Preview: Arjun Maini takes on Le Mans 24 Hours

Rachit Thukral

and subsequent switch to a full-time TV commentary role, few were expecting another Indian driver to grace the greatest race on Earth anytime soon - there simply wasn’t a driver high enough in the sportscar ladder to get a shot.

, with an additional outing at Le Mans to prove himself against the very best in the field.

Naturally, an unexpected shift to a completely different beast of prototype cars wasn’t going to be easy, but Maini seems to have adapted well to the change.

After getting some testing in RLR MSport’s newly-acquired Oreca 07 chassis during the pre-season, Maini turned heads in the season opener at Paul Ricard, and was one of the quickest drivers in the field on the basis of average stint times.

So impressed was the team with his pace that it let Maini qualify for the second round at Monza, despite it having the experienced Bruno Senna in its line-up.

#43 RLR M Sport / Tower Events Oreca 07 Gibson: Arjun Maini

#43 RLR M Sport / Tower Events Oreca 07 Gibson: Arjun Maini Nikolaz Godet

Nikolaz Godet

The opening two rounds of the season have served the purpose of preparing Maini for his biggest race appearance yet, but it’s fair to assume that it won’t all be smooth sailing for the 21-year-old.

For starters, Maini will get limited track time to learn the majestic 13.6km circuit during practice and qualifying - and even fewer running in the night hours that are known to be crucial in deciding the outcome of the race.

Then there’s the added aspect of traffic. While Maini has already got some experience of overtaking GTE traffic, for the first time he’ll also have to give way to faster LMP1 cars.

It’s not uncommon to see an LMP2 driver try to lap a GTE car at Le Mans, while simultaneously clearing the track to let an LMP1 car pass by. Traffic management, particularly in low-visibility night hours, is likely going to be his biggest challenge in his maiden Le Mans outing.

Plus, Maini is part of a relatively inexperienced team. RLR may have proven credentials, including an LMP3 title, but it has had no presence at Le Mans since 2016, when it raced under the Murphy Prototypes banner.

LMP2 cars have changed exponentially since then and the team didn’t get hold of one of the new generation cars until the start of the 2019 ELMS season earlier this year.

Then there’s the question about the driver line-up. RLR was confident of a star signing to replace Bruno Senna, who has to vacate his seat due to a pre-existing contract with the Rebellion LMP1 team.

Former Porsche star Brendon Hartley was widely linked to an RLR drive, before he took up a reserve role for Toyota.

With Hartley no longer an option, RLR opted for Norman Nato, a Formula 2 convert who has already won multiple ELMS races and has raced at Le Mans before, but is arguably still too inexperienced to lead a team’s charge.

And finally, there’s the third driver in the team, John Farano. The 59-year-old is one of the few bronze-rated drivers in the field and could well be the weak link in the team’s line-up.

The way the three gel together, and how their shifts are managed through the 24 hours, could well go a long way in determining the final order in the twice-round-the-clock enduro.

Stiff competition

#36 Signatech Alpine Matmut Alpine A470: Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao, Pierre Thiriet

#36 Signatech Alpine Matmut Alpine A470: Nicolas Lapierre, Andre Negrao, Pierre Thiriet Marc Fleury

Marc Fleury

While Maini and RLR have held their own against the ELMS field in the two races so far, with eighth being their best finish, the competition at Le Mans will be at quite another level.

Apart from renowned ELMS teams such as G-Drive, Le Mans’ LMP2 field also comprises full-season WEC entrants, including Signatech Alpine and Jackie Chan DC Racing.

Some of these teams have been competing at Le Mans, in one guise or another, for decades, and beating them will be a tough ask.

Although, given it’s Maini’s debut outing, the most he’d be hoping for is seeing the chequered flag dropped.

Le Mans is known to be notoriously difficult for reliability, with the 24 hour format testing the limits of the car. It’s nearly impossible to go the full distance without any niggles - and the possibility of crashes in a 62-car field only increases the chances of extended repair sessions in the garage.

Fortunately, Oreca’s new 07 car has proven to be reliable - as well as faster that its Ligier counterpart. That could well be the RLR’s biggest strength - and something Maini and his teammates should take full advantage of.

Maini has taken a bold decision to step in the unknown in his pursuit of a Formula 1 career. Given all the variables, the final race result may end up being inconsequential. But how he performs behind the wheel in a new environment could well determine his long-term future.