Teaming up with LMP2 challengers Tockwith Motorsport, Karun Chandhok is returning to take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans for what will be his fifth time competing in the famous race. Writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid, the former Formula One driver explains why, despite its challenges aplenty, there really is no race quite like Le Mans.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a race widely recognised as one of the crown jewels of world motorsport, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. I feel very honoured to be the first (and so far only) Indian to compete in the great race. In fact, I’m told that only 298 drivers in motorsport history have ever competed in even two of these three blue riband events. When you consider how many racing drivers there have been in history, being part of that group is pretty cool!
This year, I will be joining a team called Tockwith Motorsport, who are making their debut at Le Mans with a new Ligier LMP2 car. Tockwith are a new entrant to the LMP2 class and one of the drivers – my soon to be teammate, Phil Hanson – is just 17 years old! Going to Le Mans as a new team, up against some very competitive and experienced squads, will no doubt be a huge challenge. But I like a challenge. And when team owner Simon Moore called me to ask if I’d be interested in working with them this year, I was only too pleased to say yes and I look forward to lending my experience to the programme.
As far as the class battle is concerned, the grid in LMP2 this year is going to be incredibly strong. There are a lot of experienced teams and drivers, and I’m under no illusions of how difficult the task ahead will be as a rookie team heading to Le Mans. As for the racing, the LMP2 cars this year have had a pretty big upgrade in terms of power and downforce, and should be capable of speeds of over 310kmh.
At Le Mans, the track conditions change dramatically across the race. In F1, everyone gets excited if the track temperatures change by 5 degrees. At the Circuit de la Sarthe, we can expect changes of around 25 degrees between day and night. As the race goes on, you get oil, gravel and marbles all over the track. And rain at some stage of the weekend is pretty much guaranteed.
Dealing with the traffic in an LMP2 car is perhaps the biggest challenge. You have to juggle passing the GT cars, whilst watching out for the LMP1 ones coming past you, as well as racing against cars in your own class. All in all, it makes for a pretty hectic atmosphere out on track.
The track itself is famously one of the longest in the world – A 13.8 km lap stretches through the public roads and forests of the French countryside.
For those of you unfamiliar with the event, the race itself runs from 3pm on Saturday until 3pm on Sunday. The car basically runs for 24 hours straight, while a team consisting of 3 drivers take it in turns to drive shifts in the car. Over the course of the race, the teams will cover a distance of over 5,000 km, equal to around 17 Formula 1 Grands Prix!
The atmosphere at Le Mans is truly unique. Over 280,000 fans descend on the town for the race weekend, making it one of the highest viewed sporting events at a single stadium worldwide.
As a driver, the build up to Le Mans is unlike that of any other race. The circus moves into town 3 weeks before race day, and the official practice session happens a full 2 weeks before the race itself. And whilst the thousands of personnel staying on between the test and the race is obviously good for the local economy – it certainly helps keep the nearby bars and hotels busy – it’s a hell of a slog for the guys within the teams.
For us as drivers, we get a week at home before coming back for the race. Even then, we arrive on the previous weekend, which means you have a lot of hanging around before the race. I take my bike and do my best to uncover the roads around the French countryside to keep me entertained.
Tradition plays a big part at Le Mans. The cars are paraded through the town for scrutineering, and the drivers are taken on a separate parade in front of 100,000 people, all of whom are lining the streets ahead of the action. Every year, a group of English guys dressed in Tweed called ‘The Tweed Army’ take up position at the same corner of the parade. These guys are my unofficial fan club, so we always have a bit of fun together when we’re there.
Going to Le Mans for the first time in 2012 was a very confusing time for me. I had no idea of where to stay, what routine to follow in terms of eating or sleeping, and was generally relying on my team-mates Peter Dumbreck and David Brabham to hold my hand. Luckily, they had 23 Le Mans starts between them at the time and taught me a great deal. Since then, I’ve been much better prepared.
All the drivers stay at the circuit in little mobile homes or camper vans – and I have to say it’s pretty cool being able to walk to work in 3 minutes. The downside of staying at the track is that you have 280,000 very noisy neighbours in the campsites around the circuit, not to mention the 60 race cars making a lot of noise!
On race day, you would imagine the organisers would allow the drivers to have a lie in before the race but, instead, we’re up at 7am for a morning warm up session. The opening ceremony is always amazing. The national anthem is played for every one of the 166 different nations represented by the drivers on the grid. To hear the Indian anthem playing out, knowing it is just for me, in front of all those thousands of people in the grandstands, is a real ‘goose-bumps’ moment. And I always take an Indian flag with me to celebrate.
For some reason, it feels like every year I seem to end up with the night shift. All the engineers I have worked with over the years insist that they just put the names into an Excel file and that’s the way it’s worked out, but I’m not convinced. In 2013, I got in the car at 2:30am and finally got out at 6:20am after a quadruple stint which I can safely say was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my career. We were chasing from behind, so I was taking big risks in the rain to make up time.
The fatigue really sets in. By that point, I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours – apart from a little power-nap – and it’s amazing what an effect that has. When you’re charging along at 320kmh, speeding through the forests in the pitch dark, believe me, the mind starts to play tricks on you. You start to see parts of the track that aren’t there, hearing noises that don’t mean anything or seeing random bits of light which aren’t really other cars but people in the grandstands.
I remember one year arriving into Indianapolis [corner] at about 4am in the dark, and there was a wall of smoke. I backed off, thinking an engine had blown up and there may have been oil on the track. But instead of burnt oil, I got the smell of burgers and sausages, as it turned out the smoke was from the local campsite!
Le Mans is a magical event which is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. But when you do get to the end, that’s what makes it so hugely satisfying!