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A motorsport road-trip

From Paris to Le Mans, then Magny-Cours, then back to Paris, for a series of motorsport events.

Toyota France’s HQ, Vaucresson
Everything about a road-trip has to be unusual, including the vehicle. You can’t do a genuine road-trip in a Citroën C3 ! The vehicle of choice is part of the experience. That’s why I’m standing in the lobby of Toyota France’s HQ, in Vaucresson, near Paris. There’s a red 2000 GT in the entrance. Unfortunately, they won’t lend you it. My ride is one floor bellow, in the underground parking. It’s a Yaris GRMN, a sporthatch inspired by the Yaris WRC, boasting a 212 hp 1.8l turbo engine built by Lotus in Hethel. With its agressive aerodynamic appendice and it’s red and black stickers, it’s very impressive. The interior is equally impressive with those racing seats. It only misses a rollcage and a fire-extinguisher ! I press the start button and I’m greated with a loud noise. It’s not a sports car, it’s almost a rally car !

It’s even more exciting than I expected. Back in the days of the Celica and the Corolla, fans complained that Toyota wouldn’t make a road-going version of its rally car. Well, there it is, at last ! Too bad that all the GRMN are already sold. Yet, I strongly believe that Toyota will build another hot Yaris, in larger numbers, too. Anyway, after a few minutes, I know it’s going to be a great road trip. I’m looking forward for twisty roads. Too bad I’ll be mostly driving on highways…

Onroak Automotive, Le Mans
My first stop is at Le Mans. The Panis Barthez team is partnering a NGO called Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque, for the 24 hour of Le Mans. They will give all the detail during a presentation at the Onroak Automotive factory. Onroak Automotive builts the Ligier JS P2 and JS P3 Le Mans racers. You don’t get much chance to visit a racing car factory, therefore I had to take this opportunity.

Le Mans is the greatest racetrack in France. It’s the only active non-permanent racetrack in France (with the exception of Pau), though a permanent one (called the Bugatti) have been built up in the middle of the 24-hour circuit. Going to Le Mans is always like a pilgrimage, even on non-racing week-ends. It’s almost a religious experience. As the motorway approaches the town of Le Mans, the tension builts up. You’ll see evocative names like Mulsanne or Arnage. The area is filled-up with 95 years of racing history. Then, you get to drive on the 24-hour circuit, since it’s just a bunch of country roads during the rest of the year.

Panis Barthez and Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque had the dubious idea of setting-up a presentation during the 24 hours of Le Mans Moto’s free trial. Onroak Automotive’s racing shop is located inside the 24 hour (auto) racetrack. The bikes are only using the Bugatti. Still, accessing the building was a mess. Security is filtering the site, a few meters away from my destination. The GPS tells me there’s a second access, through a small dirt road. Luckily, there are no security there and that’s how I got inside the limited access perimeter (which will make a difference, later on.)
And so, I finally reached my destination. The NGO is providing heart surgery for children in developping countries. Their logo will appear on Panis Barthez’s Ligier JS P2. Tim Buret, one of the driver, is explaining how the car works. There’s hardly enough space for the driver, inside the cockpit. The car is unpainted and with its carbon body, it looks like a batmobile ! The shop is filled-up with cars. Onroak Automotive builds cars for many teams and many competitions. There a car belonging to a Filipino team, that came from a check-up after a season of Asian Le Mans Series. There’s one from 2013, dressed-up by Fernando Costa, a french painter. There are other cars being built-up. And of course, there are trophies and pictures on the wall. This building is just as impressive in the inside as it is dull on the outside ! I had the chance to meet the late Guy Ligier, on his 80th birthday and it’s nice to see that through Onroak Automotive, his legacy lives on.

When the presentation is over, I’m back in my car. I can’t find the way out. Since I’m driving inside the restricted area, the security assume I must be a VIP. I had the chance to tour the 24 hours of Le Mans Moto’s paddock. At one point, I choose to follow an MPV, thinking he might be leaving, too. Actually, he parked at the entrance of the pit-lane. The security waved at me and I was this close to make a lap of the Bugatti with the Yaris ! But I wasn’t in the mood for a prank, I backed-up and I eventually found the way out.

V de V Endurance Series, Magny-Cours
Next stop : the Magny-Cours racetrack, which is hosting the V de V Endurance Series for the weekend.The highway crosses the Loire river and goes through village with world-famous wineyard. Then, there are less and less villages. This is the rural desert. At least, now, the highway have been extended all the way to the racetrack. Back when Magny-Cours hosted the F1 Grand Prix, you had to go through small roads and finding the way to the racetrack was very challenging. The first time I went to Magny-Cours was in 1996, to see DTM and F3000. I went back many times, since. I’ve watched F3, Superleague Formula, Formula Renault 2.0, Formula Renault 3.5, I even did some laps. Once, Jean Alesi drove me around, in the rain, in a Lamborghini Gallardo. And today, I’m attending a V de V Endurance Series event.

I arrive on Friday evening, right on time for the appetizer. I’m greeted with a “yellow”. And I’m not talking about flags…

Eric Van de Vyver started as a plane mechanics, with a passion for rebuilding old cars. Then he thought about racing those cars and he set-up an endurance race, called Deux tours d’horloge, for historical cars. Following its success, he created a whole series of race, called V de V, in 1995. Later on, V de V, ventured into modern GT and prototypes with the V de V Endurance Series. Lately, it also accepted single-seaters and Funyo. This isn’t F1 or even WEC, there are no stars and no VIP area. The entrance is actually free and all visitors can access the paddock. Most of the racers are gentlemen-drivers and they’re racing for pleasure. Some have been there since 1995 and have tried various categories. Like Bernard Moreau, an entrepreneur who started with an old 2l 911, then moved to modern GTs, then back to historical racing, with a 911 RSR… While his daughter races the old 2l 911. In the modern endurance race, there are many Ligier JS P3. It’s a strange feeling to see them right after visiting their birth place. Even the cathering and the cameraman have been there for years.

On saturday, there were two single-seater races. 17-year-old Gregory Segers won race 1 and he almost won race 2. He seems very talented. I interview him and I’m impressed by his maturity. I really hope that Segers will enjoy a great career in motorsport.

Sunday is the day of endurance racing. Eric Van de Vyver isn’t just a race promoter. He drives a TVR in historical race and a Solution F in modern endurance ! The day just went very fast. Before I knew it, the last race was done and now everybody’s leaving !

Tour Auto, Paris
Back to Paris for the Tour Auto. In 1993, Patrick Peter recreated the Tour de France Auto, as an historical race. Well, it’s not a race per se. What matters is the regularity, not the speed. All the type of cars that raced during the original Tour de France Auto, between 1951 and 1973 are accepted. They’re not actually going all around France. This year, they’re going from Paris to Nice. The start of the race is always in Paris. Everybody meets at the Grand Palais, in Paris, for the parc fermé. The Grand Palais is an art nouveau building, created for the 1900 World Exposition. Usually, it hosts art exhibitions. But cars is nothing new : it used to be the site of the Paris Motor Show, until 1961.
The Tour Auto is open to the public, that way, it’s more or less an historical racing cars exhibition. Ferrari and BMW, who are both long-time supporters, also brings modern cars. This year, Ferrari has a Portofino. BMW hired Ari Vatanen as an ambassador and he drives VIP during the race. Most of the cars belongs to privaters. Some presents themselves as collectors other pose as racers. There are also former professional racers, enjoying retirement.

Since it’s a parc fermé, there’s not much activitie on the car. Most competitors are chatting with friends or visitors. Not all cars are expensive GTs. This year’s attraction is a Citroën 2cv. Yes, a stock, modest, early 2cv. There’s also a Fiat 600 driven by a former Miss Corsica.

Paris ePrix, Paris
I left the Yaris GRMN at Vaucresson. I’m sad to leave this pocket rocket. I don’t need it for the final leg of my motorsport road trip : the Paris ePrix. It’s the first time I reach a racetrack by subway ! It’s even strange to reach a pit-lane without reving engines or the sweat smell of burned oil.

The Formula e is a new concept. Usually, motorsport doesn’t like new concepts. Remember the A1 GP, the nation world championship ? Or the Superleague Formula, that tried to milk football team’s money ? Or the Formula Acceleration, with its giant concerts between races ? They didn’t last very long. Formula e seemed doomed with its electric single-seater and its city-only racetracks. Yet, four years later, it’s still there. Audi, BMW, DS and Jaguar now have official teams. Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche are planing to join.

I had the chance to tour the Venturi team with Justine, who represents one of Venturi’s greatest sponsor. I had a chat with Maro Engel, who speaks french with almost no accent, though he’s German. There was a diner, on the night before the race. I was the only journalist who showed up. Justine took me to a fine restaurant. It was one of her first time in Paris and she was enjoying it.

The Formula e is nowhere near F1 in terms of fans and glamour. Yet, it has F1 policies of restricting areas and agressive security persons. You can’t wander around the racetrack. I end-up watching the race on a TV-screen inside the press room. And there’s not much to see, actually. The car only reaches 200 in straight lines. The battery-pack is part of the car structure. The race is only 1 hour long, but the car couldn’t make it. So, in the middle of the race, the driver pulls into the pits and litteraly jumps into another car ! The Paris ePrix’s track, like most of Formula e’s track is tight and twisty. There’s not much room for overtaking.
Though I’ve never been to an ePrix before, I have already seen most of the drivers. That was a couple of years ago, in lower formulas. Back then, they were promising youngsters, trying to reach F1. They failed. Formula e wasn’t their first choice or even their second choice. Some of those thirtysomething are completely unmotivated.

Next year, Formula e will have a faster car and it will be able to reach the end of the race. No more of those dull pit-stops ! Also, I hope that those new car manufacturers will bring some household names. That way, people will finally get something worth paying for.

My journey is over. As I walk back to the subway station, I realise this is it. For once, there’s no more competition and no place to go within the next days.

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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