- Thursday, 27 August 2015

St Ursanne Les Rangiers: a dream come true

Sometimes there are rare moments in life when everything just comes together at the right instant - the stars are correctly aligned in the heavens, karma is repaying you a favour, and the world turns for you. I hesitate to sound melodramatic, but the weekend that just passed has truly been one of the most unforgettable times in my life. 

Long since I started hillclimbing, I was watching videos on YouTube from all over Europe and wishing as you do that one day it could be me hurtling up a mountain road in something racey & exotic. Of all the videos I watched, there was one name that came up time and again, and embedded itself firmly in my brain - St Ursanne les Rangiers in Switzerland. There’s the iconic viaduct that you drive under, les Grippons where the cars hurl themselves flat out through a kink at faintly unbelievable speeds, the forest that throws corner after unrelenting corner at you like a roller coaster and finally the hairpins that give you that last minute test of nerves on your brakes. Frankly it has everything, including a history that dates back to 1926, and once a year it hosts a round of the FIA European Hillclimb Championship.

It all started over a few drinks at Vuillafans when I realised that being the weekend before Chamrousse I would only need to take two extra days holiday having already booked the week off to go hiking in the mountains. Some friends pointed out that (contrary to my understanding) I didn't need an international licence, and before I knew it I had an amazing sponsor (Tectri SA) who kindly arranged my entry! I booked my flight with Easyjet as usual and inked out a couple of extra days on the holiday calendar at work when no one was looking, the rest was simple. Thankfully I’ve found a cunning solution to Herve’s engine trouble which works 90% of the time and requires keeping the revs between 2,000 - 2,500, I was thankful as it’s a 4 hour drive from Lyon and all the garages I tried to book for the repair where full or had some other excuse. I texted my friend Fabien en route who kindly met me on arrival - driving under the viaduct was a surreal feeling as I just couldn’t believe I was really here! I was joining Team Macracer for the weekend and so we all went for meal that evening before I got a lift to my hotel, which made pleasant change from the confines of the van...
We were looking at a pretty mixed forecast for the weekend, rain was a certainty but at least I’d had time to experience the car at the calmer speeds of Mont Dore the weekend before. Indeed after the previous weekend at Mont Dore I was feeling less rattled by the prospect of driving in the wet, albeit the speeds at St Ursanne (5km) would be the some of the highest this season. We were parked next to a large factory, some way from the start but with the protection of a large covered area which would certainly make life easier. I set to prepping the car and fitting the battery charger to overcome the issues from Mont Dore, before getting ready to go and drive the hill on the scooter. I wasn’t relishing the task as it was soaking wet outside, and as if by magic my friend kindly asked if I’d prefer to use his 911 instead. ‘Of course that would be very nice, thank you’ I said, and off we went. Although the scooter is better than nothing, I’m quickly realising that it’s best used for zipping around the paddock - driving the hills in a car makes a big difference to my ability to learn a line, especially when you have an experienced racer sat with you. The forest part is by far the hardest to master, if you come into a sector off line you loose a lot of time - just search for David Hauser GP2 on YouTube and you’ll understand what I’m talking about!
That evening we all went for a meal once more and it was a chance to meet the other members of the team, which is really like a large family. It’s always a pleasure to be invited into the fold and join a fun group like this, and we all had a great time even if I did regret suggesting grappa as a digestif the next morning...
Saturday dawned bright and dry, with a big entry the first cars were already making their way up the hill at 7am while I was still comfy in my bed. I was nervous and had the butterflies flapping in my stomach as I lined up in pre grille. Seeing cars in the metal that morning that I’d seen countless times on the internet (Bruno Ianello, Simone Fagiolli, David Hauser) felt a little like walking on to a film set, I was a little starstruck to be driving alongside them but thankfully the support provided by the Macracer machanics (Killian & Loic) helped me to relax and focus on my driving. Having our own chef on hand to cook an incredible Paella at lunch was fantastic, and an endless supply of expressos helped ward off any fatigue from the fact that I eaten twice my normal raceday calorie intake.
This first run would be my only dry one of the weekend, I nearly took Les Grippons flat but slowed a lot through the forest as I tried to pick out the markers from Friday. Still a time of 2:23 wasn’t bad for a first run, as shortly after wards the showers started. Faced with a minimum 30 minute wait between the moment you leave your pits and start your run, it can be tricky to pick the correct tyres for the conditions. I was feeling quite gung-ho and was opting for slicks as most of the tarmac in the pits had dried out, but my mechanics were advising full wets so I took their advice which proved to be wise as the forest was soaking and the road beyond it even more so. My gearbox jammed momentarily and I ended up in 6th at one point, then I thought I was going straight on the first hairpin due to the amount of water on the track! It’s a scary hill to drive quickly, the first part through the garage is really fast as you fly between the railings and rocks, before you open up not the straight. Here you’re flat in 6th for what feels like forever before you peel into Les Grippons, lifting as little as you dare in the wet. The feeling of relief when you exit the forest is immediate as you know that the scariest and potentially most dangerous parts are now behind you.
Third practice went well in the wet once more, if a little slower than I’d hoped, but instead I focused on learning the line through the forest and making sure I clipped all the right turn in points. In some respects the rain actually helped here as I was running at a slower speed and hence had more time to place the car in the right spot.

The exact nature of the weather for Sunday was unknown, rain was going to be an issue but how much and when was anyone’s guess. I was a little tired but eager to get going as the morning was dry, although all hopes of a banzai run on slicks were soon dashed as the heavens opened. At least I knew there was no risk of choosing the wrong tyres, but my main problem was my visor fogging up off the line with rain pouring everywhere, and tackling the Garage at speed is like threading a needle - I had to back off a little before the fog cleared and I know it cost me time. I was offline leaving the forest at the big left and then too eager to get on the gas leaving the second hairpin, running wide. But even so 2:35 wasn’t too shoddy, and put me 12th in a class of 25 and 3rd Formula Renault.
By the time I came to the second run I really had the bit between my teeth - the rain had stopped meaning that I had clear vision and I was really finding my rhythm. In fact the whole weekend I felt in top shape, and this is the first time since the crash that I’ve really driven the car without any doubts in the back of my mind telling me to slow down and be careful. Once again this weekend proved to me the difference it can make having the support of a team behind you, and I’m convinced that this is crucial to building my ability to focus as a driver next season. Having the guys with me at the line adds something too - it just gives you an edge to push even harder, perhaps there’s a feeling of not wanting to let them down when they are all working to get the best out of you too. Either way I drove my socks off on that run, the car just sliding a bit through les Grippons which was pretty intense, but when I crossed the line I knew that there was nothing else I could have done to go any quicker. Sadly I forgot to charge the camera battery overnight so I only captured action from Saturday, but I stopped the clock at 2:25 - holding on to my position and also taking fastest lady, finishing 46 overall out 182 drivers. Jean-Jacques Maitre and Fabien Bouduban also took superb results finishing 1st & 2nd in their class (E2 Sportscars up to 2ltr) respectively, making a perfect weekend for all drivers in Team Macracer!

To be stood on the top of the podium later that evening, holding a trophy & bouquet of flowers was such an incredible feeling, and one that will keep me smiling for a very long time. I was interviewed in the paddock for Mobil 1 Grid TV and when asked what my hopes were for the weekend I think I just said to finish above bottom in class and not damage the car given the high speed and difficult conditions at such an impressive course. So you can imagine that I was just ecstatic to have the best result of my season, and I guess it just shows what a happy & well prepared driver can do - I can't thank Tectri SA and Macracer enough for an unforgettable weekend!
The next day I checked out of my hotel, rather jaded following an evening of celebration involving more grappa (like a moth to a flame) and champagne. Just when I thought life couldn’t really get any better and I’d already had my full quota of good times, my friend picked me up in his Gallardo Super Trofeo and lent the keys to go drive the course and surrounding mountain roads. I’ve always longed to drive a V10 as the engine note is something that makes me grin like a child, and sure enough I was doing just that as the angry exhaust note shrieked back at me from rock faces and tunnels. I left Switzerland with some incredible memories and high hopes for Chamrousse, where I’ll be spending the week climbing mountains prior to the penultimate round of the season - based in a ski resort it should another spectacular event!

No comments:

Post a Comment