Address: Circuit de Charade, Rond-point de Manson, 63122 St-Genès-Champanelle, France
PH: +33 4 73 295 295
Circuit type: Permanent road course
The Circuit de Charade – better known by many as Clermont-Ferrand – is something of an oddity in the current age; a modern re imagination of a classic circuit which captures the essence of the original within considerably safer confines.
The current circuit dates from 1989 but they had been dreaming of motor racing in the local area for almost as long as cars have existed; the first proposals for a race on the roads of the Auvergne region came in 1908, though these ultimately came to nought.
A second attempt was made after the Second World War, when President of the Sports Association of the Automobile Club of Auvergne, Jean Auchatraire, and accomplished racer Louis Rosier began planning a new course. A 4-6km course was proposed on streets to the edge of the city of Clermont-Ferrand and by 1955, all looked in place for the race. Then came the Le Mans disaster and suddenly the appetite for motor racing in the city streets waned and the race was cancelled.
Despite this setback, the desire for a race continued to burn strong and attention turned to the roads around the extinct volcano which dominated the city skyline. By adapting roads here, the first mountain course in France could be created and there was space enough for proper pit and paddock facilities to be constructed. The lure of what was sure to be the country's most demanding circuit proved too strong to resist for national and local authorities.
Again with the help of Louis Rosier a course was drawn up and construction began in May 1957. Gradually the roads around the Puy de Gravenoire and Puy de Charade were adapted for racing and pit garages, a control tower and modest grandstand sprang up on the western end, close to the village of Saint-Genès-Champanelle. The circuit was ready for its first race in July 1958, when 60,000 excited spectators crowded along the route to watch a three hour endurance GT race, won by Innes Ireland in Lotus 1100, and a Formula Two race which fell to Maurice Trintignant in a Cooper.
At over five miles in length, this was a circuit of considerable challenge which brought out the best in the bravest of drivers. Denny Hulme commenting once that many drivers wore open-face helmets so they could throw up more easily as they went down the left-right-left hills that led off the volcanoes... It was fast too - Chris Amon's lap record of 1972 set the bar at an average of 104mph.
The circuit rose to international prominence first in the two wheel world, becoming host to the French Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1959, with John Surtees proving the 500cc victor for MV Augusta. The mountains of the Auvergne would go on to host the race a further nine times until 1974, notable winners including Phil Read, Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini.
The four wheeled world was slower to catch on, with Formula One preferring the fast open roads of Reims and Rouen until 1965, when Clermont-Ferrand snatched away the French Grand Prix. Jim Clark won for Lotus with an all-British podium completed by Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. The race was also notable for featuring the cameras of John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix movie, which stayed on after the race to complete filming, capturing the circuit for posterity as it enjoyed its heyday.
The Grand Prix returned three more times in 1969 (for which a new pit lane, separated from the track by Armco barrier, was created), 1970 and 1972, with victories falling to Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart (twice), though Chris Amon can count himself extremely unlucky not to win the 1972 event, having dominated the race for Matra before a puncture did for his chances. Punctures were a perennial hazard at Clermont-Ferrand, thanks to the dark volcanic rocks which lined the roadside. It was one of these stones, thrown up by the Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi, which penetrated the visor of Helmut Marko that same year, blinding him in the left eye and ending his racing career.
In truth Clermont-Ferrand was never likely to survive as a venue for the French GP for long. The world's most complete and modern circuit sprang up at Paul Ricard in 1971 and the French GP moved away, never to return. Clermont-Ferrand soldiered on, continuing to host races for the Trophées d'Auverne over the next decade, though increasingly it became shunned by international racing as concerns about the public roads' dangerous nature rose. In 1980 three marshals were killed during a touring car race and the writing was on the wall; with no room to provide run-off areas on the mountain section, the classic course finally closed to racing in 1988.
Happily, this wasn't the end of the story as, recognising the importance of the track to the local economy, the General Council of Puy-de-Dôme financed the building of a shortened, modern circuit which utilised the lower sections only, with a new (and challenging) link road joining the portions together. The new Circuit de Charade duly opened with a grand ceremony in 1989, attended by racing luminaries such as Fangio, Moss and Brabham.
Pit and paddock facilities still remained relatively modest by modern standards and the new track was never likely to host international racing, however it quickly become a worthy addition to the national racing scene. In 2000, work began to finally close off the roads to the public, with the track becoming a truly permanent facility and boasting new pit garages and a widened pitlane. A new entry road was also constructed, greatly enhancing access to the circuit.
Today the circuit is still kept busy with a calendar of local races, track days and driving courses ensuring year-round activity. For those wanting a glimpse of the past, the old route up in the hills still exists as public roads, allowing everyone the chance to follow in the wheeltracks of their racing heroes.
Circuit du Charade is located at Charade, a short distance to the west of Clermont-Ferrand in central France. The nearest airport is Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Airport, around 30 minutes to the west of the circuit.
By car, the circuit is located off the D767, which heads west out of Clermont Ferrand, up the mountainside through some thrilling switch back hairpins towards the village of Charade. Despite the terrain, the centre of Clermont-Ferrand is only a 20 minute drive away. For those wanting to sample the old course, follow D5F up the hill from Charade itself and then route D5 on the downward stretch. This joins onto the new D767 link road back to the circuit entrance.
During race events a 16 ha parking lot is open, otherwise parking for 20 cars is provided alongside the main reception.