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The Cunning Frenchman Who Won Asia-Pacific’s Smart Cup

Gilles’ Story
It all started in late 2013. I made a story about Arnaud Deligny. This Frenchman living in China won the Polo Cup China. There were a few French gentlemen-drivers over there. But he was the first one to win a title. A few weeks later, I got a message from Facebook. A retired racer told me he would have won a title in China, in 2005, had he not been disqualified later. That’s how I met Gilles G., who lived only 10 minutes away from me, in the outskirts of Paris.

Gilles G. started racing in the late 70s, in Formule Renault Europe. Due to low budget, he had an on and off career. In the 90s it was mostly “off”. He was a racing instructor at Montlhery. His racing school was using an old Inaltera. His day usually ended at 6. The traffic around Montlhery is horrible and 6 PM was the peak of traffic. Gilles would hang around and wait until traffic clears up. The only place open at 6 was the local Chinese restaurant. That’s how Gilles befriended the Wang family and their son, Kevin.
In 2004, Kevin got an internship at Mercedes-Benz, in Beijing. Mercedes wanted to set-up a one-make championship of Smart (as they were about to launch the brand in China.) They were looking for professional drivers. Kevin remembered that he knew one, that hanged around his parent’s restaurant : Gilles. And thanks to Kevin, that middle-aged almost-retired driver got himself a factory Smart ! By this time, the racing school has closed down and Gilles was out of work.

The Smart Cup Asia-Pacific

Gilles told me that he was so desperate that he would have walked to China ! But he didn’t had to. For the first time in his life, he was paid to race. As for other drivers, they wanted big names, whether they knew how to race or not. They got Sebastian Stahl (Michael Schumacher’s step-brother), Rami Räikkönen (Kimi’s brother), Freddie Hunt (Jame’s son), Maxi Jazz (Faithless’ frontman), Emerson Newton-John (Olivia Newton-John’s nephew) and so on. The first race was in Shanghai, at the F1 racetrack. Gilles felt he was living a dream. The money was just flowing. They were staying in palace and dining at fine restaurant. Also, all the women were just crazy for western men… Yet, the racing discipline was poor. There were no private sessions. The first time Gilles got into the Smart was for the qualifying session and since he couldn’t speak english, setting-up the car was a nightmare. He ended up 12 out of 15.
But all those celebrities weren’t actual racers and they didn’t bother to come afterwards. The only regular racers were Dillon Battistini, a former Caterham champion who believed he could start an international career, Mark Bumgarner who wanted to use the money to start his own designer brand and Sven Heidfeld, Nick’s little brother. Later, Sven got bored of the little Smart. To compensate, they hired some Chinese drivers. But then, the serie went abroad and Chinese nationals couldn’t get any visa. They tried to hire local drivers, yet, that wasn’t a success. Gilles remember that in Sepang, there were only 6 cars on track. “CEO Paul”, the promotor, had to take on some driving duties ! Gilles got better at handling the car, winning at Zhuhai and Sentul. Thanks to the slimer attendance, he had a serious chance at the championship. The final was during the Macau Grand Prix. The Smart were supposed to be identical. Usually, the post-race inspection was a joke, which opened the door for cheaters. Before Macau, the mechanics found some horsepowers in Gilles’ car. That weekend, he was 4 seconds quicker than Battistini. A 3rd place would have been enough to secure the title, but Gilles easily won the race. Unfortunatelly, the Macau Grand Prix marshalls were more serious than the other and his car was outlawed. Battistini was declared champion, although his car was also illegal !

The sales of the Smart Fortwo were slow and Daimler pulled the plug. The 2005 Smart Cup Asia-Pacific was the first and last edition. Gilles went back to France with a lot of money, since he hardly had anything to pay. After he told me his story, I heard that Christophe Cousin, a former Mercedes-Benz France executive, owns Smart Asia-Pacific Cup car and he also lives in Paris outskirt. The car had been repainted and Gilles couldn’t remember his car’s chassis number. There’s no proof that Christophe’s Smart is Gilles’. I went with Gilles to see Christophe. The racer kept telling me that it wasn’t his car. Nontheless, he felt really emotional while stepping in…

It’s just a prank, bro !

Well, that was the story I was about to say. Except it was supposed to be a prank. There’s no Kevin Wang. Gilles does exists and he is the 2005 Smart Cup Asia-Pacific runner-up… Although the competition never happened.

Back in 2005, I was working with Gilles. Our boss, Dominique, enjoyed making fun of the middle-aged Gilles. At a Smart PR event, he introduced him as the “2005 Smart Cup Asia-Pacific runner-up” and went on with it for the day. 9 years later, I met Christophe Cousin, who now rents old cars for movies and adverts. Christophe enjoys decorating his cars. He once showed me some pictures of a Smart wearing “Smart Cup” badges. I remembered Dominique’s prank and I wanted to “reunite” Gilles with his racecar, as an April fool. Christophe was ready for it, he even wanted to rent a racetrack ! True to his reputation, Gilles had no social account. I managed to track him down and we all live within a 10km radius. Gilles is a funny guy and he agreed. A couple of days later, he called me back. Gilles had some ongoing PR work with Mercedes-Benz and he was scared that they wouldn’t like the prank. He pull out. Then, Christophe had some health issue. The “Cup car” hadn’t move for a year and it needed some maintenance. Therefore, it couldn’t be ready on time.

Joest Jonathan Ouaknine
Joest Jonathan Ouaknine, PhD, 39, French. Former racing instructor and award-winning novelist, writing about cars for over 12 years. I could -and I did- drive or fly for hours just to see some cars or meeting car guys. My favorite cars are the Mazda MX-5 "Miata" (NA) and the Lifan 320 ! Author of "Indycar : les stars des speedway" (2010) and "Les voitures Chinoises" (2018.)

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