Citroen 2CV 24-Hour race

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This is club racing at its best, as motor sport found out when invited to join the line-up

You could be forgiven for thinking that you’re competing in the LMP1 class at Le Mans after seeing ‘spare parts: 2 x engines’ on a pre-race checklist. And you may start to wonder what you’ve let yourself in for when you’re then told an engine change should take no longer than eight minutes. This, however, is the Citroën 2CV 24 Hours, where engine changes are as commonplace as tyre changes in Formula 1.

The 2CV doesn’t spring to mind when thinking of road cars that make good racers. In original form it had a paltry 16bhp and the suspension was designed to transport farmers and their produce across fields to market, which gives some indication of what this car is like to race for 24 hours. As one driver put it, “I’ve known more stable wheelbarrows; you’re on the brink of catastrophe at every corner.”

What the 2CV does have is a faithful following. Nearly four million standard cars were built between 1948-90 and many are still running. In 1988 a group of British enthusiasts visited the Belgian 24 Hours race for 2CVs at Spa, and they came back determined to replicate it. By 1989 the 2CV Racing Club had been formed, and the first 24-hour race was run at Mondello Park in 1990. In ’03 the race was moved to Snetterton, where I headed for my date with Pierre-Jules Boulanger’s masterpiece.

What greeted me in the Team Fine Print pits on the Thursday evening was definitely a 2CV, but most definitely not a standard road car. Modifications allowed are minimal to keep costs down, but the racer was lower – thank God – and the ‘tuned’ engine turned out 44bhp.

The other shock was the size of Team Fine Print, and every team in the paddock for that matter. I’m used to racing very amateurishly with an MGB, and the most team members we’ve had was three in a three-driver race. A 2CV 24 Hours is completely different: there must be at least four mechanics to allow for rest periods, and the mechanics/drivers need to be fed, so a whole team of wives/2CV fans produce food around the clock (thank you so much!). Plus this raggedy crew needs to be kept in line by a team manager – in our case Patrick Darnes, who displayed angelic levels of patience.

Patrick’s patience was tested during Friday afternoon practice when the team ran its three engines to see which was best. “2CV engines are… organic,” explained part-time mechanic and ex-engine builder Dicky Dawes, while fitting the second motor of the day. “None are the same and they tend to have a mind of their own.”

With engine number two installed, off-car preparer and fellow driver Jon Davis went out to assess its power. No sooner had he left the pits than the mechanics turned to each other – “did anyone put oil in it?”. Blank faces. Jon was called back in and informed us that he had in fact filled it up. “Ron Dennis would be having kittens if he was in charge of this team,” said one mechanic. Darnes raised an eyebrow and returned to the pitwall…

The race started at 5pm on the Saturday and, having qualified 16th out of 26 starters with a dud engine, we were quietly hopeful of making the top 10 with the engine from last year (no, it hadn’t been rebuilt…). That was until a battery-charging problem struck. Come 4.30pm, as the cars ventured to the grid, the Fine Print 2CV was still in the garage. By 4.40pm – cut-off time to leave the pits – our car was still in the garage; we’d be starting from the pitlane. Thankfully the problem was fixed at 4.58pm (you couldn’t make this up) and Jon lined up last.

We were soon into the top 10 thanks to a great first stint from Jon, after which Martin Harrold, owner of the car and Fine Print, drove for two hours. At 9pm it was time for my first-ever taste of night racing.

My stint went according to plan and I managed to stick to the 1min 53/54sec lap time the team had asked for (it’s worth mentioning that the Snetterton lap record is 56.1sec). Near the end of my two hours the rev counter began to stop working, and soon after the lights went dim and then the car coughed at Riches (a corner that’s flat in both the dry and wet). At Sears the lights went out completely. Cue: panic. Thankfully I made it back to the pits just in time. The problem? The exhaust manifold clamp had come off and the alternator wires had melted. It was quickly mended, and Autosport’s Edd Straw took over.

One of the hardest things about the race was trying to sleep between stints. It didn’t help that I’d pitched my tent next to the fuel pumps, which were floodlit and had a loud generator…

I was next out at 5am, but by 4.15am it was pouring with rain. Martin, who’d been in the car for an hour, wasn’t enjoying himself thanks to the major lack of visibility. “If you want to have a go, be my guest,” he said as he jumped out. I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit – this was my second time racing a 2CV in the dark, and my first in the wet.

But once I got going I had two of the most enjoyable hours ever in a racing car. The 2CV was predictable, and once you found some grip it was only seven or eight seconds a lap slower in the wet. That was until the heavens opened. It was raining so hard there was a flood across the pit straight, which robbed me of 500 revs, and on Revett straight I was on opposite lock a few times. But at these speeds it wasn’t too heart-stopping. If you felt the car slide, you still had time to giggle and then correct it.

At 7.15am I handed over to Edd, but when I returned to the pits at noon disaster had struck. I’m not sure what it is with me, 24-hour races and engines (see Aston Martin Le Mans piece, September issue), but the engine had blown up, meaning Jon had to get a tow back to the pits and take a five-lap penalty.

We were 16th, having lost 56 minutes in the garage, when Jon went out to make up places.

I got back in the car at 1.30pm, with Martin scheduled to finish the race. By now my times were down to 1min 49sec. However, I still hadn’t mastered the important skill of bump-drafting. “The car has the aerodynamics of a brick, so having another brick in front is very helpful,” explained one driver.

After an hour I was told the new engine was smoking a bit. “Just do 1min 55secs and bring it home,” said Darnes. “Bollocks to that – do what you’ve been doing,” said Jon. I tried to please both by aiming for lap times in between, but over the next hour I witnessed a wonderful array of ‘slow down’ signals from Darnes.

Amazingly we made the fl ag and fi nished 13th. It wasn’t as good as the team’s third place from 2009, but it’s made me determined to return in 2011. This is proper club racing, with everyone out to have a good time. The race was won by ‘Rent Boys Racing’, which says all you need to know about the atmosphere. If you’re a fan of the 2CV or just of good, simple racing, then watch out for next year’s 24 Hours – it’s well worth the trip to Norfolk.

To view a video of the 2CV 24-hour race visit www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk

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