The man behind Hansen Jr
The Swede is making rallycross waves, but has his British engineer to call on. By Hal Ridge
he relationship between engineer and driver is important in any motor racing discipline, and, like rally drivers and their navigators, it isn’t uncommon for that relationship to be a long standing one.
What is rather uncommon though, is for an engineer and driver to have worked together from the very beginnings of a career in a junior formula, right up to world championship level.
In the case of current FIA European Rallycross champion Kevin Hansen and British engineer Graham Rodemark, that is exactly what has happened.
Kevin’s father, Kenneth Hansen, is the most successful rallycross driver in history, and his older brother Timmy has been a regular eventwinner since the inception of World RX in 2014. While competing in karting at an early age, Kevin decided that he too wanted to be a rallycross driver. Being ‘son of ’ in motorsport brings immediate expectation and pressure, so in an attempt to alleviate some of that, Kenneth and Susann Hansen decided that Kevin should begin his career in the UK, away from home.
Just after his 14th birthday in 2012, Hansen began racing in the MSA Junior Rallycross Championship, with a Swift Sport run by Rodemark’s Autopoint Specialist Engineering team.
An accomplished engineer, like Hansen, Rodemark has been around rallycross paddocks his whole life and has worked with some of the best in the business. In the late 1990s he spannered for six-time European champion Martin Schanche, and has since run cars for Pat and Liam Doran in the UK and Europe, also accompanying Doran Jr when the British driver joined Hansen Motorsport in 2010. That’s where Rodemark got to know the Hansen family.
Just five years on from his debut in rallycross, Hansen and Rodemark have won together at every level, and impressed on the world stage in 2016 as well as dominating the European Championship with four wins from five events.
“The first time Kevin came and drove my Suzuki was at Lydden Hill on a test day. It was snowing so we didn’t go out in the morning,” says Rodemark.
“When he went out, in my Senior car, he did four laps quite impressively, then on the fifth lap he wrote my car off. So I guess you could say the initial working with Kevin thing probably cost me six days’ work I didn’t really want. But, from the very beginning, Kenneth and Susann turned up at British rallycross and just handed Kevin over at the entrance to the circuit. I’m uber-proud of the trust they have put in me.”
In his first full year, Hansen dominated the British RX Junior Championship in 2013, while Rodemark won the Senior Swift series the same season. Rodemark believes that working together as drivers in the early part of their relationship has been invaluable.
“I was lucky enough to win the championship when Kevin won the Juniors,” he says. “A lot of drivers go to a different team and they’ve got to get over the ‘who is he, what has he done, what does he know?’ thing with an engineer. You’ve got to gain a certain amount of trust, but Kevin has the experience that I know a little bit about what I’m talking about. We didn’t have to cross that bridge.”
It’s that relationship that means Rodemark and Hansen are able to have frank exchanges while working, with total faith that it’s in their collective best interest.
“Like any driver, Kevin can sometimes claim the car isn’t set up well for a particular area,” adds Rodemark. “But, it’s really good, because I can work with him and suggest that he maybe needs to change a little bit and we’ll change the car a little bit. I can also say ‘Kevin, you’re not driving well, we’re not changing the car, go out there and do it properly.’ He knows if I say it, it’s not for no reason. That’s why the relationship works so well. It’s the same if he says ‘the car’s twitching a bit to the left’ a lot of people might say ‘well it’s slippery or maybe the track’s different there’. If he feels it, we need to address it.”
Aside from running the cars, Rodemark has acted as close friend as well as colleague to Hansen, as the 18-year-old has matured. If his surname didn’t bring pressure enough, his personal success hasn’t done anything to decrease expectation, having claimed at least one championship in every full year he’s competed in to date.
“Kevin’s obviously very, very talented,” says Rodemark. “I think the big thing that we need to conquer to move forward is to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground. He’s young, he’s got big views on what is achievable and he has had big names attached to him too [like Red Bull and Peugeot].
“I think it’s very difficult for a young guy to keep his feet on the ground in that situation, but it’s very important. A couple of years ago we had a bit of a wobble in the RX Lites where it didn’t go our way, that was a pressure mistake [when Hansen crashed out of the Swedish Championship finale and lost the title]. In Barcelona last year we only needed a certain amount of points to seal the title. Everyone in the paddock was talking about it. I spent most of the weekend making sure that either of his mechanics, Kieran [Ablitt] or Toby [Guest] or myself pulled Kevin away at every opportunity to talk about football, girls, music or whatever. That was where I’ve seen him under the most pressure.”
Rodemark’s reference to Ablitt and Guest, two of Hansen’s English mechanics, highlights the close-knit team the Swede has had around him in recent years.
Although his plans for 2017 are yet to be confirmed, Hansen’s next logical step is to move into the World Championship, where in selected World RX appearances last season he twice finished fourth in his Peugeot 208 Supercar, often setting faster times than Peugeot-hansen stablemates Sebastien Loeb and brother Timmy.
“In some ways, I think he needs to go into the world championship, get his backside kicked a couple of times and then we’ll move forward,” adds Rodemark. “He won’t dominate, so from a ‘keeping your feet on the ground’ point of view, it would be good to go and play with the big boys and see how we can carve our way through that lot.”
The British engineer says he truly believes that Hansen can prevail at the sport’s highest level, but expects a challenging road ahead.
“I absolutely think that he can be world champion,” he says. “The problem is I think there were at least 10 people in the paddock last year that could be. But, I will do absolutely whatever I can to try and make sure Kevin can carry on because it’s become a dream that’s come true.
“I’ve worked with some great people, but not really from the start, and not at a ‘boss’ level.
“It’s easy to get carried away, but I genuinely mean it, I will work really hard to try and help him become world champion if that’s at all possible.
“So far, things have worked out phenomenally well and I hope we can continue to work together because I think everyone else will have to look out.” ■
Rodemark (left) and Kevin Hansen
Hansen is reaching the top