Intense. That's how I'd describe the weeks following St Goueno, with a good measure of exhaustion too. It seemed there was ample time to source, repair and fit all the parts required, only to find myself loading the car onto the trailer at 2200h on Monday! On a positive note, it's been a good opportunity to learn more about the car and how to set up the geometry, although having said that it's really not an exercise I can afford to repeat this season. Not only is there the financial burden but also a logistical issue with the car now remaining in France. I will proceed with a dash of caution from now on!
I had what is becoming the usual 'will I make it' hiccup 20 miles from the Chunnel when the van lost all power and slowed to a crawl. Turning it off and on again (of course!) while rolling thankfully cured the sticky turbo problem. I was then told my ticket was invalid because the van isn't a motorhome, but I think the look of imminent physiological meltdown on my face saved the day. Up at 0700h the next morning I travelled through the Champagne region, Dijon and Besancon before the first signs of mountains loomed into view. Soon I arrived in Marchampt to the familiar sight of liveried trucks and gazebos popping up like daisies.
After unloading the car I followed Paul Buckingham and Colin Le Maitre up the hill on my scooter to get a first look. Although useful for learning the sequence of corners, YouTube never prepares you for gradients and cambers, let alone the breathtaking view as you reach the finish line and look back down on the village in the crease of the valley below. At that moment the hard work and the late nights all seemed worthwhile; it really feels like I'm living in a dream at times.
I got up early the morning and ran the hill on foot, stopping to look at each corner and cement Martine's pace notes in my head; I just hoped to recall them a few hours later! The course starts with an uphill section into a bumpy braking zone for a very tight hairpin that has an imposing granite wall on the exit. Not famed for its turning circle, I was apprehensive about getting the Formula Renault round it - sure enough, it took me quite a few goes to get it right as I would end up crawling to a stop and coasting past the final few inches of wall before accelerating. Thankfully a chap called Martin Jones had recorded some of my lines through it and this helped immensely - the transition from no lock to full lock has to be instant for a good run as any initial half turns simply pushes the car too wide.
The hill is a real test of nerve, as are several corners that can be taken flat (apparently...) in fifth and sixth gear. While you know the car should do it, committing fully requires some serious courage and I did feather on a few of them.
Sadly my camera packed up again so I only have the practice runs, which is a shame as on the first competition run I knocked six seconds off. I managed to take another second off on the next to finish on a 1min 53sec, which given the circumstances I was happy with. The majority of the class seemed to be hovering around 1min 49-50sec with the top guys posting a couple of 47s. Crucially the car was in one piece and I'd certainly given it my best shot so there were a lot of positives to take, along with the fact that the car now feels much more stable and drivable at speed.
Returning back down the hill after the final run was a memory I'll never forget; the views into the valley, the crowds of people walking home in the road, all waving, clapping and smiling as we wound our way to the village. I really needed a camera to capture the scene here - race cars enthusiastically picking their way through the crowds as they return from parc ferme, trucks squeezing by and all mixed in with people cheering and enjoying a beer in the early evening sunshine. It was fantastic.
As I write it's only a fortnight until Vuillafans Echavannes, which is five kilometres and apparently even faster (long, flat parabolic corners changing up from fourth to sixth) so I'd best get on YouTube and do some homework!
Photos: Clement Luck