THE APPEAL OF ANDROS P26
ICE RACING’S EXTRAVAGANZA
It’s unlikely that you’d find a bank clerk going into a branch on his time off work, but in sport, it’s widely accepted that involvement can turn into addiction. The traditional motor racing season runs from spring to autumn, giving drivers and team personnel a little time off over the winter. But not in the French Alps.
As World Rally Championship teams use the Alpine region to prepare for one of the most famous motorsport competitions in the world, the Monte Carlo Rally each December and early January, there are also a range of motorsport stars, teams and engineers working high in the mountains to get their fix in the winter months.
Trophee Andros, or Andros Trophy as it is referred to in English, was created in 1990 as a winter competition on tracks constructed of ice and snow. Previous races had involved champions from a range of disciplines invited to participate in a selection of non-specific machines, fitted with studded ice tyres. Touring cars, rally and rallycross cars were utilised.
Andros Trophy founder Max Mamers explains: “At that time, there were only two ice races in France at Serre Chevalier and Chamonix. All of the champions were invited, the idea was to make one challenge to know who is the best.”
In the years that followed, as the Trophy grew into the specialist discipline, the machinery became fitfor-purpose and the events happened as far from the Alps as in Paris, and Canada for a three-year spell.
Today, chassis are controlled but fitted with different silhouette bodyshells, built specifically for the discipline. A major technical breakthrough came in 1992, when multiple French hillclimb champion Marcel Tarres hatched a plan to keep up with the rally drivers more accustomed to rotating a car on corner entry. Taking inspiration from a forklift truck, Tarres devised a fourwheel-steer system and, having fought off opposition from those for who it would remove a driving advantage, the trend was set. Through the years the rear-wheels joining the front in steering the cars has become a key element of car set-up, in track conditions that constantly change at each race as the ice gets cut up by studded types before freezing some more.
It’s that unique challenge that attracts top-level motorsport participants year-on-year, be they engineers, drivers or whole teams. When they could be quite happily spending time away from awnings attached to the side of 40-foot trailers, those involved are drawn into the mountains.
“I’ve been doing Andros since 1998 and I’ve won the title six times with Jean-philippe Dayraut,” says Laurent Fedacou, who works for the official Mazda-backed team in Andros Trophy when he isn’t engineering race-winning cars in World Rallycross and the DTM. “I really like to do this in the winter. It’s a very nice challenge, very difficult with a lot of parameters, especially the track, which is changing quite a lot all the time.”
Engineers who work in top-level rallying, GT racing and even Formula 1 also get involved.
Current regulations have remained stable for the last decade, and while the chassis are controlled and the naturally aspirated V6 engines are capped to three-litres (producing around 360 horsepower), the suspension is relatively free. That makes it particularly interesting for engineers and drivers to adapt the cars for the conditions on each run, adjusting dampers, ride heights, the amount the rear-wheel turn compared to the front, and more conventional geometry variables.
The most-crowned Andros Trophy champion ever is touring car legend Yvan Muller, who has 10 titles to his name, while France’s only Formula 1 champion Alain Prost is a three-time Trophy winner. The 1997 F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve has also been a regular competitor in the past. The current reigning champion is JeanBaptise Dubourg, who drives a Renault Clio for his family’s DA Racing team that is also planning a full-time programme in World RX this year.
In 2015 at Loheac in France, Dubourg joined Timmy Hansen and triple FIA world champion Petter Solberg on the rallycross podium in one of the most competitive events of the season.
“You don’t have the same grip on ice that you do in rallycross. Because of the studs on the tyres [250 per tyre], the grip is constant so you can put the car where you want on the entry or exit of the corner,” says Dubourg. “You also have four-wheel turning in Andros Trophy, so it’s not the same way to drive, but I take the experience and sometimes use it in rallycross when it is a wet race. I’m not afraid when we lose grip. Some drivers like Prost and Muller say this is the hardest competition in the world, more difficult than F1. The track changes all the time and you have to change the settings of the car all the time too. I learn a lot with engineers and how to set a car up well. When the track is fully ice you don’t have to think about your tyres, you can go flat-out. But, when Tarmac is coming through in some parts you have to manage your tyres because you lose some grip with the studs. All the grip, all the performance, comes from the tyres, more than anywhere else I think.”
Aside from a few exceptions, events are run over two days with individual points-scoring rounds taking place on Friday and Saturday. The moving showpiece is all about the television product, with a live prime-time broadcast taking place on both evenings.
Each driver takes part in two qualifying sessions, but unlike in conventional timed runs, the time is recorded for four laps instead of one. The top five drivers then move through into the ‘Super Pole’ shootout to determine who starts where at the front of the final. Grid position is more critical than ever in Andros Trophy, overtaking is difficult on ice, so starting at the front is key. However, only 20 per cent of an event’s points are scored in the only on-track race of the day, a system devised to discourage contact in the finals in a do-or-die manoeuvre to gain a position, although as in rallycross,
it can still occur. The overall positions for the event are taken from an amalgamation of the total points scored. “It’s like that to avoid having a stockcar race,” says Mamers. “Because there is low grip, people could run into each other and just say ‘oops, sorry’. To have the qualification like rally and the final like rallycross is the best of both worlds. This is the best ice racing in the world. Not the only ice racing, but the best.”
Spectator numbers vary from very few at the more remote events (location and live TV keeping viewers at home instead of watching the action in minus 15 degrees), while the busier rounds, in Val Thorens and Super Besse attract around 15,000.
The series is about the future too, and introduced the world’s first single-make electric category in 2010. The rules in the EV class have remained stable since, the rearwheels being driven by a single motor and used as a stepping stone into the top Elite and Elite Pro classes.
Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis drives for Belgian GT squad WRT in Andros Trophy and despite winning events, is still craving a Trophy crown. “I came for fun, but I came to win too and it’s really tough,” says the Frenchman. “The most difficult thing is to use the tyres on the right moment. It’s a real strategy, but it’s the same for everyone. For me the most difficult thing to understand is the track changes. You need to change your driving style; sometimes flat out, sometimes like in a formula car. I tell you it’s really tough. For me it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done, it’s just unbelievable!”
It’s not just former drivers either, Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean joined Dubourg in the DA Racing team before Christmas and won his third-ever Andros event, in an increasingly unusual situation where F1 drivers are allowed to go and play elsewhere.
The lower key nature of the skiresort-based events is also arguably a strong draw for the stars that compete, they are largely left to their own devices in the paddock, left to enjoy man-handling the howling V6-engined cars around the ice covered circuits.
A huge amount of driving and engineering knowledge and experience is at play in Andros Trophy. The very concept of entering almost every corner looking through a side window, fitted with its own wiper to ensure clear vision is enough to excite anyone into feeding their habit with offseason sub-zero action. ■