The small circuit at Mas du Clos has never held nationally-sanctioned motor racing events, instead focusing on providing excellent test and track day facilities in stunningly beautiful surroundings.
Built by a wealthy Ferrari-loving businessman in the back yard of his chateau, the circuit is a magnificent roller coaster of a ride with large elevation changes and swooping curves.
Recent years have sadly seen activities curtailed as wrangles continue as to whether the private venue needs to accord with international safety standards – despite never having hosted racing. With the owners unwilling to pay for the required upgrades, the circuit was mothballed in 2010. Happily, it reopened once again in 2022 after refurbishment and is now operated by Alexandre Bardinon, grandson of its founder.
The track was the creation of Pierre Bardinon, a member of a wealthy family whose business was in leather goods, and in particular suppliers of the flying jackets used by the US Air Force. At the family château at Mas du Clos, Bardinon began indulging his interest in classic cars, being one of the first to start collecting them.
Initially a lover of Bugattis and Jaguars, his greatest passion soon switched to the machines of Enzo Ferrari. He began to amass a large collection, including some of the most sought-after models, such as a 250 GTO, 330 P4, 250 LM, 312 PB and Competition 250 SWB. Indeed, when once asked why there was no museum for his cars, Enzo Ferrari commented that there was - at Mas du Clos.
Bardinon did not believe in keeping his car collection closeted away, preferring instead to keep them in active running condition and encouraging his friends to join him in enjoying them. Pretty soon, the idea came to create a short track in the grounds for this purpose, drawing up a short 400m course in 1963, which he soon extended to 1km and then its current 3km layout in 1967. Among those invited to sample the famous collection of cars in the early years was Jim Clark, who took out the P4 with girlfriend in tow and promptly set a new lap record...
"Like many men I work during the week at my profession and spend my money on my sport. For some it is tennis, for others polo, perhaps, or yachting. My sport is motor racing. Therefore it was logical that I should build this track to practice my sport, just as others might build tennis courts or a swimming pool. Each year I drive seriously here for 40 or 50 hours."
Track gains a popular following
Soon, the Club Alfa Romeo de France was also invited to enjoy the circuit's facilities, followed quickly by the French Bugatti club, the Morgan Club and, of course, the French Ferrari club. Events generally consisted of laps of the circuit followed by a grand dinner at the circuit's restaurant and then an evening with le patron in the bar, where Bardinon would mingle with his guests and childhood friends to share his passion for fast cars.
It also wasn't long before the top racing teams of the day began to realise the benefits of Mas du Clos for private testing, with Matra being the first and using it to allow Henri Pescarolo his first laps in 1969 following his fiery crash at Le Mans earlier that year. Ligier, Alpine and Dunlop soon followed suit.
Often referred to as France's version of Brands Hatch, the circuit was responsible for bringing 7,000 visitors to the local hotels in its heyday. What makes Mas du Clos such a wonderful venue is its large elevation changes and fast swooping curves, allied to a tight technical section which threads its way alongside the restaurant and swimming pool. There's even an uphill banked corner, which sits at the top of the course and certainly grabs your attention...
Law changes force a closure
New laws in France effectively curtailed the use of private tracks which did not also meet homologated circuit safety standards. Bardinon was understandably unwilling to invest the sorts of sums required to meet such requirements, with 2010 being the last year to witness any major events. The track remained well tended as a run-out for the Bardinon collection, though the man himself died in 2012, without ever seeing the track resume general use.
It was a sad chapter for such a magical setting, though the circuit did see some commercial activity for filming and photography and as the base for the Mas du Clos racing team.
Happily, that wasn't the end of the story. In 2021 grandson Alexandre Bardinon was now in charge and thoughts turned to the future of the track. Putting his own racing career on hold, he threw himself into bringing his family legacy back to life.
"It hurt my heart to see this circuit closed," he told France Blue. "In 2010, homologating the circuit was much too expensive and we had to close it. At the end of last year, I contacted the federations again, to find out how we could work [on a revival]. We realised that we could start the work and that it was affordable."
Work began on the upgrades in May 2022, with the replacement of all of the guardrails around the course and the laying on new perimeter fences to prevent public access to the circuit. The most significant changes were to the southern portion of the course, where a new section of track had to be laid. The Restaurant turn (which ran directly towards its namesake building with no run off) was bypassed with a new right-left chicane, rejoining at a slightly reprofiled La Tour corner.
The circuit also invested in a new 40-camera CCTV system and the latest electronic light panels to warn drivers of impending dangers, similar to those used in Formula One.
Track reopens to great enthusiasm
The track reopened in October 2022 to great acclaim. It's revitalisation has the backing of the local departmental council, surrounding communities including Aubusson, as well as the Creuse tourist office. With a focus once more on individual booking and club track days, the circuit was immediately busy, with plenty of people keen to experience the roller coaster ride the Mas du Clos offers.
Indeed, the track reports receiving around 150 email enquiries a day, with bookings even being take several years in advance.
"At present, in France, few circuits resemble the Mas du Clos. In the first corner there is a 17-degree climb. We are surrounded by the trees and nature of the Creuse. The current regulations no longer allow you to do this on the new circuits, which are all flat and look more like large car parks!"
While there are no immediate plans to seek motorsport competitions at the circuit, the younger Bardinon does not rule it out as a future endeavour. "Of course I would like to see competitions in Creuse," Alexandre says, "but we follow the stages. First, we will reopen and see if the circuit and the company are sustainable, then we will consider working again on the infrastructure."
Whether that does result in national level racing arriving at the Creuse only time will tell. However, if the excitement shown at the reopening carries forward as seems likely, the future of this unusual circuit now looks assured.