Charlie Martin: Building Up to Saint Ursanne les Rangiers

Saint Ursanne les Rangiers, Charlie Martin

After an incredible race at Glasbach previously, Charlie Martin is back on the road and looking forward to Saint Ursanne les Rangiers, a race weekend that has plenty of sentimental value. Here she tells us about her preparation and what makes it so special.

Saint Ursanne – just hearing that name is enough to make my pulse race. For me and thousands of others in the hillclimb community it’s a course that has legendary status, and for good reason.

First held in 1926 between the villages of Saint Ursanne & Develier, it became a national course in 1930 before closing briefly in the early 50’s and re-opening in 1956 as the now infamous Saint Ursanne les Rangiers. In this glamorous age of motorsport the European Hillclimb Championship was often contested by works teams with big names such as Jim Clark, Jo Bonnier, Henri Pescarolo, Jo Siffert and René Arnoux pushing themselves to the limit on this picturesque ribbon of Swiss tarmac.

Nowadays it forms one of the most notorious rounds of the European Championship, famed for its iconic viaduct which is followed immediately by les Grippons, a flat sixth gear chicane with a speed trap displayed in spectator-friendly real-time. The fastest cars approach it pushing close 250kph down the straight before holding this speed under the bridge and rocketing on towards the woods.

You’d think that perhaps by now you’d faced the scariest part of the hill, but in fact you’re just warming up for the rollercoaster ride that takes you through the forest, not once dropping below fifth gear. Here your line needs to be perfect, picking your turning points from individual rocks to splashes of paint on railings the size of a piece of paper, your right foot glued hard to the limit of the throttle travel for as long as your dare.

Saint Ursanne les Rangiers
Saint Ursanne is one of the fastest circuits around

As you exit this section turning hard left into daylight, you breathe a huge sigh of relief only to arrive (very) quickly at a hairpin right, which doubles back immediately into a hairpin left. One last blast into a final hairpin and you’re over the finish line – the fastest hill in Europe and five of the most insane kilometres of your life in just over two minutes.

Here’s a clip of David Hauser, driving the GP2 car at Saint Ursanne, just to show you how quick this circuit really is.

“One day I’m going to drive at Saint Ursanne”

It’s little wonder then why it’s such an incredible place, with spectators gathering in their thousands to see Europe’s bravest drivers push themselves and their cars to the limit. For me personally it’s the course I came across again and again on YouTube when I first started watching videos of European hillclimbing. The huge arches of the railway line became etched in my memory and I said to myself there and then “one day I’m going to drive at Saint Ursanne”.

That meant it was like a dream when, in my first season competing overseas, I found my way to the start line in my Formula Renault. I’d made a good friend by the name of Fabien Bouduban that year, and he lives nearby and was competing in the CFM in a Norma 2 litre prototype.

We got chatting at Vuillafans and the next thing I knew I was entered and making my way from Lyon to Switzerland in my trusty race van. Against all expectation I drove my socks off in heavy rain, especially the final run where I took 10 seconds off my previous time and emerged shaking from the cockpit to clinch fastest lady that day. It will forever remain one of the most incredible moments of my life and why you’ll find the Juracien flag in a heart motif on my race suit.

A chance to drive at les Rangiers – I just couldn’t say no!

I’d originally said that I would have to forego the race this year as it clashes with Chamrousse, an equally stunning round of the French Championship high up at 1750m in the Alps. But then an idea was proposed to me at Glasbach, to drive a Norma at les Rangiers with Team Faggioli, and being of sound mind I quickly said yes.

Saint Ursanne, Charlie Martin
The chicanes come thick and (very) fast!

At over 500kg the carbon chassis of the Norma M20 FC is similar in weight to the FR, but it’s Honda Type R engine loves to rev, reaching more than 8,000rpm,  and it kicks out more than 260Bhp, (70 more). Combine this with paddle shift meaning that unlike the FR your hands need never leave the wheel, along with downforce that will leave your neck wondering why your head suddenly weighs three times more than normal, you’re looking at one seriously quick car.

In terms of the ultimate hillclimb car, this is it and it’s what you’ll see French & European Hillclimb Champions Nicolas Schatz & Simone Faggioli driving to success every other weekend, albeit with V8’s by BMW or Ztyec.

For me it’s the type of car I dreamed of driving since the first time I went to Le Mans back in 2000. I remember seeing a Lola and Courage (both LMP2 cars) come barreling shoulder to shoulder into the Esses and almost crashing into the back of a 911 which was clearly going a lot slower.

Without lifting, both cars parted for an instant, one on the inside one on the outside, almost brushing the paint off the back marker as they passed before pulling back into position, neither willing to give away their lead as they shot off towards Terre Rouge. At the age of 18 it was a defining moment, I knew there and then that I wanted to drive a prototype.

Norma build LMP2 cars (Le Mans Prototype) just like the ones I saw that weekend, they’re a constructor known just as widely for their hillclimb cars as their circuit cars too.

I’ll admit I’m a little nervous having not had any time to test the car, I just hope it’s dry this year!

– Charlie

Come back next week to find out if it did stay dry, and how Charlie got on in a race that clearly means so much to her. Visit the Euro Car Parts blog soon for more motoring news, opinions and consumer advice.