Exclusive interview with Karun Chandhok
28-year-old Karun Chandhok is one of the most promising drivers yet to emerge from India, and has won a lot of fans over his past two seasons in Formula 1, first as a race driver with HRT and then test driver with Team Lotus (now Caterham). Unusually for a contemporary professional racing driver, he has a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the history of the sport and has put this to good use by doing extensive media work alongside his racing. For 2012, the search for a regular race seat has led him to the World Endurance Championship and JRM Racing. We caught up with the sportscar newcomer at Spa-Francorchamps following his strong debut showing at Sebring, where the British team's HPD ran in a podium position for much of the race...
Are you enjoying sportscar racing so far?
I think WEC is the next-best option outside of F1.
“Yeah, it's different and fun. It's a lot more relaxed, the people are nicer and there's a lot less politics. Although nothing will ever compare to the experience of driving an F1 car, in terms of the racing, I'm really enjoying it. The wheel-to-wheel stuff in WEC is good, it's very enjoyable.
How did the JRM deal come about?
“Well, I was chasing a race drive for this year. After a year as a reserve driver, I'd got to the stage where I had to get back to racing something for the sake of my career – I couldn't do another year on the sidelines. Unfortunately, the reality in F1 today is that if you haven't got £10million, you're not doing anything. So I started looking at other options. I think WEC is the next-best option outside of F1. They're quick cars with a lot of downforce, there are some great circuits on the calendar and the quality of drivers is very high, especially in LMP1. James Rumsey [JRM's team boss] got in contact with me via e-mail. I liked his vision – as soon as he told me David Brabham and Peter Dumbreck were on board, I was impressed. We shook hands on a deal and I went home and discussed it with my dad. I was a bit confused because the team agreed to everything I asked for! The contract arrived and I sent it to my lawyer. I said to him ‘there's something wrong here – this is the first time there hasn't been a single clause I want to negotiate’. I'm almost missing the arguments you have about F1 contracts.”
How satisfied were you with your performance in Sebring?
“It was my first sportscar race at this level, my first time driving a prototype and straight away I was as quick as David. It was also my first time driving at night properly, and again I was quick there, so I was very encouraged by what I was able to achieve. We had a great race for the first nine hours and 27 minutes! But for a car that didn't do any testing beforehand and missed the Sebring Monday and Tuesday tests to only have one suspension problem for the entire race, with nothing else going wrong, is pretty impressive.”
How are you finding working with your team-mates Brabham and Dumbreck?
“They're good blokes and we've managed to spend a little bit of time together now, both in Florida and in the simulator. It's quite different to F1: these guys have been there and done that and they're a little bit older, so they don't have the insecurity you get with F1 drivers. To be honest, I think I still have that. I still need to understand the mentality that in this discipline of racing, the more you help your team-mate, the better it is for everyone. In F1, you always hold a little bit back from your team-mate, as you want to beat them. So I'm getting better, but it's quite nice having team-mates that little bit more relaxed.”
What are the main differences between driving F1 and LMP1?
“Weight and power, simply. The HPD weighs 400kg more and produces 200bhp less than an F1. So everything happens a little slower. But the prototypes are still very enjoyable to drive, as they produce a lot of downforce from the underbody. And Spa is always a great circuit to drive, whatever the car.”
Is it more satisfying to be close to the sharp end here rather than at the back of the grid in F1?
“It's different isn't it? I've always believed that in motorsport, although you always want to win, you're racing against your circumstances. In F1, if you're in a Red Bull, Ferrari or McLaren, you have to win. If you're in a Force India, getting a podium is a victory. If you're in a Caterham or HRT, then advancing to Q2 or scoring a point is a victory. It's the same for JRM. In a straight fight, we're never going to beat the Audis. Who knows what Toyota will be like, but you have to assume they'll be somewhere in the mix, too. So we're racing for best of the rest.”
Have you spoken to any other sportscar converts from F1?
“Anthony Davidson is the one who really got me into sportscar racing. I've known him for many years and when I was doing the BBC's F1 radio commentary with him he said, 'You've got to do sportscars – it's such a good laugh and you'll have such a great time.' He was really loving it with Peugeot and that got me thinking it could be good fun. He was right – it is!”
Have you ever been to Le Mans before, even as spectator?
“No, never, the whole thing will be new to me. Even Sebring was a bit confusing, so I'm really going to be screwed at Le Mans! I don't know when to sleep, when to eat or even when I'm supposed to arrive in France. But once I deliver in the car, everything else will fall into place.”