INTERVIEW. Memories of Paul Ricard

News | May 19, 2021

In 2021, Circuit Paul Ricard returns to the 24H SERIES calendar for the first time since 2017. But what can this year’s competitors learn from the previous three editions? We ask Herberth Motorsport’s Robert Renauer, CP Racing’s Joe Foster, and Autorama Motorsport by Wolf-Power Racing’s Stefan Tanner – all of whom are former class or outright winners of the event – for their thoughts.

On 11 July 2015, 58 cars lined up on the grid for CREVENTIC’s first ever endurance event at Circuit Paul Ricard, just as, six years later, more than 30 are set to take the start for the fourth. Across those first three editions, series fan favourite RAM Racing scored its first overall win in the 24H SERIES, perennial frontrunner Herberth Motorsport took arguably its most dominant victory yet, and, to-date, Circuit Paul Ricard featured the last class win for a MARC V8 in the 24H SERIES. 

 

Not that CREVENTIC had any of this in mind of course when terms were agreed between the Dutch promoter and management at Circuit Paul Ricard for the first French round of the 24H SERIES. Simply put, like the Dubai Autodrome, the Hungaroring, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello and Circuit Zandvoort before it, Circuit Paul Ricard was a drivers’ circuit capable of providing a brand new challenge to 24H SERIES competitors.

“I love the track, and my [teammates] love the track as well,” explains Robert Renauer, who secured outright wins at the Hankook 24H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD in 2016 and 2017 with Herberth Motorsport. “It’s a beautiful place. For the last race, we used the chicane on the Mistral Straight, and I personally prefer to go flat out, but it’s still an enjoyable track to compete at. We have always been successful there with the Porsche, and I think the 991 suits the track really well. I’m looking forward to this event, and hopefully we can build on our previous success there.”

 

“I really like Paul Ricard,” continues 2017 class winner Joe Foster, who made his 24H SERIES debut at the event in 2015. “I like fast circuits and it’s going to be a great place to run in the Mercedes [AMG GT3]. It’s also amazing to think that it’s been six years since my first race at Paul Ricard. I ran in the 991 class, Charlie [Putman], Charles [Espenlaub] and David Russel and that was the first time I’d done an endurance race there. In the mid-‘80s, I drove a Formula 3 race at Paul Ricard when I was 19 years old, but that weekend was my first experience with the 24H SERIES. We’ve been a part of it ever since.”

That the circuit is already a driver favourite, despite the four-year absence from the calendar, is no real surprise though. The near-2km Mistral Straight (with or without chicane) has been a circuit focal point since its construction in 1970, and precision through the tight and technical ‘Virage’ complex is crucial to a competitive laptime. On top of that, there’s the wider expanse of asphalt runoff that replaced the circuit’s ‘old school’ gravel traps during the last major overhaul. Hit the Blue Zone, and the high-grip surface causes immediate if not complete deceleration, allowing a car to rejoin the track. Hitting the more abrasive Red Zone though will be like polishing each tyre with a block of sandpaper. 

 

While not the most popular of additions – motor sport fans do love their gravel traps! – few could deny the safer conditions under which events at Circuit Paul Ricard are now run...

 

“For me, Paul Ricard is a very nice track. Very safe,” explains Stefan Tanner, who, before becoming team principal at Autorama Motorsport, took two A2-class wins as a driver in 2015 and 2016 at Paul Ricard. “We won in 2015 and 2016 with our Renault Clio, and I look back on that time with pleasure. But we’re looking forward to being back at Paul Ricard with our TCR Volkswagen [Golf GTi]. The track layout I think will suit our TCR car very well, and it’s very safe too, which will a big help for the gentlemen drivers. I think we can do well at Paul Ricard.”

High speed straights, a technical infield and a vast expanse of runoff area akin to running over a cheese grater mean drama at the Hankook 24H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD is all but a certainty, and often occurs sooner than punters might expect. Even the race start has seen its fair share of incidents over the years.

 

In 2015, Scuderia Praha’s Peter Kox, who’d started on the front row, had barely rounded turn two before the Ferrari 458 Italia was tagged by HP Racing’s fast-starting Jeroen Bleekemolen. Both drivers naturally blamed the other, but their respective fights back to the front of the pack were immense. In 2016 meanwhile, Juan Cruz Alvarez in the pole-sitting Drivex Audi didn’t even make it to turn two before trouble struck, the R8 LMS sailing wide at turn one in a flurry of tyre smoke – narrowly avoiding SPS automotive-performance’s Lance-David Arnold in the process – after its ABS failed on the warm-up lap. 

 

Perhaps the strangest start though occurred in 2017 when intermittent heavy rain and limited visibility forced the race to start under Code 60 purple flags. Only when the track had dried sufficiently was the field permitted to accelerate from 60kph to full race pace, and even then, Scuderia Praha’s Matteo Malucelli immediately slipped behind ROFGO Racing’s Stuart Hall as the Ferrari struggled to build temperature into its tyres. As you’ll read later on, the Czech team hasn’t had the easiest of runs at Le Castellet over the years!

Of course, just ask Robert Renauer how ‘important’ starting at the front is for a good result at Paul Ricard: two-time event winner Herberth Motorsport has never started higher than 5th at the Hankook 24H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD, and claimed its first win in 2016 after starting 10th! 

 

“It’s not important to be on pole position at a 24-hour race, or even a 12-hour race,” Robert continues.” You need to have good strategy and to be in a good position for the complete race. Always stay as close as you can to the front, and use the Code 60s. Sometimes you need a bit of luck, but if everything comes together, only then can you win by 14 laps! Strategy really is the most important thing here.” 

Indeed, flexible strategy, buoyed by a healthy dollop of luck, proved crucial to Herberth Motorsport’s win in 2016. Oil dropped by the JR Motorsport BMW E90 M3 caused the first Code 60 flag to be flown after just 20 minutes of running, Herberth Motorsport taking the opportunity to brim what they could of the Porsche’s barely agitated tank. A little over two hours later, the Code 60 flags were out again when Pascal Colon in the B2F compétition Porsche inadvertently sideswiped Nova Race’s Eric Vaissiere, sending the Ginetta G55 hard into the wall on the Mistral Straight. Having filled up earlier, and with Robert Renauer maximizing his full two-hour drive time, Herberth Motorsport emerged from the ensuing chaos a full lap ahead of the field before the fourth hour had even ticked past.

 

“Strategy is so important,” Stefan agrees. “I remember in 2016, there was a crash in our class for the Peugeot RCZ” – Team K-Rejser’s Jens Mølgaard collided with NKPP Racing’s Rob Rappange on the start-finish straight, eliminating both – “and you need to be ready to take advantage of those Code 60s. You need to make sure you adapt quickly to what’s happening on-track.” 


No arguments here. Bizarrely, every round of the Hankook 24H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD thus far has featured eight Code 60 caution periods! 

Then there’s the heat to consider. The inaugural two rounds took place on 10-11-12 July and 15-16-17 July respectively, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region reaching highs of up to 28 degrees during the course of both weekends. Imagine that in an un-air-conditioned GT3 or TCE cockpit whilst wearing a full fireproof racesuit and helmet. A formidable challenge for any PRO driver, let alone a ‘gentleman’…

 

“Our first win in 2015 was with the Renault Clio Cup Endurance,” Stefan continues. “The car was new and I remember the second time we won the race with the Clio IV felt very special. It was like a dream. It’s crazy actually, because 2015 and 2016 was [major] a step towards the TCR car and our factory team with Volkswagen. But I remember the heat in the car… it must have been 37 or 38 degrees. And we were running the car non-stop for two hours, and it got seriously hot. For the PRO drivers, this is something they can train for. As a gentleman driver, it was really tough.”

Hard enough on the drivers, the scorching temperatures had a similarly destructive impact on the machinery too. Having already caught fire before qualifying in 2015, the Cor Euser Racing Lotus Evora GT4 later blew its engine during the race, leading to another fire at half-distance. Red Camel-Jordans.nl’s race with the MARC Mazda 3 V8 came to a similarly smoky end when its fuel pumped failed at three-quarter distance, while one year later, GRT Grasser Racing Team, Optimum Motorsport and GPC MOTORSPORT were all high profile retirements in similarly fiery fashion. Unsurprisingly, the 2017 edition was moved forward to May.

 

Competition in-class doesn’t always come down to changeable weather and good/bad luck though. In 2017, in an odd occurrence for the 24H SERIES, Joe Foster and PROsport Performance, a championship contender and already a two-time class winner that season, turned up to compete at Paul Ricard only to find its nearest rivals had jumped ship. Sure, victory was pretty much assured, but that didn’t mean the race was done…

 

“I remember in 2015, we started in the 991 class with about a dozen Porsches. So we were surprised in 2017 that a lot of cars left the group and went to SP2 instead. It was frustrating, but that also changed our focus. Now we were a) trying to finish ahead of everyone in the SP2 class, and b) finish as close to the overall winner as possible. These races are long and brutal on a car, and it was so important for us just to make the finish for the sake of the championship. If you go back and look at our qualifying in 2017, we were not the quickest cars frequently, but we tended to make less mistakes and had good reliability. Our team baked the cake. We were just eating it!”

The question remains of course, with its new place on the calendar and a totally revised format, whether Circuit Paul Ricard can be generous to Joe, Robert and Stefan once again in 2021. Given the respective merits of CP Racing, Herberth Motorsport and Autorama Motorsport by Wolf-Power Racing, it’s hardly the boldest of claims. But then, we’ve seen stranger things over the years at the Hankook 24H CIRCUIT PAUL RICARD.

-       Words – James Gent

-       Images – Petr Frýba and Eric Teeken

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