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Grêve. It’s a word that strikes fear into my very soul, and one that I’ve come across more than once since I started competing in France. For those of you less familiar with it’s meaning, I’ll translate it for you: strike.
It all started well, my girlfriend and I had set off on Thursday arriving in good time for our overnight crossing to St Malo. Boarding the ferry as the radio played the Star Wars theme (fantastic timing for an epic adventure) we had a great meal onboard with my friend Jerry Neary who was also making the trip over in his Westfield. It was Evie’s first time at a race and I was slightly apprehensive given that it can be quite intense, but we had a whole week of relaxing by the coast together.
So I figured that even if it was a fairly shocking weekend (rain, mud, freezing temperatures…) we still had a holiday to enjoy together. Nothing could go wrong…
Running into my diesel reserves I pulled over a few times to fill up, but every station had a queue so we carried on, keen to arrive by lunch and set up camp. I should have taken heed of the early warning signs, but I blazed on in a bid to get on the hill avec scooter – La Pommeraye is very fast and last season I was well down on the pace of the other FR drivers, perhaps a little spooked by the speeds required and the proximity of the armco up it’s narrow length. Shortly after arrival I learnt that there was in fact a diesel strike that had been in force for over a week, it was nationwide and seemed to be spiralling out of control with no end in sight. After a few runs up the hill I reasoned that it was better to find fuel now as most people thought the situation would only worsen come Monday, so after ripping my roof hatch off on a tree we left with a chap called Hervé who seemed certain he could find us some gazol. Colin le Maitre narrowly avoided a spot of van surfing as he was kindly taping down hatch as I drove out of the paddock, but alas we returned empty handed (after 9 stations) and used 1/2 of my remaining reserves in the search. I now had a quarter of a tank left.
With no other options I parked my worries, told myself everything would be fine and vowed to now focus on the race ahead, after all we had enough challenges ahead of us with storms and showers forecast on Sunday. Saturday would be sunny, but no one seemed able to agree on quite what or how bad the weather would get come race day. Free practice started well, and after the first timed run I was I was leading the class, re-entering the pits to be interviewed by the local press for an article in the next days Courriel. Come the second run Estel Bouche went very quickly, moving into P1 by just over a second and leaving me in P2 on a 1:04:64 and feeling good for Sunday. Critically I’d watched my onboard from 2015 against a YouTube video of another FR driver and seen just how slow I’d been driving the year before. With so many fast 4th & 5th gear corners and some very steep gradients, it’s vital to carry the speed and you really don’t need to do much more than brush the brakes. It’s a hill that requires perhaps more bravery than most, and at this point in the season it’s a case of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.
Despite having fixed the alternator I was still having starting problems, and having Evie down at the start line as pit crew was a huge boost, allowing me to focus on the run as opposed to fretting about keeping the car going.
I woke on Sunday to the sound of rain and out of my little porthole window I could see deep puddles hanging in the folds of the gazebo. We all took the free practice, uncertain which tyres would be best suited to the conditions – it looked wet but there didn’t seem to be any standing water… Nonetheless I chose wets (along with half of the other drivers) as there is a wait of around 40 mins between your last chance to change tyres and your actual start time on the line, and the sky’s intentions seemed impossible to read. There wasn’t much grip and I took it pretty steady, the car running a little wide at times but failing to do anything too scary. By the time we came to the first competition run the hill was drying out, at least the top half – the truth was that you needed inters at the bottom and full slicks at the top so I made the most of a good guess and chose slicks over wets being as I only have two options.
Remi Bechardegue set a blistering time of 1:08.2 to move into first place, with Sarah Louvet only tenths behind him, followed by Estel and I was sat in 4th. We’d bounded around the idea that the first run of the day may well be the quickest, and as it turned out it was. After that the hill dried a number of times, only for rain to arrive moments before we left the paddock and shatter any hopes of improving on the morning’s time. While run no.2 wasn’t much wetter I realised I’d overcooked it in the early stages (I had a good go but nearly lost the back end a number of times coming through and out of the bus stop chicane) and we all went slower.
The final run was once more pre-empted by a rain shower, but the sun came out as we drove down to the start and the breeze was also strong enough to help dry things out a bit. Assessing the track it was wet sure enough, but as we waited for our run it was clear that given enough time it might just be dry enough to replicate that crucial first run of the morning. I went hell for leather, but I knew it was too slippery before I was even halfway. Nonetheless I finished fractions behind Sarah (the quickest driver of run no.3) on that final drive, still in 4th but pushing all the way to the end. I kicked myself for not trying harder when it counted, but consoled myself that the car was in one piece, if a little filthy with rain & mud streaking down it’s flanks. Most of all I was happy for Remi to take the win, he finished 2015 on a horrible crash in similar conditions at Mont Dore, his car missing all corners and in a bad way. I’d helped him source some parts for the rebuild over winter, and so this being his second event since then, he really deserved it. A group of us all went for a meal with him that evening and I felt glad to be loading up for St Gouëno, ready to fight another day.
Setting off on Monday we drove to the final station we’d visited on Friday, they’d promised a delivery that day but had no idea of the time. While sat waiting in the car park we had a BBQ, much to the bemusement of a few passers by, but the truth was we didn’t have enough in the tank to go searching blindly. After chatting with a number of people I learnt that there was fuel at Varade, just 4km away. They were only allowing 20ltrs, but it was better than nothing. Shorty afterwards we stopped at Ancenis queueing to take on another 20ltrs, before making our way to St. Nazaire on the coast. I’m currently sat typing this on the beach, enjoying the midday sun with Herve parked yards away (beach life in a van rocks!), without a worry in site. Sure enough this season looks set to throw me as many curve balls as 2015, but then I can’t imagine it any other way.