ROAD TRIP TO FRANCE
Scary! It’s a notion being bandied around the pitlane of the Circuit de Charade and making those of us who haven’t driven its serpentine asphalt a little sweaty in the palms. Admittedly, my French doesn’t stretch beyond rudimentary, so most of the conversation taking place in pockets of fellow track dayers goes way over my head. But ‘sacré bleu’ appended with the familiar helmsman silhouette of crossed wrists (oversteer!) conveyed more than spoken English ever could.
I’d driven down for a quiet couple of days in nearby Clermont-Ferrand in convoy with Iain in his M4. Our obligatory stop-off on the D27 at Reims and one at Chablis, meant we rolled under the spire shadow of the city’s black lava stone cathedral somewhere approaching 9pm. Part of the reason of heading southeast was to avoid the sprawl of Le Mans attendees, no doubt, pinning the throttle through sleepy villages and inviting the ire of waiting gendarmes. We didn’t want to be guilty by proxy.
The decision is a prudent one. On the 500-mile cruise down, the M2 and M4 are met by scarce traffic and enthusiastic gestures – one cyclist stopping in the middle of the road to explain he had never seen either car before. In what transpired to be an awkward 3 minutes of broken English and French, we ascertain he loves BMWs and had his horse euthanised the day before. Though, we’re far from certain on the latter.
Part of the trip was the trackday at Charade, whose glorious history remains largely ignored even to present day. In unattenuated form, its 5-mile layout featured on the F1 calendar 4 times with Stirling Moss boldly proclaiming, ‘I don’t know a more wonderful track’. Others were less beguiled. Jochen Rindt, the winner of 1970’s Charade race, suffered from nausea tackling the savage elevation changes and constant demands of shifting gears, stamping on the brakes, and applying lock. And in 1972 Dr Helmut Marko endured a worse fate following Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus, as the Brazilian’s rear tyre kicked up one of the volcanic rocks lining the circuit, piercing his visor, and blinding him in one eye.
In a stark modernisation programme brought about by further accidents and driver protests, Charade was shortened to 2.47 miles in 1989 using the southernmost portion of the circuit. And this is the layout staring me and the M2 in the face as I lower the tyre pressures, take a comfort break, and make a promise with myself not to bin it.
The track briefing – in French although kindly broken down into constituent parts by an English-speaking local Michelin worker in a tired-looking Mazda RX8 – is over 30 minutes long and includes a PowerPoint punctuated by warning triangles and rules on driver etiquette. The professional instructors are keen to highlight the undulating nature of the circuit and the lack of run off. We are told by more than one person ‘za concrete iz very ‘ard around ‘ere’ and merely enforces what we already knew. This is a track not to be played with!
I donned my open-face helmet and trickled out of the pitlane for a sighter lap, only to be immediately scorched around turn 2 by an Alpine A110 being driven with some mighty commitment. I then have the track to myself for the rest of the lap and discover a remorseless rollercoaster, with corner after corner, enlisting hard braking and dozens of gearchanges on the DCT ‘box. On advice from the instructors, I do 3 laps plus a cooldown such is the demand on my concentration and the fading BMW discs. Of the handful of circuits I’ve driven, Nordschleife included, this somehow feels as untameable and crazy as any, largely credited to its relentlessness giving the driver no time to breathe, sheer elevation, and the walls you try to peel your eyes away from and pretend aren’t there. It’s also unlikely there will be 11am fromage and charcuterie laid on during a Touristenfahrten session as happens here with organisers, Nomad Pilotage.
I meet up with Iain who has similar convictions about the track, and we discuss how much spare capacity you would require hustling the manual versions of our respective cars around here. Our tyres are also searingly hot. The air temperature is due to reach 28C and, despite being late morning, the tarmac is burning and scabrous. It’s a good job Clermont-Ferrand is the epicentre for premier rubber.
We head out several times during the day, gradually searching out the secrets of a half-reasonable lap time. In all, I do around 20 revolutions of Charade and feel like I’m getting a little more out of the M2 each time I cross the start/finish straight. The car is impeccable, and the trademark chassis balance and compact footprint mean I can throw it through the switchbacks and collect the throttle early on the exit of each corner. My own performance, however, is thrown into shade when Iain takes a passenger lap with an instructor in a Porsche 991 GT3 who positively blitzes the field. There are levels to this.
In scorching sunshine, we leave the pits at the end of a brilliant day and take a pedestrian cruise back to the hotel. Over a few beers in the bar there is a residual buzz from the adrenaline dump and palpable relief. Charade is no charade. It will ask all of your driving repertoire, no matter have fine a tillerman you consider yourself to be. It will also satisfy like few other circuits can. Santé Charade.
(works by Mark Brockman)