Le Corby 24h

En­durance rac­ing is ex­pen­sive and bor­ing, right? Not when 50 Citroën C1s go at it for the 24 heures du Rock­ing­ham

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words Mark Wal­ton | Pho­tog­ra­phy Char­lie Magee

Em­u­late the en­durance greats in a Citroën C1

MEYRICK COX is shak­ing his head. ‘I sup­pose, be­cause it’s an en­durance race,’ I’m say­ing to him, ‘you have to drive at eight-tenths? You know – look after the brakes, nurse the car to go the dis­tance?’ ‘No,’ he says with a smile. ‘You just have to drive it like you stole it for 24 hours.’ I see. Turns out that pretty much sums up all you need to know about Citroën C1 rac­ing… Of course, if you’re not a car en­thu­si­ast, just the idea of rac­ing a bim­bling lit­tle shop­ping trol­ley like a C1 might seem barmy – lit­er­ally, the only thing it shares with an LMP1 car is the 1. But if you know about cars, you’ll know the con­cept rests on that grand tra­di­tion of 2CV rac­ing. Citroën’s tin snail has been com­pet­ing in the UK since 1988, and for years the 2CV club’s an­nual 24-hour race has been a cor­ner­stone of our na­tional sport­ing life, along with the Bri­tish Grand Prix and Mansell’s mous­tache.

But after 30 years of lu­di­crous lean an­gles and put­ter­ing flat­twins, there’s now a prob­lem with 2CV rac­ing. Meyrick – banker, 2CV racer, car nut and C1 Rac­ing Club co-founder – ex­plains: ‘The 2CV is now 70 years old, so it’s a his­toric racer. Parts are get­ting dif­fi­cult, en­gines in par­tic­u­lar, and there’s a lot of re­man­u­fac­tur­ing go­ing on. In 2007 there were prob­a­bly 30 2CVs on the 24-hour grid; by 2015, that was down to 15 or 16.’

One of Meyrick’s co-di­rec­tors, Philip My­att, takes up the story. When not mak­ing grave­stones in Stoke-on-Trent, Philip was also a 2CV racer and 24-hour win­ner. ‘I’d had the idea of try­ing a C1 [as a 2CV al­ter­na­tive] since about 2012,’ he tells me. ‘We had a lot of con­ver­sa­tions over beers, but it never went any­where. Then one day, Caryl [that’s Caryl Wills – an­other un­usual name, an­other Club direc­tor] just bought one, a sal­vage car with four odd tyres. He fit­ted a race seat but it still had its three-point seat­belt.’

‘We didn’t even know he was do­ing it, he just in­vited us up to Mal­lory to try it,’ re­mem­bers Meyrick. ‘It was bril­liant.’

Ah, but here’s where serendip­ity plays its part. Be­cause if this tale had be­gun with a junk­yard Ford Ka or Smart ForTwo, it would end right here. But the C1 – hum­ble, yes; face like a car­toon tur­tle, yes; mis­match­ing tyres, per­haps – has ex­cel­lent genes. The car was born out of a joint ven­ture be­tween Toy­ota and PSA in the early 2000s, and the re­sult­ing Aygo/107/C1 was ba­si­cally an up­dated Peu­geot 106 chas­sis with a bul­let­proof Toy­ota en­gine. Think about that: a stripped-out 106 Ral­lye, with a 68bhp4


three-cylin­der? Put it that way, and per­haps it’s no sur­prise that the C1 proved to be such a tyre-squeal­ing laugh.

So, to cut a long story short, the Club founders de­cided to mildly mod­ify the C1’s front sus­pen­sion, to im­prove steer­ing ‘bite’ and re­duce tyre wear. They cre­ated a con­trolled Club kit, which in­cludes the new sus­pen­sion parts, a rollcage and fuel tank guard for £1500; add in a race seat and fire ex­tin­guisher, and you can build a C1 racer for un­der £4k, in­clud­ing the donor car – a quar­ter of what a se­ri­ous 2CV could cost. And cru­cially, the C1 runs a stan­dard en­gine, ex­haust and ABS brakes, to keep the field ab­so­lutely level. Even the dash­board stays put, and the heater and ra­dio must work. ‘We wanted a se­ries where the regs were very clear, re­stric­tive and rigidly en­forced,’ says Meyrick.

After a trial run in the Bel­gian 2CV 24-hour race at Spa in 2016, Meyrick, Philip, Caryl and fourth direc­tor Nick Pa­ton set up the C1 Rac­ing Club in 2017, or­gan­is­ing races that could fit into ex­ist­ing Bri­tish Au­to­mo­bile Rac­ing Club (BARC) week­ends, to keep costs down. ‘BARC were bril­liant,’ says Meyrick. ‘We worked out that if we could get eight cars on the grid we’d break even. And we did start with about eight cars – but by the end of the year we were up to 40. Now there are 130 cars.’

En­cour­aged by its de­but sea­son, the Club de­cided to kick off 2018 with a new 24-hour race at Rock­ing­ham, the first roundthe-clock event ever held at the Northamp­ton­shire cir­cuit. There was room on the grid for 50 cars, but over 90 teams en­tered. ‘It sold out in eight hours,’ says Meyrick. ‘Do­ing the 2CV stuff, we’d been used to six months’ hard work and get­ting 15 cars!’

So the Club an­nounced a sec­ond 24-hour race in Septem­ber, and that too was quickly over­sub­scribed. Citroën C1 rac­ing had turned into a phe­nom­e­non. de­cided it needed to do some proper, deep-dive in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism… and when Meyrick of­fered us a seat I said ‘YES! YES! YES!’ faster than a C1 can par­al­lel park.

RE­ALLY, THE LAST thing you need in an en­durance race is a team-mate who’ll em­bar­rass you by set­ting much quicker times in the same car. So imag­ine my de­light when I ar­rive at Rock­ing­ham and dis­cover I’m un­ex­pect­edly shar­ing the car with An­thony Reid, for­mer Le Mans and BTCC racer. Bril­liant!

My other team-mates are Vicky Par­rott, fel­low jour­nal­ist, and Ja­son Bar­ron, friend of Meyrick and oc­ca­sional his­toric racer. Our race man­ager is Steve Brown, who nor­mally runs a car de­liv­ery and re­cov­ery busi­ness. He’s over­see­ing a team of vol­un­teer me­chan­ics, all do­ing en­gi­neer­ing cour­ses at col­lege.

Qual­i­fy­ing isn’t un­til late Fri­day evening, so the day­time is ded­i­cated to free prac­tice. Not that there’s much to test – there are no aero­dy­nam­ics or gear ra­tios to dis­cuss. Even the seat fit­ting is un­der­whelm­ing: it’s on con­ven­tional run­ners, so… so that doesn’t take long. Still, there’s pal­pa­ble ex­cite­ment grip­ping the pad­dock: vans and campers are crammed in, me­chan­ics to-ing and fro-ing. In our garage, our car is sur­rounded by stacks of tyres – C1 Rac­ing’s fi­nal, crit­i­cal in­gre­di­ent. ‘We tried a dozen dif­fer­ent tyres,’ Meyrick ex­plains. ‘We weren’t in­ter­ested in what went quicker – the Nankangs were the cheap­est and least grippy tyres we tried, but they were just fun to drive.’

So the en­tire field runs on iden­ti­cal Tai­wanese Nankangs. The Club buys around 10,000 tyres a year, di­rect from the man­u­fac­turer, and has them shaved to re­duce block move­ment and there­fore wear. A set of four Club tyres costs £223.

Our first job as a team is to start work­ing through our tyres to give them a heat cy­cle (cooked rub­ber lasts longer). It means – at last – it’s time to drive the C1. I climb in through the rollcage. It doesn’t mat­ter that there’s only a lawnmower en­gine up front, be­cause the stark clar­ity of pur­pose of this bare-metal in­te­rior makes it so much more fo­cused – so much cooler – than the lit­tle dumpling ex­te­rior sug­gests. The C1’s for­mer life of round­abouts and shop­ping-cen­tre car parks melts away – in here, it feels like I’m do­ing Le Mans. With Corby FM on the ra­dio.

It feels se­ri­ous, but the car’s be­nign, road-car con­trols make you feel at ease straight away – the stan­dard ex­haust means I’m not even wear­ing earplugs. So I join the cir­cuit, throt­tle mashed. It’s not quite as slow as you might sup­pose – with rollcage and weight bal­last, the car weighs 910kg, and it feels light and eager.

Ah, but then come the cor­ners. You’ll to have to trust me here, bizarre though it may sound: I’ve road-tested Lam­borgh­i­nis, raced his­toric Al­fas and thrashed Group B rally cars, but steer­ing this lit­tle Citroën around Rock­ing­ham turned into one of the most mem­o­rable drives of my life. Speed is im­ma­te­rial – it’s the in­ten­sity that counts: ev­ery move­ment mea­sured by the clock, all your senses turned up to 11 and ra­di­at­ing out to feel the car. The C1’s steer­ing is sharp and the rear so lively and tail-happy it plays a part in ev­ery cor­ner. If you pitch it in hard, the tail swings round, al­ter­ing your an­gle, di­alling up the ag­gres­sion of your line, al­low­ing you to skip over that in­side kerb with all four wheels drift­ing. It’s ad­dic­tive fun, but you can’t get car­ried away. If you’re too wild, too greedy for speed, you end up un­der­steer­ing wide, los­ing time and shred­ding rub­ber. So a good lap4



re­quires sur­pris­ing amounts of con­cen­tra­tion and sen­si­tiv­ity – but don’t take my word for it. After a few laps I jump out, beam­ing, and find An­thony to ask what he thinks. ‘It’s like driv­ing a hol­i­day rental car,’ he says. ‘Short wheel­base, not much power, a lot of fun. But it’s ev­ery bit as chal­leng­ing, try­ing to win in this, as a BTCC car – you’re just look­ing for ways of sav­ing time on the lap. It’s all about the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mar­ginal gains.’

For­tu­nately, that evening An­thony ac­cu­mu­lates enough gains to qual­ify us sev­enth out of 52 cars. The field is in­cred­i­bly close: just a few tenths sep­a­rate us from the mid­field. Com­pe­ti­tion is fiercest at the sharp end – qual­i­fy­ing sec­ond is our team’s sis­ter car, driven by Ford GT driver Andy Pri­aulx; his son Seb, a For­mula 4 racer; Alan Gow, the boss of the BTCC; and for­mer hote­lier Richard Solomons. Quite a line-up. Ahead of them on pole is Team C’est La Vie. I’ve never heard of any of their driv­ers.

Next day we wait un­til 5pm to start, but An­thony doesn’t rest. While I’m hav­ing a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake, An­thony’s talk­ing tyres with the me­chan­ics. When I re­turn from a stroll up the pit­lane, he’s in our car, elas­ti­cat­ing the seat­belts. As I tuck into some pasta with gar­lic bread, he’s get­ting a me­chanic to pour fuel from one 20-litre churn into an­other. His com­pet­i­tive spirit is re­mark­able – I want to win, but his ap­proach is all-out, C1-gone-feral, shop­ping-trol­ley-bat­tle-to-the-death war.

Thing is, his ef­forts add up: he dis­cov­ers the fuel-can noz­zles – iden­ti­cal, plas­tic, mass-pro­duced – aren’t iden­ti­cal at all. There’s a 50-sec­ond dif­fer­ence be­tween emp­ty­ing a churn with one noz­zle and an­other. Think of that, over 24 hours! An­thony marks ev­ery­thing ‘Best’ or ‘Don’t Use’. I ask him, was he born like this, or did he learn this ap­proach from 30 years of rac­ing? ‘My wife says I’m too in­tense,’ he ac­knowl­edges with a smile. ‘My mother was the same. But in­ten­sity is great for rac­ing. And work­ing with teams like Pro­drive, they leave no stone un­turned.’

The heav­ens open and tor­ren­tial rain pours down. We leave no stone un­turned in de­cid­ing that An­thony should ab­so­lutely, def­i­nitely start the race. Good luck at that first cor­ner, An­thony!

At 4.58pm, after a day wait­ing, the mood in the garage prick­les with ten­sion as 49 cars line up… How can I com­press 24 hours into a few lines? With­out bor­ing you with end­less lap times? In­stead, let me tell you about the thoughts and im­pres­sions that keep com­ing back as I think about that amaz­ing night…

Dark­ness falls quickly, and Rock­ing­ham’s spotlit grand­stands be­gin to re­sem­ble the Le Mans start straight in the gloomy driz­zle. I wait and wait. An­thony, Vicky and Ja­son all drive be­fore me, so I’m in my race suit and pumped when, at 10.30pm, Ja­son un­ex­pect­edly comes into the garage, the car’s front bumper stoved in. He’s had an off. Fran­tic min­utes tick by as the me­chan­ics swarm over it, tap­ing bro­ken plas­tic, show­er­ing the garage floor with wet gravel. Ja­son goes out again, re­join­ing in 30th po­si­tion.

An hour later Ja­son’s head­lights swing back in, and after a re­fuel it’s my turn. Wired with adren­a­line, I leave the pits at 11.30pm, though the time on the clock seems in­con­se­quen­tial. Over the next three hours, I have THE GREAT­EST DRIV­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCE OF MY LIFE. It starts badly – the track is wet4


and un­be­liev­ably greasy, and I strug­gle to find a rhythm. I have two near-offs as I search for grip at the very mar­gins of the track, tee­ter­ing along the white lines, tan­ta­lis­ingly close to the wet grass and dark­ened gravel be­yond. I get em­bar­rassed by my own ef­forts; I moan out loud as cars over­take. And then – and then! The car, the grip, the track fi­nally start to come to me, and I be­gin reel­ing cars in. After a dread­ful first 45 min­utes, I race into the small hours, lock­ing onto car after car, chas­ing them down, over­tak­ing ev­ery­thing in sight. Two full hours of pure driv­ing nirvana, my brain laser-fo­cused on those seat-of-the-pants sen­sa­tions of grip and slide, the tightrope be­tween glory and ut­ter dis­as­ter.

Even at 2am, the stan­dard of driv­ing is high: with the cars so evenly matched, the only way you can over­take is to be brave un­der brak­ing, take a dif­fer­ent line, hunt out ex­tra trac­tion on the exit as you thrash the guts out of the car. End­less tus­sling, wheel-to-wheel, lap upon lap; but ev­ery­one makes room.

I come in after three hours. We’re back up to 16th, and as I wan­der out to my VW camper in the dark pad­dock, I’m elated and knack­ered in equal mea­sure. I fall asleep at 3am, lulled by the re­lent­less mo­tor­way drone of the un­fold­ing race. After four hours’ sleep, I’m up again and back in the garage, hang­ing around for my next turn. You know that Steve McQueen line, from the movie Le Mans: ‘Rac­ing is life, ev­ery­thing else is just wait­ing’? It’s like that. On Nankangs.

Good job I am wait­ing, be­cause we’re us­ing safety-car pe­ri­ods to do op­por­tunis­tic driver swaps, and two in­ci­dents have brought my slot for­ward. I’m driv­ing again at 8am, and on a dry­ing track in the ris­ing sun­shine it’s a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Con­fi­dent with the C1 now, in­ti­mate with ev­ery inch of the track (and quite a lot of the verges), I throw the car into cor­ners like a pa­per ball into a wastepa­per bas­ket, arc­ing across kerbs, brak­ing so hard the C1’s head­lights bulge even more than usual.

An­other safety car means I’m back in the pits after just an hour and a half, though it feels like 15 min­utes. I get out hot and sweaty, and re­alise I haven’t eaten yet. Sud­denly rav­en­ous, I put down my hel­met and grab a ba­con sand­wich, and wolf down a big bite of ba­con, but­ter and bread the size of a snooker ball. I re­alise too late that, in my haste, I’ve for­got­ten to chew. The snooker ball gets stuck in my pipe. For a hor­ri­ble mo­ment I think I’m go­ing to choke to death, so I walk out of the garage, round the back of my camper van and stick my fin­gers down my throat to puke it up. Relief. Smooth work, Mark. Steve McQueen never men­tioned this in his film.

The ro­ta­tion of driv­ers means I’m lucky, and I’m back in our bedrag­gled C1 for a fi­nal stint to take the che­quered flag. The en­ergy and emo­tion of 23 hours ramps up over the last 60 min­utes, and I end up in a tight, eight-car bat­tle for… for what? I don’t even know. Cer­tainly not the lead, and prob­a­bly not even for po­si­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter – eight cars, door han­dle to door han­dle for an hour, none of us able to escape as we flog our en­gines mer­ci­lessly out of ev­ery bend. Then we whirr like wash­ing ma­chines down the straight, side by side, jostling and squirm­ing un­der brak­ing, only to exit the next turn and find we’re still side by side. It’s hi­lar­i­ous. There are mo­ments when I’m boxed in so close, my wind­screen, side win­dows and mir­rors are filled with noth­ing but wall-to-wall C1.

Last lap, and it all goes a bit de­mented. A fever seems to de­scend, and now cars are lung­ing at cor­ners and chop­ping across kerbs, as ev­ery­thing is flung at the bat­tle. Hav­ing not touched an­other car for 23 hours and 59 min­utes, I trade paint with three ri­vals in the fi­nal, fren­zied turns, and only a sud­den swerve on my part stops me from T-bon­ing some­one in the very last cor­ner. I laugh out loud in dis­be­lief when I see him fist-pump­ing in the car ahead as we take the flag. It wasn’t for po­si­tion – it was just be­cause I was there.

We fin­ish 14th, and as Team C’est La Vie sprays the cham­pagne we all agree it’s been a ball. Noth­ing could have pre­pared me for it – there’s a lit­tle bit of magic in this race se­ries, and the ela­tion and glee I feel is truly out of all pro­por­tion to the eBay car it’s based around. And, amaz­ingly, ev­ery sin­gle C1 fin­ishes – like 49 get­away cars, en­gines siz­zling and tyres blis­tered, after com­plet­ing the heist of the cen­tury.

‘The crack­ers are in the cor­ner, Mark, next to the gear­boxes’

Ford WEC driver Andy Pri­aulx (left) with BTCC bossAlan Gow

Sop­ping wet Corby. Citroën C1 on Nankangs. Heaven

Never, ever in the C1 en­gi­neers’ wildest dreams…

‘Tyres feel great. I’ll pit to­mor­row’

Or­ange man does fuel. Yel­low men send more Nankangs to their deaths

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