A Charade, Albi bound

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As the historic racing season drew to a close, Richard and Trisha Pilkington’s TOPS historic racing car club masterminded an ‘end of term’ October tour culminating in a Grand Prix car demonstration at the Albi historic meeting. This was prefaced by a period of tyre-testing with the new range of Michelin-produced Englebert historic racing tyres, and a private familiarisation session at the splendid new Charade circuit at Clermont Ferrand, the quieter interludes being filled with some good-spirited socialising and cultural activities along the way.

The group, which ultimately totalled 15 cars, comprised well-known British and European historic racers augmented by preparation experts Peter Shaw and Ted Rollason, and automobilia dealer Colin Warrington.

On the Wednesday, proceedings commenced at Michelin’s test facility at Ladoux, just outside Clermont Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne, where the tyre giant’s manufacturing enterprise is based, with seven cars selected to test the latest developments of the Englebert competition tyre which has been developed by Michelin for use in historic racing, under the enthusiastic guidance of division director, Jacques Rouffet. The group of testers included the 308C Alfa of Paul Grist, the ERAs of Martin Morris and Sir John Venables-Llewelyn, the Talbot Lagos of Richard Pilkington and Belgian Francois d’Huart, Kirk Rylands’ HWM, and Trisha Pilkington’s Alfa Monza.

For some it was their first sampling of the new tyre, while others had been involved from the outset when the TOPS group were selected by Michelin to undertake a test programme in conjunction with the relaunch of the Englebert name. The general reaction was favourable, and in particular the comment heard was that the tyres offered progressive breakaway and recovery characteristics. Wet-weather testing continued the following morning for all except the Grist Alfa which developed a fuel leak from the bottom union of its bag tank; this was ultimately rectified in time to proceed to Albi.

Thursday afternoon was spent at the ‘new’ Charade circuit, which incorporates the southern section of the former Grand Prix circuit, part of which still remains a public road, with the two extreme points connected by a new link section. Although facilities are in their early stages of development, the only permanent building being a grandstand, the circuit capitalises on the undulating geography with considerable rise and fall within its 4km lap. Here the tyre-test group was augmented by a further seven cars and of these, Ted Rollason in the only disc-braked car, Tony Smith’s B-Type Connaught, was ecstatic in praise of the circuit. It places a high premium on braking, and lacking a straight of any consequence tends to favour more modern cars, the older and heavier drum-braked cars suffering from severe brake-fade. The circuit occupies a most magnificent setting, and although, in length, now a shadow of the original Grand Prix circuit, the new track retains echoes of the 8km road circuit where Clark won in commanding style at its first GP in 1965, and where Stewart won in 1969 and 1972, when Kiwi hero Chris Amon left the outright lap record standing at 166.751kph after nearly winning with the V12 Matra. It was also the circuit where the switchbacks made Jochen Rindt physically ill in the Lotus 49B in 1969, when he dispensed with his full-face helmet and raced in an old open-faced version borrowed from close friend Piers Courage, but was still unable to complete the distance. These men are all heroes of the enthusiastic circuit director, Patrice Besqueuet, who had generously arranged for the road to be closed and the circuit marshalled for the afternoon to allow the TOPS group some familiarisation time, and to allow for some local publicity. Although restricted to only four race meetings per year at present, it is Patrice’s ambition to host a major historic race event along the lines of the Silverstone and Nürburgring festivals within the next two years.

The following day was spent by most of the group in taking in some of the splendid scenery in the immediate vicinity, the main features of the landscape having been formed as the result of volcanic activity, with lunch being taken at the top of the highest of these, the spectacular Puy de Dome, with diversion taking the form of a group of parascending locals above the restaurant terrace.

By various routes, the participants wound their way the next 300kms further south to Albi on the Saturday, part of the entourage being delayed to assist Paul Grist’s daughter Nathalie, who was conducting the family D-Type. It stuttered to a halt on the road to Rodez with recalcitrant fuel pumps, only being restored to some form of health after swapping one of the pumps from Graham Burrows’ Cooper-Bristol with the assembled expertise of half the teams in transit. It was also on this leg of the journey that Brian Dollamore’s newly-rebuilt Talbot 150C caught fire while in the course of some extended ‘running-in and from which team driver Robert Heelis was ready to eject himself before it was brought to a halt with thankfully little damage.

A gala dinner was the prelude to Sunday’s meeting, during the course of which Richard Pilkington and Francois d’Huart were inducted into the local chapter of sommeliers, a ceremony which involved intake of the best part of a bottle of Gaillac in one draught accompanied by some incomprehensible singing in praise of the grape, all carried out with the quiet dignity becoming of Talbot-Lago drivers.

Somewhat surprisingly, all were in good fettle come Sunday morning, although for the first time during the trip the weather had taken on a decidedly unwelcoming look, and for the morning session the track was very wet, although the worst of the rain had abated. The meeting was typical of French historic events which are run, in the main, as demonstrations and feature fairly diverse categories, with a couple of motorcycle classes thrown in for good measure and is the brainchild of circuit owner, collector and sometime historic racer Rene Mauries, who wielded the tricolour and chequered flag throughout the day in a style reminiscent of the late Toto Roche.

The circuit itself is the airfield perimeter track used for the post-war F2 races, and still in use for French national events such as F3 and touring cars, and was much to the liking of the TOPS contingent, the only chicane being of the ‘bus-stop’ variety and with some decent straights, although flag-marshalling left a good deal to the imagination. In the first session, the two ERAs, the Grist Alfa, Pilkington’s Talbot-Lago and Ted Rollason’s Connaught put on a spirited display in the damp conditions at the head of the field with Ryland’s HWM and Graham Burrows’ Cooper Bristol indulging in a close scrap, and ‘Spike’ Milligan’s A-Type Connaught slicing through the field after trouble with his first gear off the line. After lunch, the track had dried and the rain held off, and the lead battle developed, once again, between the ERAs, the Alfa which Paul had very sideways on a number of occasions, the Talbot-Lago, and briefly Burrows’ Cooper-Bristol, having lost Ted Rollason when the de Dion tube sheared leaving the rear wheels at odds with each other.

The leaders held the crowd’s interest while other dices down the field kept them well entertained and appreciative of the effort involved in assembling a group of cars of a type rarely seen in this part of France, and in return the French hosts had made the group most welcome, rounding off an excellent itinerary in which the participants (and their wives) had had some fun and hopefully entertained a few people along the way, which should augur well for expanding interest in the world of historic racing.

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