Pilgrimage to the Pyrenees


Bonjour mes amis. Ici Le Blog de Pau.

I am in this lovely old town, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, for the 68th Grand Prix de Pau which this year is a round of the World Touring Car Championship.

I first came here in 1964 to witness the sublime Jimmy Clark win the Formula 2 race in his little green and yellow Lotus, prepared and run by Ron Harris. Clark was in his element of course, this being a real drivers track. If you can master the streets of Pau, then you can master Monaco. The two places, though, are otherwise very different.

Pau is in Pays Bearnais, a world away from the glitter and glitz of Monte Carlo. It’s not unlike the Ardennes, often wet and misty, and a place for the brave as well as the gifted. Like Spa-Francorchamps, but on the streets.

When first I came here, my Father insisting that this was one of THE elements of a proper motor racing education, I was already captivated by the sport. We stayed in the Palais Beaumont hotel – in those days a wondrous old building with the kind of style only the French can do – and it’s still the place to be despite having been completely re-built and modernised to a more bland standard. From your room you can watch the racing, the cars skittering around Parc Beaumont before plunging downhill into the town. Going up in the rickety old lift on our first night I found myself standing next to Count Carel Godin de Beaufort, an aristocratic privateer who raced his own Porsches. This time I was in the Novotel. Ah, well.

Not much else has changed in Pau after more than four decades. In the tribunes opposite the pits you still perch on concrete steps, wishing you’d brought a cushion. Still you climb endless steps, and cross old iron bridges, to navigate your way around this town built into a spectacular ravine. Simply a wonderful place to watch racing cars, to witness drivers at work. One mistake here and you’re in the wall. In the rain it’s a masterclass in concentration, patience and absolute skill.

1996 CART Laguna Seca, Alex Zanardi

Away from the machinations of the WTCC, I sat and chatted with Alex Zanardi, a man who re-defines the human spirit. He told me the story of ‘Old Midnight’, the car in which he won that extraordinary race at Laguna Seca when he passed Bryan Herta in the fearsome Corkscrew corner to win the Champcar title at the very last gasp.

Why ‘Old Midnight’? Well, it was so named by Chip Ganassi’s long-serving Chief Mechanic. Alex had two cars at his disposal, a race car and a T-car, and there was always the one car he preferred to race. It was the car he fretted over, the guys always working on it until after midnight. “He was such a great guy,” Alex laughed, almost a tear in his eye even now, “ and he just could NOT believe it when I got by Herta in the Corkscrew. Hey, mind you, I only just got away with it, remember? I ran wide after I scrabbled by, but he thought he had it in the bag on that last lap and he just wasn’t expecting me to go for the gap. When you’re ahead on the very last lap you do tend to brake that little bit earlier. That’s how I got him. And now, you know, ‘Old Midnight’ belongs to me – Ganassi gave it to me as a bonus for winning – I said I didn’t want money, just the car. Maybe one day I take it to Goodwood and drive it up that hill. Honda has offered to put an engine in for me.” Such a lovely man is Alex Zanardi.

And then there was Fabien Barthez (above) in the Peugeot 207 Spider Cup races. As a Manchester United supporter, he has long been one of my heroes. In France he is most certainly a hero, having been the guardian of the French goal in their World Cup triumph. Barthez , one of the great Man Utd keepers and always a showman, is mad about motor racing and is spending some of his fortune indulging this passion. Pau, in the wet, was only his second ever race, the first being the Porsche Supercup at Nogaro. Now that takes not only passion, but guts. Bravo Fabien, and we miss you on the field.

So, back to Pau, and still a great place to be, one of the very best. I was gratified to find that, returning as a journalist, the ‘media centre’ was simply a tent with trestle tables. Vive la France!

You can read all about the complexities of the WTCC in next month’s magazine. Hope you understand what the series is all about – I’m still somewhat confused by all the rules and regs. Whatever, it was a bit of a traffic jam around the streets of Pau. To overtake you need your opponent to be co-operative. Not very common amongst proper racing drivers.

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