If you woke up Monday morning, read DragonSpeed’s confirmation of a five-race IndyCar Series program with Chevy, saw the name of its driver, and asked yourself, ‘Who is Ben Hanley?’, you aren’t alone.
On the surface, the Briton’s CV is light on obvious reasoning for being promoted to IndyCar by DragonSpeed owner Elton Julian. Barring an impressive 2007 season where he placed second in the World Series by Renault 3.5 Formula 1 feeder series (Robert Wickens won the Renault 3.5 title in 2011), there isn’t much to go by — at least by the numbers — to place Hanley in the seat.
Considered a driver on the rise towards the end of the 2000s, Hanley remained active in the CIK-FIA and WSK karting series when opportunities in Formula 1 failed to materialize. Drawing back to his European ladder experience, a relationship with Pirelli kept Hanley in the cockpit of GP2 and GP3 machinery as the Italian brand’s tire tester, and with an interest expressed by Julian in 2016, he returned to higher-profile racing with DragonSpeed through the FIA WEC, ELMS, and IMSA.
According to Julian, who has used the 33-year-old Hanley as his lead driver in LMP1 and LMP2 as a teammate to a few ex-Formula 1 drivers and Le Mans winners, there’s more to the story than a cursory look through a Wikipedia page.
“I’ve worked with a lot of drivers, I raced against more, but when you race against people, you don’t really know what everybody else is doing,” he told RACER. “We could have hired someone that everyone knows, but I prefer to work with someone like Ben, who I really know.
“There’s an absoluteness about Ben’s way to go about his job. His feel in the car, his raw pace…it’s not to say that he’s mile quicker than everybody else, but it’s a bit of a Scott Dixon-type thing. We have Anthony Davidson, Loic Duval, Nicolas Lapierre, Pastor Maldonado, and I’ve seen all different angles and different levels of talent. He’s somebody I know I can rely on and somebody that’s going to just go out and do it. He’s just solid that way.”
For Hanley, the opportunity to race in IndyCar a decade after his F1 dreams were dashed feels like he’s been given an all-too-rare second chance in the sport.
“It’s a bit of a turnaround for myself,” he said. “Only a few years ago really, I was back in the karts on an international level, so yeah, things change quick. Getting this chance with Elton to do IndyCar…it’s obviously mega exciting for myself. And it just goes to show, never give up, because you never know what’s around the corner.
“F1 was always the aim, and we did a partial GP2 season until the funding went away, but at the same time, we were realistic in the fact that we knew we didn’t have the budget to get there on our own. So, I went back to karting for a couple of years longer than the average driver, I guess, and it was just to make sure that I was fully ready to make the step whenever it came.”
Coming off a six-day test for Pirelli at the Bahrain Grand Prix circuit, Hanley believes the regular mileage he’s completed in F1’s top ladder series will ease his introduction to IndyCar.
“Ever since the partial GP2 season start, pretty much from the year forward on from that, I’ve done a lot of the development tests for the various GP2 series, GP3 series, and the Pirelli tires that they use,” he continued. “I’ve done some open-wheel racing in that time, but mostly I’ve been keeping busy in the seat of the open-wheel cars, turning quite a lot of laps, so it’s not like jumping into something that I’ve not had the experience of doing for a while.”
Hanley’s expertise is found in road racing, which will help the new team as it competes at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, and Mid-Ohio. The Indy 500, which will serve as Hanley’s first oval, is another matter. He’ll join friend and countryman Jordan King, among other rookies, as they figure out the fine art of lapping above 225mph around the 2.5-mile facility.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be a massive task, and obviously the more preparation I get, the better that is,” he said. “With no experience on the oval, that’s gonna be really interesting for me, and I can’t wait for that. But yeah, just the whole program, we’re gonna try and get on task for the COTA test, I think that will be the first time we get in the car. It’s gonna be really difficult, but we know that and we’re gonna work really hard to be as quick as possible, and finish as high up as possible.”
With Julian’s plans to make DragonSpeed a full-time IndyCar team in 2020, Hanley says he’ll place his focus on preparing for the future, rather than taking risks to make a big short-term splash.
“I’m coming in with no experience in IndyCar, and it’s the same for the team, so we know it’s gonna be a tough job, but everyone’s gotta start somewhere, so there’s no better place than the first test,” he said.
“We’re getting to start the season at the first open test, so straight away we’ll have a judge of the areas we need to improve, and same for me, it gives me some time to think about how things are going as opposed to doing a partial season and jumping in halfway through, when everyone’s already got half a season under their belt. So, doing the first test and early races is the best start that we can achieve this year, and we’re looking ahead the entire time.”