- Friday, 18 September 2015

Turkheim 3 Epis: the final race

When I first sat down and looked at all the courses in the 2015 CFM brochure, the idea of a 6km hillclimb seemed pretty crazy, and was one of the most alluring prospects of a season racing in France. The fact that it makes up the final round of the championship and is also reputed as one of the most beautiful courses in the calendar just further heightened my sense of anticipation as I packed my bag for Lyon one last time. I’d found that learning the courses initially on YouTube and with a track plan was becoming easier, but of course nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the weekend had a few obstacles ready to lay in my path.

Unusually I was flying from Gatwick as there was no Thursday flight from Luton, so this meant getting the train down Wednesday evening and an early start the next morning. A friend who drives a Dallara was making the same trip and we ended up sharing a few too many drinks and having a late night, but when you’re excited and at the start of an adventure it’s hard to be sensible. Herve behaved himself all the way there, I kept at 2500 rpm as before despite wanting to get there sooner, but the paddock wouldn’t open until morning so there was no great rush. Turkheim itself is near the German border in Alsace and as you get nearer you notice the style of the houses changing, the spelling of towns becoming more Teutonic and that every field and hillside is given to vineyards. It’s very pretty and with a style all of its own, the picturesque villages could come straight off a chocolate box and the older buildings have a slightly tudor style and are painted immaculately in vibrant shades of pastel.

I managed to acquire the use of a car for most of Friday and had about four sessions driving the hill, this tends to work well as I can work on the car inbetween and avoid getting overloaded. The first corner is a long fast right that has been fitted with a chicane in recent times – it must have been crazy before as I was approaching flat in 5th just shy of the limiter! After this you are into a series of fast 3rd gear bends and hairpins before the track starts to flow a little more. There are some tricky approaches into hairpins where you are flat through a kink to keep your speed up before diving onto the brakes as you go deep into the corner. Another one sees you accelerating flat out round a corner that suddenly tightens into a hairpin that then doubles back on itself – timing your braking here is critical as I learnt on Sunday morning… Then there is an incredible slalom section that cambers inwards where you can carry ludicrous amounts of speed, basically this hill has everything and it goes on and on.

I used the time between on Friday to fit the new hillclimb grade pads, this proving to be trickier than I’d hoped. The FR is known for issues with brake pistons binding, I’ve been cleaning them every Friday and was happy to have escaped any woes this season until now, but the wider pads meant that the piston was pushed further back into the body of the caliper and this caused issues. I’d planned to bed them in on the way to the start as you drive a long way to pre grille, but the fronts were too tight on the disk and sure enough any real pressure provoked a lock up even at 2nd gear speeds… remember that 5th gear chicane I mentioned? Come Saturday morning I took it especially easy on the first run, and everything felt fine and I figured that I must have given them a good workout as the car seemed to stop well enough, but my main concern was it grabbing a wheel on one of the difficult approaches (some are bumpy too) and firing me into the scenery backwards! 


Run two went well and I took ten seconds off to finish on a 3:03 with the class leaders running in the low 2:50’s. Sadly I’d been sidetracked with a lot of preparation and chatting to members of the public (a few PHers too!) and forgotten to charge the camera, this was a really critical oversight and one that I think cost me a few seconds in hindsight. On a longer course it’s vital to look back and see exactly which corners you got right or wrong, your gear changes or braking – you just can’t accurately remember enough detail to approach your next ascent with a mental list of pace notes to improve on.

Rain came over night, and the sky looked quite dark driving to the paddock that morning. Being in one of the last batches to go up I asked some of the earlier drivers what the hill had been like and got the general reply that it was slippy and pretty wet under the trees. I thought therefore that I’d treat it as a siting run and try to focus on a few corners that kept catching me out (one opens, another tightens, the third is in between) so set off about 8/10ths to quickly find that the track had now dried out. I upped the pace and started pushing harder, brakes working well until I arrived at the long fast corner that turns into the nasty hairpin a bit too quickly. Realising I was never going to make it round I just braked hard in a straight line and came to a full stop about a foot from a large rock, rolling backwards on the slope to drive off and finish on a 3:13. Chatting to a friend in the paddock he said ‘someone went straight on at that hairpin, did you see the big black lines?’ Yup, that was me…!

My two mentors this season - Paul Buckingham (left) & Colin le Maitre

Still without video but having traced the problem to a faulty SD card, I went much harder now that the rest of the class had upped their pace and left me behind. Turkheim just goes on forever and it’s slightly strange being behind the wheel for so long. I still made a few slips going a gear higher than intended, but made my objective of breaking three minutes to set a 2:59, and now I had some footage to watch back too. Having no electricity in the paddock meant that I didn’t have too much time to watch it back as I was having to clean the tyres manually with a surform, but I at least felt a little more focussed for my final drive of 2016… Once more I was lucky to have some assistance from a nice guy called Matthieu who borrowed my scooter to come up to the line and help with the slave battery – now essential as the one in the car is only good for around four starts. It’s amazing the difference it can make having someone to chat to at times like this, to keep you calm and smilling or just be there with you for company when you want to say nothing and focus on what you’re about to do.
I really went hell for leather, braking as late as I dared for the chicane mid-way between the 100m & 50m boards and nearly clipping the tyres on the way through – brakes definitely working now! I kept flat through a few of the faster corners where it just feels amazing to sense the car gripping as though it’s on rails, and tried to get the car turning in earlier at the hairpins, the nose just washing out wide a couple of times. It was so intense that my hands were shaking after I crossed the line, always a good sign that I was pushing 100%! I stopped the clock at 2:57 to finish 12th out of 13 drivers, which on the face of it doesn’t sound too hot, but when you consider that there were just over 3 seconds between me and the next seven cars it illustrates just what a fantastic class D/E7 is. It also gives me a lot of motivation for next season, I’m satisfied with my progression this year as I absolutely feel that my ability to drive the car has improved along with my pace in both the wet and the dry. I know there are a lot of areas on the car that can be improved, and I’m also considering some driver training over winter too.
The journey home was quite a tough one as after a weekend where I perhaps spent more time enjoying myself than I should have (it's the end of the season afterall...) I was rather tired. I had a demanding drive back from Colmar to Le Havre where I possibly set a new record for the number of double expressos consumed in an 8 hour period, Herve throwing a huge wobbly just half an hour in that resulted in me actually pleading with him 'not to do this today, please'. He changed his mind and perked up thankfully and I made my 10:30 ferry to Portsmouth that evening, collapsing into bed without any dinner.

I was woken early the next morning at 5am, the moon still bright in the dawn sky as we pulled into harbour, throwing on a hoodie at the last moment after being asked to vacate my cabin for the final time. In a journey reminiscent of Hebécrévon, my first race on the CFM all those months ago, I retraced my steps and drove straight to work for 10am where I completed a day in the office, looking slightly shellshocked on arrival. I had no snails, flowers or trophies this time (apart from the one I won at Les Rangiers), but I had the car in one piece and the greatest race season I've ever completed to keep me smiling for a long time.
At times I worried that I might feel sad at the end of the season (it’s often the case), and while I'm already missing everyone that I’ve met over the summer, I’m excited and focussed on 2016 to see what I can achieve with my first year in France now behind me! Woohooo!! :D 

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