- Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Beaujolais Villages: It's good to be back!

Intense. That’s how I’d describe the two and a bit weeks that have followed St-Gouëno, I’d possibly add exhausting into the mix too. Despite me thinking that there was ample time to source, repair & fit all the parts required, it all came down the wire and I only loaded the car into the trailer on Monday at 10pm. On the positive side it’s been a good opportunity to learn more about it and how to set up the geometry, although having said all that it’s really not an exercise I can of afford to repeat this season (both financially and in terms of logistics as the car will now stay in France) so I have to proceed with a dash of caution from now on.

It took me all of Wednesday evening to finish packing my kit into the van as I needed to double check I’d not forgot anything, so it was another late night as I crashed into bed, running on fumes as usual. I’d been to a wedding party on Saturday and whilst collecting a dress I’d pre-ordered early that morning, I was lucky to spot a big black mark across my shoulders while trying it on in the fitting room. I’d no idea it was there (I was crawling around under the car on Friday night) but luckily I managed to remove it before the party as it would have looked a bit random!
Despite having burnt all my midnight oil though, I was absolutely determined to get to Beaujolais Villages come Thursday - at 4km it’s the longest hill I’ve ever driven with fast 6th gear sections and all set in amazing scenery. For me this is how I imagine a picture perfect European hillclimb to be, and the reality was even better than I’d hoped for. I had what is becoming my usual ‘will I make it’ hiccup 20 miles from the Chunnel when my van lost all power and slowed to a crawl. I phoned a friend who told me to turn it off & on again (of course!) while rolling and thankfully this cured the problem (sticky turbo). I was then told I couldn’t use my ticket at the check in as I was not a motorhome, but I think the look of iminent physiological meltdown on my face saved the day as I tried to show them that Herve has a shower and windows.

Arriving in Calais just after 7pm I made good time and managed to get past Reims (which is pronounced ‘rance’) by midnight and pulled over in a service station for the night. Up at 7am the next morning I travelled through the Champagne region, Dijon & Besançon before the first signs of mountains loomed into view. Gripped by the smell of adventure, any fatigue was long gone and I was surprised how fresh I felt as I began to wind my way up tight switchbacks through little villages before I arrived in Marchampt to the familiar site of liveried trucks and gazebos popping up like daisies.
I spotted a friend on his motorbike and followed him down to one of the paddocks and the spot that he’d kindly marked out for me the day before. It was a beautiful day and after unloading the car I followed Paul Buckingham & Colin Le Maitre up the hill on my scooter to get a first look at it. Although useful for learning the sequence of corners, YouTube never prepares you for gradients & cambers, let alone the breathtaking view as you reach the finish line and look back down on the village in the crease of the valley below. At that moment you know all the hard work and late nights were worth it, it really feels like I’m living in a dream at times.

After ten or so runs that afternoon, Martine Hubert kindly offered to take me up the hill in a car she’d managed to borrow and show my the lines, turn in & braking points. She drives a Norma prototype in class CN3 with the most incredible sounding BMW 3ltr 6, and it was reassuring to be shown the right way to drive what is a very fast and demanding hill. Following advice from other FR drivers I softened the car a lot that evening, changing the springs and damper rates in the hope of making the car more forgiving and easier to drive. I’d had some good chats with Ski Academy Switzerland and had a plan worked out, part of which was to go at a steady pace all of Saturday and focus on my lines until I was happy to up the pace on Sunday, rebuilding confidence in the car as I went.

I got up early the morning and ran the hill on foot, stopping to look at each corner and cement Martine’s pace notes in my head (as well as catch my breath!), I just hoped I’d be able to recall most of it once I got going. The course starts with an uphill section into a bumpy braking zone for a very tight hairpin that has an imposing granite wall on the exit. Not famed for it’s turning circle, I was apprehensive about getting round it and sure enough it took me quite a few goes to get it right as I would end up crawling to a stop and coasting past the final few inches of wall before accelerating. Thankfully a chap called Martin Jones had video’d some of my lines through it (he was on holiday touring the region) and this helped immensely - the transition from no lock to full lock has to be instant if you want to get a good run round the corner as any initial half turns just see you pushing too wide. As I thought the hill is a real test of your nerves, there are several corners that can be taken flat (apparently...) in say 5th & 6th gear which while you know the car should do it, committing fully requires some serious courage and I did feather on a few of them. On one occasion I cut a bit too much corner and the car hopped over a bump on the inside... you can imagine your adrenalin is running off the scale!
Saturday finished well, my two timed runs were down on the rest of the 12 strong class but this was to be expected - following St-Gouëno I just wanted to build my speed gradually and get familiar with the softer setup. Come Sunday morning I pushed harder in free practice and felt comfortable to ramp up the pace, there is just so much to remember and get right that it’s like trying to recite a poem in your head as you simultaneously drive and control the car. With the sequential box I have to try and keep a mental record of where I am so I know how many downshifts I’m doing for each corner, looking down at the display is just dangerous. Next season I’m going to get big digital readout installed right in front of the wheel which would be a huge help. 

Sadly my camera packed up again so I only have practice day clips, which is a shame as on my first competition run I knocked 6 secs off. I managed to take another second off on the next to finish on a 1:53, which given the circumstances I was happy with, the majority of the class seemed to be hovering around 1:49 - 1:50 with the top guys posting a couple of 1:47’s. I’d hoped for a 1:52 but the final run was a little slower despite feeling like I’d pushed a little more. Crucially the car was in one piece and I’d certainly given it my best shot so there were a lot of positives to take, along with the fact that the FR now feels much more stable and drivable at speed.

Les Dames de classe DE7! Estel, Sarah et moi :D
Returning back down the hill after the final run was a memory I’ll never forget, the views into the valley, the crowds of people  walking home in the road, all waving, clapping and smiling as we wound our way to the village. After the podium for the top three drivers and the champagne that inevitably got sprayed everywhere (I’m learning to stand back!) we all headed to the bar for a few cold drinks, my relief to be still in my overalls & smiling was tenfold. I wish I’d had my phone to capture the scene in the village at this point - race cars enthusiastically picking their way through the crowds as they return from parc fermé, trucks squeezing by and all mixed in with people cheering and enjoying a beer in the early evening sunshine, just fantastic.

AH Video Concept have captured all the highlights from the weekend, you can catch all the action by clicking here to watch the video.

That evening I joined some friends for dinner in their motorhome, I wasn’t flying home until mid afternoon on Monday which turned out to be handy as we had quite a late finish. The next morning I set off for Lyon and picked my way up a mountain to descend the other side into an amazing vista as you could see for miles, it’s so beautiful I just didn’t want to leave at that moment. By mid afternoon I was off my flight and on a train home ordering a new camera, it feels slightly surreal coming back to a cold, drizzling England and picking up my mail at home.

That said it’s only a fortnight until Vuillafans Echevannes, which is 5km and apparently even faster (long, flat parabolic corners changing up from 4th to 6th) so I’d best get on Youtube and do some homework!

1 comment:

  1. Well done.

    As for the "...it's not a motorhome". Well. what is a motorhome in your eyes? It has a motor, it has a bed and you sleep in it!

    Is the rate for a camper van lower?

    Jobsworths eh!?