Bringing back the Beaujolais

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When 59 teams left Great Britain in a quest to be the first to taste the latest Beaujolais Nouveau, Motor Sport joined them in an Aston Martin
By Ed Foster

There is something weird and wonderful about the British make-up which makes a challenge, however ridiculous or pointless, something that we can’t resist. Back in 1972 Alan Hall, the Sunday Times writer, set one to bring back the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. The wine is well known for being released at midnight before the third Thursday in November (the French are keen to hand out a 1000 euro fine if this isn’t adhered to) and for also being, by French standards, pretty repellent. The fact that driving over 500 miles to get your hands on one of these bottles is borderline psychotic didn’t seem to worry those who set off in search of the admiration of Fleet Street over 30 years ago.

This glorious madness reached its zenith in the 1980s when the RAF touched down in Beaujeu with a Harrier Jump-Jet at midnight, picked up the wine and then landed 32 minutes later in London, waking the journalist and asking where he wanted the bottle. I believe he was somewhat startled.

In order to save driving licences and sponsors, the Beaujolais Run is now a much gentler five-day drive to Maçon and back. The ever-enthusiastic French police can now relax in the knowledge that the main reason behind it is the money it raises for charity; this year more than £150,000 was raised for Winston’s Wish, the Richard Burns Foundation and the Downs Syndrome Association. To keep the gendarmes happy the words “Ce n’est pas une course, c’est un tournoi pour les oeuvres charitables” were emblazoned on the backs of all the cars, sadly small enough to mean that they couldn’t be read until the police had pulled you over and were in the middle of attacking your wallet. Either this or the British policeman on the M26, who gleefully gave us three points for doing 91mph, couldn’t speak French.

It was during a five-course déjeuner on the fourth day that I started to wonder, in between mouthfuls of tarte flambée and Chablis, how the competitors managed to persuade people to part with such large sums of money for what was seemingly a jaunt through France. Nowadays unless someone is planning to hop up Everest, twice, potential sponsors consider your hard-planned event ‘too frivolous’. The advantage of the Hackett Beaujolais Run 2007, however, was that every single penny raised went to charity while none of it, sadly, funded the obscene drinking abilities of our car.

This year the event was once again sponsored by Hackett and celebrated Aston Martin’s 1959 victory at Le Mans. It is sad that the company is still revelling in that victory, especially since it won the GT1 class at Le Mans last year. One of its winning drivers, Darren Turner, was there at the Monday evening charity auction along with the class-winning 009 he drove. All good PR, as they say. On the back of this, however, we were lucky enough to be offered a DB9 to use. 1959 victory or not, I couldn’t imagine a better car in which to spend five days.

After spending most of Monday afternoon applying the stickers and watching “money can’t buy” items being auctioned for charity that evening, we set off, on Tuesday morning, up the Goodwood Hillclimb at a rather sedate 20mph. The Earl of March reminded us all that anyone who touched the grass during the Festival of Speed wasn’t asked back, and those same rules would apply to us. If we came off the asphalt, we wouldn’t be going to France.

From there it was a straight run to the Channel Tunnel and then on to Reims. The second day took us from Reims to Maçon and included the competitive part of the journey, while the final two days, Thursday and Friday, consisted of the return leg via the same route.

The competition comes in the form of a ‘distance trial’ between Reims and Maçon in which the car covering the shortest distance wins. This is taken seriously by some (who quite happily straight-line corners where possible to shave a metre off their overall distance) and less seriously by others (who had to miss the last two checkpoints as their lunch ran on slightly longer than expected).

I was navigating in a 1989 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Volante in the morning and then driving the sublime DB9 in the afternoon. I must admit, I didn’t quite take on board just how serious it all was; on arriving at the second checkpoint another car drew up and the driver mumbled that he had thrown it away. Slightly worried,

I waited to hear a story of blowouts, driver illness and high-speed explosions but to my surprise he carried on by saying, “It really is a disaster – we got diverted for 2km.”

I was rather bemused and indeed embarrassed as only seconds earlier I had worked out that my ‘rather genius’ route that morning was 20km longer than it should have been. To my driver, I apologise, especially since I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him.

The only way was up that afternoon, so having changed to the driving seat of the DB9 and armed with a seasoned navigator in the shape of Neil Bugler of Hackett, we set off. I was adamant that we should have used the satnav having seen various people with on-board computers ‘streaming live information off the web’ – apparently this has the same effect as using a satnav. Really? I certainly can’t play solitaire on my Tom-Tom. Amazingly, even though we had to negotiate the most complex petrol station I have ever come across, and the fact that Neil insisted on using a map, the DB9 ended up in third place overall. Thankfully satnav has now been banned for the 2008 event so even I might be able to avoid 20km diversions.

It was difficult to work out exactly what attracted many of the participants to what is essentially an excuse for a blast through France. Anthony Reid, the well-known touring car driver, opted to do the event in a Jaguar diesel; Jason Dawe, the ex-Top Gear presenter, was in a Jaguar XKR; Hamish Gordon, the Radical Cup driver, was driving a Mercedes CLS 63 AMG; while the rest of the field was made up of 4x4s, Elises, DB9s and the odd classic in the shape of a Morris Minor (which arrived at and left each checkpoint to rapturous applause) and an MGB (which broke down). Reid’s reason for coming was made pretty clear as he leaped up the stairs after the Champagne Tour and headed straight for the Taittinger shop; while others were either complaining of a hangover or asking for another drink.

The epiphany for me came on the narrow and twisty D671 and D971, which run from Troyes down to Dijon, and the E15 down to Maçon. The DB9 is not used at its best in the UK. However gentle you are with your right foot you find yourself cruising at 3000 revs but quite comfortably doing 3000mph and that is why even a short journey on a French autoroute was enough to show me why anyone with a half decent/fun car needs only the smallest of excuses to drive through France. The lure of a simple fine rather than a precious points deduction is too good to resist. Besides the German autobahnen, there are fewer and fewer places to exercise a car’s ability.

The aforementioned two roads are not the kind of route anyone would take if they were actually trying to get anywhere (the motorway to the east is much quicker and less tiring) but this is why people love doing these events. The organisers take time to find these roads and then make it look as though the navigators have merely ‘stumbled’ upon them. The D671 and the D971 provided some of the best driving I have had in a car. Having spent much of my life thinking that the only way to have fun was to drive everything on its door handles, for as long as possible, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the DB9 doesn’t really like doing this (yes, it will cope well, but it is essentially a Grand Tourer) and that if the road is good enough, almost any car will do and certainly any speed will do.

The Beaujolais Run is no longer a testosterone-filled, let’s-lose-our-licence event but after spending nigh on five days getting lost in France it is easy to see its enduring appeal. The opening of the Beaujolais at midnight on Thursday is accompanied by a typically French street party in Beaujeu from 10pm onwards and is certainly worth seeing. There may be a risk of being set alight by a slightly worse-for-wear French student pretending that her candle is Yoda’s lightsabre, but seeing the effort that they go to for the launch is something special.

There are many other rallies, tours, meanders, jaunts and perambulations that you can join. But the Hackett Beaujolais Run has the advantage of a competitive day, a large sum of money raised for charity and, above all, a point to it – even if the stuff isn’t worth drinking.