Strictly come dancing... on ice

The Trophée Andros is as much a part of European winter sport as après-ski - and there is no sign of its appeal diminishing

“Alain Prost couldn’t slide in Formula 1, but he could in the Trophée Andros.” According to Max Mamers, founder of the Trophée Andros ice racing series, that’s the main reason the four-time Formula 1 champion used to spend his winters slithering around the mountains – and winning three titles. “Going sideways is basically forbidden in F1. He wanted to do the forbidden.” 

Perhaps that’s why Romain Grosjean, Jacques Villeneuve, former French international goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and Olivier Panis have also competed in the Trophée Andros, but just going sideways can’t be the only draw of a branch of motor sport that has been running for almost three decades and continues to enliven European winters.

Rather than the expected buzz and crackle of rallycross cars charging across the ice in front of a gaggle of onlookers, we were welcomed by the whine of electricity and a crowd rivalling that of a Ligue 2 match, albeit with a healthy smattering of sponsorship and hospitality tents. 

This was the first test of the new electric Trophée Andros cars, boasting the rear-wheel steering of their petrol counterparts, a pair of motors producing a touted 535bhp, 1180lb ft of torque and the frantic acceleration that comes with such numbers. In two to three years, estimates Mamers, petrol cars will have been completely phased out in favour of electricity.

The series is even creating a €100,000 kit, with manufacturer Exagon, to convert petrol vehicles into these electric alternatives. If all this seems a little folksy, that’s not really the appropriate term for a series that has been using electric power since 2009 – this is progressive, forward-thinking stuff.

“The performance is a lot better,” Mamers says. “And most importantly, it’s far better for the environment. We’re up in the mountains. We have to be careful of our surroundings. It’s the future.”

Of course, at present cars with internal combustion engines do compete in the Trophée Andros. It’s essentially a spec-series with silhouette bodies: Audi A1s, Mazda3s, Renault Capturs, BMW M2s and, particularly, mean-looking Peugeot 3008s. They snarl, growl and wail through the mountains, producing about 280 horsepower – 360 at sea level – and emit an unsettling smell, using oil that doesn’t solidify in the cold air and forces its scent into your nostrils.

They’re brash, and rude. Stand to the outside of a corner and wait for the cars to pass and your reward – or punishment – will be a voluminous volley of snow, mostly in the direction of your face.

On the day, defending champion Jean-Baptiste Dubourg took victory over Nathanaël Berthon in the elite pro class, leading a grid that also comprised three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Benoît Tréluyer and Nicolas Prost, following in his father’s footsteps. 

“I won the electric category twice here and I moved to the electric category because I want to learn something new, for the future,” says Prost, enjoying his ‘off’ season before sitting back down in his full-time Formula E seat. “It’s one of the best categories of racing, but it’s very different to what I normally do. Driving one of these cars is one of the most amazing experiences in the world, entering corners backwards and going sideways.

“In the future, I’ll be here full-time,” he says.

Prost grew up watching the series, as, apparently, did hundreds of thousands of French ice-racing fans. And they still do.

“In fact,” he adds, “one of my engineers used to be my idol when I was a kid. Marcel Tarrès won the championship in 2004.”

Tarrès is a highly accomplished off-road racer, with three 24 Hours of Chamonix ice-racing titles and a vast collection of hillclimb championships under his belt. Before (and after) his Trophée Andros title, touring car titan Yvan Muller – champion from 1996 to 2002, and then again from 2004 to ’06 – was the dominant force.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is an Alpine-themed jolly, where French racing drivers holiday, drink wine and eat without a care, but 2012 World Endurance Championship winner Tréluyer was quick to correct any such notion.

“These are really passionate people. You can’t take it too lightly here,” he says. “A lot of people watch it on TV and it’s really important for the sponsors as well. Of course, at this time of year there’s not much else on TV so people, especially those missing motor sport, are interested.

“I really do enjoy it, too. I actually took it too seriously when I began and worked too much. I wasn’t used to that. Now I’m lazy and it works better.” 

Tréluyer’s journey to French ice racing seems to have been born out of indecision – and what he calls a joke he made in 2015, telling a team owner to change his Toyota bodyshell to that of an Audi so that he would contractually be able to drive it.

“I was doing some GT3 in 2017 but I don’t know what I’m going to do this year,” he says. “I have some offers in different categories, but I’m looking around. I wanted to change a bit. I’ve done motocross, single-seaters, GT and prototype racing in the past. Maybe I’ll do Dakarin the future, but this year Andros took priority.

Team-mate Berthon, who has gone from single-seaters to the World Touring Car Cup, was invited to compete by former F1 driver Panis. “Oli told me that the team is really good and has a good car, but most of all that the spirit of the people is amazing,” says Berthon, who speaks just as highly of this form of racing as his peers.

“Yes, I like all the sliding and the drifting, having to look out of the side window mid-corner. It’s always full throttle with reverse entries into each corner. This is completely pure racing and pure driving. I think it also brings me something different from any other series. It makes you a more complete driver too, giving you different skills and improving your car control. 

“You’re never going straight, you’re always fighting with the car. The gearbox is also not a flappy paddle, as you’d expect. You have to control the clutch. It’s old-school, not like GT racing. Plus, the atmosphere is more family-friendly, with close racing, a good spirit. There’s something really special here.”

Just how sideways the drivers get is emphasised by how long they spend looking out of the side window, which, out of necessity,has a windscreen wiper attached. There’s little in the way of room for error, with cars constantly overshooting the first corner and hitting the packed snow and ice banking. There’s not much room to pass either, so qualifying – and experience – are crucial. 

“There are a couple of ways to take the corners,” says Berthon. “Approaching at 130kph, you could brake in a straight line and then turn the car, or you could turn and apply full throttle to carry yourself around the corner. The second method is quicker, but you could easily make a mistake. 

“I’m still learning. It’s my first year in the elite pro class and I’m still making mistakes, even after winning the elite title last year. You need years of driving and experience to win.”

Tréluyer concurs, adding that seat time is limited because the circuit gets worn down with too much running. “The best guys have so much experience, that’s why it’s so hard to fight against them,” he says.

There is also a motorcycling class – part speedway, part motocross – but, as rider Johan Wang Chang explains, this is the most dangerous division of the Trophée Andros. “The bikes are equipped with snow chains, and if you fall off, there’s a huge possibility of getting run over. The injuries can be horrific,” he says. Such incidents are infrequent, but underline the potential hazards. 

When he founded the series in 1990, Mamers considered it a playground for professional drivers.

“But then it became more serious,” he says. “After three or four seasons there were that many different winners. The aim was to have a single championship to know who was the best on the ice.

“We make a profit, we’re a thoroughly professional outfit,” he maintains. “For us, it would otherwise be impossible. It costs a lot of money to put this on and all the people pay. The town pays to put it on, the team pays, and it attracts a lot of business. In return they get a lot of tourism, promotion and advertising, which makes its way onto television.”

Andros, the Swiss fruit juice company and major sponsor, has stuck around for a reassuringly long time in an age when title sponsors are becoming increasingly scarce in some areas of the sport. Ice racing has thus far shown that it can withstand punishing climates.

Our Ford Focus rental car, on the other hand, was woefully equipped for the mountains. One of our snow chains broke – the nearby gendarmes seemed more interested in their Gauloises than they were in our predicament – and our return trip to the aubergepassed largely in apprehensive silence, save for the knocking of flailing metal against bodywork. The struggle to maintain control at low speeds merely served to highlight the dextrous touch of those who spend their winters dancing on ice.