Les Pilotes Irlandais – A Hillclimb Weekend in France

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  • Les Pilotes Irlandais – A Hillclimb Weekend in France

    St. Goueno is a small, mainly farming village, of 650 souls in rural Brittany noted for cheese, cider and, of course, a plentiful supply of vin rouge. Nothing special here, you might think. Except that once a year the area reverberates to the sight and sounds of unsilenced racing cars as the local inhabitants get together to run the Course De Cote St.Goueno. This event was revived in 2005 after a long lay off of 17 years due to the vision of the town mayor, Oliver Henry, and with the help of the local motor club Ecurie de Mene. The club secured a grant of 200k from the European Union to resurface the 3.5km road and put in place modern safety facilities. This hillclimb, or Course de Cote in French, is a hugely important event in the lives of the more Breton than French citizens of a normally sleepy area of Brittany. The event attracts a huge influx of visitors, drivers, friends, supporters and up to 10,000 spectators over the two days racing. Clearly, it has become a very important part of the local economy.

    I had the pleasure of competing at this event in 2006 and had a wonderful time despite some restricted driving time due to mechanical gremlins. In 09, an opportunity arose to have another crack at the hill but this time the Paddies returned in force, 8 drivers, 9 racing cars with spares, tools  and fuel, all  shoe-horned into Alan Kessie’s Ask Racing transporter which boarded  at Rosslare on Thursday and sailed to France. Drivers and support crews of wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters boarded a Ryan Air flight on Friday morning at Brest. The drivers numbered  Siobhan McCann(Ray), Brendan Keane(Magnum),Alan Kessie(Gryphon),Dermot Quigley (Anglia), Enda Byrne(DJ), Simon McKinley(Lant),Vincent O’Reilly(Crossle), and Rory Stevens (Radical).

    Friday was taken up with settling into the large paddock or “parc pilotes and once the transporter was unloaded we were proud to present an eclectic mix of cars to the French public. Mechanical and paper scrutiny followed, with all cars deemed raceworthy but Rory Stephens was informed, in no uncertain manner, that the Radical required a wash before it could run! Hillclimbing in France is similar, but oh so different, to what we are used to at home! Passing  is legal so all cars are required to have mirrors fitted and marshals are courtesy of Automobile Club de L’ouest of Le Mans fame in their familiar white boiler suits and surly demeanour! The principle is the same – to finish as quickly as possible, unlike sex ! !  That evening we all assembled in the town for a meal in Salle de Fetes, the local town hall with lots of local wine and food.  A good time was had by all.

    As Saturday morning dawned, the weather gods were not on our side and the first experience of the hill for most of our drivers was to be practice in heavy rain and wets were de rigeur for most. The 2 mile, tree-lined hill has some major drops on the left hand side where if a mistake is made the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing and possibly physically and financially painful. The course is very technical with most bends being blind and many resemble each other. Correct corner identity is of the utmost importance and fear can be a useful counterweight to exuberance on this hill!

    The paying spectator has full access all the way up the course, however the favourite vantage point is the Fer a Cheval hairpin with its amphitheatre shape which is accessed from the back of the paddock and attracts many thousands of spectators over the weekend with its bars and food stalls.

    The entry  was made up of over 160 cars and drivers in classes from historics to F3000 single-seaters with the European hillclimb champion and professional  racing  driver, Lionel Regal, topping the bill .The Irish drivers were in a class with our British neighbours designated  Master GB and totalling 30. We also had the honour of providing the only single-seater lady driver in Siobhan McCann(Ray  ) who was billed in the pre-event write up as the” Fastest Lady in Ireland “ which is correct… in a  manner of speaking!

    At the end of practice on Saturday it was clear to everybody that “les pilotes Irlandais” were a serious force to be reckoned with. Simon Mc Kinley was the sensation of the day with his usual style of driving which can only be described as controlled lunacy, ending  fastest overall in the wet, with Enda Byrne(DJ) 7th and Brendan Keane(Magnum) showing good pace in the slippery conditions to finish 8th overall. Much socializing in the village was earned, deserved and had by all. However, a good night’s sleep was essential to face the coming day.

    Sunday, race day, dawned early for all of us. With the hill still damp, particularly under trees, most drivers reported palpitating moments of varying degrees of seriousness, however, everybody kept it all together.  Motor sport in France is a civilized affair, with a four course lunch for all of us overlooking the Fer a Cheval hairpin, a pleasant interlude between morning and afternoon runs. The ambient temperature gradually rose throughout the afternoon  with times falling accordingly  The Irish drivers continued to dominate the Masters class with,  it has to be said, comparatively elderly machinery, and once again that man McKinley was the talk of the day giving the European champion a serious run for his money, and on his  final run having time for a  wave to the  crowd in the middle of a lurid power slide and to the  delight of the French commentator and thousands of people at the hairpin. At the end of the day there was much pride by each of us on our performances with that warm glow of achievement of a great weekend’s sport and not least on all of us being safe and sound with all cars undamaged.

    Prize giving was in the paddock on the Le Mans podium followed by a party for all with food and wine till the early hours. For the record, Irish finishers were Simon McKinley, an excellent and much talked about 3rd overall and 1st in class, Enda Byrne 10th and 2nd in class, Brendan Keane 17th,   Rory Stephens 19th, Alan Kessie 21st, Siobhan McCann 25th, Vinnie O’Reilly 46th and Dermot Quigley 60th and 1st of the historics in Gerry Freeman’s venerable Anglia.

    Sadly, another great weekend of motor sport came to an end, with the highs and memories of the occasion staying with all of us for many a day. The antidote is immediate talk of plans for next year! The great news for 2010 for St.Goueno is the announcement that the event has been granted full CFM status with the colourful, international element being a major factor in its granting, with a particular reference to Johnny Mahon’s hat! Plans are already afoot for next year which will feature a two event trip, beginning with Le Pommerae on the West coast on 29 /30May and St Goueno the following weekend.

    If you are looking for some great hillclimbing with good wine and food in wonderful surroundings book your diary now. Spaces will be limited!

    Brendan Keane

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