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On The Road Again - motorsport across the region

On The Road Again - motorsport across the region

In a big country, where the time-worn phrase ‘freedom of the open road’ still has real meaning, it’s hardly surprising that people manage to find interesting ways of heading off and enjoying it in style... 

circui-des-remparts-angouleme

For well over a century France has pursued “l’Amour de l’Automobile” with full-blooded passion and, here in Poitou-Charentes, the flame still burns as brightly as ever. So much so, we felt it was high time we celebrated the fun side of motoring and met some of those who help make it so, whether socially or by helping to organise the colourful events on the local motoring calendar.

The real Big One, as anyone who has ever immersed themselves in its petroleum-fuelled carnival atmosphere will know, is Angoulême’s annual Circuit des Remparts (see our Factfile panel). If you were at this year’s event a couple of weeks ago, then chances are you’re still haunted by the urgent howl of highly-stressed machinery, the tortured squeal of tyres and the intoxicating aroma of hot racing oil. For anyone who loves cars it’s simply unmissable. And if it’s something you have yet to experience, then there’s always next year, ahead of which (in late June/early July), is another infectiously-atmospheric street circuit event, the Grand Prix Historique de Bressuire (79).

In the meantime, you’ll find plenty of other opportunities around the region to tap into your inner petrolhead, starting with two permanent, fully-equipped circuits dedicated to motor-sport. The most central of these, at Le Vigeant, near L’Isle Jourdain (and not far from the Vienne/Charente boundary), is the Circuit du Val de Vienne, which opened in 1990 and whose annual competition season climaxes in the hugely-popular Sport et Collection weekend (see Factfile). If you’re located further west, then at La Genétouze, near Chalais, and almost straddling the Charente/Charente-Maritime border, you’ll find the Circuit de Haute Saintonge. There are actually two circuits here, the main one for car and motorcycle use, while the other is dedicated to karting and vehicle testing. More surprisingly, despite having been launched just three years ago, the Circuit de Haute Saintonge is already about to lose its status as the newest of the region’s competition circuits. That particular honour will soon pass to a third ambitious complex currently nearing completion on the site of a former limestone quarry beside the RN10 trunk road near Mansle: the Circuit Automobile Maine-de-Boixe (see Factfile). It’s certainly going to be accessible.

The seasonal spectator events get all the publicity, but don’t assume the action stops there; race-days are merely one facet of a much wider range of activities now offered by circuits. Hands-on events like open track-days (journées de roulage) are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why  – in most cases getting on the starting-grid can be as simple as just showing up with your own vehicle, presenting your insurance documents and agreeing to abide by the circuit’s code of conduct. For a modest fee you’ll then be given a time-slot, during which you’re free to explore the circuit, your vehicle’s handling and your own driving abilities. And if (or should I say ‘when’) you find you’re becoming hooked on the sensation of high-speed track-driving, you can raise your game by signing-up for competition driving instruction (stages de pilotage). On the other hand, if you simply want to find out what it can feel like when you’ve got the elusive combination of skill and experience, then you can take a taster experience (baptême), sitting alongside a professional racing driver and letting them take care of the driving. Try this and watching motor racing will never be the same again...

Of course, having a passion for motoring doesn’t mean you have to get involved in the competitive cut-and-thrust of circuit racing. Having an ‘interesting’ vehicle allows you to relive the essential spirit of the Age d’Or of motoring by taking part in one of the touring rallies (rallyes touristiques) which take place around the countryside – you’ll find them listed in retro motoring magazines like ‘Gazoline’. Most events are modest, down-to-earth affairs organised by local or national car enthusiast clubs, who hold regular social get-togethers with other owners. As well as transforming your social life, getting involved can also put you in touch with people selling parts, complete vehicles or even specialists reproducing vital spare parts to help keep your classic on the road. At the other end of the scale, though, are high-profile tours organised as part of major events like Angoulême’s Circuit des Remparts and Val de Vienne’s Sport et Collection weekends. Catch one of these jaw-dropping processions on the open road and you won’t believe your eyes and ears, as priceless classics, released from pampered, secure storage, are given their head around some of the region’s more scenic landscapes (find your ideal spot, take a picnic and you have the perfect photo-opportunity).

val-de-vienne-ferrari

It’s enough to get you thinking that you might finally have found a use for that spare barn which came bundled as part of the ‘house in France’ package, and which has stood empty ever since. However, if the words ‘classic car’ are accompanied in your thoughts by ‘affordable’ then you might be in for a shock when you check the prices being asked for more desirable classics. In which case, you might decide to rethink your definition of ‘classic’. It’s a curious paradox that people now go all dewy-eyed over relatively mundane vehicles which were once commonplace on the roads of France, yet which have quietly slipped into mere memory. ‘My Dad had one of those...’ is one sentiment which knows no cultural barriers – and explains why things like Citroën 2CVs, Renault 4CVs and a host of Simcas, Peugeots and even humble Vélo-Solexes once again have their very own passioné(e)s.

They’re also infinitely more practical than GP (or any) Bugattis, with a ready supply of spare parts either popping up on brocante stalls or available as faithful reproductions. In fact, why buy weekly partworks to build a scale-model galleon or Spitfire when you could put together a full-size 2CV (or ‘deuche’) completely from mail-order parts catalogues? On the other hand, you might still unearth a promising restoration project lurking nearby in someone else’s barn; they’re out there somewhere, waiting for some dedicated T.L.C.

If you don’t have the staying-power that a total restoration inevitably entails (and can skip the sense of pride which comes from having spent countless hours personally stripping and replacing every nut, bolt and grommet) then all is not lost. Thanks to a favourable climate and unpressured rural lifestyle, a surprising number of retro vehicles still provide faithful transport (most visibly, to and from markets) for older drivers around the region. Most will have been serviced by a rural garage owner, who will therefore be the first to know when a customer is thinking of selling something interesting. Be there at the right moment and you could pick up a perfect, affordable introduction to classic motoring – and original, unrestored vehicles have a sense of authenticity which many of their over- restored counterparts lack.

So, what’s it to be, then? Well, of course you can get a close-up feel for some of the likely vehicle options at rallies and gatherings like those mentioned above, and if there’s nothing happening near you for awhile you can always visit a motor museum in somewhere like Melle or Chatellerault (see Find Out More) or La Rochefoucauld’s remarkable specialist classic car dealer Le Palais de l’Automobile.

Visits like these will also underline the fact that, for some people, one classic car or motorcycle might just be the beginning, as any confirmed collector will know only too well.

But if you find yourself falling for something really desirable take heart; you might just turn it to your advantage by renting it out for weddings, film-shoots or simply as part of a prestige accommodation-and-classic car package. As we discovered, you won’t be the first to have spotted this opening in the local tourism market.

Which brings us full circle to where we began, in a sought-after region with lots of open roads to explore at your own pace. So, here’s to “l’Amour de l’Automobile”..!

 

STEWART HUNT: THE RESCUER...

After many years of running an electronics company in the UK, Stewart Hunt and his wife Lynda settled in rural southern Vienne. Hardly your typical early retiree, Stewart is clearly a man on a mission, and when not employing his skills to repair or restore valve-powered radios and amplifiers, you’ll find him in his workshop working on his expanding collection of classic motorcycles and mopeds. “I try to spend two days a week here, but I don’t expect to restore them all – only the rarer and more interesting ones. I’m more concerned with saving them from being destroyed, and if anyone is keen enough to restore what I’ll never get around to then I’m happy to pass them on for whatever they cost me.”  In a throwaway society, it’s a refreshing and perhaps timely sentiment. But Stewart hasn’t always been focused on two-wheeled classics, having completed an heroic restoration of a 1960s Austin-Healey ‘Frog-eye’ Sprite, which he still loves driving. “People love old cars over here.. you’ve only got to stop at a set of traffic-lights in something like this and a crowd gathers!”

They’re not the only ones who feel that way. “You’d be surprised how many British people over here are into classic cars and bikes. Purely by word of mouth, you get to meet other owners, and before you know it there’s an outing planned, to head off somewhere for the fun of it. I think we have around a hundred and thirty contacts now, but we want to keep it informal, as organising a club is just too complicated.” Obviously, with a large barn steadily filling with potential restoration projects (and Lynda’s passion for brocante-hunting), the fun seems likely to continue for some time to come...

 


THE MONUMENT RENAULT

Marcel Renault 1903Travel south from Poitiers on the RN10 trunk road and, near Payré, you’ll pass a sign to a shady layby containing a modest-looking monument. Even less obvious is the fact that this improbable spot has huge historical significance to motor-racing in France, for it was here that one of the founders of the Renault Automobile empire met an untimely end in an early road-race. Marcel Renault and his mechanic Rene Vauthier were in one of almost two hundred cars and motorcycles which set out from Versailles on 24 May 1903 in the ill-fated Course Automobile Paris-Madrid. On largely-unsurfaced roads, visibility at high speeds was often severely limited, the drivers resorting to picking their way through the clouds of dust by looking up at avenues of roadside trees. In the heat of competition, and after passing Maurice Farman (the future aircraft manufacturer), Marcel Renault failed to see a blue flag indicating an approaching curve. The car rolled over into a ditch at high speed, ejecting both occupants head first. Vauthier (himself winner of both 1902 and 1903 Paris-Vienna races) was severely injured and would remain permanently disabled, but Renault slipped into a coma and died from his wounds 48 hours later.

Further south another car left a bridge near Angoulême, killing the mechanic, three spectators, two soldiers and a small child. Other casualties were similarly horrific, the death toll rising to fifteen by the time French authorities decided to stop the race at Bordeaux (at which point Marcel’s brother Louis
Renault was in second place).

 

CIRCUIT DE HAUTE SAINTONGE

This still-young facility currently has its focus set firmly on offering track-days, instruction and private events, for cars, motorcycles and karting. There’s a choice of two circuits, one designed specifically for car and motorcycle use, the other conceived for karting and vehicle testing.
Pôle Mécanique de Haute Saintonge
17360 La Genétouze.
05.46.04.08.10
www.circuitdehautesaintonge.com
www.gtrsopendays.com - Track-days, driver instruction and more.
http://mcdehautesaintonge.free.fr/ - Motorcycle club and organiser of the Trophée de Ligue Poitou-Charentes (in partnership with the Circuit Val de Vienne) and the Trophée à la Genétouze (at the Circuit de Haute Saintonge).

 

CIRCUIT DU VAL DE VIENNE

The Département de la Vienne’s very own racetrack, the Circuit du Val de Vienne, is situated at Le Vigeant, near L’Isle Jourdain. This modern circuit is regarded as being technically demanding, and can be adapted to vary the lap-distances from 1 830m – 3 768m (the full lap-record of 1min 28 was set in 2002 by Frenchman Simon Pagenaud in an Italian Dallara F3 car). This year’s season has included the French Championships for FFSA GT, Formula 4 and Superbikes, plus events for Club Porsche, Club France Ducati, Michelin Power Cup, etc. The undoubted highlight of the season, though, is the colourful weekend charity event Sport et Collection: 500 Ferraris Contre le Cancer, which benefits the cancer treatment unit at the CHU de Poitiers. Now one of the most important historic racing dates on the European calendar, this year’s event (the 18th Edition) raised around €240,000 to acquire a US-made nanoknife, a breakthrough development in the treatment of pancreatic and liver tumours. The organisers are confidently predicting that by the 20th Edition (in 2014) they will have raised no less than three million euros.
www.circuit-valdevienne.fr/
05.49.91.79.17
www.sportetcollection.info/

 

CIRCUIT AUTOMOBILE LA PERONNE: COMING SOON...

The Poitou-Charentes region is about to get its third permanent motor racing facility, the vision of petrolhead businessman (and major investor) Bernard Moreau. Located in a former quarry near Mansle in the commune of Maine-de-Boixe, right beside the busy RN10 trunk route some way north of Angoulême, the project is now well-advanced and set for delivery in 2013. Despite a ten-year gestation period and a development budget likely to reach 7.5 million euros, further details remain a little sketchy, but for now we can tell you that the lap-length of 4.175km will comfortably exceed that of the Circuit Val de Vienne. Stay tuned...

 


CLASSIC MOTORING BREAKS

LPC motor-3776

John and Abi Wilkin combine a love of France with a passion for cars by offering classic motoring gîte holidays in the Deux-Sèvres countryside. Guests can choose from a pristine 1961 British Jaguar MkII 3.4 or a quintessentially Gallic 1973 Citroën DS – either a manual-transmission DSuper 5 or a semi-automatic DS23ie. “We don’t restrict mileage, but most people seem to just run out to La Rochelle and the coast, or down to Cognac...”, says John. Abi has also seen 50th birthday bookings increasing: “One chap, whose wife booked for him, set off in a stripy tee-shirt, beret and a string of onions around his neck. His son shot some video from another car, added accordion music and popped the
clip on Facebook!”

John and Abi fell in love with their corner of France during visits in the Jaguar to take part in the Charente Rally during Angoulême’s Circuit des Remparts weekends, and it’s easy to see why. Their traditional stone farmhouse enjoys a secluded setting within a peaceful village just a few minutes’ drive from the RN10 trunk road. There are handsome outbuildings, too, set around a large courtyard-style garden area whose venerable chestnut tree provides summer shade. It’s perfect, not just for gîtes, but also for garaging, one large barn providing a workshop where John services the cars. When I visited the DS23ie was in for essential repairs. “The Citroëns are complex, so maintenance can be tricky – changing an oil-pump, for example means removing the engine!”, observes John with the air of a man clearly not afraid of rolling up his sleeves. “But a few specialists have stockpiled mountains of spares and know the cars inside out.”

So does John: “The Jaguar is a ’60s classic, with no power steering, a big steering-wheel and lots of power...”  The hydraulically-suspended Citroëns, on the other hand, are a more relaxed affair, enthuses Abi: “They drive like a dream, and people love them. Sometimes I take a DS to the supermarket in Lezay or Sauzé-Vaussais, and everyone smiles!” But beneath their chic exteriors, the two Citroëns are subtly different: the DS23ie retains its original sumptuous leather interior, while the DSuper 5 (a former taxi) was completely retrimmed by a local seamstress who loves working on classic vehicles. Now the cars’ revitalised period charm and charisma make them highly-desirable for wedding duties, a service which John is more than happy to provide...

La Ferme de l’Église
11 rue de l’église
79120 Vanzay
05 49 07 31 38
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
www.gitesincharente.co.uk

 

 

ANGOULÊME’S CIRCUIT DES REMPARTS

It’s hard to imagine what possesses the normally-sane city to suddenly go bananas and devote weeks at the tail-end of each summer to transforming its ancient heart (including the eponymous ramparts) into a full-blown Monaco-style street-circuit, but many thousands of motor enthusiasts obviously feel it’s time well-spent. When the flag falls on the starting-grid right beside the vast Romanesque Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre, the scene is pretty surreal, but it’s as nothing compared to the events preceding the Sunday races (technically merely ‘demonstration runs’, but try telling the drivers that…). Local café and restaurant terraces take on a cosmopolitan, aristocratic air, while the streets all around are filled with a jaw-dropping array of classic and sports cars. At nightfall, the sensation is like having stepped into a scene from classic-era French cinema. Now add Friday’s floodlit Concours d’Elégance and Saturday’s Rallye International de Charente, which finds over three hundred teams covering 200km or so among some of the finest countryside, and you begin to see what makes the Circuit des Remparts an event like no other.
www.circuit-des-remparts.com

 

GRAND PRIX HISTORIQUE DE BRESSUIRE

While Angoulême has been hiking its race-day prices in recent years, the Deux-Sèvres town of Bressuire’s annual historic street circuit event looks to be a rather more generous affair, still offering free spectator admission. After a spectacular period between 1951 and 1954 l’Automobile Club’s historic racing event slipped respectfully into memory after the tragic events at Le Mans, but was reborn in 2005. Things have gone from strength to strength ever since, the 2012 event (held on the 30th June/1st July weekend) once again upholding the authentic spirit of its 1950s origins, with classes for Tourisme, Sport and Racer. In addition to Triumphs, Ferraris, MGs, Bugattis etc., the event brought together a dozen or so ’50s-era F1 cars, recreating the kind of sights, sounds and excitement which have made historic racing such a crowd-pleaser.

www.ville-bressuire.fr/animations%20sportives.html

http://locmeteam.over-blog.com/pages/Le_Grand_prix_historique_de_Bressuire-408523.html

 

FIND OUT MORE...

www.passionautomobile.com/webpage/automobile-poitou-charentes - lots of events listed around the region.

www.ffve.org - Official page of the Fédération Française des Véhicules d’Epoque, with a huge amount of information for classic vehicle owners (including a useful Welcome to France page).

http://vehiculesanciensdelavienne.e-monsite.com - The Véhicules Anciens de la Vienne car club, with lots of images, event listings and much more.

https://sites.google.com/site/amsa17aunis/ - The homepage of the Amical de Motos et Scooters Ancien (classic 2-wheeler club) based in Charente-Maritime.

www.avem86.com - If you’re into military vehicles, look no further.

http://atmp.free.fr - Deux-Sèvres-based club for lovers of the immortal Citroën Traction.

www.lescollectionsdegilbert.com - You name it, this guy collects it...

www.mellecom.fr/monetgoyon - The town of Melle (79) has its own museum dedicated to the motorcycles, cyclecars, etc., of French manufacturer Monet-Guyon.

www.palais-automobile.com - If you haven’t yet visited this family-owned classic car dealership (more a museum, really) in La Rochefoucauld, then you’ll be amazed.

http://tourisme.chatellerault.fr/musee-auto-moto-velo - Chatellerault’s motor museum has over 150 historic vehicles on display, plus motoring memorabilia.

www.gitesincharente.co.uk - Holiday with a French classic: the legendary Citroën DS!

www.joffrenytours.com - Classic vehicles for hire and classic vehicle storage

www.tourdecanard.com/en/our_2cv.html  Fancy trying your hand at driving a 2CV?

www.logisduparadis.com - Holidays in Cognac country combined with grand touring.

http://gazoline.net - Site of the popular newsstand magazine devoted to retro motoring in France.

WORDS & PHOTOS: ROGER MOSS 

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine September 2013