Track visit -- La Châtre

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Le Mans, Rouen, Reims, Clermont-Ferrand… France had another international circuit using public roads — in this case into the 1980s.  Marcus Simmons takes a trip back into obscure F3 history

Photography by Glenn Dunbar/LAT 

Leaning over the barriers, the team personnel could hardly believe it. Ten laps into this European Formula Three round and the entire field were still swarming around in a single bunch. Out of sight they went once more as they headed over a crest. Ears strained to listen out for any crunching noises from the ridiculously tight hairpin at the far end of the course. But all anyone could hear was tyres locking up. A few seconds later the bemused onlookers turned around to see the field — still intact — flashing past on the D940, reaching the highest speeds they were ever going to attain around this real scratcher’s track.

This was the sixth round of the 1980 European F3 Championship and its first-ever visit to La Châtre. While average lap speeds at the Osterreichring a few weeks earlier had nudged 120mph, this weekend Kurt Thiim’s heroic pole lap in an updated three-year-old Chevron B38, around this tight-and-twisty little 1.44-mile French track, was a mere 81.01mph…

Thiim had to get through the heats first, for La Châtre, being such a tiny circuit, had a maximum grid capacity of just 16 cars. He was beaten by the Euroracing March of Corrado Fabi and would start the final from fourth, behind heat-two winner Thierry Boutsen’s Martini, Fabi and the other Euroracing March of Michele Alboreto.

Boutsen was the man on form. The Belgian had been selected to emulate 1979 champion Alain Prost’s successes for the ORECA Martini team, and had delivered by winning three of the first four races. Yep, it really looked like Boutsen was on his way to Formula One. At La Châtre he’d goofed in his heat, locking up his rear brakes into the tight hairpin just after the start and gifting the lead to team-mate Philippe Alliot, but Alliot had retired on the second lap with a broken gearbox. Boutsen went on to head home Alboreto, who was emerging as his closest title threat.

Everyone learns from their mistakes, so in the final Boutsen locked his front  brakes into that hairpin, giving Alboreto the advantage. And it was with the Italian in front that the whole pack ducked and dived, looking to find the teensiest gap. Finally Fabi found one, brilliantly passing Boutsen at the 10-lap mark. With the Belgian suffering a slow puncture and holding up the field, the Italians were able to scamper clear. Alboreto won and ignited his title bid; Boutsen would fail to win any of the remaining eight rounds. La Châtre was a pivotal point: Alboreto won the championship and would make his grand prix debut the following May; Boutsen would be forced to wait another two years…

La Châtre, which had a mix of public road and permanent circuit roughly one mile to the east of the town, was now firmly on the European F3 calendar and would remain so until the series was axed after the 1984 season. Even then it carried on hosting rounds of the hotly-contested French F3 and Touring Car championships for a few more years and would carry on holding its annual meeting for club racers until the mid-90s.

So the circuit had a four-decade lifespan as a competition venue, but even before its first meeting in 1956 the area — slap-bang in the middle of France in the Montgivray commune, around 25 miles south of Châteauroux — had a competition history. In 1928 the first Course de la Côte d’Ars was held along the D943 to the north of the town (this road is at a right-angle to the D940, along which the later racing circuit would run). This was a hillclimb along a road which was then unsealed, and in ’32 would lead to the death of the celebrated André Boillot, brother of pre-WWI racing legend Georges, when he crashed a Peugeot sportscar in practice.

The hillclimb would continue up until 1954, when plans were made for a switch to circuit racing. This was to take place over an incredibly short layout measuring just 0.79 miles! The start-finish line was on the D940. Cars would head briefly towards the town before taking a 90-degree bend to the right onto a section of road built specially for racing. This was quickly followed by another, gentler right, a right-hand kink and then a plunge downhill to the ‘Boutsen’ hairpin, which took the cars back onto the D940.

In the early years the Grand Prix de La Châtre was to be held for 500cc F3 cars. The first event was supposed to be run in 1955, but it obviously takes a long time to prepare eight tenths of a mile of track and the venue didn’t crackle into life until June 17 ’56, when Swiss Harry Zweifel became the first winner of the event in his Cooper-Norton.

In 1960 the GP de La Châtre switched to Formula Junior regulations and for the first time a British driver won — Dennis Taylor in his Lola-BMC Mk2. The year after that, Rhodesian John Love triumphed in Ken Tyrrell’s Cooper T56, but in ’64— the first year of the new 1-litre F3 — Tyrrell’s latest young protégé would be famously defeated…

The headline in the June 19 1964 edition of Autosport says it all: JACKIE STEWART BEATEN! The wee Scot arrived at the little French track with a Cooper T72 and an unbeaten F3 record. But with a broken clutch he was defeated by local hero Eric Offenstadt, who had made the switch from motorcycles.

More and more international teams and drivers were being attracted to this eccentric venue, which in this guise was limited to just eight starters — meaning that to make the final you had to finish your heat in the top four! Jacques Laffite and Bob Wollek are just two of the famous names to have suffered La Châtre DNQs in their early careers.

The circuit would not be lengthened until 1978, but F3 effectively died in France between 1974-77, the early years of the 2-litre regulations. Therefore, the fastest F3 race lap around the 0.79-mile layout was set in ’72 by Tony Brise’s Brabham — although he was beaten to victory by Roger Williamson: Brise set the lap record at 35.7 sec (79.33mph). At the same meeting there was a sportscar race, and it is believed that Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s lap in a Lola T290 at 34.7 sec (81.61mph) remains the outright record for this configuation.

Reborn in ’78 with its new extension, the circuit is still there in its entirety. Cramming a journalist and a photographer — both of whom clock in at over six feet — plus luggage into a Noble M400 for a sprint down to Dover and then southwards through France was not the easiest of propositions, but the journey went without a hitch.

The 3-litre, twin-turbo, V6 Roush-powered M400 turned heads when we arrived at the circuit. The permanent part of the course is still used by the EuroFormula racing school, and when we arrived a car dealership was holding a track day. The ‘old’ circuit we shot with no problem, though there were two locked green gates, one after the pre-78 Turn 2, one on the crest leading down to the hairpin. It took some negotiation in schoolboy French to get access to the modern part, but like all good Frenchmen they had a decent lunchbreak, during which they offered us 15 laps and a glass of white wine.

The ‘new’ layout veers to the left after the old Turn 2 into a third-gear S-bend, then straight into a long, slow, double-apex hairpin. Accelerate through right and left-hand sweepers, before dabbing the brakes for another third-gear S-bend, then slow right down for a tight second-gear left-hander onto the ‘new’ start-finish straight. Through a climbing left, then a blind right turn, bringing you back onto the original circuit and down towards the tight hairpin.

There is a pit lane by the start-finish line, but one of the beauties of La Châtre was that this was nowhere near sufficient to host the paddock. Even in its late years (including Jean Alesi’s French F3 win in 1987), the cars were based in the town square. “We would start the cars up next to the fire station,” remembers former mechanic Serge Saulnier, who now runs one of France’s leading single-seater teams. “Then the driver would take the car along the main road to the track and the team would follow on in the van.”

Engineer Andy Miller adds: “I played boules in the paddock with Gary Anderson, who was running the Anson team, and Tommy Byrne. There were a couple of hotels everyone used to stay in and there was a nightclub up the road we all used to go to. It was great fun. I remember once we actually managed to organise a test there, but we had to have a policeman at either end of the main road section, stopping the traffic whenever our car came round.”

Philippe Alliot proved to be the King of La Châtre. In 1978, the year it was lengthened, he won the Formula Renault race. Then in ’81 and ’82 he won the European F3 headliner. Roberto Ravaglia triumphed in 1983, while in ’84 Ivan Capelli was the victor when he pipped Johnny Dumfries.

“It was a strange little place,” says Dumfries, now known as Johnny Bute. “Quite an attractive little town and architecturally quite interesting. I was driving for Dave Price at the time and we were in a strong position in the British championship and the European. I couldn’t make every round of the European — otherwise we might have won that as well.

“The weather at La Châtre was very changeable, pretty much the same as in England at that time of year (the ’84 running was in May). It was a bit wet when we went out for practice — and it’s always tricky going out on a circuit like that, which is half public roads, when the weather’s wet. The surface was really unpredictable, but anyway I don’t remember throwing it into the Armco, so that was a good thing!”

Claudio Langes got pole, but on the eighth lap was caught out by Capelli and watched as Dumfries and John Nielsen also went past. Dumfries had to wait for Nielsen’s engine to fail before he could attack Capelli. “Capelli pulled about two or three seconds out,” says Johnny, “which on a short track like that seemed like a really big gap. Nielsen was a very aggressive driver — sort of hard but fair. I was distracted by him and extremely relieved when his engine blew! That gave me the space to stop watching my mirrors and get after Capelli again.”

One of the great things about the European F3 Championship was that out-of-the-way, characterful circuits such as La Châtre and Knutstorp had a place on the international calendar with Silverstone and the Osterreichring. “Those circuits were really well suited to F3 cars,” says Dumfries. “You could go somewhere like Silverstone or Thruxton, which were superfast and where you had to slipstream to overtake — that was real strategy racing. Then at La Châtre you’d tend to cram a lot of downforce on the car and then start winding it off, because you’d find it was bogging down on the straight — even though it was a very short straight!”

And it still is. Owing to the open-tyre regulations of European F3, Alain Ferté’s 1982 first-heat fastest lap of 63.03sec was never beaten by the control-tyred French F3 of the late ’80s. The time equates to a speed of just 82.51mph… “It was very slow, but the atmosphere was very funny and friendly,” says Saulnier. “Everyone was happy to be there and the racing was very spectacular — there were a lot of incidents!”