Or historic racing on steroids. Words & pictures by Steve Eely.
The gentle ramble of the Rallye Charente through the gently rolling hills south of Angouleme was but an aperitif for the battle that was to take place on the narrow canyons of the city’s streets.
In 1938 the Automobile Club Deux Sevres Vendee Charentel (ACDSVC) under the impulse of it’s then President Dr. Pierre Roy proposed a race through the streets of the city “no later than the next year – 1939”.
The Lord Mayor M. Guillon, the City Council and the Prefectorial authority then ratified The Remparts Automobile Grand Racing Circuit on 2nd July 1939 – 2 months later, war broke out and so it was the one and only occasion the event was held until racing resumed again in June 1947. It was however immediately and unanimously named “The Angouleme Circuit des Remparts” and that is how it’s still officially known day.
The “turnpike” as the drivers call it is 1.279km long with two short straights, three right angle turns, a long fast curve and three hairpins. The curcuit has the distinction of having remained unchanged since that first race and so represents one of the last inner city racing circuits along with the likes of Monaco and Pau. There have been a few concessions to progress over the intervening years – the straw bales that once lined the circuit have been replaced by Armco and spectators are now safely caged behind catch fencing, but all else remains exactly as it was all those years ago.
2nd JULY 1939 saw 19 of the best known drivers of the time take the grid for the very first running of The Circuit des Remparts among them was Maurice Trintignant, Jean Pierre Wimille, Rene Bonnet and Raymond Sommer who won the race and took fastest lap with 1m 10s at the wheel of his Alfa Romeo 308.
The event started with two forty lap preliminary heats of 51.16km and a seventy lap final of 89.53km. The cars competing at the time represented the state of the art in 1939; a Bugatti 59 for Jean Pierre Wimille, a squad of Bugatti 35’s, 37’s and 51’s, some Delahaye 135’s and a Maserati 4CL and a 6CL.
Fast forward to last weekend and the Bugattis are still taking to the track in the one marque Plateau (race) M. Trintignant.
The Plateau R. Sommer saw MGs Rileys, Wolseleys, Sunbeams and Frazer Nashs of the same period dicing with each other.
Other races were for more modern machinery, the Plateau H. Pescarolo had Minis taking on everything from Midgets and Ginettas to Porsches, BMWs and Corvettes.
As with the Bugattis, there are enough Renault Alpines entered to justify their own race – the Plateau J.P. Nicholas featured an entry of 17 of those glorious, very versatile cars – as at home in the narrow streets of Angouleme as they used to be on rally stages. The Alpine (pronounced “Alpeen”) was the private creation of Renault enthusiast Jean Rédélé at his garage in Dieppe.
Renault allegedly eventually got so upset at their works cars being beaten by the cars made by a privateer from a small seaside town in Normandy that they bought the company and in effect turned it into the works competition department.
The Plateau F.I.S.C. Legendary Circuits was 100% English cars – Sprites, MG-B’s, Caterham 7’s, Morgans and TVR’s, albeit some of them in the hands of foreign drivers.
It was during this race that we spotted our esteemed editor in the hairpin stand with a pal visiting from GB.
Just about the most amazing battles took place in the Plateau J-P Beltoise at one point you had the almost bizarre spectacle of a Saab 2 stroke boasting no more than 841cc going bumper to bumper with a Lotus Cortina and not making it easy to get by. The sound of that tiny 3 cylinder 2 stroke with it’s howl echoing off the city walls on one side and magnificent old 3 storey houses on the other, just has to be heard to be believed.
Overall the race was dominated by an extremely rapid Talbot Sunbeam Lotus complete with mini style Union Jack roof – but driven by a Frenchman Phillipe Ancellin.
The Circuit des Remparts is racing as it used to be and still should be. The paddock is open to anyone with a ticket.
A seat in the stands is only a few euro more than a general admission ticket and the atmosphere has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime – go at least that once, you will not regret it.
And finally should you ever go you will find that some of the French have a quirky sense of humour …