On first glance, you probably wouldn’t expect Elton Julian and Ben Hanley to have all that much in common, but appearances can be deceptive.
“Actually the similarities are unbelievable,” said 41-year-
In fact, both men have endured long spells out of the cockpit due to forces beyond their control before finding solace through karting.
For Julian, it would provide an early insight into life as an owner, running the likes of Scott Speed and Phil Giebler, while for Hanley, who finished second to Alvaro Parente in the 2007 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, it kept him sharp and attuned to the fundamentals of motorsport.
“Karting is extremely complex in terms of setup, chassis, development and things like that. It’s always keeping you thinking about how to improve the balance and manage the tires,” said Hanley, who was left high and dry when Renault withdrew their funding only three races into the 2008 GP2 season.
Yet while Hanley undoubtedly enjoyed his return to karting – he won the CIK-FIA Euro KF championship in 2015 – and continues to race them on his off-weekends, the 31-year-old Englishman was continually frustrated in his efforts to return to car racing in sports cars.
“Opportunities were few and far between because people looking for professional drivers want them to have experience, and obviously I didn’t have any experience in sports cars,” Hanley told Sportscar365.
“In some respects the [driver ratings] can really limit your opportunities, but this year it’s worked in my favor.”
Having not competed in an FIA championship for five years, Hanley’s driver rating was downgraded from Gold to Silver during the off-season, and suddenly he was a man in demand.
Ironically, this was a situation not entirely dissimilar to Julian’s own big break in 2010, when he was hired to drive for Gunnar Racing in the Prototype Challenge class of the American Le Mans Series alongside Gunnar Jeannette and Christian Zugel.
Although he hadn’t completed a full season in well over a decade, Julian impressed as the team’s Silver and moved on with Zugel to the ELMS and WEC, before deciding to focus on building up his own team in 2012.
“My career has been a bit sporadic,” said Julian, who at 17 beat Gil de Ferran to win a British Formula Three race at Thruxton in 1992.
“I had a couple of really big pushes as a driver and towards the end of my second big push when I was doing the WEC and became quite competitive again.
“I understood that the writing was on the wall for me as an individual – it was very unlikely that I would land a factory gig in my mid-30s.”
Julian admits that he spent months with the FIA document loaded on his phone and on his laptop, but was astonished when he found Hanley listed as a Silver and available.
“When his name came up, I knew right away who we were talking about and thought to myself, ‘How can this be?’” he said.
“Back when I was an importer for Tony Kart, I knew Rabazzi and I was coming back and forth to Europe, so Ben was on my radar then. If he lives up to 70 percent of what I hope then he’ll do a good job.”
With Hanley set to join former Toyota factory ace Nicolas Lapierre and gentleman driver Henrik Hedman – who opted to turn away paying drivers and give Hanley a break – Julian is confident that he has assembled one of the strongest lineups in the LMP2 field, even if by his own admission, he would “rather not play the [driver rankings] game.”
“I hate to put pressure on [Ben], but there’s a reason we went after him and put him in the car,” he said. “There’s a reason money was turned down to put him in the car.
“Actually I have to [give] credit to our Bronze driver who when confronted with the question said, ‘Lets go for it’ and turned down a decent chunk of change to seek results. I really like that and I think together the three of them have a chance to prove something.”
The Florida-based team is coming off a strong debut with its Oreca 05 Nissan at Sebring, finishing just a few seconds away from the overall podium with Lapierre, Hedman and Nic Minassian at the wheel.
All focus now shifts to its ELMS campaign, and for his part, Hanley can’t wait to get started and is intent on making the most of his opportunity.
“Anyone who is a racing driver does it because they want to win and I’m no different,” he said.
“I’ve got quite a lot of expectation that with me now being a Silver there will be people watching, so I’ve just got to stay out of trouble, try to be consistent throughout the stint and hand over in the best possible position.
“Hopefully I should be double-stinting at the races, so it’s great because I get a lot of time in the car as well as doing the six races in the ELMS, which this year seems to be getting even bigger and more competitive than ever.”