Charlie Martin: Vuillafans – a Difficult Weekend to Say the Least

Race Weekend - Vuillafans - Charlie Martin

In her latest blog post, Charlie Martin talks us through her preparations for the race weekend at Vuillafans which, unfortunately, didn’t quite to go plan… You can read the build-up here.

I’m currently on a train, which is unusual for a race weekend as this isn’t a method of transport that I normally take. But then things haven’t really been that normal since around 5pm yesterday… In fact my World momentarily stopped turning, but I’ll start at the beginning with the good bits.

Vuillafans has to be one of my favourite rounds in the CFM, and for so many reasons – not just because it’s set in some of the most beautiful countryside, not far from Besançon in Franche Compte. The village itself is split by the Loue river and there are two bridges that cross it. In the evenings you can sit and watch the swallows dive down and skim the water as fisherman stand in the shallows, it’s the most peaceful place I can think of.

On arrival one of my flip flops broke while going through customs leaving me temporarily barefoot, (perhaps it was a sign of things to come but I picked up another pair en route in a supermarket). Thursday evening was spent with some good friends – it’s actually a lot of fun spending the entire time speaking French and almost forgetting you’re English altogether!

A little tired the next morning; Rémi, his father and I followed through with the previous night’s ambitious decision to run the course on foot. At 5km it’s very steep and I’d like to think we did it justice in the 30 mins it took, sprinting the last 100m to the finish (it was a tie!).

The perfect race preparation…

Vuillafans Charlie Martin
Getting my hands dirty!

I did the usual prep on the car and drove the hill on the scooter to get the layout clear in my mind. It was 25 degrees and perfect weather, and having parked up in the courtyard from last year I was so happy to be back here again.

That evening my friend Jessica lent me her car so I could drive the hill a few times, followed by a group of us sitting at Marcel’s truck and eating together in the main square. Moments like this are such an important part of racing and it’s truly like belonging to one huge extended family.

We knew rain was coming the next day and it kept me awake throughout the night – the ferocity of each deluge only a foot or so from my head on the van’s roof is something to be experienced! There were two puddles hanging in the gazebo the next morning that could have filled a bath, and although it seemed like it might clear it was wet for the first practice.

A last minute change to wets was clearly a good choice – everyone had clearly made the same call as we lined up at pre grille. I took it pretty gently to place myself in third while Rémi & Marc went off like rockets in front.

By the afternoon it was more or less dry and we were back on slicks and going fairly hard. I took over 3 seconds off my dry weather personal best time from last year despite the rear nudging wide on the exit of a few hairpins. Everything felt good and we knew that race day would be warm and dry.

…but not the perfect race

Sunday was going to be a late start for us with the VHC (vehicle historique) going up first, so it must have been after 11am by the time we lined up for the départ. I nearly span exiting the first hairpin after getting on the power a fraction too soon. I kept it going but lost a lot of time, dropping to a 2:15 – a few tenths slower than Saturday and sadly off the pace.

As the day went on a third run seemed increasingly unlikely. We’d had a number of arrêtes de course and this was going to put a lot more pressure on run number two. When you’re standing around for long periods of time the wait can play havoc with you, and although we stand around talking it’s tiring to maintain a state of high alert as your mind jumps from the conversation you’re having to what you were aiming to focus on while you brake into turn 6.

It was gone 5pm as we went for the last time, the sun burning down and the shadows growing longer in the afternoon haze. I really went for it, certainly 10/10th’s, maybe more as I locked up into the braking the zone for the first hairpin, the back stepping wide in the wrong direction as I held the wheel with my left hand and dropped five gears with the right.

Vuillafans - Charlie Martin
It was a difficult weekend but I still gave it all I had

The car turned in at the last moment, and I belted my way up the hill for the long flat left, braking once more at the last instant before turning in and pinning the throttle all the way through fifth and sixth gears, (that’s approaching 230km/h).

Round the next hairpin I was already thinking ahead having decided to take a lower gear round the next section, but I was going fast into the fourth gear left – a rock wall on my right, a low concrete wall and an endless drop on my left – I was literally between a rock and a hard place!

Moments before turning in I drove through bright sun, then shade and fierce rays of sun pierced into my visor once more and temporarily blanked out my vision as my pupils struggled to react in time.

“For a moment I thought I’d made it”

It’s probably the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me in a racing car, and at such a critical and narrow point on the track I could only turn in and grit my teeth. For a moment I thought I’d made it, but the sickening thud that followed confirmed that no, I hadn’t…

Earth, sparks, and a wheel all flew up to my right as I hit the rocks, firing me into the wall on my left where I went airborne and thankfully stayed on the road, desperately turning the wheel and trying to keep the rear from coming round.

I managed to kill the ignition while this was happening before coming to a stop facing back down the road. Silence, punctuated my whistles.

I got out to look at the car, hands in my hair and reeling in disbelief. It was a mess, my hopes of the damage being limited to the front were dashed as all four corners where broken and the car was on its belly. I sat on the wall and tried to calm down, marshals were surrounding the scene and a kind lady came to comfort me.

I felt physically fine, but it’s all too easy to be overcome with adrenalin in a moment like this so I went to the medical tent to get checked over by the doctor. Fortunately all was fine and I took a moment to shed a tear and try to compose myself before I walked back to the paddock, eyes levelled at the ground.

Time to get to work – and to reflect

Vuillafans - Charlie Martin
We’ve got a lot of work to do

Everyone was amazing, they helped me so much and the car was stripped and quickly manhandled back into the van. I’d spent the last half hour trying to think clearly about how on earth I’d fix it and should I drive it home? But it was beyond me. I had no crane and I figured the only option was to hand it over to a team and trust them to do the work in France.

A plan was quickly hatched and early the next morning I drove the truck to a workshop nearby where I’d left everything for the time being. The next job is to source all the new car parts I need. I have a few contacts and as I sit typing this on the train to Lyon I’ve already received messages from a number of friends offering their help which has been of huge comfort.

The aim is to try and be ready for Glasbach at the end of July, and if not then Mont Dore the following weekend. I know the best thing is to get back in the car and drive it, rebuild my confidence and move forwards. I just need a little time to reflect right now so in many ways staring out of the train window is helping.

– Charlie

We’re sure that, like us, you’ll wish Charlie all the best in getting back behind the wheel again soon. Come back to the Euro Car Parts blog next week to find out how she’s getting on and whether she’s going to make it to Glasbach.

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