Flamenco Red GT V8's in France
Planning our trip to France for the MG event of the year at Royat near Clermont Ferrand started in November 2005 with confirmation that Jim Gibson and Sue Walker Flamenco factory V8 2435 were registered along with Tony and Sylvia Lake in another Flamenco factory V8 2489. Eurotunnel bookings and a hotel in Royat soon followed and we were all set. The old Grand Prix circuit at Charade featured strongly in the programme, that had really tipped the balance, 100 euros for an hour's lappery with a bunch of other V8's looked like good value. Clermont Ferrand is the home of Michelin and the late Patrick Depailler, local hero and Tyrell F1 ace. I then had an E-mail from Brian Osborne, after meeting him marshaling at the 2005 Rally of the Tests with the obligatory pint afterwards, who put me in touch with John Hale, many of you will remember him as the MGCC International Manager. Not surprisingly he was all booked up for France too and added a pleasant twist by way of an invitation to stay at his sister's B&B near Brantome in the Dordogne after the MG event in the Auvergne. About this time Jim and I had realised that Classic Le Mans could be fitted in if we could somehow persuade our loved ones that this was the perfect way to round off the trip to France. I don't know how Jim did it but I have some pretty big jewelry and restaurant bills to show for it. The fun then began looking for rooms near Le Mans, we eventually ended up in a gite with more than enough room for the four of us so I asked Frederic Lemaire of MGCC de France if he knew of anybody looking for Le Mans accomodation, this brought an immediate response from Franck Morand who lives in Thailand. He is the Far Eastern Marketing Director for a Clermont Ferrand company, his home town, he was returning for the big French event and needed Le Mans digs as well. As the emails continued it turns out that he has the only Factory V8 in France, Mirage Blue 0154, what a small world!
Our June 26th journey to the Chunnel from Northampton was uneventful, as was the blast down to Aumale for a well earned shower and dinner. The following day we travelled further south to end up in Briare which is where the Gustave Eiffel designed Pont-Canal aqueduct was built that joins the Loire and the Seine, a magnificent stone and iron tribute to the men that constructed it between 1890 and 1896. 662 m long with ornate lighting not unlike that in the Schlumpf car museum in Mulhouse, our hotel was 100m from the eastern end. By now the weather had changed for the better and dining outside was the norm. Our route south took us into the Magny Cours F1 circuit where preparation was in full swing for the French round of follow my leader that passes for Grand Prix racing today. We arrived in Royat mid afternoon on Wednesday and picked up our welcome pack from the organisers, the little square was buzzing with enthusiasm as MG's of every model, hue and origin came and went, we happily clicked into the park anywhere ethos that pervades French party time. At our hotel, Le Chatel, we ran into Brian Rainbow's T Register party from both the Kilsby and Arden Octagon natters along with other Old Farts from the Lunch Club. The runs, lunches and gala dinners have been well reported by others, suffice to say we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
The Charade circuit was built in 1958 on the side of an extinct volcano, it started out at 8 km and was described as a twistier and faster version of the Nurburgring. Many drivers complained of motion sickness and as a consequence wore open face helmets, just in case. Ivor Bueb, the Jaguar Le Mans winner, was killed at Charade in 1959 whilst driving an F2 BRP Cooper-Borgward. John Frankenheimer filmed 'Grand Prix' there in 1966 using 3000 locals as extras. It hosted four French F1 GPs. In 1965, the late Jim Clark won on a Lotus-Climax, the 1969 winner was Jackie Stewart on a Matra-Ford, in 1970 the late Jochen Rindt won on a Lotus-Ford and the last French F1 GP to be held there in 1972 was won by Jackie Stewart on a Tyrrell-Ford. The lap record at that distance stands to Chris Amon on a Matra-Ford at 166.75 km/hr. There were a number of incidents that culminated in the closure of the 8km circuit in 1988. The present circuit is 3.86 km long and hosts formula 3 races and bike events. Just to calibrate you, a V8 can get round in about 3.00, Chris Amon did 2.53 over the 8km circuit, that was brisk motoring. So with this background it was with some trepidation that Jim, Sue and I arrived for our laps on Saturday morning. Sylvia took the shopping option and raided downtown Royat with her plastic friend. The introduction to the circuit was given by Franck Morand who obviously had spent a lot of his youth spectating and lapping, we heeded his advice although judging by some of the attacks on the scenery not everybody did. Saturday's session was a bit shorter than it should have been because of a noise problem with a Costello V8 roadster and the organiser's suggestion to come back on Sunday so as to keep to the Saturday schedule was not greeted with much warmth. We did get our laps and as a bonus the sessions on Sunday were all free. I fried my brakes, but after cooling down, a top up with some fresh fluid and a good bleed the pedal was OK. It is certainly an exhilarating and demanding circuit, we all had a lot of fun and it proved the perfect setting for the parade laps that rounded off the weekend. Our French hosts put on a superb event, they really do know how to party!
We said our farewells on Monday morning and headed off to Chateau des Granges near Brantome in the Dordogne. The weather was pretty miserable, heavy rain and low cloud, but as we left the Auvergne behind it faired up. We had a warm welcome from MG enthusiasts Christine and Geoff Phillips who moved out here in 2003 to renovate their old chateau. Their cars include an NGTA, a Midget and an MGCGT. John and Sue Hale from Gloucester were in an MGF, their SA had not cooperated just before departure for Royat. The Luxembourgers included Ton and Fredry Maathuis whose V8 show car took pride of place in the MGCC de France car park at Le Mans, Ron and Ingrid in another Midget, Henk and Tineke Kornelis in a TD, then Albert and Ireen Hagorn from Holland in an RV8 along with Michael and Brigitte from Germany in a Triumph TR3. Some went swimming, the rest relaxed as John and Geoff whipped up a barbecue. Christine had arranged a walking tour cum treasure hunt of Brantome which kept us busy on Tuesday. Dinner that night was in the next village where the mother and father of thunderstorms sent us inside to sit in quite romantic candlelight, no power so no desserts or cheese, the restaurateur was not going to open fridges until electricity was restored.The only sensible thing to do was serve more wine which he duly did. Then on Wednesday we had a short scenic tour and lunch nearby at a waterside restaurant, followed by an alfresco dinner. More farewells on Thursday and then off to La Rochelle for the night to renew acquaintance with old haunts before making our way to Le Mans.
After Royat Jim and Sue went on to their seaside break in the Charente Maritime. They then spent a couple of days staying in Chinon with Wendy and Richard Packer, MGB GT owners, who we had met at the Royat event.
By Friday evening we had all joined up again in our gite. Dinner became an obsession, we could not find any open restaurants until our convoy came across the the village of Mayet which was en fete, what joy! We dined at benches on plates of paella washed down by plastic cups of local white wine, we know how to entertain our ladies. Half way through dinner Peter Good, Franck's colleague from the UK turned up in a rather loud TVR, having given a lecture in Paris and then hot footed it south. Much direction from Franck by mobile phone but he made it. We were engaged in conversation by two adjacent couples who clearly had a big interest in the 24 hour race. They were holding an 'exposition' in the mairie and would we come along? Well yes, of course, it turns out that Michel Pommier has a priceless collection of period press cuttings, photographs, film, video and all sorts of artefacts connected with Le Mans since the first race in 1923. He also has over 2000 models representing almost every car that has ever run at Le Mans. This year he was showing a retrospective on the 1955 race in which Pierre Levegh had the big accident in a Mercedes. His friend, Alain Gremillon, is an artist who takes a camera to the race each year and works up cartoons and sketches from the photos in pencil and colour which are exquisite in their detail. I bought a copy of the 2003 book that celebrates the first Bentley win since 1930. This exhibition is held every year, if you can, get along to the Mairie in Mayet and see it, from Le Mans due south on the D307 to Pontvaillon then due east on the D15. We all unsuccessfully guessed the length of a cured sausage. Sylvia just had to know the result, so on Monday on the way home we found out at the local newsagent, a whopping 6.4m.
Classic Le Mans was great, we had passes for the MGCC de France parking right between the Dunlop Bridge and the Esses and by degrees we all saw what we needed to, the paddock, the village, the starts, the racing, pit stops, and endless parades of exotica that was capped by a magnificent line up of no fewer than 54 GT40's, where did they all come from? Sadly Adrian Newey stuffed his into the banking at the end of the Mulsanne straight when the brakes failed, then later had a big shunt at Goodwood Revival in his lightweight E type, hmm. It is a shame that the very early cars are now there in such small numbers, I guess it is pretty demanding on them to race, I hope the organisers can find a way of enticing them back, perhaps some more sedate parade laps. While all this was going on there was also a Football competition in Germany, a lot of men were racing round France on bicycles, fancy electronics were being exercised at Magny Cours in a Grand Prix, and there was plenty of bonk-bonk from the Wimbledon finals, quite a busy sporting fortnight.
Yet more farewells and we were all on our separate ways home. The joy of French motoring was quickly forgotten as we joined the queue for the Dartford tunnel that started as soon as we joined the M25, what a mess our roads are. Still we had a fantastic 2300 mile holiday and apart from my abuse of the brakes our cars ran perfectly, I got 26mpg overall which considering the size of my right boot in France was pretty good. The 2006 French event of the year was an unqualified success, good luck to the German event at Heidelberg in 2007, our hosts, Christine and Geoff Phillips in the Dordogne on www.chateaudesgranges.co.uk are ready to welcome more MG enthusiasts to their beautiful chateau, the exhibition at the Mairie in Mayet is a must and Classic Le Mans is unrivalled, roll on 2008.