Euro hillclimbing, a dream realised

If Charlie Martin is at all fazed by the idea of spending a year driving round the continent to hillclimb in the Championnat de France de La Montagne (CFM for short) she's not showing it. The cosy familiarity of Shelsley Walsh or Prescott the CFM is not though. Closed road French hillclimbs are basically tarmac rally stages in single seaters and seemingly every bit as scary as that sounds.

She's bought the car but is yet to even drive it
She's bought the car but is yet to even drive it
In this case we're talking the 2007 vintage 2.0-litre Formula Renault car she's just bought and entered into the dedicated DE7 class and 'open' category in the 12-round championship. As per Formula Renault circuit racing the cars are strictly regulated with sealed engines and minimal modifications possible. Tenths aren't won by paying for a trick engine build or fancy set-up, rather by the skill and bravery to go faster than anyone else.

But at the time of writing she's yet to drive the car. Indeed, since buying it last September she's not even seen it fired up, her time currently dominated by other preparations like buying and converting the Renault Master van - also 2007 vintage - that will be her transport, workshop and living quarters for the year ahead. And attempting to learn some of the courses she'll be competing on via onboard YouTube vids posted by French hillclimbing heroes like Lionel Regal, inevitably aware of the fact the sport he dominated led to his death in 2010 in a crash at St Ursanne Les Rangiers in Switzerland. Proof, if needed, this is a serious undertaking.

It all started with a souped up little Peugeot
It all started with a souped up little Peugeot
But the ferry for her first competitive outing at Teurses d'Hebecrevon in May is booked, her A-level French has been brought up to speed and the game is on. The race to be ready in time is very much underway.

We'll get to that. First of all a bit of background.

Slippery slope
Charlie was introduced to hillclimbing by school friend friend Hamish Bibby, whose dad Greg competed a Morgan three-wheeler. Attracted by the grassroots passion and outdoorsy spirit of weekends away camping out she never thought she'd compete herself, even when Hamish followed his father into the sport. And then Bibby senior tempted her with an Mi16-engined Peugeot 205 GTI he'd been offered as an unfinished project for £1,500. Just the job for someone fresh out of university, a bridging loan from the bank of mum and dad landing her the GTI and a taste for hands-on prep that included a DIY respray in a booth after a "half-hour lesson."

Pretty cool tow car/race rig combo...
Pretty cool tow car/race rig combo...
The Peugeot proved an excellent introduction, Charlie getting second in class in her first year of competition and developing the car with a diff, slicks, shortened gearing and other mods as she racked up the experience. Realising an expensive engine rebuild was required and keen to sample rear-wheel drive she swapped it for a Duratec engined Westfield she describes as "a complete shed" on purchase that nonetheless took her onto the next stage of her hillclimbing adventure.

Happy seasons competing in the UK followed until a chance to take part in a round of the French champs in Brittany arrived. Inspired by aYouTube video of hero Regal she was well aware of the big step up competing in France would offer, local ex-pat John Lloyd arranging places for British drivers run under UK regs as guests of the CFM round at St Goueno. This was the 'in' required, Charlie heading over to Brittany with a small gang of friends last spring.

Hillclimbing the Westfield in Jersey
Hillclimbing the Westfield in Jersey
On the up
It went well. Very well. In a class of Westfields and Caterhams Charlie was fastest in qualifying, despite not being on slicks like many of the others. This, she says, "caused a bit of a stir" but nothing like that inspired by her eventual three-second winning margin on the 3.2km course. Of the 60-odd Brits she was the fastest of the non single-seaters, the French crowd and local press celebrating her achievement with some degree of excitement.

"I was on such a high!" she grins, describing how upon return she was immediately plotting a return to France for 2015. "There's so much money in UK hillclimbing," she says. "I could have spent £15K on the Westfield to trim maybe a couple of seconds off a 40-second run but there's always somebody able to spend more to go quicker." Back of a beer mat calculations came up with a number significantly less than that to do a season in France and the decision was made - farewell Westfield, hello Formula Renault.

Scale of French racing had Charlie hooked
Scale of French racing had Charlie hooked
We meet Charlie at the industrial unit home to MGR Motorsport, custodian of her car having sold it to her just a couple of months previously. "I just got a really good vibe about them and the boss here Mark Godwin was interested in what I wanted to do," she says.

"And I've got confidence in the car. A Formula Renault is about seven seconds faster up St Goueno than my Westfield but I've been told a single-seater is actually easier in many ways - they're more balanced, you've got the aero and you don't have to worry about the clutch with the sequential gearbox. The engine is relatively unstressed too and they reckon I'll get three seasons or so out of it on the 300 miles a year I'll be doing."

Sealed engine should last three seasons
Sealed engine should last three seasons
Step up
And if this is all starting to sound a bit serious and extravagant think again. "I love a challenge and I've always done my motorsport on a shoestring," says Charlie. Obviously there have been set-up costs to get this European adventure under way but this is still a pretty lean way to go motor racing, her one-woman, self-contained van, race car and scooter combo hopefully all ready to roll in time for that first outing in May. Last time she checked in the van's ramp system had been tested and the rig is well on the way to completion ahead of the first trip to France in the spring.

Given how little awareness there is about Euro hillclimbing here in the UK we'll be following her along the way too, some PH go faster stickers and promises of reports from each round next year meaning regular updates on Charlie's progress as the year unfolds. There's more here on her journey on her personal blog.

It's a bit different from a Westfield
It's a bit different from a Westfield
In the meantime you can scare yourself watching some of the YouTube vids she's been using to swot up on the courses. See below for more and for the dates of the rounds - Charlie starts her campaign at Teurses d'Hebecrevon on May 8-10 with her six best results counting towards her overall standing by the year end.

Go Charlie!






Championnat de France de la Montagne 2015
March 27-29: Bagnols Sabran
April 10-12: Saint Jean du Gard Col Saint Pierre
April 24-26: Abreschviller Saint Quirin
May 8-10: Teurses d'Hebecrevon
May 23-24: Pommeraye
May 30-31: Saint Gouëno
June 19-21: Beaujolais Villages
July 3-5: Vuillafans Echevannes
July 17-19: Dunières Auvergne
August 7-9: Mont Dore Chambon sur Lac
August 21-23: Chamrousse
September 4-6: Turckheim 3 Epis

[Sources: GoCharlieHillclimbing blog, Hillclimb France,
Championnat de France de la Montagne
,, Luke Osborne via YouTube, Thib Lemoine via YouTube, Bryan Germain via YouTube]






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Comments (53) Join the discussion on the forum

  • CO2000 06 Jan 2015

    Great story - good luck! biggrin

  • scubadude 06 Jan 2015

    Cracking spirit- just been reading a few of the blogs, sounds like she has the right idea- will follow this story.

    Good Luck for the Season Charlie

  • HughG 06 Jan 2015

    Sounds interesting, looking forward to following through the year. Good luck Charlie.

  • Mark-C 06 Jan 2015

    Excellent stuff - looking forward to the updates smile

  • S3_Graham 06 Jan 2015

    massively jealous. Good luck and have fun!

    Any way we can watch online or something? Really enjoy the vids of the screaming engines round the mountains on YT.

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