Sam Hancock, factory driver for Aston Martin Racing and co-owner of Jota Sport – now a Aston Martin team. Sam has had a successful career but not one that has taken the trajectory of many other drivers. He has raced with great success in the Le Mans Series but has taken steps to the Carrera Cup GB and VdeV/Speed to ensure his driving career. His list of achievements is impressive as he won the inaugural LMP2 Le Mans Endurance Series title with the Courage squad. Three class wins in the Le Mans Series, four wins in the Carrera Cup GB Championship, three wins in the VdeV and Speed Championships and class wins at the Spa and Britcar have been major achievements for the British driver. He has also had a successful career piloting historic cars. Here we talk about his career and curious choices that led him to where he is today.
Hi Sam, thanks for joining us. First of all lets start with Jota Sport’s tie up with Aston Martin, how exciting is it for Jota Sport and yourself as a driver to be associated with Aston Martin?
Obviously it is a big deal. From the team’s point view, obviously Jota is very ambitious and rapidly growing motorsport business and the race team is the shop front of that business. It is in good shape now and there is a lot of ambition and investment behind it to hopefully try and become a significant motorsport organisation. Probably every race team is targeting a long term relationship with a manufacturer and to become an official partner team to Aston Martin, of all brands is a brilliant step to that goal and it is an amazing brand to be a part of.
Your relationship with Aston Martin got off on the right foot, getting off on the right foot with GT4 class honours at the Spa 24 Hours, what was it like to work with them on a 24 Hour race there and at Le Mans?
There are a couple different answers to that. I wear a couple of different hats as part of the relationship with Aston Martin. I am a factory driver and drove with the factory team at Le Mans – so that was my first experience with them in a 24 hour race. What I found and respected afterwards was the absolute professionalism of the team. They somehow manage to be professional and maintain a fun and almost family like atmosphere – something I really did not expect from a top level factory sportscar team. It is the ultimate combination for me and something I love to be a part of. From a professional point of view it is something I really like being a part of and from a personal point of view it is wonderful, welcoming and warm environment.
I felt very lucky and privileged to be able to drive the screaming LMP1 coupe – an Aston Martin badge on the front and a Gulf livery, it can’t get much better than that to be honest with you.
You race the LMP1 Aston Martin at Le Mans – what was that car like to drive?
Quick – super quick. It was a fantastic car that I worry a little bit – it will be the last of the purebred thoroughbreds for a while. The new regulations, the engines are being dumbed down and speeds are being reduced. I felt very lucky and privileged to be able to drive the screaming LMP1 coupe – an Aston Martin badge on the front and a Gulf livery, it can’t get much better than that to be honest with you. In terms of the sheer driving, it was hard to describe. Superfast – it was quite hard work, it kept you on your toes as it has quite a big engine compared to some of the other prototypes. It is also nimble and light so that means the car does move round quite a lot and is quick down the straights. The cornering speeds, thanks to the downforce were quite exceptional. You had to be pinpoint precise to manage the weight transfer of the big heavy engine, particularly on corner entry. That was the biggest challenge for me but I loved it – I absolutely relished it. It was a special car to have driven.
You almost won the unofficial P1 Petrol class but you retired in the last hour of the race – how gutting was that?
Yeah it was. I mean the strange thing is that I did a triple stint in the final few hours. What we had actually planned for a double from me and a double from Darren Turner to take the car to the flag. When I got in the car we were lying in 6th position overall. It was after I was in the car that the team asked me to do a third stint. When I was in the car the Peugeots started dropping out and I didn’t see this. When I was in the car we were trying to keep radio communications down, drive calmly and get the car home. When the car failed I was totally gutted but I though we were lying in 6th position overall and that was gutting enough. I felt that would have been a really respectable result given the competition and the regulations. It was only after the race – about two hours after the race that I got back and got changed and heard someone talking that what a shame it was that we lost a phenomenal fourth place finish and wouldn’t have that been great. I had to tap them on the shoulder and asked ‘sorry did you just say fourth?’ You could imagine when I discovered that we were actually lying fourth place overall with, I think 45 minutes of the race remaining, it was so gutting that all we could really do was kind of laugh. It was crazy – I’d have given my right arm for a fourth place finish at Le Mans at this stage in my career – and given it was my debut with Aston Martin in a factory car, I was pretty upset about that if I am to be honest with you.
Are you confident that the new Aston Martin races, and when you race it with Jota, you will be able to fight for overall victory?
Obviously we hope so but we are not under any illusions. Jota are there as an official works team but it is not the big factory team and it will be up against other big manufacturer teams as well. Peugeot and Audi will be there and to go there and to fight for victory – of course that is our goal, our mentality is to always fight for victory, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. At the same time we have to manage the expectations realistically, so we will be going there with the goal knowing that Le Mans seems to throw up a few surprises. You always get an odd car that comes home in a very surprising position and we want to be that car that takes advantage of any opportunity that comes up.
You have a great history in the Le Mans Series, being the inaugural LMP2 Champion, can you tell us more about that year?
Yeah that was with the Courage factory team and they had just launched a new LMP2 car. I joined them for the Le Mans 24 Hours and we were superfast. We led the class for quite a long time but unfortunately we had a mechanical failure and didn’t finish the race. I think was quite lucky that I had a chance in that race that I could show people that I could do a good job and that I would work with the team and my team mates and I was able to stay there for the rest of the year. I think we won three from three races so that was great. We were really, really happy with that, it was a nice year and a nice result.
How do you view the Le Mans Series and its progression from 2004 to now?
It is interesting. I think it has always been a very professional Series, operating at a very high level. What I have noticed being away racing in 2007 in the 2008 in the Porsche Carrea Cup and coming back to sportscar racing was that the level of professionalism and the calibre of the teams has gone up many more levels. The grid numbers are very, very good as well. It is really impressive; it has really grown in creditability, the quantity of cars on the grid, the quality of cars on the grid. The drivers have always been high quality and I think that is still the case. They seem to be starting to improve the promotion and the marketing quite a bit that is good to see. That is good as in the early years, which was something that wasn’t where it needed to be.
A lot of people found it strange that I would leave LMP sportscars where I was one of the few lucky drivers able to earn my living racing for teams for a few years in LMP2 and LMP1
Over the past couple of years you have race in the Carrera Cup and VdeV/Speed, can you tell us a bit about that move?
Generally my experiences there were very good and a lot of people found it strange that I would leave LMP sportscars where I was one of the few lucky drivers able to earn my living racing for teams for a few years in LMP2 and LMP1 and as you mentioned we had a few good results as well. There was a big problem and that was I could be sure I was going to be driving the next season or even sometimes the next race. I sometimes thought that this is great – I am really lucky to make a living out of this, but sometimes driving in this environment where the car is not so reliable, sometimes you have good teammates, sometimes not so good teammates – you don’t have very much control over the results that appear on your CV. If those results on your CV are not brilliant, your career will stop very quickly. I though long and hard about it and talked to some people to get advice, and I though ‘screw it, I need to take control’. I needed to get on the radar of a major car manufacturer – and you can’t do much worse than Porsche. Porsche have been in the sport for a very long period of time without any breaks in that. So I sold my flat and went and bought a drive in the Porsche Carrera Cup in the basis that it offered me 20 races per year – not six races per year like the Le Mans and Le Mans Series, and therefore 20 opportunities to put a victory or strong opportunity to put a good finish on my CV and results that I would be totally in control of. I would choose the team, be in control of the setup and I was the only driver driving the car. Although that was not what I wanted to do forever, it was an important step to take to try and get some control back over my career. The idea was really to take two steps backwards to take one step forward and in a very roundabout way it seemed to work out. I have been able to re-establish myself as a quick driver, get some wins in a Series that is considered to be very competitive and that has allowed me to work in the Series that I was working in before but at a much higher level. So that worked out well.
I had to get my head my head around marketing and sponsorship pretty early in my career and it certainly helped me in my early career and helped me moved up the ladder as the cost of racing gets very high very quickly.
Your early career seemed to be blighted by money and reliability issues and your talent may have been hidden as a result. How did you take control at that stage of your career?
Yeah I began karting at nine years old and I was super lucky that I had parents that were supporting and supported me through karting and also helped me with that first transition from karts into cars. I really don’t know how people do it otherwise. As we all know, very quickly motorsport comes crazy expensive and at 16 years old I was putting together sponsorship and hospitality packages for companies that I lived near and started to understand how sponsorship worked. I started to raise money then for my early single seater career – which was Formula Vauxhall Junior and Formula Palmer Audi. In fact I just found, about two weeks ago, I found the first sponsorship proposal I ever wrote – when I was a teen, it was written in pencil in one of those exercise books you have in school. It was for a local karting championship – it was a reminder of just how quickly the whole understanding of marketing and sponsorship to fuel a driver’s career came. It was a completely rubbish and embarrassing document but it was kind of fun to find it. I had to get my head my head around marketing and sponsorship pretty early in my career and it certainly helped me in my early career and helped me moved up the ladder as the cost of racing gets very high very quickly. You come more creative and work much harder at it. I then got together with big city investors and sports management people to put together a stock market flotation that sold shares in me and my future ability to earn as a professional driver and to raise money to fund a Formula 3000 drive. It sort of worked and it sort of failed as well. I got together a little bit of money for a part of a season and after that I didn’t have the money to carry on. That is ok, the fact is that we tried. We created some fantastic contacts and it opened the door to sportscars. That is where I am and I consider myself incredibly lucky to be earning my living as a professional driver, let alone racing the sort of cars that I race. That was always the goal.
Finally, you have driven a lot of great cars – what are some your favourite cars?
One of my favourites would have to be the Aston LMP1 car – just a very special car. I very much like driving coupe LMP1 cars – it has a special noise, so much power, so much speed. It was awesome, absolutely fantastic. That would definitely be up there. Funnily enough, one of the cars was the most enjoyable to drive was in 2001 – the Kremer Lola with the Roush V8 engine in it. That chassis was massively underrated for a long time and was a brilliant car. That V8 Roush engine was just something else. I have never experienced so much torque in my life. It was just so much fun to drive I really rate that as a special car – I really, really enjoyed that. Very few times in your career you feel absolutely at one with the car and you can drive to a higher level and that car offered me that opportunity and I could drive well above what I was expecting of myself and what other people were expecting of me. That was a definitely a fond memory. Also in 2005, I drive a Zytek with Team Jota, as it was back then, and that was a LMP1 car and I don’t think I have ever driven a car so well balanced. That was awesome it needed a little bit more power but in terms of the chassis and aerodynamics, it was absolutely beautiful. From the very first lap I ever drove in it, I knew exactly what I could do in the car – that is quite a rare thing. Aside from that I have driven some amazing historic cars. Ferrari 250 GTO at the Goodwood Revival Meeting, GT40s, all sorts. One absolutely special memory was I demonstrated the car – the Formula 1 Lotus that Ayrton Senna won his first Grand Prix in – the JPS sponsored Lotus Renault Turbo car, the 97T. I demonstrated that at Donington and that was something else again. It was beautifully well balanced, confidence inspiring. You start to understand why Lotus was such a formidable force in those days. It is a pretty long list, a pretty long answer to your question but I have been fortunately enough to drive some amazing cars. I remember every single one of them.
That is brilliant, Sam you are very passionate about what you do.
Yes it is a very special job
Thanks for that Sam, it has been brilliant.
Interview and article by Sam Tickell in January 2011