Karun talks about the magic of Le Mans

Flying through the dark at over 320 kilometers an hour, right foot flat on the throttle, relying on little more than the twin beams of light from his headlights, pure instinct and courage, Karun Chandhok will be back at one of the biggest challenges in world sport this weekend when he competes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Part of what is known as the triple crown of motorsport, along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500, this twice-round-the-clock race is one of the most grueling tests of man and machine ever devised.

The only Indian to have competed in this iconic race, Chandhok returns to the hallowed Circuit de La Sarthe in France for the fifth time this week in front of 300,000 spectators trackside.

From Le Mans, Chandhok speaks about the challenges and demands of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This is your fifth time at Le Mans. What is it about the race that draws you?

Le Mans is magical, it is the best race in the world in many ways. The challenge of it, that it’s so damn difficult. You’re driving in the day, in the night, the track conditions are changing, the temperatures are changing, you’ve got rain inevitably at some stage, you have four different tyre compounds to choose from, you have to deal with the traffic, it’s such a long lap as well, very, very tricky to get right, we’re doing over 320 kph at four different points on the track. And then there’s the history. It’s the same as Monaco or the Indy 500. These are the three biggest races in our sport, nobody in the world can question that. These are the ones that you want to do year on year till the day you retire.

Watching the race, the most romantic, and perhaps, heroic part is driving in the pitch dark at over 300 kph. Is that the best part of Le Mans for you as well?

I think it’s the hardest part. When you’re in the car at 2 am … you’re just floating. It’s a surreal experience where you’re behind the wheel, you’re driving along. It feels like a video game sometimes. You’ve slept for a couple of hours, you’re a bit tired and you’re trying to drag the laptime out of it in the dark - it’s hard. But it’s so rewarding to do good laptimes in the night. I remember in 2013, it was probably my best night stint. It started to rain, it was wet at one part of the track. We put intermediate tyres on and I made a full lap back on the leaders. I was ten seconds a lap faster than them. It was so rewarding to drive a stint like that. Mentally, I was destroyed. I did four stints in a row which was nearly three-and-a-half hours in the car. I got out of it and my brain was just fried. I had a quick shower and just passed out. But it’s so satisfying. You get such a good feeling when you do a job like that. And I think that’s what makes Le Mans special.

At night, the track cools down, the engine’s working better and you’re going faster. Does it also improve your concentration, when all you see is the light from your headlights and nothing else around you?

I wouldn’t say it improves your concentration. But you have to focus more. You lose all your references. In the daylight you can see the marker boards, so you know where to brake, you know where the references are on the track for the corners. In the dark, you lose that peripheral vision. You’ve got tunnel vision of just the asphalt. So it forces your brain to concentrate more to drive at night. That’s why it’s more demanding. But also when it’s cooler, the engines work better so typically you’ll get the best lap times at night, so you’re going faster at night. Ultimately, the fastest time to be in the car, what we call ‘Happy Hour’, is between 6am and 8am, just as the sun’s coming up. It’s cold, the track is rubbered in, there’s a lot of grip in the asphalt.

Does this race get easier the more number of times you do it?

I think what people underestimate is actually what happens before the Saturday-Sunday. It’s a long week. You’re here for five-six days before the race even starts. The more you do it, I think you learn more about that side of things – how to keep yourself relaxed. You have to sometimes go and hide and get away from the paddock. It’s so easy to be tired even before the race starts. I bring my cycle with me. I go out cycling everyday for 2 or 3 hours, get some alone time. I stay in a little camper van. I can lock the doors, read the news, a book, watch some TV shows, just get your mind off things.

Another challenge is switching off in between stints. How difficult is it to do that?

It’s always been really hard for me because every year I’ve ended up with the graveyard shift which has been normally between either 1 am-4 am or 2 am-6 am. Basically it means my whole sleep pattern is ruined because you need to be ready one hour before you get in the car. But on the flipside it means that when I get out of the car, I’m so exhausted I just fall asleep. Normally every year I manage to get three or four hours of sleep here and there.

Drivers often talk about how racing at Le Mans is an emotional rollercoaster. Is it fair to say the emotional demands outweigh the physical demands?

It’s both. Physically, you’re fatigued because of a lack of sleep. You’re drained, your energy levels are down, so there is a great deal of physical fatigue. But also mental. Especially in the night your concentration levels are very high and when you’re in the car for 3-4 hours at a time, that’s a long time to be working at a high level of concentration. It’s a bit like a grand slam final. They’re probably playing for three-and-a-half, four hours. Imagine doing that three times in 24 hours.

What is your target at this year's Le Mans?

Realistically, I'm with a rookie team and with a rookie team-mate who's 17 years old so it's going to be a challenge to get a strong result. We're in a Ligier chasses and judging by the official test session, we don't seem to have the pace of the Oreca chassis who looked very strong. It's a 24 hour race and lots can happen so we'll just keep our heads down and work away but I think if we get in the top 7 we would have done very well considering all this.