Hillclimbing at St Gouëno – the Race Weekend

Charlie Martin - Hillclimbing at St Gouëno

With the strikes still in force, getting to St Gouëno actually proved a lot easier than I’d imagined. The previous weekend a number of us in the hillclimbing paddock had joked about whether we’d even be able to make the journey there, but as luck would have it we picked up fuel leaving the coast – after queuing once more the people manning the filling station closed the barrier behind us and let us have double the 20 litre allocation (I didn’t even have to ask!).

With our tank nearly full we had enough diesel to make it to the ferry, so there were no excuses – time to focus 100% on the race. Unlike any of the other rounds in the CFM, St Gouëno is one long party, with a music festival hosted in the village, beer tents and meals laid on for the drivers and support crews in the Marie (village hall).

Whereas I would normally live out of my van, BBQ and be within sight of my car all weekend, here it’s a very sociable event where I see people I perhaps only catch up with once a year and it’s easy to lose track of time and end up going to bed later than intended.

This is fine on the Thursday night, but if you take your racing seriously you have to remind yourself why you’re there and apply a little discipline. If there’s one word that summed up my approach to the weekend, then this would have been it.

On best behaviour!

Hillclimbing at St Gouëno - Charlie Martin

After the terrible forecast we were given a reprieve and the weather did us a huge favour by delivering the rain to the wrong address. However Brittany does seem to have some of the most beautiful evening and morning mist I’ve ever witnessed and this would often take until almost lunchtime to burn off, meaning that under the trees (read apex or braking zone) you could often find damp patches.

The hill itself marks the steady increase in distance from now on until the 6km of Turkheim in September, thankfully I’m finding it much easier to get my bearings already this season second time around.

The 3.2km track itself is relatively flat for the first two thirds, and this is the trickiest part to get right. Although not as complex as some of the venues, it flows with a number of right hand bends that can easily be confused – some are third gear, some are fourth, and they come up pretty quickly so you need to know exactly where you are.

After this is a large hairpin called Fer à cheval (horse shoe) which is the man spectator area, filled with thousands of people, large television screens and sponsors banners.

From here you climb steeply up to a long fast fourth gear right and the final third gear left to the finish. It’s quite narrow and most of the corners are blind meaning it’s not for the faint hearted, banzai levels of commitment are required.

Saturday started well and I used free practice as intended and going into the first timed run I took 4 seconds off my previous best from last year. The car felt planted and I was in a good place, the only problem was the dash display that went crazy on the way down to the start line.

I tried to forget it for the run but I was pretty stressed (no info on revs, temperature, etc) imagining a problem with the XAP Electronique box that controls it. Research pointed to low voltage issues though, and we found the battery was only 10% full despite me charging it between runs to an indicated 100%! It seemed that the source of all my woes was a faulty charger and both my batteries were flat all along.

On the second run I pushed harder, finding two seconds and sliding into first, but Sarah Louvet was only just behind by a few tenths and I knew Sunday would be a battle. Time for an early night as we would be up and on the hill for free practice by 9am.

Hillclimbing at St Gouëno…in the fog!

This brings me to a new experience in a race car – driving in fog. Coming through Pas de St. Gouëno flat at upwards of 170km/h when you can’t see the track ahead is a bit nuts.

Thankfully by the first run the sun was breaking through and the track was clear. My stomach was churning as I rolled up to the départ and I felt a wave of adrenalin wash through me, starting in my chest and moving out to my extremities.

I went hard, trying to keep my driving smooth but getting on the throttle as early I dared, the back just edging wide on a few exits. As I crossed the line I saw my time and knew I’d nailed my objective for the weekend – sub 1:30 was the target and I’d just posted a 1:29:19!

Sarah was just ahead by a couple of tenths though on a 1:28:9, and after lunch we both went slightly slower, so it all came down to the final run that afternoon. The tension at this point is hard to escape.

First place was close and yet I knew how hard we would both be pushing… I psyched myself up as best I could. Jean Christophe was a long way back in third so I was safe but a win here would mean the world to me right now.

Looking back I think perhaps I overdrove the car a little, but maybe a part of me didn’t want to risk pushing to much harder when I knew I wasn’t far from the limit. I wanted the car in one piece and maybe subconsciously, that self-preservation stopped me from going any quicker. Sarah found the extra pace and set an astounding time of 1:27:99 – chapeau as they say (hats off to you).

Charlie Martin - Hillclimbing at St Gouëno

Stood on the podium though I was over the moon, I knew I’d given my all and faced my demons, and that was good enough for second place, and once more I left left St. Gouëno with a smile on my face and a trophy on my dashboard.

We’re all thrilled for Charlie, getting onto the podium after a hectic few weeks. Find out how the rest of her season goes right here on the Euro Car Parts blog soon, with Charlie giving us a preview to the next round of the Hillclimb Championship at Beaujolais.