, set to race at Le Mans. Not quite the full 24-hour blue riband event - that step will come in 2016 - but a demanding four-hour endurance race sharing the La Sarthe tarmac with a grid full of fully paid-up pro racers.
TG caught up with Sir Chris to find out more about his burgeoning racing career, and get the story behind that infamous Nismo GT-R crash at the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed…
Top Gear: Congratulations on the new drive. Are you daunted by how fast this process is moving?
Chris Hoy: I’m really excited. These opportunities don’t come along too often. I think you’ve really got to grab it with both hands. It could take a guy ten years to get into this position. This has always been the plan with Nissan and the GT Academy [Nissan’s programme for turning gamers into racing drivers, like Brit Jann Mardenborough] so the guys are really patient.
TG: So how does the racing so far in the British GT series compare to other motorsports you’ve tried?
CH: I did some racing with Radical, in the SR1 Cup, where the car is just run by one mechanic - you just turn up to the garage and it’s budget, entry-level motorsport. Then this year I turn up to Oulton Park and there’s a big mass of trailers. All of the big manufacturers are there, huge support crew from Nissan, and you suddenly realise - woah, I’m really straight in at the deep end here.
It’s a bit terrifying at first, but once you get in the car, you remind yourself it’s the same principle. Find your braking points, where’s the apex, when can I get back on the gas, defending, passing…it’s all the simple stuff you’ve learned in previous years, except it’s bigger, faster cars. And a lot more people watching…
I’ve still got a long way to go, and I’m under no illusions there’s a lot to learn before I make it to the level required for Le Mans, but the guys at the GT Academy really simplify it, and I love the process of learning a new skill. I’m 38 now. When you get to my age and you retire from your main sport, I never thought I’d get any opportunity like this.
TG: LMP cars have much more aggressive aerodynamics than the cars you’ve been used to racing this year. Have you had to re-learn how to race?
CH: So far, I’ve just had a couple of runs on the simulator. In real cars, the closest I’ve come is a Radical SR8. I didn’t realise how much the GT cars still move around despite the downforce, so the LMP car will be a real learning curve. I have to get my head around the commitment you need in high-speed corners, and belief to turn in and hope it sticks.
But I love that - it’s exciting. I experienced it in the Radical at Silverstone - the first time you come into Abbey and keep it flat, your brain’s telling you you’re going to understeer straight off, but you’ve seen the data and know the car should stick…
TG: What about the extra demands on your body from the higher speeds and g-force. Had to up your training regime?
CH: I’ll have to find out! I don’t think the physical side will be the limiting factor. Specific physical demands from driving are very different from the demands from cycling, but after you’ve been in the seat your neck feels stiff and your forearms ache. I still do a lot of training, but a lot of the strength will just come from doing the driving. This time, there’s less power-assisted steering and no ABS, so it’s going to be a much more physical drive.
TG: You mentioned the GT Academy. Are you a bit of a closet gamer away from the track?
CH: I use the GT Academy’s simulator when I’m at Silverstone, but I still use my PlayStation and play Gran Turismo - especially for tracks I haven’t been to. This year I was supposed to race at Brands Hatch, but I’d never been there. So as well as going on the simulator, I’d be at home on the PlayStation. And it did help, no doubt.
TG: Away from the track, what’s your road car at the moment?
CH: I drive a GT-R. Not bad for a daily driver, I can’t complain!
TG: Standard GT-R, or have you bagged a Nismo?
CH: [laughs] No, just a standard one. I don’t think they’d let me in a Nismo after Goodwood…
TG: Talk us through that, um, very short run up the hill at the Festival of Speed…
CH: It was just me pushing too hard. Normally if you push too hard on the track you miss your line, or go over the run-off. Worst-case scenario, you go into the gravel. At Goodwood, if you put one wheel on the grass, you’re going into the hay bales.
And the thing is, through the whole race season, I finished every event, and had barely a scratch on the car. Then one place where the eyes of the motoring world are on me, it was a pretty miserable place to do it! Nissan were brilliant about it - all they wanted to know was, “Are you okay?”
I was fine - not a scratch on me. Not bad considering I’d taken out hay bales at seventy miles per hour.
TG: We know the late, great Colin McRae was a hero of yours - was it a case of ‘if in doubt, flat out’ biting back there?
CH: [laughs] Hmm. When I’m driving, I’m always pushing. I was slightly on the side of ‘being too committed’ that time, if you like. It was a touch of the McRae attitude going into Molecomb corner.
TG: Will we see you take to the Goodwood hill again?
CH: Yeah I’d love to. I went straight back up the hill after the crash to get back ‘on the horse’ as it were, and I don’t have any bad memories from that weekend. It’s a great event for the fans and the motorsport industry.
TG: Finally, Chris, what’s the 2015 itinerary for you?
CH: Well I’ll be teaming up with the very talented Charlie Robertson, who’s only 17 but already won the Ginetta Supercup, so I’m hoping to learn a lot from him. I also want to try and squeeze in competing in a few GT-R GT3 races, like the Blancpain series, and drive at the Le Mans test day in June 2015.
That’d mean when I arrive there in 2016, it won’t be my first time on the circuit, which is a massive thing. It’ll be quite intimidating, so I’m glad the 24-hour race in 2016 won’t be my first time…