Race Against Time: 24 Hours of Le Mans
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By: Karun Chandhok |
The 24 hours of Le Mans is one of the greatest races in the world. With 56 cars competing in the event, the finishers will complete a distance equal to 16 Formula 1 races over the 24 hours. It is the toughest and therefore the most prestigeous endurance racing event on the planet attracting nearly 300,000 spectators every year. With all the magic and charm when things are going well, comes a hugely draining and frustrating experience when things aren’t.
I went back to Le Mans this year for the third time. It’s been a real honour for me to have been the only Indian so far to compete at this great race and this year I went back with the same Murphy Protoypes team that I competed with in 2013. The team is owned by Greg Murphy, an Irishman with a sense of humour and a passion for the sport that mirrors my own. I had a great time with Greg and his band of merry Irishmen last year and this season we went back with a real chance of a result.
In the two European Le Mans races at Silverstone and Imola, we were in great shape and looked good for a win on both occasions but for reliability issues to cost us. The 24 hours was our chance to make it third time lucky. The whole build up to Le Mans was going well and in pretty much every test and practice session leading up to the race, we were in the top 3. My team-mates for this year were Nathaneal Berthon and Rodolfo Gonzales, two GP2 drivers who I knew well but were both rookies at Le Mans. I was lucky that when I went there as a rookie in 2012 I had Peter Dumbreck and David Brabham as team mates who had done 25 Le Mans starts between them and showed me the ropes. I tried as much as possible to play the senior driver role with Rodolfo and Nat, and I think they respected me enough to take my advice.
It was a very strange build up to the race this year. The track had been re-surfaced in a few parts and the cornering speeds and lap times were unbelievably fast. This meant that we also saw a lot of big accidents with top drivers like Loic Duval and James Calado being ruled out of the race due to injuries. Our only wobble of the build up came during the final qualifying session when I had an accident at 260 kmh going into the Indianapolis corner. It was a weird shunt to be honest as I was more or less through the corner but the rear of the car just snapped sharply out of line and put me into the wall. I thought something had broken and the team and I were lulucky that the car snapped so sharply to the right so I hit the barrier square on.
The guys did a great job to get the car fixed so we lined up 6th on the grid. Berthon started for us and made a safe start so when we swapped seats after 80 minutes, we were in 8th place. The heavens opened and I asked the team for intermediate tyres. After a few laps under the safety car, the racing resumed and I steadily moved up into third place. The car was working well but all of a sudden a torrential thunder storm exploded on one part of the track. The safety car came out so I slowed right down as I approached the wet part. All of a sudden, on the Mulsanne straight, the standing water got undrrneath the car and lifted it off the road so neither the steering or brakes would work. The car turned into a canoe and floated down the track toward the barrier. That in itself would have been fine but as I looked right, the car following me had exactly the same problem and came floating into me destroying the front suspension of both cars. It was a massive disappointment but to be honest, I’ve played the incident out a hundred times in my head but I can’t think of anything I could have done differently in that instance. Eight cars got caught out in that storm and it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We got the car fixed and I went back out after a couple hours by which time the sun had dried the track out. The car was brilliant and I set the fastest lap of the race at that point by a massive 7 tenths of a second ! We retired the car later in the night after some further suspension issues. As my friend Alex Wurz said, “You don’t win Le Mans, it lets you win sometimes” and this time just wasn’t our year.
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