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Driver's views

While many races were fought and won at Rouen, and most of those were reported on in the various media, there is nothing quite like gaining a first-hand account of racing to win at the track.

Below are two such accounts from very different periods in Rouen’s history. The first comes from the beginning of Rouen’s golden age, 1957, as the circuit held its first French GP since its lengthening to its classic layout. The second is from Rouen’s declining years, in 1984.

These summaries, provided by Peter Ross in 1957, and by Marcus Mussa in 1984 give vivid descriptions of just what it was like to battle it out on the high-speed French circuit.

Peter Ross, Lotus Eleven, 1100cc Sports Car Race, 1957
... the next race that offered starting money was at Rouen. It was the sports car race which preceded the French Grand Prix, and was for 1100cc Sports cars. All the top British racers would be there, so I had no hope of any prize, but worst of all, the organisers would not offer any starting money until I had practised.

Well, the cost of going there would be the same whether I raced or not, so it was a bit of a gamble. Team Lotus would be there, so I asked Mike Costin's advice: "I would go", he said, so I did. Rouen is not far from Paris, so it was going to be a fun weekend even if I didn't race, and I could watch the Grand Prix as well.

The weather was incredibly hot but I found the circuit (on closed Public roads) very challenging and interesting. You start off downhill through three very fast curves to a hairpin. Then you climb a hill with a very fast bend at the top and hold maximum speed up to a 90 degree RH bend (about 55 mph) another short straight to another (slightly faster) RH bend, and you were then on the downhill part of the course which went past the starting line.

The key to the circuit was to go through the three downhill bends as fast as you could. I was still using Team Lotus cast off shock absorbers and tyres, and Dunlop kept urging me to put even more pressure in my tyres. I already felt I would skitter off these fast bends due to poor tyre adhesion, but pressed on, and soon felt I was getting to know the circuit well and start to enjoy it. The top of the hill [after the hairpin] was followed by a straight with a gradual RH curve which I ended up taking flat out. After a few laps I looked at the speedometer and realised that I was cornering at 120 mph. Only a few weeks earlier I had been thrilled to be doing this speed in a straight line, and now I was doing it round a corner!

At the end of practice I was pleased to learn that my times had been better than a lot of the "fast" Elevens with de Dion rear axles, disc brakes, headrest and wrap around screens for the driver (whereas I had a full width screen). So I would get a start and START MONEY!

It was fascinating to watch the GP drivers going round the same circuit at about twice the speed. Fangio and Moss in Maseratis I think. Opposite the pits there was a wonderful viewing point where one could look DOWN at the drivers going through the fast swerves, and marvel at the way Fangio would drift his car so accurately to the left, right and again left.

I found it difficult to sleep that night. A combination of pre-race nerves and intense heat which made you sweat the whole time. Race day was another swelteringly hot one, and I remember waiting on the grid to start my engine, and saying to myself repeatedly "Peter, don't forget to put on your goggles before the start". As you may have guessed, I started without my goggles, and wasted valuable seconds fumbling to get them over the peak of my crash helmet whilst avoiding being rammed by cars behind trying to pass.

After a lap or two I found myself coming up behind a Lotus which was not going as quickly as I would have expected, and raised my morale no end by passing it up the hill. I then noticed that it was Cliff Allison in the 750 Lotus that had won the Index of Performance at Le Mans, so I could not congratulate myself on having achieved very much, particularly as the canny Cliff went whizzing past me on the following fast downhill section after the start,

"Curses", I thought, "AFTER HIM!" I caught up again soon after the hairpin as the hill slowed the little 750 car, but I realised that I would have to make a big effort to avoid a repetition of what had happened on the previous lap. I must have gone round the corner at the top of the hill much faster than before, because when I started braking at my normal braking point for the sharp RH bend it was obvious I was not going to make it, so I took the escape road. Cliff went past and had the cheek to give me the Vee sign!

Two laps later I took him up the hill again, got round the RH bend and entered the downhill curves with my heart in my mouth. I was DETERMINED to stay ahead. I reckoned if I could get to the hill AHEAD of Cliff he would never catch me again. I don't know how I got round those corners, I guess the limit was faster than I had thought, so I got to the hairpin AHEAD of him! WOW!

Horror of horrors, I had never approached the hairpin as fast before, and there was no way I was going to get round at this speed, So once again I took the escape road, and once again Cliff gave me his favourite two finger gesture!

The next thing I remember was going down the hill with the swerves as near my limit as I dared (and prepared to brake a lot earlier for the hairpin) only to be passed on the apex of a bend by Colin Chapman and De Tomaso battling for the lead and lapping me! As I thought I had been going quite quickly, it almost made me want to retire!

Soon after this the water temperature went off the clock and I had to visit the pits for more water. Oddly enough exactly the same thing happened to Colin. In my case it was the screws on the top of one of the SU carburettors that had vibrated loose and weakened the mixture. I have no idea where I finished, but it wasn't half fun!

Marcus Mussa, Talbot Samba Rallye, Trophée de Circuits Samba, 1984
This trophy was organized by Peugeot Talbot Sport for several years starting in 1983. The cars used were the Talbot Samba Rallye, fitted with a kit. Each car came from a different region of France and entered by the various PTS clubs. I lived in Monaco at the time and was entered under the local PTS club which was based near Cannes. However this region was not at all into circuit racing (more into rallyes) so I really did my own thing with a friend coming along to drive the tow car and help out on the track.

I did the series in 1983 and 1984. The series was similar to the Renault R5 trophy, and the cars were about the same speed. One of the Renault drivers at that time was Jean Alesi and I suppose the star driver to come out of the Samba series was Philippe Gache. But there were some very competitive drivers there, all bending the rules as usual.

This is the story of the race at Rouen on 23/24 June 1984 (there was no race there in 1983).

After the race at La Chatre we took the car to Toulon to be prepared by Casubolo, who prepared Derepas’ car last year when he won the Championship. The engine gave only 82 bhp on his brake which might explain quite a lot of things. After rebuilding it (new valves, connecting rods etc) it gave 98.6 bhp! Even so at Rouen it was still slightly down on power compared to the other cars so there is still something to gain. Anyway it was incomparably better at Rouen (which is a real power circuit). The Samba traveled by train to Paris then by lorry to Rouen. Us by ‘plane (me via Holland!).

The circuit
No practice allowed so I went around in the hire car which was not much help and frankly practice was lousy on my part. Last corner a tightish 3rd gear (some took in 2nd, engines screaming!) right hander, leading on to the main road Rouen/Elbeuf. Fourth gear past the pits then the track plunges to the Nouveau Monde. This section is one of the most famous and dangerous parts of track anywhere in the world although in the Samba it was not too hair raising. First a flat right hander taken in fifth, then a straight and a flat left-hander, absolutely flat out and no problem provided one takes the proper line and goes in close to the verge. In a F3 or F.Renault or even FFord it must be quite an experience! After there is a r/hander which used to be flat out (where a lot of drivers lost their lives) but there is now a chicane on the outside. One approaches the r/h (Virage des Deux Frères – presumably killed there!...) in the middle of the road then angles in to the r/h edge and brakes a bit before the “O” sign, which is actually about 80/100 meters before the chicane. Right/left at the chicane then another straight and a tricky l/h in which one has to brake for the Nouveau Monde. One turns in at the 200m mark then tries to turn and brake at the same time going as straight as possible. The Nouveau Monde is the famous corner with the pave section. Rather vicious of them to leave that! Very slippery and not much traction. One tries to get away as quick as possible and onto the uphill section. Here there is first a flat out l/hander. Second gear in Nouveau Monde of course then 3rd and 4th for this l/hander. One climbs out of that to another l/hander which is called Samson. This is taken in 3rd. The road is never really straight on all this uphill section but the only tricky corners are the two l/handers. Out of Samson wide on the pavement. One keeps on this and gets off at a drain. All flat out in 3rd then 4th to the new section. Here there are really only two corners. First a right hander for which one has to brake a bit staying in 4th, then across the road for a l/hander which is flat, but one lifts a bit to place the car then chops in well into the verge (apex). Afterwards a flat l/hander in which one takes 5th. Then brake at about 100m for Paradis, the last corner.

Practise was at about 14.00 Saturday, 30 minutes. I did not bed in the front pads properly (different type to what I had been used to). On the first flying lap I went straight on at Nouveau Monde and by the time they let me back everybody had gone so I was alone. As a result it took practically until the last 10 minutes to realize that some of the corners were faster than they looked. And I never got the braking points quite right for the chicane and Nouveau Monde. I ended up with 2’41.18 on the last lap. Pole (Rozentvaig) was on 2’34.87! Most of them at 2.37/2.38. Hopeless! I was not the only one to mess things up. Even Degremont* only managed 39.12. I was 27th fastest (10th in my session) but one was disqualified (Cayeux who practiced in somebody else’s car/number!). And 2 either crashed or blew up. Nice of them. So I scraped in as 2nd reserve!

Race on Sunday at 11.30. Weather stayed dry, thank God. Could not see the flag but I watched the front row and left at the same time as them. Still got overtaken again by the man next to me. A bit of a shambles at the chicane but it could have been worse! Morizet was the victim and started off behind me. We had quite a battle for the whole race together with a few others, including Lelong. We had a coming together once at the chicane. I nearly ran into a white car (Lelong?) and Morizet ran into me and left a dent in the rear right wing (the one that was not already dented!). I found they all had more power coming out of Paradis and Nouveau Monde. Twice I got through Lelong on the inside at Nouveau Monde and he would power past on the uphill section. Anyway it was all quite amusing. The hairiest moment was when I caught up Lelong in the l/h downhill corner and had to swerve to avoid running into him (at 200 km/h!). I took that corner faster than him. I passed one car once going into the chicane but did not see him again, that was on the 2nd lap I think. On the last lap Morizet was well ahead and I was lining up to get Lelong. He went wide into Paradis and lost control, came back across and hit my left front wing and knocked me into the rail! I managed to keep going and made it to the flag but he rolled. Serve him right frankly. I stopped just after the line as I felt a tyre rubbing and backed into the pits. Lelong then had the cheek to complain that I was responsible and I was treated to his dad and mum who were most displeased! Final position (subject to checking one car, that of Boulanger the series leader) was 17th. Best lap 2’38.59. Record was 2’34.99. Everybody improved in the race except for Rozentvaig who of course knows the track very well.

* Claude Degremont, a good friend of mine, won the Samba series the following year and went on to be French Formula Renault champion in 1987 (beating Jean-Marc Gounon who ran in the same team) and twice French F3B champion.