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Speed Week: Circuit de Charade guide
The Circuit de Charade in Puy-de-Dôme has a vaguely silly name. But when Piers Ward - the endlessly patient über-organiser of TG’s Speed Week - told us where we were off to this year, the clammy hand of fear laid itself upon my shoulder. Perhaps better known to racing fans as Clermont-Ferrand, this is a place with swooping changes of elevation, some extremely fast sections, minimal run-off, not to mention large chunks of unyielding concrete. To be honest, two major issues stalk our annual track gathering, as they do anyone who carries out such tests: that someone will run out of talent and bin a car, or that we’ll shred tyres faster than the softest Pirellis on a 2013 Formula One car. Studying the layout of Charade before setting off, both scenarios looked eminently possible. Gulp.
In the event, like Daft Punk, we got lucky. There were a few minor moments, sure, but, more than most places I’ve been, there’s something about Charade that instils total respect. Fair to say that everyone brought their A-game. Even The Stig on his lawnmower.
This is a truly stunning circuit. You exit the pit lane into one of the most arse-quaking corners you’ll ever drive, (image 2) although, rather like Paddock Hill at Brands Hatch or Copse at Silverstone, the more you experience it, the less intimidating it gets. But it’s never less than a big challenge, especially if you throttle off slightly mid-corner, and tap into the chassis’ inherent balance (or lack of it). It’s a long, determined drag down to Virage de Manson, a rather ponderous second-gear not-quite-hairpin, that results in understeer no matter what technique you try, or how late an entry you attempt. It’s the worst corner on the track.
Then it’s slightly downhill into a fantastic little chicane, (image 3) riding the kerbs on the entry and running out wide on the exit, trying to sight the entry for the next corner, a cheeky little left-right at the top of another steep rise. This is a tricky one to master, and there’s even a touch of off-camber tarmac in the middle of it, ready to unsettle your approach to the next corner, Puy de Charade. (image 4) To make matters worse, this is unsighted, and no matter how many times you head towards it, your brain is somehow convinced that you’re about to find a straight. Instead, it’s hard on the brakes for a short, tricky right, into an equally tricky left - it’s very easy to unbalance the car through here, and indeed we used this as one of our main drift corners - before getting on the power as early as possible on the exit for the ballsy run down the hill into Epingle de Champeau. (image 5)
This is also tricky to get right, once you’ve worked out how late you can leave your braking, but it’s a late entry, and a great way to test how much front-end grip a car has. Stay in second gear here, clip the apex on the entry to the next corner, a quick left, (image 6) and then short shift into third as you flick right into the fastest part of the track, a long, uphill section that flattens in the middle with a hint of an apex. It’s fantastic in all of our cars. Be brave, keep your foot in, and 130mph is possible here in the fastest.
It’s hard on the brakes and rapid downshifting from fifth to second into Virage de Petit Pont - flappy paddles are in their element here - a tricky off-camber left that runs straight into an even trickier second-gear, uphill, off-camber right, called Epingle Marlboro, with a wall waiting to receive the understeering fool or the overly optimistic sideways merchant. This is a seriously tricky corner, and it never feels totally right.
As anyone who’s ever raced knows, a good lap time means nailing the entry, apex and exit of every corner, but on the remaining section of Charade - with the start/finish straight not far off - this is trickier than ever. Thèdes is a wonderful challenge, an uphill left with a distinct kink on entry to the flowing right that follows, and gets your attention in a big way the first time you encounter it. Balancing the car on the throttle here is the key, as you head downhill again (image 7) into Virage Rosier, the second-gear entry to the main straight, with a long exit, and the distinct opportunity for a car/wall interface. Again.