Karun Chandhok has just completed the first round of the FIA World Endurance Championship, in Sebring, Florida, USA. Partnering the hugely-experienced David Brabham and Peter Dumbreck, Karun and his team-mates brought their HPD prototype home in 17th place, after suffering a puncture, suspension damage and being caught up by an un-timely Safety Car period, despite running as high as fourth at one time.
Chandhok relished this experience. He’s not a rookie driver, in that he has competed at the highest levels of motorsport, including F1, and he’s rarely given credit for the performances he’s delivered, particularly in the lowly HRT Formula 1 team, where he was consistently the best finisher over the three seasons it has muddied-about in the championship, out-shining the likes of Bruno Senna, India’s very own Narain Karthikeyan and Daniel Ricciardo. But he’s not bitter, despite having to vacate his seat for better funded drivers.
Here, he shares with autojunction.in his experiences in his first full endurance race, and his enthusiasm at the opportunity of being the first Indian driver to actually race at the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Excerpts
AJ: Now that you've completed your first race in the FIA World Endurance Championship, talk us through the experience.
KC: It was a very enjoyable weekend actually. I was a bit nervous before going to Sebring as I didn’t fully know what to expect from the car or the format of the race weekend but overall I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. The traffic was the hardest part in the first practice session because I kept trying to find a gap to get a clear lap like you would in F1 but that clear lap never came ! David gave me the best bit of advice all weekend which was “just ignore them and pretend that you just have to take a different line every lap”. I also saw the Audi guys come past and they were so aggressive in traffic – on the grass, over the kerbs, really attacking so from the next session onwards I just changed my approach and the times started to come.
Driving at night was very cool! I was very happy with how quickly I got up to pace – on my second lap in the night practice I matched my time from the daylight and then I did the triple stint in the dark to finish the race. That was the most enjoyable part because we had lost 25 minutes with the suspension problem and it was just maximum attack – 2 hours of qualifying laps. I decided even if I couldn’t do the 1:49’s because of the traffic, even my slow laps would somehow be 1:52’s so I pushed like hell every lap. It’s been a long time since I really had fun like that in a race car.
It was a real shame we didn’t get the podium that we were so close to. After 9 hours, we had a small issue on the rear suspension which was enough to cost us 25 minutes when we were running in 3rd place. Apart from that the car was great and all three of us had enough pace to fight for ‘best of the rest’ behind the Audis.
AJ: Is it easy to find your rhythm after you jump out of the car and get back in for another stint?
KC: It’s always a bit tricky on the first couple laps because you’re not allowed tyre warmers and also the track conditions can change a bit – the track temperature through the race ranged from 23 to 43 degree Celsius but the sooner you adjust, the less time you’ll lose.
AJ: Considering the level of traffic, do you EVER manage a clean lap during the course of the actual race?
KC: No chance ! I think there was one lap 1 passed only 2 cars in the dark but unfortunately they were two GT cars at the final fast corner so they cost me 2 seconds anyway !
AJ: In terms of pure lap time, can you give us some indication of how the LMP1 sportcars compare with a Formula 1 car, around a track like Spa for example?
KC: I think the pole time last year for LMP1 at Spa was about 14 seconds away from the F1 pole so it’s quite a bit but really in this form of racing it’s about being fast through traffic whereas in typical F1 / GP2 type racing, you’re pretty processional.
AJ: You're up to be the first Indian to actually 'race' at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (pee-breaks notwithstanding!), how are you preparing mentally for that, considering it's just a couple of months away?
KC: We have Spa first but certainly doing Sebring has given me a much better idea of what to expect for Le Mans. I am my biggest critic and I know when I’ve driven badly and when I’m driving well and I felt that apart from the first practice at Sebring I was in the good zone. Considering David has been driving sportscars since 1991, I was very pleased that my pace was pretty close to his all weekend. I still have a lot to learn about the actual races and the prototype cars but it’s been a very positive start.
AJ: Are you still hopeful of an F1 comeback?
KC: Never say never ! F1 is still the pinnacle of our sport but I can’t financially afford to take the risks that some others can so we’ll see.
AJ: Would you consider making a one-off appearance at the FIA GT season finale at the Buddh Int Circuit? Any offers of a drive?
KC: I would always be interested to race anything at BIC and there have been a couple of people in touch as well as Stephan Ratel (who is the Series promoter) so we’ll see.
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