I was surprised at how easy a trip it is. I managed to get a return flight from British Airways for £122 leaving Gatwick at 06:40 on Saturday morning, arriving at Marseille’s Marignane airport at 09:35. I had booked a hire car from Hertz for £64, which was ready and waiting for me, and although the clock was wrong, I was on my way east towards Marseille not long after ten o’clock.
Without any SatNav, I was relying on a printed out route from Google maps, which had warned me about a partial toll road (paid by Visa, not sure how much, but surely only a couple of Euros). But it all went horribly wrong at Aubagne, when I mistakenly left the motorway at one of those exits at which you can’t rejoin.
I probably spent about 20 minutes in the narrow and picturesque streets of Aubagne, past a busy Saturday market, eventually going somewhat out of my way through Gémenos, before finding road signs to Le Castellet and the D396 towards the circuit.
I had media accreditation through dailysportscar, which meant that I could pick up my pass from the Best Western Grand Prix Hotel, a few hundred metres to the west of the main entrance to the track.
I had booked a room at the Etap hotel in the Industrial Zone of Les Paluds Agora on the outskirts of Aubagne for the Saturday night, which cost me a further 50 Euros (including breakfast), which was about 15 minutes from the track, and my only other cost was 17 Euros of diesel for the hire car and parking at Gatwick Airport. Food at the track was kindly provided by Carlo and his staff at Smoking Dog (although I did sample a ‘baguette jambon’ from one of the track catering facilities), and I was suckered into buying a round of drinks for a motley crew of journalists and photographers at Marseille airport on the flight home while waiting for the 23:55 departure.
So all told, I reckon the trip cost me no more than £280, which I reckoned represented reasonable value for money.
The circuit is located in a fairly desolate region in the hills between Marseille and Toulon. The landscape tries hard to be spectacular, wide valleys separating rising hills, and a winding road up to the circuit.
The entrance to the circuit is at the entrance to the Le Castellet resort hotel, a five-star spa hotel where a room will cost you more than 300 Euros a night, and whose gates you drive past before going under the road bridge towards the circuit’s ticket barriers.
My first impression was good - the circuit staff were friendly and courteous as my pass was checked and smiles greeted me as I was waved into the press car park. The spring sunshine may have helped, but the place looked clean, tidy and well-maintained. Sadly, the press car park was not surfaced and spaces somewhat haphazardly marked, but that really was the only thing I could fault it on.
Having made the trip, I didn’t want to spend all my time in the media centre looking at TV screens, so I made the effort to get out into the spectator enclosures to better feel the atmosphere of the place. (I did the same thing at the Algarve circuit when I first visited, too, but I wasn’t blogging then… let me know if you’d like me to write something about it retrospectively.)
The site itself is very long and narrow and as it is primarily a test venue these days (of course, it was not ever thus), I was not expecting much in the way of options for the spectator. However, I was pleasant surprised and not at all disappointed.
Opposite the pits are quite steeply banked open grandstands, offering a good view of the start and into the pits.
From here, you can wander the round the track in the opposite direction to the cars, to the Grand Prix Hall, where you can stand on a high balcony overlooking the final tight right-hander, the Virage du Pont (Bridge Bend?), which leads onto the start-finish straight. Various refreshments are available here, which is a good idea, as from here you can walk all the way to the far end of the circuit, and although you cannot get as far as Signes, you can watch the cars exiting there and coming down to Beausset, the long right-hander which follows.
For this race, two large screens were available, loudspeakers carried the track commentary (and Radio Le Mans was on FM, albeit rather scratchy if you went beyond the Grand Prix Hall).
I’m not sure how well the PA commentators kept up with the race (in fact I’m not sure who was commentating, as I don’t think Bruno Vandestick was there) and of course when captions came up on the big screens, they were not always easy to read unless you were very close. TV directors assume that their audience is watching from armchairs in lounges on flat-screen Panasonics, to the cost of folk on the spectator bank at the track looking at a screen a hundred metres and more away.
What also made the race more difficult to follow was that the ‘position lights’ on the sides of the cars were not always working properly. In the closing stages of the GTE battle, both the AF Corse and the JMW Ferraris were showing one green light on the side, so it was impossible to tell who was actually leading. Having implemented a good idea, it needs to be made to work correctly, otherwise, what’s the point?
Overall, a very good trip. The schedule meant that I was away just under forty-eight hours, and I have to admit that work on Monday morning was a bit of a struggle. But the Provence sunshine was good for the soul, and being my first race of the year, of course I was going to enjoy it. The track itself is interesting, with all kinds of different corners. It may not be a great or classic place, and the elevation changes are only subtle, compared to the Algarve or Spa, but everything about the place seemed just right in some way.
I’m ever so glad I went - thanks to my wife for letting me do so!
|The winning Pescarolo in the paddock after the race|