Racing On The Ramparts & Other Forms Of Madness
Images: Gautam Sen
There is a good chance that you have never heard of the French town of Angouleme. Situated some 450km south of Paris, on the way to Bordeaux if you are driving down, it’s one of many small towns in France—of a population of less than 50,000—with a surprisingly rich history that goes back to the time of the Romans.
Even if it is better known to all those who are into comic books—as Angouleme has been playing host to the world’s most important comic book festival—the town is also very popular with historic vehicle enthusiasts who are serious motorsports enthusiasts, as Angouleme attracts the who’s who of racing and rallying who would like to leave their mark in the record books that one last time.
Just last weekend, over the dates of 16th to 18th September, the likes of Ari Vatanen, Jean-Claude Andruet, Guy Fréquelin, Jean Ragnotti, as well as endurance stars Jean-Pierre Jarier and Eric Hélary, spent time and regaled spectators with some lightning quick laps over the magical ramparts of the fortress of Angouleme.
Like several medieval towns, Angouleme too has had a fortress since Roman times, just that it has a road that runs on the top of the ramparts, one which gets converted into a racing circuit for a day in a year. With parts of the ramparts dating to the fourth, the 13th and the 16th century, the walls of the city are a significant historic monument and are unusual in becoming the centre stage to a brilliant motorsport event.
Although it was conceived in 1938, the first race at the Circuit des Remparts was in 1939, organised by the Automobile Club de Deux-Sèvres, Charente and Vendée (ACDSCV), which was won by French racing star Raymond Somner in an Alfa Romeo. Of course, WWII interrupted the races, but it was back in 1947, and carried on until 1955, with winners such as Maurice Trintignant, Rudi Fischer, and the redoubtable Juan Manuel Fangio making the track famous.
The idea was relaunched as a retrospective in 1978 on the initiative of Angouleme’s deputy mayor then, with this year marking the 50th running of the Circuit des Remparts.
The serious timed runs were on Sunday the 18th, with a concours d’elégance on Friday the 16th, a rally on 17th morning, and a concours d’état in the afternoon. Three full days of mechanical festivities!
Blue skies and great weather conditions helped to get record crowds to Angouleme during these three days, with some estimates putting the figure at over 60,000 spectators from across Europe, with a sizable number from across the Channel.
The concours d’elegance had an unusually wide range of cars, from an astounding 9.5-litre Brasier racer from 1908 to a lovely Salmson cyclecar racer, as well as Cadillacs and Buicks and Jaguars to the Audi Quattro S1 with which Walter Rohrl had rallied in Portugal in 1984.
Of interest to yours truly was the 1920 Ballot 3/8LC, which had won the first Italian Grand Prix in 1921.
Owned by my good friend Alexander Schaufler and his wife Esmeralda (and featured on the cover of my book on Ballot, photographed brilliantly well by Makarand Baokar), the car was a veritable star over the weekend, winning the Grand Prix de Concours d’Elégance, participating in the rally on Saturday where it blasted around the countryside, and then showboating on the rampart’s circuit on Sunday twice, to excited spectators.
The 50th edition of the Circuit des Remparts was remarkable in gathering exceptional grids, which included one for Grand Prix cars from 1908 to 1954, another one made up of Renault 5 Turbos, one of Group B rally cars, and so on.
A large audience waved at the cars on the rally route too, and thousands enjoyed the special exhibitions within the town, such as the one organised by Sylvie Herault at the Musée d'Angoulême - Musée de France celebrating the centenary of the crossing of the Sahara by Citroën.
Noteworthy was a brilliant display of Abarths around the town hall of the city, with the cars loaned from the Guy Moerenhaut-founded Abarth Works Museum, based in Lier, Belgium.
More than anything else it’s the atmosphere that is magical, through the weekend, with the town centre buzzing with excitement, matched with the roar of racing engines, as music belts from the bars and brasseries and visitors taste local delicacies in the central marketplace, the Marche.
Even if the organisation is a bit amateurish in not keeping to the timetable, the spirit and the enthusiasm of all concerned, makes the Circuit des Remparts one of the most distinctive and special historic vehicle events in the world.
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