- Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Mont Dore Chambon sur Lac: when the going get's tough

I’ve never actually said a prayer before at a race weekend, but as the rain hammered down harder than I could quite believe and a river began to run underneath my car (which was on stands...), I was just moments away from my first drive up Mont Dore and clutching at straws. The last time I saw rain of this magnitude was shortly before my crash last year at Val des Terres in Guernsey, when I tore the front off my Westfield on a sea wall... I’d been warned about the Auvergne by more people than I can count on both hands, mainly for the ferocious and bi poplar nature of the weather that can scorch, drown or blow you away all in the course of an afternoon! 

Although not the longest course of the season (5km), it was by far the most daunting - you only have to look at it in plan view to realise that there is no beginning, middle or end, just one long snaking route with little to differentiate one corner from the next. Combine all this with a mercurial meteorological reputation at the best of times, and you quite literally have all the ingredients for the perfect storm. Oh and I forgot to mention that I would be there completely alone for the first time as neither Colin nor Paul would be competing - yes I know I go on about ‘enjoying a challenge’ but this was about to be a big case of be careful what you wish for...

As usual I had my initial bout of pre race hurdles to overcome, after updating the software on my iMac it greeted me on Thursday morning with the black screen of death (oh joy no onboard camera), but via some friends on Facebook I managed to fix it at the airport. Then Herve threw me another curve ball and refused to rev over 2,500 which meant that my journey time increased by over an hour and I had to crawl up the majority of the hills (more like mountains really) at 40mph. It has to be said though that I’m starting to find some masochistic satisfaction in the process of ‘winging it’, and the longer journey simply afforded me more time to gaze in wonder at the beautiful scenery that I was passing through. I’ve never been to the Auvergne before, but if I had to describe it in two words it would be Jurassic Park.

There is a wild and almost prehistoric look to the volcanic landscape - with peak after peak rising up dramatically from great plains, deep blue lakes and swathes of purple flowers mixed in with the lush green forests that pour down the sides of the mountains. I stopped a few times by the roadside to admire it all and take pictures, which perhaps partly explains my late arrival in Moneaux (I stopped in Chambon sur Lac to buy cake and water comme d’habitude). I found all the best spots were already taken, and so ended at the side of the road in a slightly remote location with no electricity to speak of and feeling rather cut off. I unloaded the car and gazebo after saying hello to a few friends, finished the sandwich I’d picked up from Prêt and settled down for the night.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, and I rose early to make my 10am appointment at the Renault garage in Mont Dore. I drove the length of the course on the way there, and eventually found them a little early after driving through the pretty heart of the little town which was bustling with tourists and hikers. I had a quick nose round an old Renault V6 Dakar car that had it’s engine semi stripped on the bench next to it. It looked very evocative sat on stands in this little mountain garage, and seemed as though it had a few stories of it’s own to tell. They pin pointed the source of the problem (lambda probe) but sadly it couldn’t be delivered until Wednesday, and so I left empty handed, at the very least equipped with a part number and plan to fix it between the next few rounds.

Moments later I bumped into my friend Sylvain who asked me If I’d brought my car for scrutineering in the town square. ‘No I didn't know about that bit’ I replied, as it suddenly dawned on me why I’d seen dozens of cars on trailers all heading in the same direction that morning... I repeated the trip after loading up, and bumped into Martine Hubert on the way home who kindly gave me a thorough lesson in a hired Clio. Being taught to drive Mont Dore in French in a left hand drive car when you’re quite dehydrated is a stern test of anyone’s concentration, but it’s extremely helpful having someone so experienced coaching you on a regular basis. We passed a few Porsche Cup cars and WTC spec Seat Leons coming in the opposite direction, no plates required in France I guess!

That evening I met Sylvain’s friend Yann who lives nearby, as he was not driving he’d kindly offered to help me over the weekend. Little did I realise how crucial this would prove to be as the weather was about to go to Defcon 1, and sure enough a group of people came over and advised me to pack the gazebo away and load everything back inside the van before nightfall. ‘It’ll be fine’ I said, thinking they’d they’d just agree. Thirty minutes later it was all done, and as I lay in bed that night with rain hammering on the roof just inches from my head I was grateful they’d been so insistent. 

The following morning Yann helped me unload, but we left the gazebo down and used the car cover instead as the wind can suddenly pick up without warning here. Not long before the first run the heavens opened just as were fitting the wets, and it was all we could do to dive inside the van and sit chatting while we waited for it to clear. Only it didn’t, it just rained and rained, harder and harder. Eventually I asked Yann if it was time to go, and with a pained expression and a nod he confirmed that it was indeed time to get wet. 

I used to be very confident driving the Westy in the rain, but this was the first time I’d really used the new car in a downpour, so I opted to take it very easy and merely drive up on what was really just a sighting lap, only with very little vision. Since the car is now running a softer setup with no rear anti roll it wasn’t as bad as I expected, although a lot of the turn in markers had now been obscured with sponsors’ banners so I eased the car along and tried to choose a steady rhythm. Run number two was better as the rain had at least stopped for the main part, although the track was still sodden. I pushed harder but was yellow flagged for the car that had spun up ahead, and sure enough started catching it as the driver had backed off meaning that I was sat right behind him for the final few corners cursing as there was no way I was going to attempt a pass. 

Still the time was ok, but on the return down the hill the heavens opened and I might has well have sat in a cold bath. The battery had given up too, and this continued to plague me throughout the weekend (along with other electrical niggles bought on by water ingress), and I was pretty rattled by the time I made it back to the van. Having Yann there to help, keep me company and cheer me up was a massive boost and I don’t honestly know if I’d have made it through the weekend had I been running everything on my own. That evening he took all my soaking wet kit home to dry it out over night (even inside my helmet was wet!), picked up some more fuel and drove me to fill the water barrel so I could get a hot shower. Time and again I’m blown away by the helpfulness and generosity of the people I’ve met this season, I can’t thank him enough really.

The evening brought huge gusts of wind that shook Herve on his springs and made me feel like I was on a boat in heavy seas, but I have to say I’m always cosy and warm in there - I love my race van so much!

Sunday dawned bright and breezy, a huge rainbow was hanging right across the sky and filled me with hope for a better day. It was 11am by the time I got my first run and the track was bone dry at last. Mont Dore is such a technical hill, with so many twist and turns that can be confused in an instant that you have to be incredibly focussed to remember your way up it. It’s so easy to loose yourself momentarily, at which point you’re suddenly dealing purely with what’s happening in the moment and simultaneously trying to place where you were and remember what’s round the corner - like an actor forgetting his lines and searching desperately for a clue as to what comes next. When this happens you realise that the last corner was meant to be flat, you’re fast approaching a hairpin offline and in the wrong gear, and you’ve just lost a big chunk of time. It’s generally accepted that it takes three years to really be able to drive hard here.

Run two was dry and looking good, albeit my gear indicator was playing up so the screen was reading 5th when was in 1st. I pushed harder and had a pretty clean run which took 5 secs off my previous time to post a 2:51:28, literally driving through the clouds in the final bends. On the way back down there was a rainbow that was stretched flat like an elongated stripe, and it shone through the mist in the valley. I’ve never seen anything like that before and it was so beautiful, but it also signalled the fact it had rained below and our final run would be on a drying track. I was as determined as ever to try and get into the 40’s but as I came through the trees after the first hairpin it looked very slippery so I backed off, losing quite a bit of time and knowing that I’d struggle to make it back. Sure enough I slipped back down to a 2:54, and was a bit flumouxed to see that some of the class had gone quicker, but then the car was in one piece and when I consider the scope for disaster I was happy with how I’d driven and handled what was undoubtedly the toughest race of the season so far. Click here to see the final run from Sunday.

At times I’d really had to ask myself a few questions about what I was doing there, there were moments when it looked bleak and I had to dig deep to focus on the job in hand and keep my mind in the right place. Despite everything it was actually a fantastic feeling to finish knowing that I’d driven as well as I could under the conditions, and the very fact that it had been so challenging only made the weekend more memorable in the end. It has however made me realise that if I want to to improve significantly next season, I need to have some support with me - as without Yann there’s no way I could have applied myself 100%.
You can see highlights from the weekend in the AH Video Concept movie by clicking here

I flew back today (Monday), and am very excited to be getting back on a plane this Thursday to compete in the FIA European Hillclimb Championship round at St Ursanne les Rangiers in Switzerland. Although shorter, it’s an incredibly fast and spectacular course with much of it flat in 5th & 6th gear through woods with very little to reference one corner from the next. I was mindful of getting the car there in one piece all weekend, and I’m super excited to be entered under the sponsorship of Tectri SA who have generously arranged my entry. From there I’ll be going directly to Chamrousse in the Alps for a week’s break with some trail running and hiking and the penultimate round of the championship. 

Miraculously Herve ran without fault all the way back from the Auvergne, so I fingers crossed for a swift journey to Switzerland!

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