- Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Vuillafans Échevannes: Feeling the heat

Apart from lying on a beach somewhere exotic, I can honestly say I’ve never been so hot as sitting in my hot car, in full nomex and helmet with the outside temperature nudging over 40 degrees. Taking your mind off the fact that you are so hot and concentrating on the mountain that lies in front of you is a challenge in itself, and what a mountain it is. I must have drank 3 or 4 litres of water each day and staying cool was just never an option, at times it felt like an endurance event. Was it all worth it? I think the picture below should answer that question...

Such is the regularity of the my pre race mishap that I’m actually waiting for it to happen each time now, like Groundhog day without Bill Murray or anything funny at all in fact. On Monday I learnt that French air traffic control had scheduled a 48hr strike, starting on Thursday which was the just the day I was due to fly - oh joy. I looked into various plan B options (£300 on the train!), but then at the last moment fate stepped in (or possibly a union) and the strike was lifted on Wednesday afternoon. “Fab news” I thought, everything will be fine now... 

It was a scorching hot day as I touched down in Lyon, feeling pretty jet set as I strode across the baking tarmac. I got a lift to collect the van which started first time, upon which I gave Herve a loving pat on the dash to set off in the direction of Besançon. Now some of you may remember the issue I experienced a couple of weeks ago when the engine suddenly lost 50% of its power, that was easily fixed by turning the engine on and off?

Well it returned, with a vengeance after nearly two hours of driving. Initially the remedy worked, but the frequency increased and before long I was stuck crawling at 50km/h (on a hill I went down to 20...) as  the old on/off trick wasn't working anymore. I pulled off at a Super U to get supplies, thinking maybe Herve needed some timeout, but he then refused to start and I was starting to get worried as my 7pm ETA looked unlikely. I called Philippe Prost,  president of ASA Sequanie who run the event to ask advice. We’d spoken quite a bit on email and he’d kindly been the first person to tell me the strike had been lifted. I pulled over at a Peugeot garage who said they could help if necessary, but it turned out there was a Renault garage just 7km from Vuillafans in Ornans so I soldiered onwards and upwards, into the mountains, the sound of cow bells chiming over the warm breeze, my plan being to unload that evening and take the van in first thing the next morning.

I picked my way down into Vuillafans and my ears popped as I turned the final few bends to see the picture postcard village in the base of the valley before me. All my worries vanished at this moment, I was so happy to be there and in surely the most beautiful setting for a motor race anyone outside of Gran Turismo has ever dreamt of. As luck would have it I turned a corner to happen straight upon Paul & Colin with whom I set up camp in lovely little courtyard, just by the banks of the river. As someone who has a great love of mountainous scenery and the outdoors, I just can't get over some of the places I’m getting to race at this season - Vuillafans is the highlight so far. We went for a few cold drinks before unloading and had a BBQ, it’s hard to worry much in a place like this.

The next morning I phoned Renault Ornans at 8am sharp and I think I did a fairly good job of explaining the nature of the problem, they said I could come straight in so I drove the short distance along the route of the river. Philippe met me there and drove me back to the village as planned so I could spend the morning driving the hill on my scooter. In the cool of the morning I must have made four or five trips up before sessioning some of the longer and more complex bends, namely the long parabolic (flat) left and the long right, both of which can be seen clinging to the side of the mountain from the final hairpin as you look back down into the valley below. As usual I’d done my homework on YouTube but nothing prepares you for the full fat effect of 3D, gradients, bumps, gravelled sections (yes really!) and the shear length of a 4.8km hill. At some point during the previous week around half a dozen patches had been tarred and gravelled - braking zones, corner exits, there was going to be a lot of gravel flying around come Saturday morning...

At lunch time I changed the throttle cable in the car for the replacement I’d brought with me, a massive improvement that meant the on/off feel at low revs was long gone, but even in the shade of my gazebo I was absolutely baking and decided to put a bikini on and go for a swim in the river. It was ice cold but so nice, and I went in again early that evening as the heat was just relentless.

Martine Hubert kindly took me for a few guided trips up to point out the lines, the do’s and the don’ts and this all helped me to build a picture of how I was going to approach my first few runs come Saturday. One lesson that I learn time and again at each hill is that no matter how much you prepare yourself, that first run is always a blur as you try to regurgitate all of your pace notes whilst simultaneously trying control, place and brake the car. Gears I leave until run number two, on run number one I just try to go with the flow and pick a pace that I doesn’t spook me too much, which is easier said than done at Vuillafans! 

I have to thank Philippe for taking me back to collect my van from repair once more that evening, it turned out to be a blocked fuel filter and the bill was fairly minor so I thanked my lucky stars (comme d’habitude) and went to meet some friends. Somebody pointed out that I’d been making an unfortunate habit of expressing myself by confusing “j’ai chaud” with “je suis chaud” - the former means “I’m hot”, the later conveys a fairly adventurous desire for bedroom action, not the best thing to say in reply to a greeting by a group of French drivers!

Despite a few final scooter runs on Saturday I was apprehensive about the first run - the heat was into the high 30’s and the tarmac in the paddock was sticky underfoot to such and extent that people were pouring water over it places where it was ripping up under race tyres (I lost a flip flop once or twice). I did at least have the benefit of a new camera, which turned out to be an excellent choice and one I’d really recommend to anyone looking for a decent bullet cam - the Roadhawk Ride R + is a really easy to use and very adjustable as it comes with it’s own software you can use to configure it on your laptop. Nonetheless it was a pretty hairy run as there was gravel pinging up everywhere, literally bouncing of the car, my helmet - it was like being shot at the whole way up and the car wasn’t finding much grip. Getting out of the car and making my way to the bar at the top of the hill (yes really) I felt pretty shell shocked and unsure how I was going to attack it as there would be only one more run that day and no practice on Sunday... everyone was saying the same thing though - gravel & no grip, tyres going off, so I consoled myself that we’d all had a bit of a mare and set about cleaning the Avons for run two. This went much better and I took ten seconds off to post a 2:23 - some of the gravel had cleared but with another hot day forecast everyone was saying the first run would be the quickest tomorrow as the heat would soon take the edge off the times... no pressure.

Calmed by the cool of the morning I got off to a good start the next day and made my objective of breaking the 2:20 barrier to do a 2:18 dead, and although I’d not set the camera to record in time I’d managed to count my gears all the way and take the right line up the hill. The long left hander is just incredible, you approach flat in 5th to go round the first section without lifting before braking and dropping down a gear to turn in and then nail it flat all the way round and back into 5th, keeping tight on the inside to keep clear of the bumps round the outside. Likewise the big right above is similar as you have to keep your foot down on the way in until the stone wall becomes the railings, it’s hard to master both the line and more importantly your own sense of self preservation that is telling you to back off, but it’s a massive rush that goes on and on until you reach the finish and breathe a huge sigh of relief - what a hill.

My second and final run came late in the day due to a crash that meant the third run was abandoned. Annoyingly I bogged down on the line, there was so much rubber laid down that it was hard to overcome the huge amounts of grip. In hindsight I wish I’d just redlined the car as I think this would have probably have worked, either way I think I lost a second. At least this helped the red mist and I really went for it, admittedly I still held back slightly on some corners I wanted to take flat but I have some big races to come and I need seat time right now, no heroics in 2015. It was a tidy run though and despite the poor start I finished on a 2:17:2 to place 7th in class out of 10 - not bad going after four ascents. 

You can see the AH Video Concept highlights from weekend by clicking on this link.

By the time I’d packed up and been to prize giving it was pretty late into the evening, all things considered I wasn’t too sad to miss out on a third run - everybody looked shattered and we were all longing for a shower and our beds. Storm clouds were rolling in and that evening I sat in my van with the door open watching an incredible lightning display as it crept closer and closer, the thunder physically shaking the van. It took out the power and cloaked the village in complete darkness just as the heavy rain started, I love watching a big storm and fell fast asleep watching it from the comfort of my bed despite the din inside. The next morning I woke to find that quite a lot of water had blown in and soaked the bed, clearly I was dead to the world and nothing could have woken me as the elements waged a war outside. I reluctantly waved Vuillafans goodbye and set sail for Lyon, stopping for a coffee and a cake midway.

I was just thinking what a perfect weekend I’d had when suddenly the van lost half its power only a stone’s throw from my drop off point - aaaargh!! It might just be a hiccup, but the thought of a prolonged drive to Mont Dore at 40km/h made me grimace. Thankfully there’s a Renault garage there so I have their number at the ready… On Tuesday I phoned the garage in Ornans and spoke to the mechanic, he said something about ‘du merde dans le reservoir peut être’ so I may have to get the fuel tank drained if the problem recurs.

But I’m as undeterred as ever, in fact I’m trying to get an entry for the FIA European round at St Ursanne Les Rangiers in Switzerland this August. It’s an extremely fast hill and one that I always planned to do one day, if I can manage to cram it in this year it would be incredible, even if I have to drive there very slowly!

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Charlie, and pictures. Hopefully Herve your van won't give you any more trouble!