Apart from lying on a beach somewhere exotic, I've never been so hot as suited up in a racing car with the outside temperature over 40 degrees. Taking your mind off the heat and concentrating on the mountain that lies ahead is a challenge in itself, and what a mountain it is. I must have drank three or four litres of water each day and staying cool was just never an option; at times it felt like an endurance event. Was it all worth it? I think the leadpicture should answer that question...
"IT'S REALLY HOT IN HERE"
Such is the regularity of the my pre-race problems that I'm actually waiting for them now, like Groundhog Day without Bill Murray or indeed anything funny. On Monday I learnt that French air traffic control had scheduled a 48-hour strike, starting on Thursday which was the just the day I was due to fly - oh joy. Plan B was £300 on the train (!), but at the last moment fate stepped in (or possibly a union) and the strike was lifted on Wednesday afternoon. "Fab news" I thought, everything will be fine now...
It was a scorching hot day as I touched down in Lyon. I collected the van which started first time, giving it a loving pat on the dash to say thanks and set off in the direction of Besancon. Now some of you may remember the recent issue where the engine suddenly lost half its power, yet was fixed by turning the engine on and off? Well it returned. With a vengeance. Initially the remedy worked, but the frequency increased and before long I was stuck crawling at 50km/h (on a hill I went down to 20...) as the old on/off trick no longer worked. I stopped at a Super U to get supplies, thinking maybe Herve needed some time out, but he then refused to start and I was starting to get worried as the 1900h ETA looked unlikely. I called Philippe Prost, president of ASA Sequanie and organiser of the the event to ask advice. We'd spoken quite a bit on email and he'd kindly been the first person to tell me the strike had been lifted. I pulled over at a Peugeot garage which could help if necessary, but it turned out there was a Renault garage just 7km from Vuillafans in Ornans so I soldiered onwards and upwards into the mountains, planning to unload that evening and take the van in first thing the next morning.
Prettier than Prescott
I picked my way down into Vuillafans to see the picture postcard village in the base of the valley. All my worries vanished at this moment; surely the most beautiful setting for a motor race anyone outside of Gran Turismo has ever dreamt of. As luck would have it I turned a corner to happen straight upon Paul and Colin with whom I set up camp in lovely little courtyard, just by the banks of the river.
I phoned Renault Ornans the next morning they said I could come straight in. In the cool of the morning I made four or five trips up on the scooter before sessioning some of the longer and more complex bends, namely the long parabolic left and the long right, both of which can be seen clinging to the side of the mountain from the final hairpin as you look back down into the valley below. As usual I had consulted YouTube beforehand but nothing prepares you for the full effect of the gradients, bumps, gravelled sections (really!) and the sheer length of a 4.8km hill. At some point during the previous week around half a dozen patches had been tarred and gravelled; there was going to be a lot of it flying around braking zones and corner exits come Saturday morning...
At lunch time I changed the throttle cable in the car for the replacement I'd brought with me, a massive improvement that meant the on/off feel at low revs disappeared.
Scooter for practice, then the real thing!
Martine Hubert kindly took me for a few guided trips to point out the lines, the dos and the don'ts that helped me to build a picture of how I was going to approach the first few runs come Saturday. One lesson that I learn time and again at each hill is that no matter how much you prepare yourself, that first run is always a blur of trying regurgitate all of your pace notes while simultaneously trying to control, place and brake the car. Gears I leave until run number two, on run number one I just try to go with the flow and pick a pace that I don't spook me too much.
Despite a few final scooter rides on Saturday I was apprehensive about the first run - the heat was into the high 30s and the tarmac in the paddock was sticky underfoot to such an extent that people were pouring water over the places where it was ripping up under race tyres.
I did at least have a new camera, which turned out to be an excellent choice and one I'd really recommend - the Roadhawk Ride R + is really simple to use and has its own software to configure on a PC.
It was a pretty hairy run as there was gravel pinging up everywhere, literally bouncing off the car, my helmet - it was like being shot at the whole way up and the car wasn't finding much grip. Getting out of the car I felt pretty shell shocked and unsure how I was going to attack as there would be only one more run that day and no practice on Sunday. Everyone was saying the same thing though - gravel and no grip, tyres going off, so I consoled myself that we had all struggled and set about cleaning the Avons for run two. This went much better and I took 10 seconds off to post a 2min 23sec - some of the gravel had cleared but with another hot day forecast everyone was saying the first run would be the quickest tomorrow as the heat would soon take the edge of the times... no pressure then!
4,800m is a very long hillclimb
Calmed by the cool of the morning I started well and recorded a 2min 18sec dead, and although I'd not set the camera to record in time I'd managed to count my gears all the way up and take the right line up the hill. The long left hander is just incredible, you approach flat in fifth to go round the first section without lifting before braking and dropping down a gear to turn in and then nail it flat all the way round and back into fifth. Likewise the big right above is similar as you have to stay flat on the way in until the stone wall becomes the railings; it's hard to master both the line and more importantly your own sense of self preservation that is telling you to back off, but it's a massive rush that goes on and on until you reach the finish and breathe a huge sigh of relief - what a hill.
My second and final run came late in the day due to a crash that meant the third run was abandoned. Annoyingly I bogged down on the line as there was so much rubber laid down that the surface has become super sticky; in hindsight I wish I'd just redlined the car as I think this would have been more successful; either way I think I lost a second. At least this helped the red mist descend and I really went for it, though still holding back slightly on some of the faster corners; I have some big races to come and I need seat time right now, not heroics. It was a tidy run though and despite the poor start I finished on a 2min 17.2sec to place seventh in class out of 10 - not bad going after four ascents.
No dramas and seventh place - good work!
Travelling back I was thinking what a perfect weekend it had all been when suddenly the van lost half its power only a stone's throw from my drop-off point - argh! It might just be a hiccup, but the thought of a prolonged drive to Mont Dore at 40km/h made me grimace - thankfully there's a Renault garage there so I have their number at the ready... On Tuesday I phoned the garage in Ornans and spoke to the mechanic, he said something about 'du merde dans le reservoir peut etre' so I may have to get the fuel tank drained if the problem recurs.
But it'll take more than a temperamental van to halt my progress; in fact I'm trying to get an entry for the FIA European round at St Ursanne Les Rangiers in Switzerland this August. It's an extremely fast hill and one that I always planned to do one day, if I can manage to cram it in this year it would be incredible, even if I have to drive there very slowly!
Full video round-up here.
Watch the onboard video here.
Euro Hillclimbing - a dream realised
Euro Hillclimbing - gearing up
Charlie Martin on PHTV
Euro Hillclimbing - Hebecrevon
Euro Hillclimbing - La Pommeraye
Euro Hillclimbing - St Goueno
Euro Hillclimbing - Beaujolais Villages
Race photos: Clement Luck
Video: AH Video Concept on DailyMotion