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17110TrackChaser update

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  • Vanden Eynde Roland
    Feb 19, 2013
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      Hello colleagues,

      In the early nineties, long before I had any knowledge of trackchasing, I planned three or four trips to new tracks a year. I usally included one in late autumn to the south of France and thus I saw 3 race meetings at the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet. This track had a chequered history. Built in 1970 by the heir of a liquor concern, it was considered state of the art (not in the least because of its long Mistral straight) and in the seventies it held several French Grand Prix meetings. However, in the latter half of this decade, its owner lost interest and the track was all but abandoned. When I saw events there (one in 1991 and two in 1992), the track and its amenities were in a sorry state. For safety reasons, they used the small version of the track, cutting out a few fast downhill corners and two thirds of the Mistral straight. Fast forward to 2004, when Bernie Ecclestone decides to invest in this track and he asks his friend, former racing driver Philippe Gurdjan, to redevelop the complex into a high tech Formula 1 testing track. From what I saw on TV, Gurdjan did an excellent job and two years ago, Bernie decided to reopen it for race meetings as well.

      Le Castellet is 700 miles from home. In the USA, a trackchaser would have the choice between driving and flying. But in Europe, and especially in France, there's also the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse - High Speed Train). I had used it a few times for business travels to Paris or London and recently to Grenoble as part of my trip to L'Alpe d'Huez, but I had no idea what a ticket to Marseille would cost. At EUR 150, it came out far cheaper than flying or driving (the mere toll for a two way journey over the French motorways amounts to EUR 180).

      Thus, I started my Friday, February 15 as though I was going to work. After parking my car in my employer's parking lot, instead of going to my office, I left and walked the few hundred yards to Brussels Central station. After a 5 minute train ride, I arrived at the Brussels South station, the local hub for high speed trains. There I got on a French TGV to Marseille, which stopped at 6 other locations on the way and got me to my destination in a little over five and a half hours. On these trains, one has to reserve and one gets a seat allotted. This system works fine, for if someone gets off at a stop, it's almost certain someone else will take the seat for the next stint. French people take this train sometimes just for one stop. In my compartment of 80 seats, I was the only one to stay on the train for its entire journey.

      Getting my Europcar hire car at the railway station was done in a matter of minutes. I got a new grey FIAT Cinquecento, just like the New Beetle or the Mini, a modern interpretation of a fifties iconic Italian car. It was nice to drive in the dense and chaotic traffic of towns and villages, but it lacked grunt in the mountains. Getting out of Marseille wasn't a piece of cake. The town is a maze of small hilly streets and the road signage is very inadequate. I had opted for the scenic way out of town along the very spectacular coast line. The cities of Cassis, La Ciotat or Bandol may have been nice, but every time I spotted a hotel, there was no space to park the car. Thus, I decided to try and look if the hotel at Le Beausset, I stayed in more than 20 years ago, was still in business. Back then, this place, built in 1630 and a travellers rest ever since (its most famous guest had been French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) was rather basic. It was still there, but I saw no lights and assumed it was closed. Upon investigation, it wasn't, but they were victim of a power cut. But they could tell me they had a room. I put my bag in the lobby and had a little walk around town. The city centre had hardly changed. Half an hour later, I saw light coming from the hotel Relais de la Caleche and I could get into my room. The new owners had refurbished it and it looked the part.

      If one wants proof that successful trackchasing owes more to luck than planning, one got it on Friday night. When I had just finished my main course in the hotel's excellent restaurant, four members of an Italian GT team (Black Bull Racing) walked in and sat at a table near mine. They didn't speak much French and the waitress spoke not a word of Italian, so I volunteered to do a bit of translating. When they had put in their order and I was waiting for my cheese platter to finish my dinner, I asked when the races would start on Saturday. Instead of answering, the team manager asked me if I had an invitation. I didn't, whereupon he said it was a non spectator event and one couldn't get in without an invitation. But he took out his laptop, asked for my name and filled in a form on the track's website. He said my invitation would be available in the morning. After buying them all a drink (I got off lightly with three sparkling waters and one beer), I finished my dinner and took leave of my new found sponsors.

      When on Saturday morning, I arrived for breakfast at 8.15 a.m., the landlady said I was her last customer, as the two teams that had rented her other rooms had already left for the track. Breakfast was excellent, as it involved way more than the usual baguette or croissant. I was all geared up for the 5 mile drive on the mountain road leading onto the Circuit Paul Ricard. From the moment I reached the wall surrounding the track, I could see Bernie's touch. The wall was several metres high, with barbed wire on top. Bernie's presence was even more felt when I left the main road. There was a new roundabout. On the left was a brand new five star hotel, on the right a souvenir shop and the track's entrance. As promised, my name was on the invitation list and I could enter the tracks premises. In the seventies there were hardly any grandstands and on this point Bernie hasn't done anything to improve. He saw this as a high speed test track and I suppose that's why they don't want the general public in. However, with the track and the paddock, Bernie and his paladin Philippe Gurdjan have indeed done an excellent job. It's state of the art. I went to salute my benefactors of Black Bull Racing and I assisted in the preparations for the first 50 minute GT race at 10.00 a.m. The weather was splendid, 17° Centigrade and a cloudless blue sky. As my main purpose was to watch the section I never saw in the nineties, I walked to the west end side of the paddock where I could watch the high speed esses going downhill, leading into a new chicane section and part of the uphill Mistral straight. I was with great pleasure that I saw Mirko Venturini take the lead of the 24 car field in his Ferrari 458 and go on to win the race.

      As it was a 45 minute wait for the sole Formula 3 race, I crossed the track to the outside, in order to watch the tight corner leading to the Mistral straight. The Formula 3 race was a slipstreamer at first, but after a few laps cars began to be more strung out. It was won by a young Canadian, Nelson Mason.

      After the F3 race, there was a lunch intermission, during which a standing buffet was served in the paddock restaurant. It was excellent. At 1.30 p.m. the second GT race was started and this one, I watched from the fast and difficult right hander at Signes, my favourite spot on the smaller version of the track. It was very eagerly contested and the lead changed several times. In the end it was a father and son team from Belarus that took the honours. I said my goodbyes to the Black Bull team, which only came in sixth,

      I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Marmouilles section of the marine port town of Toulon, before having another excellent dinner at the Relais de la Caleche. Sunday I went to Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, where I spent my last night of this trip in the posh Best Western in a room that on weekdays, when there are seminars in the hotel, costs EUR 160 and on weekends EUR 59. My train ride back went a little less smooth. I had to change trains at Lille and the TGV bringing us back to Brussels had a malfunctioning with its doors. It took 25 minutes to fix it. Still, now that I discovered there are a few direct high speed train lines to the southern part of France, I might use this form of transport more often to trackchase further than 500 miles from home. It's not expensive and very relax, just what an elderly trackchaser needs to see races far from his home base.

      Roland

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