Prior to the start of the 2019 season, the NTT IndyCar Series gained a new team and a new driver. DragonSpeed made their series debut at the 2019 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March and, with it, came the IndyCar debut of British racing driver, Ben Hanley.
The thirty-four-year-old from Manchester has made a name for himself in recent years racing in various endurance championships with DragonSpeed. Hanley has competed in some of the biggest endurance races in the world – including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway – whilst competing in championships such as the World Endurance Championship, the European Le Mans Series and the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Prior to his endurance racing career, however, Hanley was working his way up the single-seater racing ladder. Ben competed in Formula Renault 3.5 and the GP2 Series and was a member of the Renault F1 Team young driver academy. Sadly, Ben lost his backing at the end of 2008 and, at one point, went back to karting to keep racing before moving to the SuperLeague Formula championship and endurance racing after that. Throughout the last few years, Hanley has lent a hand in the development of both Formula 3 and Formula 2 cars.
In July last year, DragonSpeed announced that they were very much interested in making an entry into the world of single-seaters in the NTT IndyCar Series. In December, the team’s entry was confirmed. The team announced that they would be racing in five rounds of the 2019 season, with Hanley behind the wheel of their #81 Chevrolet for the opening round at St. Petersburg, the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis 500 in May, the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
DragonSpeed and Hanley did not get a chance to run the new #81 DragonSpeed Chevrolet until a few days before the start of the season. A brief shakedown was the only preparation they had for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but the team would nevertheless qualify in a superb twelfth place and go on to finish the race without issue, albeit two laps down on the leaders as the team focused on getting mileage under their belts.
The team would also be unhindered by any mechanical issues or teething problems at their second outing at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park, with Hanley crossing the line at the end of the race once again.
Now, Hanley and DragonSpeed are making their preparations for most likely their biggest challenge yet; their first oval race. What’s more, they will be making their oval racing debut at the biggest oval race in the world; the Indianapolis 500. All of this comes whilst both Ben and the team are continuing their programs in the European Le Mans Series as well as the World Endurance Championship’s super season.
Hanley was able to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Checkered Flag‘s Jordan Groves. Here, Hanley discusses the challenges that he and DragonSpeed have gone through and have yet to go through. Ben also spoke of his journey to come up through the motorsport ladder, twice, to reach the point where he is now taking part in two of the biggest races in the world in the same year.
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was the first IndyCar race for yourself and DragonSpeed. Talk us through the challenges that the team faced just to get onto the grid and what challenges await you guys in your pursuit to move further up the grid.
It was a huge challenge as not only did we receive the car later than planned but we also were doing the Daytona Rolex 24 and Sebring WEC races, so it wasn’t just a case of the whole team on the IndyCar build; they were having to split their time with the various phases of testing, racing and preparing the LMP cars.
We know getting further up the grid won’t happen overnight but we want to be a part of the NTT IndyCar Series for the long term so we just need to keep chipping away. At the moment, race pace is much stronger for us than qualifying pace but we are still very much learning the car and at each new circuit we are focused on race setup. Our aim is simply to keep narrowing the gap each race.
From the outside, eighteenth and twenty-first place finishes in your first two races may not seem much. However, just making the chequered flag was a huge achievement for a new team. How did you feel leaving both St Pete and Barber? Were you happy with both performances?
Personally, [I was] very happy with my performances and proud of the team as well. Most new IndyCar teams start as a sub-team of an established one, like Schmidt Peterson Motorsports or Andretti Autosport. It’s a good way to get on pace initially but if you eventually want to be your own team you have to start all over with things like damping, which has a huge influence on performance. So we’re taking a bit of extra pain early on but are learning an awful lot and improving each session and race.
You are currently set to take part in three further IndyCar races this year. Your next race will be the biggest of all, the Indianapolis 500. How are you feeling about making your oval racing debut at the biggest race in the world? How have you prepared?
Right now, I’m packing for my speedway rookie test at Texas Motor Speedway, so that’s part of my prep. Then we have some sim work planned and reviewing previous Indy 500 races, onboard videos that sort of thing, to try and arrive in the best shape we can. Again it’s a steep learning curve for all of us, but there’s no time like the present!
After Indy, you will take part in the races at Road America and Mid-Ohio. By the end of the year, what would you and the team have hoped to have achieved in your first few IndyCar races?
We are just taking the long term view, so just completing as much running as possible, finishing all the races and closing the gap to the next car then the next. Getting off of the back row in qualifying and fighting with the mid-pack in the races is the target.
You have been dovetailing your IndyCar preparations and races with DragonSpeed’s ongoing campaign in the World Endurance Championship and the European Le Mans Series. How easy or difficult has it been to switch focus from one series to the other?
It’s not been difficult going back to what we know; just a very, very busy start to the year but we are always focused and want to be at the sharp end. We just won the first round of the ELMS [European Le Mans Series] at Circuit Paul Ricard with quite a dominating performance, which was thoroughly deserved by the entire DragonSpeed crew.
You have spent the last few years racing LMP2s and LMP1s with DragonSpeed. Prior to that, you had an early single-seater career in championships such as FormulaRenault, GP2 and Superleague Formula. How difficult has it been to adjust back to single-seater racing again and what are the major differences between a Le Mans Prototype and an IndyCar?
I never stopped completely with single-seaters as I have been active in testing and developing the GP2 and GP3 cars, then the latest F2/F3 cars even as recently as last December.
The biggest difference is the lack of power steering but in terms of power-to-weight and aero levels, they are surprisingly similar. The IndyCar reacts very differently to setup changes and that’s what we are getting to grips with at the moment.
Of all the cars you have driven during your career, which one did you enjoy the most and why? Additionally, if you had to lap one circuit in one car for the rest of your life, which combination would you choose?
That’s a really tough one but in prototypes, it’s Le Mans. I’ll get back to you after May about which one in the IndyCar!
In ten years, you have gone from having to return to karting after losing your backing from the Renault Driver Academy, to competing at the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same year. How does it feel to have made it back up the motorsports ladder after such uncertain times earlier in your career?
It’s a great feeling and I never gave up chasing a return to car racing. When I finally got the chance, there was no way I’d be letting go of it! I feel extremely proud and privileged to be doing both Le Mans and the Indy 500 in the same year, especially with DragonSpeed, which is a very special team.
Looking forward, what is the target for DragonSpeed in the NTT IndyCar Series in the future? Are you and the team still looking into expanding to a full-time entry for 2020?
That’s the team’s goal. We’re fortunate to have the budget to get our feet under the table this season, which not only gives us a platform for learning about the car and the series, but also for selling to potential sponsors for next year.
The fourth round of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, will take place on Saturday, May 11. Hanley and DragonSpeed will be back in action for the following race, the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, on Sunday, May 26.