Inside Revolution: My Motorsport with Sir Chris Hoy

Thursday 14 September 2023

The world’s most successful track cyclist, and one of Britain’s greatest Olympians, has been competing in motorsport for 10 years now. In September’s Revolution, it is clear that Sir Chris Hoy’s competitive fire still burns just as strong as ever. 

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

Upon being asked by Revolution if he’d go back to dedicating his time to a full season in a professional motor racing championship, Sir Chris Hoy was quick with his answer: “I absolutely would!” 

His three-year ‘road to Le Mans’ was well documented, from his early days in British GT all the way up to contesting the 2016 edition of the French endurance classic, one of the world’s greatest races. Since then, appearances in a huge variety of categories – from rallycross to Caterham racing – has given the Edinburgh native his regular doses of speed, competition, and adrenaline, just without the commitment of a full programme. 

That’s not necessarily intentional, though. While his last full-season campaign in a professional series was British GT in 2019, which could lead people to believe he’s slowing down and just doing the odd event here and there, Sir Chris is eager to jump back in at the top level. 

“I’d absolutely jump at the chance to get back to Le Mans because you learn so much. It’s six years ago now, but I feel like I could jump back into a prototype pretty quickly having driven the Revolution (sports prototype racing car) recently. You never really lose that feeling and, in a way, I’m very much a better driver now than I was in 2016,” Sir Chris told us after a hectic weekend of rallycross at Lydden Hill in July. 

“There’s loads of events I’d love to do in motorsport: the Bathurst 12 Hour and Nürburgring 24 Hour (GT races), more rallycross… I’ve even tried a little bit of rallying, but for that I’d really have to commit to doing the hard yards! You can’t just jump in at the deep end with rallying because the consequences are a lot greater with no run-off – you’ve got to get it right first time. 

“I was just thinking about this recently because 10 years is quite a long time and I’ve tried out so many different cars and championships. The positive of that is that you become very good at adapting to new machinery and new situations, and then you’re able to enjoy it, so instead of being absolutely terrified you come away with a big smile on your face. You’re looking forward to the start (of a race), you’re not getting nervous beforehand…” 

After retiring from track cycling – a sport he had made his own – in early 2013, just a little under two months later he lined up on the starting grid at Brands Hatch for the inaugural Radical SR1 Cup race and the start of his motorsport career.

Four Olympic, 11 world and two Commonwealth titles – alongside six Olympic gold medals – are the highlights of Hoy’s illustrious track cycling resume, but the plaudits were wiped clean when it came to four wheels and an engine. Like everyone else, Sir Chris had to start somewhere and, having regularly enjoyed non-competitive trackdays, the opportunity arose for him to earn his motor racing stripes in the British sportscar series.

The little Radical SR1 was the Peterborough-based manufacturer’s entry-level, 185 bhp mini-prototype machine designed for novices in mind. With it, they formed an ‘academy’ style championship package with everything included in the price, from the ARDS (Association of Racing Driver Schools) test all the way up to the actual car and event entry fees.

“It was made really easy actually,” Sir Chris added. “I never considered racing and then the opportunity came along. Getting your (race) licence is quite a straightforward thing, and I had the arrive-and-drive package with Radical.”

Scoring one podium that season at Snetterton, Sir Chris had very much been bitten by the motorsport bug and so began his journey to Le Mans. He jumped straight from the Radical into Nissan’s beast-like GT3 car for the 2014 British GT season and managed a podium at Spa before a European Le Mans Series campaign the following year.

He shared a Ginetta LMP3 car with the then up-and-coming Charlie Robertson, and the duo impressively won the championship’s LMP3 class on their first attempt. The programme then culminated in Hoy’s LMP2 drive with Alpine Pro Racing, scoring a 12th-place finish at the round-the-clock showpiece.

The most professional sportspeople are well versed in dedicating their life to doing something – and doing it well – which is exactly what Sir Chris accomplished with Le Mans. He may well accomplish it again one day – and has proven he still has the commitment – but is also realistic as to the practicalities, and finances, of such a programme.

“It’s such a huge commitment financially for your backer (sponsor). You don’t just turn up and do Le Mans, you’ve got to do a full season of ELMS or something similar beforehand, and that takes significant backing to make happen.

“If you can do it alongside something else, whether it’s a TV or Netflix show, a documentary, or something that can give you additional backing to make it happen, that’s the kind of thing that might make it possible.”

“Rallycross – I think it’s the form of motorsport I enjoy the most”

Hoy’s sportscar exploits are a far cry from what he was up to at Lydden, the birthplace of rallycross, as a guest entry in the Motorsport UK 5 Nations British Rallycross Championship. Driving for circuit owner Pat Doran’s team, Sir Chris was in the same Citroen C4 he raced with them back in 2020 and was elated to be back at the Kent venue for his fourth visit – and couldn’t hide his passion for the short, sharp nature of the discipline. 

“I had an absolute blast, as always. Lydden is always a highlight, I was very excited to be back in the championship, and I love the challenge, the adrenaline, and the nature of rallycross. It’s just so intense, with short, exciting racing.” 

That’s a strong statement from someone with such an eclectic motorsport CV, but Hoy’s not the only one to enjoy the category. Global motorsport stars such as rallying legend Sébastien Loeb, eight times a World Rally champion, and two-time DTM (German touring car) champion Timo Scheider are just two of the big names who have converted to rallycross in recent years. 

“I think it’s the form of motorsport that I’ve enjoyed the most and, if you speak to any racing drivers in different categories across the board, they’ll all say they’d love to try rallycross. It’s just the fun of it,” Sir Chris added. “You step away from the clinical nature of circuit racing, which is very data-driven and you spend most of your weekend staring at computer screens and looking at little wiggly lines! 

“I actually really enjoy that too, I’m quite an analytical person and I do enjoy that process, but I think for just the pure pleasure of driving, rallycross is great.” 

Hoy made his rallycross debut back in 2019 in Barcelona, the second round of that year’s FIA World Rallycross Championship, and since then had only contested a handful of meetings before his return to the action last month. Such is the nature of the sport, there’s no endless testing and, as he eloquently puts it, ‘looking at squiggly lines.’ As such, it was somewhat a baptism of fire. 

“These cars take a lot of building up to and with the circuit’s new layout, with the jump, it just added another dimension – but I was getting quicker and quicker in every race. We did a bit of work on the brake bias (after some struggles and spins on day one), and it settled down a bit on Sunday! 

“The cars come alive when you push them so, if you don’t, they understeer and just don’t behave. You have to grab them by the scruff of the neck and that’s how they like to be driven, but it takes time to build up to that, and it can bite you back! There are some great people around – I’ve received some great advice and the whole team, and the paddock, is very friendly.” 

Regular in the paddock

Back in 2013, Sir Chris going racing was big news and, naturally, having a big-name sportsperson in a humble racing paddock was something rather unusual. With time and more events under his belt, the sight of seeing Hoy around – both on and off the track – became a more common one, and he’s highly appreciative of the relaxed and friendly nature of British motorsport.

“What’s nice about the situation I’m in now is that I feel a lot more relaxed about it all. When I first started it was all about ‘what’s he going to be like?’, and some people are supporting you while others are waiting for you to fail because they don’t want you to be making the sport look easy,” Hoy said.

“I think I showed people that I was giving everything and with great respect too – I wasn’t just coming in and saying, ‘I’m going to be great at this.’ I knew I wasn’t going to be great at it, but I was a fan, and I was getting an opportunity to do what 99 per cent of fans would love to do, and that’s compete in these amazing events. Now, I feel a lot more relaxed because people are more comfortable seeing me in the paddock and it’s not such an unusual thing. People are used to having me around and it’s a lot more relaxed.”

Circuit racing is a natural next step for many regular trackday participants but can often be a difficult one to make. There are financial concerns, nerves, or maybe even just lack of time. Acquiring a Motorsport UK ‘Go Racing’ Starter Pack is the first port of call – the gateway to an exciting new world. From there, you can take your ARDS test and get your race licence, just like Sir Chris did in the build up to his race debut on that day back in May 2013.

He was one of many nervous novices watching the lights on the starting gantry at Brands Hatch, ready to take off towards the notorious Paddock Hill Bend. Even a seasoned professional like Hoy, used to competing on the world stage, in front of packed stands and millions watching on TV, has no shame in admitting he gets nervous at the start line of a race – even today.

“I’d been racing internationally in sport for 20 years by the time I’d retired and yet I was still nervous at the start line! Everybody’s nervous and, no matter if they say they are or not, they’re all terrified in their first race,” he commented. “So it’s completely normal to be nervous.”

Not everyone will stick around like Sir Chris has, or get the chance to race internationally, but no matter what you compete in, and at what budget, the thrill never dissipates. That’s something Hoy is keen to emphasise: “Motorsport is like a drug, but it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t into it, why you’d want to spend all this time and money going racing, but it’s addictive and it’s a wonderful thing to do. If you have the chance, do it.

“It seems daunting and really out-of-grasp for a lot of people, for a number of reasons, but I think if you have the desire, you do trackdays, you’re enjoying them and would like a little bit more of a competitive angle to it, I would say – don’t think about it, just go for it!

There’s no denying the sheer passion Hoy still has for the sport – if anything, it might even be stronger now than in his post-cycling heyday, when motorsport was still new and fresh for him. He also remains humble, honest, and eternally grateful for the opportunities he’s had. And he’ll never forget that spring day at Brands Hatch.

“There’s nothing like that feeling, at the end of your first race, of pulling into parc fermé, taking your helmet off, you jump out the car, take in the moment, talk to your fellow racers, and everybody’s high-fiving each other and just absolutely high on adrenaline. It’s an amazing feeling and that’s what brings you back to it.”

Read more from this month’s edition of Revolution