"LIKE RACING LE MANS BUT WITH CORBY FM ON THE RADIO"
Endurance racing is expensive and boring, right? Not when 50 Citroën C1s go at it for the 24 heures du Rockingham
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 68bhp 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. CAR 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 lap 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 wet 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