Veteran racer Karthikeyan hoping to put Indian stamp at Le Mans

Narain Karthikeyan may be one of the most recognisable names in Indian motorsports but when he gets into the cockpit at the Dubai Autodrome for Racing Team India in the first round of the 2021 Asian Le Mans Series, the former Formula 1 driver will be a relative newbie of the team.

Karthikeyan, along with Arjun Maini and Naveen Rao, is driving for the all-Indian team in the series, the first round of which will take place at the Dubai Autodrome in two four-hour races on February 13 and 14.

“I have experience but am relatively new to endurance racing. The biggest thing is all of us have different heights and we have to use the same seat. So we have to compromise a little bit over there,” Karthikeyan told IANS from the Dubai on Thursday, pausing as he spoke while cars from other teams roared past him on the track.

Racing Team India is on the track at the moment, fine-tuning their car and doing their pre-season tests.

Karthikeyan, 44, had briefly competed for the Kolles Le Mans Team in 2009 while Maini competed in the full season of the 2019 European Le Mans Series, including the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans in France. Rao is the reigning champion in the 2020 IMSA Prototype Challenge and had his first outing in the LMP (Le Mans Prototype) 2 car, the prototype car that Racing Team India will use, at the 12 Hours of Sebring in November last year.

The LMP 2 class is the highest in the Asian Le Mans series and Racing Team India will be one of six teams competing in the category in Dubai.

Karthikeyan, who was the first Indian to compete in Formula 1, said that the three drivers are currently working to get up to speed with how the car is reacting to the challenging Dubai track. This is the first time that LMP2 cars will be competing at the Dubai Autodrome and its location in the desert means that conditions can change drastically over the course of the race.

“As a team we need a car that works for all of us. We have to use whatever information we can get and try to get the drivers up to speed and for that we need to help each other. It suddenly becomes a team sport instead of one that is based on individuals so that part is quite different,” said Karthikeyan.

“This track is pretty unique. It started off with not a single grain of sand on the track and then it evolves during the practice sessions. We are trying to get the car on a stable platform. In endurance races you need a car which is not on the edge all the time and is conveniently designed which is what we are trying to do at the moment,” he further said.

The series then moves to the second and final leg Abu Dhabi where two four-hour races will be held on February 19 and 20.

The equation is simple for the teams — the winner of the Asian Le Mans series gets an automatic entry into France’s iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans. Considered one of the toughest races in the world, the 24 hours of Le Mans is one of the oldest active sportscar races, being organised since 1923 at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Unlike in Formula 1, where all cars in the grid are competing against each other, teams enter cars in four categories at Le Mans, leading to grids often extending to over 50 cars.

While teams only compete against those that are in the same category as them, the fact remains that cars have to make their way around the crowded track.

Karthikeyan, Maini and Rao are driving Oreca 07 LMP2 prototype — the set up that United Autosports used at last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans on their way to victory in the LMP2 class.

“Twenty-four hours of Le Mans is like the whole F1 championship in 24 hours. It is all about endurance, preserving the car and working as a team. The pit stops need to be right, there are driver changes… the challenges are so many. We have to drive at night at nearly 400 kmph lap after lap, going through traffic… these are very unique challenges and it is the toughest race in the world without a doubt,” said Karthikeyan.

“We are all experienced but nothing prepares you for Le Mans. At the end of the day, a little bit of luck will play a role. We are up for it and to represent India, racing with an Indian licence is something to be very proud for all of us in the motorsports fraternity,” he outlined.