How do you prepare for your first 24 Hours of Le Mans experience? We catch up with former Formula 1 driver Karun Chandhok to seek his advice.[Not a valid template]
This year marked my first 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ever. Yes the urge to drive across Britain and France, camp in the pouring rain and catch a mild case of hypothermia whilst watching Audi take their now-expected victory at La Sarthe has crossed my mind before but it never really came about. Fate smiled on me this year however, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to cover the event for crankandpiston.com.
Excitement en-route turned to nerves though as the task ahead – tackled many times over by far greater wordsmiths than I – started to sink in. How does Le Mans, the big one, affect you? How do you go for 24 hours and still conserve energy? What should I be expecting of the drivers both day and night, and what sections of the track should I be paying particular attention to?
I figured it best to seek help from someone with a bit of experience. That someone was Karun Chandhok, former HRT Formula 1 pilot and Lotus Racing reserve driver, current FIA GT World Series driver with Seyffarth Motorsport, and partaking in his second 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013 with Murphy Prototypes. Returning to La Sarthe for his sophomore appearance – notoriously motorsport’s most difficult – chances are pretty high he’ll have nailed his preparation for Le Mans’ 90th anniversary.
“It’s just a fantastic event,” Karun explains. “Certainly one of the top three races in the world along with Monaco and the Indy 500, there’s no question about it.
“And the first time you come here, it’s such a shock to the system. The race is such hardwork because we’re here for a long week. It’s quite easy to get tired even before Saturday/Sunday. Last year I was a little more excited about it, and this year I’ve tried to pace myself a little bit more. But it really is an awe-inspiring experience the first time you drive here, especially in the dark. It’s pretty damn amazing.”
So far on my first sojourn to Le Mans, I’ve discovered that getting from A to B is a lot easier if you have even the faintest idea where you’re going, that the level of the fans’ enthusiasm is massive (search for long enough and you’ll find the face paint brigade), and that a coat that’s waterproof only 40 percent of the time doesn’t help when rain arrives every 20 minutes. Karun’s first trip proved a slightly different eye-opener.
“Oh you learn enormously in year one,” Karun continues. “I mean, it’s such a unique track. Don’t forget that we run through three different towns where the asphalt and grip of each is a bit different. There are areas where the camber in the road is different, although it’s still relatively flat. It’s not like Macau or Monaco where you’re up and down. But there are all these subtle dips in the road that makes getting the line right quite tricky, so yeah, you do learn a lot in year one.”
So far the big news during the Le Mans weekend, and the build up to it, has been the weather. So temperamental has it been that every session ahead of the race has been red flagged, be it for treacherous conditions or somebody slamming into the wall.
“It’s been a nightmare to be honest. But y’know, it is what it is. You just need to make smart decisions and smart calls on the pitwall. During the first half of the race you want to make safe calls and make sure you’re on a safe tyre at the right time. The second half of the race, you can start to gamble a bit more if you want to go for position.”
Of course Karun is no stranger to rain, with just shy of ten years European single seater action under his belt (including three years of British Formula 3 between ’02 and ’04, and three years of GP2, ’07-’09). But whereas a two-hour sprint race is predominantly go for broke, an endurance event is anything but.
“Obviously there’s a lot of things that are different in sportscar racing. Sharing a car with two other blokes is a big shock to the system. As a racing driver, you’re wired to be quite selfish and are always out to beat your teammate. He’s your first point of reference. The philosophy of going racing here is quite different. You can’t try to race your teammates. As soon as you do that, then it becomes detrimental to the program. So you have to be completely open with information, completely open with setups. Otherwise you’re not going to make progress.”