Ben Hanley knows the task at hand – joining the IndyCar Series without any experience with the car or competitors – will be difficult, but he’s ready for it.
Hanley, a 33-year-old veteran of sports car and open-wheel racing, was announced this week as driver for the DragonSpeed team this is joining the IndyCar Series for five races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500. He’s aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
“We have no illusions – it’s going to be extremely tough this year,” Hanley said by phone from his home in the United Kingdom. “There are positive points, but for us the goal is to make the first collective test and be able to be on track with the rest of the guys at the same time to judge where the weaknesses are and where we most need to improve. We’ve got no experience in Indy cars from an engineering or driving point of view, so it’s going to be an uphill task. We’re viewing it as a long-term project, which is the correct way to do it.”
Hanley and DragonSpeed will field a Chevrolet-powered Dallara for the season opener March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida, followed by Barber Motorsports Park on April 7, the Indy 500 on May 26, Road America on June 23 and Mid-Ohio on July 28. Putting together the deal was the culmination of months of work.
“The intent has been there for quite a while, but obviously it’s not an easy thing to do,” Hanley said. “It all takes time. It takes a lot of negotiation and dialogue from the team’s point of view. It was a lot of work behind the scenes. I’ve just been trying to get prepared physically. I’ve been catching up on videos of the races and trying to judge how they pan out strategy-wise and what the racing is like. Obviously, we’ll need pace in the car, which is the main job when we hit the track.”
DragonSpeed, led by former driver Elton Julian, claimed the Pirelli World Challenge GTA class championship in 2015 with Frank Montecalvo. In 2017, it won the European Le Mans Series LMP2 class championship with Memo Rojas and Leo Roussel.
“INDYCAR is the toughest series we’ve ever contested, with the world’s biggest race as its centerpiece,” Julian said in a statement announcing the team’s plan. “On the other hand, we didn’t go from club racing a decade ago to a Pirelli World Challenge title in 2015 to prototypes at Le Mans without climbing a few mountains, and I take a lot of confidence from the talent and spirit of the people we’ve put together for the next summit.”
Hanley, who has experience in GP2, Renault Formula 3.5, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24, recently completed a three-day Formula 3 tire test in Bahrain.
“I’ve never stopped being in single-seaters,” he said. “I’ve done quite a lot of testing mileage and development mileage, so it’s not like I’m jumping back into something I haven’t done for a number of years. … It’s all mileage and laps. You’re always learning when you’re in the car.”
The five IndyCar Series races won’t be the only events on DragonSpeed’s busy schedule. The team also plans to compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 1000 Miles of Sebring, and the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. The plan is to parlay the partial 2019 INDYCAR schedule into a full-time run in 2020.
“It’s a matter of our growing experience catching up to our ambitions,” Julian said. “The last few seasons of endurance racing have given us an intensive platform for developing our preparation, race engineering, pit-stop and strategy skills. There are some impressive open-wheel credentials up and down the team, and Ben’s pace and exceptional detail feel for setup and tires should be a great asset.”
For now, the anticipation goes hand in hand with the rapidly approaching season.
“I’m massively fired up,” Hanley said. “Now that we’ve decided on the engine deal and which races we’re going to do, it’s much more of a reality. I’m really looking forward to it. It seems like it’s a long time away, but actually it’s not long before we’ll be on track.”