27-29/03/2015: Le Mans – French Sidecar Championship, round 1

Friday 27th March at Le Mans: the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans a fabulous, flowing circuit – very heavy braking in a couple of places which can make moving hard, but relatively easy to learn. It’s akin to Donington and Oulton, with all the facilities you’d expect from a major race circuit which hosts the 24 hours, World Superbikes, MotoGP and so on. I was unprepared for the sound of the pit lane klaxon – so familiar from the TV – the Audi R8 safety and course cars, and the sheer acreage of gravel traps. I went through the process of registering for my Fédération Française de Motocyclisme licence, which wasn’t as tortuous as I’d expected – and made significantly easier by our French ‘fixer’, François Beauchamps.

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(c) Paul Willis

After a quick review of the circuit map, Fanch and I had a dry first untimed session. It started inauspiciously: the sidecar wouldn’t start and needed a bump start – leading to my poor husband face-planting the tarmac requiring 3 stitches to a very nasty gash in his top lip. We joined the circuit, and immediately pulled in when the engine died – it was the same choc-block connector which had plagued a night of qualifying at the TT. Repositioned, we had lost a couple of laps but quickly got out onto circuit so Fanch could show me the way round. He knows and loves the circuit. The 30-minute session was red flagged early due to a broken-down machine, but was useful as I discovered where I needed to work more.  We completed 7 or so laps and I was tired from over-working and holding on too tight, but the races on Saturday and Sunday were scheduled for 13 laps so I needed to get used to it.

Friday afternoon’s free practice was distinctly damp as the weather closed in, but we did the full 30 minutes (on slicks) and at one point were 6th fastest in the mixed F1/F2 field, finishing 8th in the end. I was starting to learn my way round, and the reduced speed in the damp helped me to find the right braking and moving points. It was surreal to be going round famous corners such as Dunlop, Chemin des Boeufs, Garage Vert and so on.

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(c) Jonathan Lagall

Having completed scrutineering of both sidecar and clothing – back protectors are obligatoire and they were examining helmet dates very carefully – we had stripped and cleaned the sidecar before being called to the Media office for the formal team photographs. Each racer (or in the case of sidecar, each pair) was photographed front-facing and smiling, then side on with arms crossed and looking moody. Given it was 7pm and we’d had to get back into cold wet leathers, and were covered in dirt and grease, I think I can safely say I wasn’t looking very glamorous.

Saturday 28th March: the morning had a relatively leisurely start: a briefing at 10am in Race Control. All in French but I followed all of it with the exception of some of the technicalities about the lights on the safety car following any incident. A couple of things which were different to the UK stood out for me: there are no stationary flags – a double waved yellow taking the place of a waved yellow. They have no last-lap flag, and they have changed their lights procedure so they now match the UK (i.e. race start when the lights go out).

(c) Jonathan Lagall

(c) Jonathan Lagall

We had a 30-minute timed qualifying in the early afternoon, then the first race at 5.45pm. The weather had not improved noticeably, a persistent drizzle which was enough to keep everything soaked. I used the opportunity to continue to learn the circuit and improve where Fanch needed me to change my style; there is something so inherently wrong about working the back of the bike on a left which takes some getting used to! I was also catching his braking foot with my left knee entering Raccordement, which I needed to rectify. We stayed on circuit for the full 30 minutes, and despite holding 6th overall in the mixed F1/F2 field, Estelle pipped us by 0.006secs in her penultimate lap so we ended up 8th overall and 5th F2.

During the afternoon the humidity dropped, the sun came out and the practice and races were declared dry. Being the first round of the championship, it’s not like a club race where you rock up to the collecting area a few minutes before the race – we had to be present and correct 20 minutes before our session. We’d done 12 laps in the damp with me having no real problems with arm pump or tiredness, but under race conditions and in the dry I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.

We were directed to our grid position in the collecting area, then onto the circuit for our out lap, a long wait on the flag for it to drop for the warm-up lap, then the waiting was over. Fanch had a good start although it was a little disheartening to have a number of F1s stream past us in the first lap, so I had no idea where we were in the field. We also had to avoid a somewhat mad F2 with young guns on board who grasstracked across our nose at Dunlop on that first lap: bumper cars was not what we needed! I concentrated on finding my moving markers for Dunlop and Le Musée: both involve moving left after heavy braking. I’d seen the fast F2 of Rémy Guignard & Fréderique Poux pull into the pit lane on the warm-up lap, but a few laps in they flew past us, and we settled down to a battle with the F2 of father & son team Olliger/Olliger, nipping at their heels in every corner.

(c) Agnes Lacaze

(c) Agnes Lacaze

No sign of Estelle behind or threatening to overtake us, which surprised me… On lap 5 the same mad black F2 who had grasstracked on lap 1 spun as they entered the start-finish straight, avoiding a head-on into the right-hand pit wall by sheer luck. I was counting down the laps in my head but got lost around 8, then on about lap 10 the leading F1 lapped us, although it was over another lap before the next one caught us.

Fanch crept up on the Olliger F2 and popped past under braking on the last lap (12), holding the line through all those famous corners I know from the MotoGP – Chemin des Boeufs, Garage Bleu and Raccordement. So, chequered flag taken (much to my delight) we were on the slow-down lap at the back of the circuit and Fanch started shouting “Trois, Trois!” at me – third! All the marshals came across the gravel traps to cheer and wave. with crowds waving and cheering at the fences and in the stands. We pulled into Parc Fermé… and we were 2nd! Rémy & Fred had lost a lap and we actually behind us. I was stunned by delighted – I knew Fanch had been on the podium there before, but this far exceeded my wildest dreams.

After kisses and hugs with our families, team-mates and competitors, it was up the stairs to race office. There we shook hands and kissed every member of race direction, were given towels and instructions on the order of ceremonies and where champagne could be sprayed, then out onto the podium. Just wow – a real, proper podium with a real crowd. Overwhelming but fantastic.

(c) Agnes Lacaze

(c) Agnes Lacaze

It was a late evening Saturday: Estelle’s engine had developed a problem so that had to be fixed before we sat down to eat. With the clocks changing forwards and with qualifying at 8.45am, I needed a good night’s sleep. There was a great deal of blustery rain overnight, with awnings attempting to take off. The early morning start was very wet and windy, but again Fanch and I did the full 30mins with me over-riding all my instincts and working the back of the bike on left handers. We qualified well as 4th F2 – I’d been keeping an eye on the illuminated digital leaderboard at the end of the start-finish straight, but only spotted the names from 11th to 18th, which wasn’t very useful.

As the morning progressed the drizzle stopped and the wind created a semi-dry line. The solos made heavy work of the patchy conditions, with very gallic excitement from the commentators of “Chute, chute!” every time another one fell off.  Just before mid-day we assembled again, but it was declared a wet race so reduced to 10 laps from 13 – this is common practice to ensure the day runs to time.

(c) Agnes Lacaze

(c) Agnes Lacaze

In a really amazing feat of over-enthusiasm, the young team from the previous day spun on the out lap… However, when the lights went out Fanch had a blistering start and we went from 7th on the grid to 4th into Dunlop, then settled down for an epic battle with Hélène and Didier Siro’s F2. I couldn’t tell where we were in the F2 order, assuming we were battling for 4th… But again no sign of Estelle. We kept Team Siro behind us until lap 6 when they popped through, with the Olliger F2 then pushing us hard. Fanch had to work hard to keep them in sight, while our wet rear tyre gradually lost all grip and traction. Not only that, but the quickshifter simply wouldn’t work for 4th gear – clunky every time and made for a bumpy ride in places. The track was horribly inconsistent too – dry as a bone in Garage Bleu but soaking at Chemin des Boeufs.

This time we weren’t lapped, and on lap 10 Fanch made an epic undertaking bid at the left-hand hairpin, forcing the Siros out wide and putting them between us and the Olligers’ bike. Across the line, we had a warm down lap with the marshals and crowd waving and cheering – Fanch grabbing my hand as I whooped for joy… and directed into 3rd in Parc Fermé! Estelle had driven round carefully – the engine working but a terrifying problem as the front tyre kept suddenly grabbing and pushing the bars left. She had her TT signature, but not with the results she’d hoped for as she opened her season.

(c) Paul Willis

(c) Paul Willis

For us: two TT signatures, two trophies, two podiums and we lead the French F2 championship 🙂 What a fabulous weekend.

I’d like to say a very heartfelt thank you to each and every person who made the whole weekend possible, especially Paul, Sylvie, Rapace, Sam, Francois Beauchamps, Mike Capon, our friends, families, team-mates and fellow competitors. Also wonderful to catch up with ex-British championship F2 racer Steve Hicks with his passenger Clothilde, and to Ron Hardy and Lancelot Unissart who were there as moral support. A bientôt…

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