Karun Chandhok interview: 24 Hours of Le Mans is magical, but damn difficult

Karun Chandhok has the perfect job, or jobs, if we may call them that. He travels to pretty much every race on the Formula 1 calendar delivering his trackside analysis to Formula 1 fans via the Channel 4 broadcast (beamed in India on Star Sports). He is also a driver manager – he helped India’s budding racer, Arjun Maini, sign up with Haas, the American-owned Formula 1 team. Maybe managing a Formula 1 driver could be next on his radar (PS: Lewis Hamilton doesn’t have one!)

When he’s free from his off-track duties, Chandhok plays the role of the Official Heritage Driver for the former multiple Formula 1 world champion team, Williams. The role actually is as cool as it sounds — Chandhok gets to drive iconic and championship winning Williams racing cars at public demonstration events (for instance, Goodwood Festival of Speed). This includes cars that the late Formula 1 great Ayrton Senna raced and won in!

File photo of Karun Chandhok. Reuters

File photo of Karun Chandhok. Reuters

But this isn’t it for Chandhok. After stints in Formula 1 and Formula E, he now focuses on his annual participation in the iconic and one of the oldest car races in world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 2017 edition will be his fifth entry in the endurance race, making him India’s Le Mans specialist. Chandhok will be racing with a rookie team, Tockwith Motorsport, which means that the team will rely on his prior Le Mans experience to deliver their best.

In this interview with Chandhok, we try and bring out his experience and vision behind participating in Le Mans, his personal targets and his favourite for overall victory (in the LMP1 class). Finally, given his expert understanding on Formula 1, we talk about the Mclaren-Honda-Alonso dream project (or nightmare) and get him to pick his winner of the 2017 Formula 1 season: Hamilton or Vettel?

FP: This is your fifth Le Mans appearance. What keeps bringing you back to this iconic race?

Chandhok: Le Mans is magical, it is the best race in the world in many ways. The challenge of it, that's so damn difficult. You’re driving in the day, in the night, the track conditions are changing, 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 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.

(Kunal Shah: We’ve started referring to Fernando Alonso as Motorsport’s disruptive force. After his crossover to the Indianapolis 500 last month, there’s suddenly more interest and focus on the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ and this includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans)

FP: However, you missed participating in 2016. What happened there?

Chandhok: There were various commercial reasons why I lost out to a couple of drivers at the last minute. Essentially there were drivers who brought sponsorship to the table and took the deal away from me which was frustrating, but that's in the past now.

(We’re glad that Karun is back at Le Mans flying the Indian tricolour!)

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

Chandhok: Realistically, I'm with a rookie team and with a rookie teammate 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 which 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 seven we would have done very well considering all this.

FP: Can you describe the paddock atmosphere at a typical Le Mans weekend?

Chandhok: I think what people underestimate is actually what happens before Saturday-Sunday. It’s a long week. You’re here for a week 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. We all stay in a driver camp site and so you have some time to chill out with other drivers.

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 every day for two or three hours to get some time alone. I can lock the doors in my little camper, read the news, a book, watch some TV shows and just get your mind off things.

FP: The much-enjoyed Audi-Porsche rivalry will be missed this year. What is that aspect of their rivalry that you will miss the most?

Chandhok: The Joest-Audi team were a very good operation who were at the top of the sport for so long and certainly the atmosphere feels very different in the paddock without them here. It's always good for the show to have lots of teams fighting it out and from that perspective it's bit of a shame.

FP: In the Toyota versus Porsche battle, who would you bet on for the 2017 race?

Chandhok: Toyota. They looked good in the test and they are due a win I think!

FP: After your LMP1 attempt in 2012, you've settled in the LMP2 category. Any reasons? Do you see yourself getting into LMP1 with a manufacturer team? Would that be the goal for an endurance racing car driver such as you?

Chandhok: I would love to have the opportunity to race in LMP1 with a manufacturer, but for a variety of reasons, the deals never quite happened. But I'm still here, pushing on in LMP2 which this year has the biggest and most competitive grid at Le Mans and the racing is really top notch and very enjoyable.

FP: You've graduated from sprint to endurance races, from racing single-seaters to sports cars. What are the key adaptations one has to make?

Chandhok: Every category is different and has its own unique challenges. F1 is the pinnacle of our sport and you had to drive every single lap of the weekend being absolutely on the limit of what the grip level was and really raise your game where every 10th of a second matters. In sports car racing, with the longer races, it takes a slightly more mature approach. Yes, you have to be quick and push hard, but you also have to be smart with traffic, look after the car, understand the strategic nuances involved and be a good team player. So it is a very different art.

(Kunal Shah: Karun has unique experience across different formulae of cars – Formula 1, Formula E and now Le Mans!)

FP: Mclaren-Honda-Fernando Alonso. How do you foresee this story to the end?

Chandhok: Probably not well. It's certainly not going well at the moment and really it's such a shame for Mclaren and Fernando.

FP: Should Mercedes help Honda? (Kunal: Ecclestone has already publicly hinted that Mercedes helped Ferrari.)

Chandhok: I don't think they would. Why would they help a competitor out? I can understand if Mercedes F1 helped Renault out as Daimler and Renault have some cross-shareholding on the corporate side, but to help Honda makes no business sense.

FP: What seems to be working for them Force India? What do you think makes them stand out from the other mid-field teams?

Chandhok: A good solid engineering work ethic led by good people like Andrew Green and Tom McCullough who do an excellent job of delivering bang for buck in terms of performance. It's very impressive to watch them over the past 18 months, especially when you see their in-season development.

FP: Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel: who is your pick for this year's championship?

Chandhok: It's going to be very tight, but I'm going to gamble and say Seb (Vettel)!

(With inputs from Kunal Shah.)


Published Date: Jun 15, 2017 04:43 pm | Updated Date: Jun 16, 2017 04:53 pm


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