The 24 hours of Le Mans is considered one of the most gruelling road races in the world, and it’s easy to understand why. When the French flag is waved at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon in June, and the cars set off down the start-finish straight of the 13-odd km long Circuit de la Sarthe, they have a long, long journey ahead of them — 24 hours, as the name suggests. For a driver who has to spend three hours in the car during the graveyard shift at Le Mans, the going can be very, very tough. Just ask Karun Chandhok, the only Indian driver to ever compete in the race. The 2017 edition was Chandhok’s fifth attempt at Le Mans and, as always, he got saddled with a night shift once more.
“The night shift is really hard,” Chandhok said after the race. “You’ve got two beams of light, you’re going through the forest and there’s nothing – there’s no references. All the marker boards, all the references have gone away. And all you’re seeing is really what those two beams of light are showing you,” he said, trying to paint a picture of what it’s like to be in the closed cockpit of a racecar at Sarthe, in the dead of night. It might not sound too bad to the ordinary Indian commuter, used to unlit motorways, but unlike the drivers in the LMP2 machines (a type of prototype that races at the 24 Hours of Le Mans), the ordinary Indian commuter isn’t doing speeds upwards of 300 kph on certain sections of the track.
For Chandhok, his fifth attempt at the event proved even trickier than his earlier outings at Le Mans. During his first run in the car during the day, when he took over the blue and orange Gulf-liveried Tockwith Motorsport LMP2 machine from team-mate Nigel Moore, he had to deal with the fact that the drinks bottle in the car wasn’t working. Given that he was out in the car for five stints (that’s over three hours in the car) during the hottest Le Mans since 2005, it was a very tough task.
Of his second run, Chandhok said “I was meant to get into the car at 1:45, which means you’re usually at the garage by 1:15, half an hour earlier, just in case. But I only got into the car at 2:45, and got out of the car at 5:45.” It was three hours of driving, with no sleep, and full commitment through corners, even though there were times when he couldn’t see the apexes.
For Chandhok, having completed the race with a rookie team is a big deal. Since the team had no experience in the LMP2 class, there had been cause for concern before the race. Chandhok had said that his aim was to just finish the race. If everything worked in their favour, he reckoned they could aim to finish in the top eight in their class. As things turned out, they’d finish 9th in the LMP2 class and 11th overall, which is a huge deal for a rookie team.
Chandhok’s best finish at Le Mans came back in 2012, when he, along with teammates David Brabham and Peter Dumbreck, finished 6th overall in their JRM Racing LMP1 machine. He’s also branched out from just racing to managing drivers, like young up and comers Arjun and Kush Maini. He is also the official heritage driver for the Williams team, and spends a fair amount of time putting classic Williams F1 machines through the grind at various events – and he’s one of the faces of Channel 4’s F1 commentary team. That said, there isn’t a single year when he isn’t trying to work out a deal to get himself back in a racecar for the 24 Hours of Le Mans – which means we could see Chandhok back in action at Le Mans in 2018, for attempt six. You’ve got a year to pencil it into your calendars.
(The writer is Motorsport Editor at Overdrive Magazine)