Bernie's Playground

High up on a French mountaintop after an twisty and uninterrupted climb through a picturesque pass starting near the Mediterranean's azure bays where Toulon lies quiet against the sea, is the famous extravaganza named Paul Ricard, who wasn't there, but what a test track. For photographers, I mean, not race drivers. All the corners billow out in girthy curves of blues and reds, seemingly painted by the hand of Miro or Monet, contemporary, flashy but not to be driven on as they designate progressively heavier grains of rough tarred surfaces that consume errant cars' tires at ever increasing rates, but they make for some of the most dramatic aerial shots of a race track with which a Mid-Ohio or Oulton or Slovakia Ring just can't compete.


Bernie Ecclestone, in one of only 3 moments of irrational exuberance in his 8+ decades of ruthlessly successful deal making, decided to erect this mecca, this shrine to who knows what, but really to house F1's annual testing calendar, just a few fine years before the FIA, purely for budget reasons, terminated the massive F1 testing calendar...and the commercial viability of this sexy looking and frustrating track, plus its adjacent 5 star hotel and private jet airport next door.  BTW (that's by the way, not built to waste), more than the F1 teams' testing budgets have now been deployed in amassing massive synthetic simulator programs to achieve what physical testing used to do, but at much greater cost these days.


The World Endurance Championship hosted it's first official test of the season here at Ricard this weekend, attracting around 30 cars in the 4 classes (especially the new Porsche LMP1 with Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley frightening the record books) and a crowd of race-starved fans totaling in the thousands, maybe 8,000 on Day Two. I'd flown in on yet another splendid red eye, JFK to Paris on Air France who try to make you feel like you have a front row seat at the Moulon Rouge right after take-off, enjoyed a 20 mile walk through some of the finest French airport architectural structures available to find the last gate in France that flew the short hopper down to Marsailles where the airport isn't even in Marsailles, not even close. Drove on down in a rented Citroen to and through the massive Marsailles harbor, along a series of toll gated highways for an hour or so and in Bandol found our lovely hotel nestled into a hillside overlooking a bucolically beautiful white sand beach bay, but almost didn't make it after the toll gates rejected first my MasterCard, then the Amex, as you need Euro coins only, not paper money, at these idiotic toll gates, much to the restive discontent of a long line of French families queueing angrily behind me as I ran about trying to bribe a highway official to swap 10 round, heavy, invaluable coins for a single 10 Euro note, managing to do so just minutes before the Second French Revolution broke out right behind my Citroen.


SSSS in my sun soaked hotel room (some of the S's stand for shave, shampoo and shower) I took a brief nap, but the curtains were purely decorative and couldn't come close to covering the window span, so I had no effective defense agains the sun blasting into my room like Xray vision guns; perhaps nap is a misnomer. I later found a round dial on the wall that lowered an external security fence that turned the room into a dungeon and sleep is now available 24 hours a day. I ignored the effects of sleepless nights on redeyes and met up with the team to participate in some of the driving on Day One, yesterday. No wind, lovely sun uncluttered by clouds, and reasonable ambient and track temperatures. Perfect for a test day, except unlike Navarra, other drivers apparently thought they were invited to this official test as well, so after Johnny Mowlem and Ben Collins gave me the data downloads, I went out in RAM Racing's sleek silver and blue # 53 and was promptly attacked by Stuka dive bombers and errant Crimean fighter jets looking for something to do that won't irritate Putin, all thinking new WEC drivers like me actually used our rear view mirrors. After some close calls indeed, I converted and became an avid born-again rear view mirror observer, not just on Sundays, substantially raising the odds of avoiding a 50 mph closing speed accident that would have ruined an entire evening for the crew.


All 3 of our # 53 car drivers have raced a lot in multi-class racing, but I have by far the least experience in the wheelbarrow class, and unlike sitting in the LMP1, LMP2 or Daytona Prototype seats, the view from the wheelbarrow is both terrifying and highly eventful if you haven't picked up their sparkling white lights very early. So I got my head dunked into the "idiot" bucket more than a few times as I worked this track back into the denial portion of my racing brain, and ultimately lap times came down to acceptable and even a few at the end, charming to misty with light breezes levels. Close enough to Ben and Johnny's times that even they were unlikely to slap me too hard.


Some of our team "kit" had arrived, gorgeous deep blue Addidas suits, names all in lower case like the "addidas" logo, dashing boots and gloves with lots more to come when the manufacturers figure out that Dan Shufflebottom's season starting dates weren't meant partly as an attempt at British satire. The team's pro photographer was also on hand to capture artistic images of both cars and all 6 drivers (even James Rossiter was here to team up with Matt Griffin and Alvaro Parento, prepping for the # 52 car he'll share at Le Mans), so the PR side is coming together and the website should be upgraded soon. WEC's pro photographers also took themed pictures of every driver for programs and TV broadcasts, convincing us all to put on our best Rocky faces, looking angry and competitive, which may end up appearing rather absurd as the pop-up shots during live TV broadcasts later in the year. We'll see.


Highway and city driving at night doesn't normally cause much consternation, but Bernie's lighting budget must have run out a long time ago, so each of us doing our minimum 5 dark laps, except for Alvaro who simply doesn't know how to engage his own fear-feelers, produced less than steller lap times and I produced near Dodo bird levels. Shocking how a difficult track essentially becomes impossible under zero lighting conditions with soft yellow glowing candles attached to the front of your car. Terrifying guesswork.


 Now, Day Two's weather was totally unexpected and unwelcome with howling winds under roiling grey clouds and cooler temps both in the air and on the track surface. Like my hotel room, no sun in sight and I didn't even have to lower the security blinds.  Everyone's times suffered a bit and the # 53 car suffered more than that with Johnny at the controls diving headlong and fully committed in 5th gear into "Senior" - the 5th gear right hander at the end of the massive long back straight. A power steering pipe burst leaving Johnny feeling constipated and sluggishly weak at 150 mph without any semblance of control. He is still being treated for bowel movement traumatic stress disorder.


That repair took a while (cleaning the car and finding a replacement part) so Ben stepped down, as did Johnny and gave me all the laps during the afternoon stint, which allowed me ever so slowly to demonstrate my incompetence, though not my incontinence, as lap times edged back towards respectability, though nothing good. So Day Two resulted in lots of time for one driver to get more familiar with the car in trying conditions, but not much more was achieved. Nevertheless, off track it was wonderful to catch up with Brendon Hartley at lunch, proudly tricked out in his fabulous Porsche LMP1 factory driver kit, and to see a Mark Webber or a Tom Kristensen and many other racing greats walk the halls, signing autographs and mingling with the rest of the drivers like normal human beings. Talking of signing your life away, Johnny, Ben and I did our 30 minute duty along pit row signing programs and letterheads for a throng of French fans and wouldn't you know it, a dozen superbly awkward faces walked by just begging to be drawn, so the team forced me to sketch these Madam Tousseaux rejects, much to their humiliation, but strangely, they all said thanks. The French are so polite.



E N D    O F      T E S T     R E P O R T    (Paul Ricard)