This appears in the July issue of Auto India
As a fitness enthusiast, I have always leaned towards marathons as my preferred goal to work towards. Endurance and strength lie at the heart of my approach to good health. It’s not a surprise then, that my first time at Le Mans has redefined motor sport for me. It has made me a diehard fan of endurance races , somewhat spoiling the thrill I once felt for Formula 1.
How capable must an engine be to run continuously for 24 hrs? For it to not over-heat or seize altogether? How resilient must the drivers be to drive the equivalent of five formula one races each, over a single day? How alert must the support team be to the slightest aberration? Racing at Le Mans is clearly not a function of speed alone. Or having the best car. Or being the best driver. All this and more began going through my mind as I reached Le Mans to experience the historic 80-year-old race.
Nothing , however could prepare me for what I was to witness last weekend. The first thing that baffled me was the scale of the race and its following. Le Mans is a town with a population of eighty odd thousand. An additional quarter million spectators (with their cars, private planes, motors homes, dogs, tents, et al) descend on to it during race time. All these people and yet no chaos whatsoever!!
The race was several hours from starting , yet the excitement was palpable. Crowds milled about with complete disregard to the bleak drizzly weather. It was as though they were here for a carnival or fair. The atmosphere was electric. And the engines hadn’t even started. As I walked about, soaking it all in I looked up and saw the Indian flag, flying high for the very first time here at Le Mans. All thanks to Karun Chandok. It was an incredible moment that brought a lump to my throat. Later as I sat sipping tea with him in the JRM paddock, I was amazed at how calm and composed he was. His family support structure comprising of his father Vicky, brother Suhail and manager Murali were constantly by his side. I was curious about Karun’s shift from pursuing F1 to endurance racing. Vicky explained it beautifully. He said , the latter was more fulfilling, had a longer career span and didn’t depend on how much money one brought to the table. A minimum of 8 million dollars worth of sponsorship to buy a seat to race in Formula 1, that too with a team that didn’t figure in the top half of the order made no sense to me either! Here in endurance racing, Karun could put his faculties – that of being a thinker and a tactician to best use. I really really, wanted him to do well.
The start to the race wasn’t particularly dramatic. Yet I was glued to my seat. Getting to witness the greatest motorsport event live is one thing and to do so as a privileged guest of the defending champion team is another matter altogether. Excitement levels were high in the Team Audi Pavilion – they started the race at pole position, that too with a Diesel Hybird. But starts have seldom any significance in a 24 hour long race. Here it was all about consistency. Soon one grew accustomed to the sound of 55 cars in four categories racing round and round the 13km circuit. Very early in the race it became clear that this was an Audi vs Audi vs Toyota contest (Audi had 4 cars in LMP1 and Toyota 2). And just as the race got interesting with Toyota taking over the lead from Audi, it had a horrific crash with one of the GT Ferraris (both drivers escaping miraculously).
I had special feelings for the Nissan Delta Wing and hoped it survived long enough in the race. It had trouble early on in the race, spending a long time in the pit. When it was finally back, I couldn’t stop myself from clapping. But its prospects were cut short by a collision with the second Toyota , which also destroyed the latter’s prospects, eventually.
I survived the night on caffeine (I certainly wasn’t the only one). And it was well worth it. I didn’t want to miss even a bit of the excitement. I was astounded to see many people spending the night outdoors in the chill in only a sleeping bag! By morning the contest was only between the Audi Etrons and Ultras. Team Lola and JRM had also moved up. Yet a lot could still change. Lunch and more coffee followed breakfast. Team Lola had sneaked into top 4 as JRM reached number 6 (they’d started out at 12). And suddenly it was over. 24 hours had passed. The longest and most exciting 24 hours I’d spent. As I rushed off to catch my shuttle to the train station, I vowed to be back again next year. And put Daytona, Sebring and Nürburgring on the list too.