Le Mans: a mental marathon

Karun Chandhok’s first Le Mans 24 Hours was a steep learning curve and mentally the toughest race he’s done, but it’s left a lasting impression

The results weren’t surprising at the Le Mans 24 hours this year. Audi filled all three podium spots and the Toyotas, though faster than many expected, didn’t last the distance.

The second privateer over the line in sixth overall was the JRM racing HPD ARX-03AHonda that was piloted by David Brabham, Peter Dumbreck and Karun Chandhok. A remarkable effort considering that this was the team’s – and Chandhok’s – first Le Mans.

The first Indian ever to race at Le Mans was also a new recruit to sports car racing. The sometime F1 driver switched to JRM at the beginning of 2012 and went straight to Sebring.

“The first free practice I did at Sebring I was lost because of the traffic,” he tells me when we meet up for coffee in London the week after his trip to La Sarthe. “I went out and every time I got on to the long straight there were cars in front of me, so I thought ‘right, I’ll make a gap’. The same happened the next lap, and the lap after, and then the chequered flag came out. I was nearly dead last because I hadn’t done a lap. After that David [Brabham] said to me ‘you’ve got to ignore that, just keep driving and if you get trafic, you get traffic’.

“It’s a big change of mindset. You just have to accept that if you catch four cars on a lap you will lose six seconds, guaranteed. But you have to think that your competitors will also catch the same four cars at some point.”

Talk soon turns to Le Mans and Chandhok is quick to point out that he’d never actually been there until this year. Still, as a fan of the sport’s history he felt the sense of occasion.

“You obviously know about it and you watch it on TV, but you just don’t appreciate what a mega event it is. It was a complete novelty for me. I was staying in a campsite – not a proper campsite, the drivers’ campsite – and I had Martin Brundle as my neighbour on one side and then David Brabham on the other.

“What I loved most was the circuit because it’s a proper old-school circuit. If you make a mistake, you’ll be in the gravel or you’ll hit a wall. There are none of these high-grip asphalt run off areas. It would be good to get rid of one of the chicanes, maybe the second one on the Mulsanne. If you got rid of that it would make the kink – which at the moment isn’t a corner for us [in an lMp1 car] – a proper big-balls corner.”

It was hardly surprising that Chandhok appreciated the track, but what did come as a surprise was how easy he found the race physically and how tough it was mentally.

“The evening shift was OK, but the next one at 2am to 5am was tough. The last hour of that was probably my hardest ever in a race car because at 5am you’ve been up for 22 hours and you’ve done three grand prix distances. It’s not physically tiring because the g-forces are much less than in F1. But mentally, it’s really hard. with so much traffic, as soon as you think ‘i’m just going to relax a little’ your lap time goes up three seconds because you’re just a little bit less aggressive in the traffic.”

Chandhok is still keen to get back into an F1 car, but is pragmatic about how much it will cost him. Unless he can bring a budget spilling into the millions it will be hard to compete with the likes of Pastor Maldonado or Bruno Senna. But a career in sports cars would be the next best thing. And having posted the fastest lap of the race out of his team-mates, he shouldn’t find it too hard to vie for competitive seats.

Ed Foster