Chimay

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The 1972 Belgian GP was at held nivelles. Two weeks earlier,just down the road, the antithesis of that bland track ran its last great car race. By Paul Fearnley

They blammed past the pits. Five of ’em, maybe six, as one. Ensign, GRD, Narval (remember them?), Brabham, March — a sampler of Formula Three’s rich, early-1970s tapestry, stitched together by invisible currents and eddies.

And he was wrapped in it. No need for pit signals. He’d been here before. Slipstreaming is a knack. And he had it.He’d led at the start of the first lap, from the outside of the front row, but this, he knew, counted for nothing. A case proven by Tony Brise on lap three, his Brabham drafting past nine cars to lead this frantic 12-lappet Sweden’s Conny Andersson took a turn at the front, too. As did Michel Leclere. As did James Hunt. None of this mattered though.

Last lap. Now it mattered. At Silverstone, ‘pole position’ for this sort of situation was third-ish. Chimay, at 6.75 miles per lap, allowed more leeway. To win here from fourth, even fifth, was not impossible. It can’t have been — he’d done it once before.

Andersson spluttered short of fuel. Brise led. But he was a sitting duck. Pierre-Francois Rousselot and Christian Ethuin (remember them?) whistled by. Sandwiched between them was our man, hunkered down in the cockpit, squeezing every last drop of speed. The tiniest lift would be escalated out of all proportion.

Backmarkers! Rousselot didn’t lift. He feathered. But it was enough. And he was through. Downhill, under the trees, slight left, slight right, over the crest — plenty far enough for the GRD man to counter-attack. They blammed past the chequered flag, five of ’em, maybe six, as one — covered by 1.5sec.

He’d stated that this was going to be his final F3 outing, and he so craved that hat-trick. The race didn’t count for any championship he was particularly interested in, never had, but he loved its flat-in-top challenge, savoured the tang of fear it left in his mouth, revelled in the knowledge that he had the knack.

David Purley had been a paratrooper. Purley was tough. Purley was fearless. Purley won that day in 1972. And so Purley got his hat-trick. His first Chimay win, in 1970, had been the big breakthrough. After just two seasons of club racing, he’d stepped up to F3, the most harum-scarum formula. And in May of that year, he held his nerve to beat Hunt by a tenth of a second.

‘The Shunt’ had been the star, however, half-spinning at the start of the last lap and dropping to fifth. By the final corner of note, Beauchamps, he was back in the lead. Only to be gazumped by ‘Purls’ on the rough-and-tumble to the line.

Purley’s Lec-backed Brabham had an easier time of it in 1971, setting up his memorable F3 farewell at the wheel of an Ensign.

Chimay bade farewell to cars the next season. The proper Chimay, that is. A 2.8-mile circuit, first used in 1995, is extant, partly comprised of the original track, but it is a pale shadow of its predecessor, which was of classic triangular ‘steeplechase’ configuration: barrel down to that village, turn right. Ditto. Ditto.

Chimay’s Grand Prix des Frontieres (the town lies just over the French border) was a throwback in the 1970s. As speeds and the death toll (drivers and spectators) mounted, during the 1950s especially, its demise was oft mooted. Yet it survived — from 1926 to 73. Sometimes it flourished; sometimes it hung on by the skin of its teeth. Its organisers, however, were always friendly, always pragmatic. Foremost among them was Jules Buisseret, the race’s founding father.

His event was a chameleon, running to numerous formulae, whichever suited its needs at the time: 1100cc, 1500cc, up to 2000cc, Formula Libre, sportscars up to 2000cc, unlimited sportscars, sportscars over 2000cc, Formula A, Formula B, F2, F1,Formula Junior and — for the most settled era of its existence — F3 from 1965 to the demise. It ran single races. It ran two heats. It ran two heats and a final. It occasionally used a Le Mans run-and-jump start It ran motorbike races on the same bill until 1965. From 1966 to 73, touring cars headlined alongside F3.

Throughout all of this chopping and changing, however, the event never got too big for its boots, never overstretched (races were rarely much more than 20 laps). It remained true to itself: a race that revelled in being of second or third rank; a race desperate to fill its grid; a race memorable to win; a race everybody loved. By adopting and maintaining these premises, its reputation became, and remains, more than the sum of its parts. For, put simply, Chimay is simple. Apart, perhaps, from the La Bouchere hairpin on the outskirts of its eponymous town. This is half a mile in, with a downhill approach. The cars swept right after the start and then, easing gently left, skirted past an imposing stone wall, which has since been replaced by housing. Entering the famous brewing town, the road kinks right…

Missed it! At just 30mph.

The junction is wide — there is a Tarmac apron falling away to the left before it, a large parking area to the left just after it, and enough space for there to be a low-walled triangle in the middle of it — and yet it’s hidden by the quoin of a stone-built house. This is the clipping point of this second-gear corner; the aforementioned right kink is its awkward, compromised, teetering braking area. A single layer of Armco eventually replaced the straw bales, but this was always an unyielding place to go off— and a thrilling, echoing place at which to spectate.

Until 1973, that is, after which it was bypassed by a new piece of road, shortening the track to 5.9 miles. Bikes used this layout for the next 20 years — `Sheeney’ left its outright lap record at 134.4mph; it even held national car races from 1986 to ’93.

The hairpin opens outs and an easy-flat left-right flings you beyond the house-line and onto a 1.5-mile, gently climbing straight (the N593 to Trelon) that arrows to the horizon, the enclave of Salles its first target. A roundabout breaks the flow, but there was no respite back then, and engines would be fit to burst by the time cars reached the tempting fast left just past Salles’ careful drivers’ sign. It’s a corner that has four-wheel drift written all over it. A Siren of a corner, where you’d only realise how fast you were going when you got on the grass. Ditch. Field.

The road crests into Salles. There is a farmhouse to the right,houses to the left, but they do not crowd the road. The whitewashed farm on the outside of the first of the back-to-back 90-degree rights, however, looks uncomfortably close. Lap one. Middle of the pack. Cold tyres. Cold brakes. Hmm. And this is a corner that’s faster than it looks. It’s slightly banked, a sort of mini Stavelot (the reprofiled version). Two hundred yards further on is an almost identical corner, except it’s slightly uphill.

You are now pointing back in the direction of Chimay, on the N595, a quieter road — which is why this was the narrower part of the track. Four metres narrow until 1957. Which is why the flat left that squeezes past the Chapelle de l’Arbrisseau, a looming granite building separated from the edge of the track by a few blades of grass, must have been truly terrifying. It’s also why the pack had to funnel into single file and hold its breath as it flashed over Le Petit Pont This crosses the now-disused Mons-Chimay railway. Originally a left-kink-right-kink affair, it was straightlined in 1960. Between these two hazards lies Virage Mairesse, so named because of Willy’s crash in 1957. It is the only true corner on this leg. Third or fourth gear, blessed with helpful cambers, it’s another tempter, one which still clearly claims local hotheads: virage dangereux, the sign intones.

Chimay’s final section begins at the capacious T-junction with the N53, the road from Charleroi. The inside line has a relaxed radius and so speeds were high, momentum maintained.

This part of the track is overhung with trees — a contrast to the wide, flat vistas on the dash to Salles and back — and the ‘road graffiti’ makes it treacherous on a day of hanging drizzle such as this. But in the dry, the bends on the run-in to the finish would have been of little significance. There is a yump, too, but of insufficient severity to promote take-off.

Not much of note, then. This was no Nordschleife. No Spa. It never purported to be. What it was, though, was an unrelenting test of nerve, the like of which no longer exists.

David Purley received the George Medal in recognition of his attempt to pull Roger Williamson from an upturned, burning March in the 1973 Dutch GE Purley recovered from multiple injuries sustained in a huge accident during practice for the 1977 British GE Purley was killed when his aerobatics plane crashed into the sea off Bognor Regis in 1985. Purley was perhaps born a generation too late; Chimay perhaps lasted a generation more than it ought. Theirs was a match made by some higher force.

But opposites attract, too. Peter Westbury was an engineer, a deep thinker who, disappointed by the feedback from his drivers, decided to have ago. Somewhat to his surprise, you sense, he discovered he had a flair for it He was British hillclimb champion in 1963 and ’64, but got itchy feet and went circuit racing in ’65. Two years later, he was in F3 with a Brabham.

“It’s odd that! should go from one of the slowest forms of the sport to excelling on the faster tracks,” he says. He won at Chimay (1967 and ’68), Silverstone and Reims, and finished second in the F2 Lottery GP at Monza. “I have fond memories of Chimay. It was so much fun. I loved the high-speed stuff. It was a real thrill. We just never considered the safety implications.”

Purley would have been more colourful, but this no-nonsense explanation of this no-nonsense circuit is vivid when viewed without our standard-issue, 21st century, grey-tinted spectacles. So, ladies and gentleman, please raise those glasses: to Chimay.

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