Chris Hoy’s race partner is just 18 but he’s most definitely in the driving seat, writes Iain Morrison
SIR Chris Hoy is the most successful track cyclist in the history of the sport, so the adjustment to normal life after stepping off his bike for the last time always looked like a sizeable speed bump to negotiate. Instead, the Scot has delayed the day by exchanging a wooden track for Tarmac and swapping his customary two-wheeled transport for something very much faster.
Hoy has become an endurance sports car racer with the stated aim of competing in the Le Mans 24-hour race as early as next season. But the most interesting aspect of Hoy’s new team is that the Olympian athlete may not be the most interesting member of it. His co-driver in Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) is the young Scot Charlie Robertson, born in Surrey to parents from Stirling, raised in Aberfoyle and now returned to live in England. He remains a proud Scot, sporting twin Saltires on his race helmet.
Despite being just 18 years old, Robertson has taken the UK’s greatest ever Olympian under his wing and shown him the motor racing ropes. It must be a little odd offering advice to the great man?
“Yeah, I suppose it is a bit surreal when I think about it,” says the Scot in an accent that owes more to the home counties than the Highlands, “but I think we make a good team.
“Chris obviously has that mental preparation side that you can bring to any sport. Obviously he can’t really teach me…you know, anything about being a cyclist, that’s not going to happen. But we teach each other in terms of that approach he brings to the mental side of preparation. I can take a lot from him in the way he can control his emotions towards the weekend, stay calm.
“I can take from that and, on the other hand, he’s always looking to improve on the track so we look at all the data together after each session. He’s always asking me what I do in particular corners and I’ll tell him, explain this and that, and it works so it’s a good relationship.
“I don’t feel that I have reached my peak in motor sport so I’m still learning too. It’s a good relationship. I hope it will continue for years to come because I know that Chris has hopes to race at Le Mans very soon and if I can be a crucial part of his arsenal then that will be good place to be.”
So Sir Chris isn’t too proud to take advice from someone young enough to be his son?
“No, definitely not. That’s the thing with most top sportsmen, they are always willing to learn, they are looking for advice. They will happily take on advice because as a sportsman they want to improve as much as they can.”
The pair compete in LMP3, a brand new category of racing that sits in between the LMP2 cars and the GT cars which are based on road-going models. They won their first ever race at Silverstone before mechanical failures saw them end the second leg of the championship in Imola towards the back of the pack. On both occasions Robertson stuck the car on pole position, lapping something like half a second, motorsport’s equivalent of a coffee break, ahead of the like-for-like opposition.
Unfortunately the pair violated a speed restriction in the pit lane at Silverstone so, instead of starting at the front of the LMP3 grid, they found themselves at the very back of it. It took Robertson all of 20 minutes to catch and pass all the others cars in his class. The young Scot is going places and he isn’t wasting much time getting there.
His racing career started after a friend of his father’s gifted him a race suit with a note attached saying “You know what to do”, and dad duly took junior to the Edinburgh Kart Club aged eight. Later he became the youngest person ever to win an officially sanctioned car race in the UK, at the age of 14 years and 170 days, and his progress has been serene ever since. He won the Ginetta Junior Championship in 2012, he was third in the Formula Four Championship the following season and in 2014 he won the Ginetta GT4 Supercup with eight victories from 27 starts.
This may be classified under the bleedin’ obvious but Robertson is quick, properly quick. The Scot won one race with an average speed of 200kph (129mph) and while LMP3 cars are not invited to race in the Le Mans 24-hour race proper, the teenager blasted a good few test laps before the main event, with his Ginetta-Nissan prototype car touching Formula One speeds on the famous Mulsanne straight.
“Yeah, it’s fast but once I got used to it, it feels fairly normal,” say Robertson, exhibiting sang froid with what may be a bravado topping. “In the Le Mans test that I did two or three weeks ago, at the end of the Mulsanne straight we were reaching speeds above 185 miles per hour, almost 190 to be honest, so it is fast.
“The first time you go at that speed it takes your breath away a little bit but once you are in that zone, once you are concentrating, you feel comfortable, it doesn’t feel fast, it’s just about going as quickly as you can. I feel like it just comes naturally, I am at one with the car when everything clicks and I am in my zone; it’s just a strange, out-of-body experience really.”
The pair’s next race is on the Red Bull Ring Grand Prix circuit in Austria where the Formula One race was held only last weekend. Robertson has never visited the circuit but he knows “where it goes” because, like all teenagers, he has been there on his PlayStation. He will get more electronic experience of the circuit in a simulator before the race weekend on 11-12 July.
So what is his ultimate goal if everything pans out? Immediately he, like Hoy, wants to compete in Le Mans next year and the prize for winning the LMP3 series is… a seat in an LMP2 car at next season’s feature race.
As for further ahead, though Formula One is still seen as the pinnacle of the sport in terms of prestige and money, the fans are deserting it in droves. The attendance in Austria was down by 40 per cent, and Robertson can sympathise.
“Formula One isn’t where I want to be,” he says bluntly. “It isn’t my ultimate aim. To get to F1 the money speaks for itself. That’s it really. At the moment the situation is that if you get to F1 it’s not through talent at all, really. That’s why I am taking the sports car route to try and make it in the prototype (Le Mans) category.
“There are people like Nick Tandy who won Le Mans two weeks ago (alongside co- drivers Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg). He had been picked up by Porsche from the Le Mans series and promoted to their P1 seat and he wins Le Mans at his first attempt and that has nothing to do with money.
“People are still looking for talent in the Le Mans category, that is why I am choosing it, I think there is more chance of making a career for myself as a paid professional driver in Le Mans rather than trying to get paid in F1 or paying for a seat in F1 and losing my seat because someone else is coming in with more money or bigger sponsors.”
The young Scot obviously believes he has a lot more talent than money?
“Yeah, I think so.”
He isn’t the only one.