15 years ago I was watching videos of LMP cars racing on the closed public roads of Europe. I’d been to Le Mans and gazed in wonder at them nudging 200mph on the Mulsanne straight, but the idea of driving something this fast up the side of a mountain as you scream past rock faces and trees was possibly the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Although I had no idea how, I told myself that one day this would be me. I’m Charlie Martin, and I’m a hillclimber.
Contrary to popular assumption, hillclimbing is nothing to do with getting muddy and clambering up a slope on all fours. The quickest way I can summarise it is the Isle of Man TT, in cars, against the clock. In the UK the courses are short (around 1km) and held on private roads, typically the drive to a large country house. They’re very narrow so you have to be very accurate as there is hardly any margin for error, you start at the bottom and drive to the finish in little over in 30-40 seconds. It was on these hills that I cut my teeth in a Peugeot 205 before moving to a Westfield SEiW, but I knew all along that my goal was to race in Europe where the courses are longer (up to 6km or much longer in Italy) and wider, often the road linking two villages. Imagine a tarmac rally stage, but with no co-driver so you have to learn the course intricately in an afternoon, you practice on Saturday and on Sunday you get three banzai runs to see how fast you dare push yourself – that’s hillclimbing.
For someone who lives on an Island there are a whole heap of challenges to overcome when competing abroad, especially when you are doing everything yourself. I guess determination and willingness to take risks have both played their part in getting me to the start line of the Championnat de France de la Montagne in 2015, a little luck, the ability to speak French and hard work have certainly helped too!
Having raced for around 10 years in the UK I traded my old car for a Formula Renault after meeting Paul Buckingham & Colin Le Maitre from Guernsey who’ve both been racing in France for some time. They kindly explained how things worked, what I would need and over 6 months I put a plan together. There were plenty of obstacles – travel time, repairing the car away from home, being alone in a foreign country, convincing my work to let me have time off… the list is endless, but you can achieve most things when you really want them.
I bought and converted a van into a transporter/motorhome, I’d camped at all the UK events so having a shower and a proper bed would be a luxury. I’d been taking a French class every week for 2 years, despite having finished my A levels some time ago I’ve always loved France especially the language. In terms of the car I phoned and approached UK race teams for advice on running one (could I do it alone?) and MGR kindly gave me some good guidance – everything seemed possible to me. I started a blog too and this was a key decision as it grew into a website with videos and some fantastic photographs which helped me get onto PistonHeads and gain exposure.
When I look back to little over a year ago I can’t believe some of the things that have happened, I guess I’d say to anyone that you really have to fight hard for your dreams because only you can believe in them and turn them into reality. Bernie may say ‘women won’t be taken seriously as F1 drivers’ but that doesn’t mean you have to believe him, if America has female Navy Seals then there are women who have the physical strength to drive F1 cars, and that’s before I even get onto multi tasking.
Simone Faggioli at St Ursanne 2014
For me this really struck home at St. Ursanne les Rangiers in Switzerland last August which is a round of the FIA European Hillclimb Championship. It’s one of the most famous (and fastest) courses in existence, one I’d watched countless times on YouTube as drivers like Simone Faggioli and David Hauser flew up there hitting over 160mph through Les Grippons – to me this place was legendary. Driving it in my first year racing overseas was crazy enough, standing on top of the podium as fastest lady and 3rd Formula Renault is something that I’ll never forget. It’s a scary course at the best of times, most of it flat in 5th & 6th gear as it roller coasters through a forest, so in the heavy rain we experienced that weekend it was test of anyone’s nerves – I was shaking with adrenalin for a good 5 minutes after my final run…
Onboard with David Hauser at the Course de côte de St. Ursanne – Les Rangiers 2013
This season I’ll be competing at the same 8 rounds of the CFM with the aim of improving on my times and positions, but my main objective is to qualify for the FIA Hillclimb Masters at Ecco Homo in the Czech Republic. This will be the second running of the bi-annual event that selects Europe’s top hillclimbers to come and battle it out on a 5km course, it’s a huge event and for me it would mean a shot at representing Great Britain – I’ll be doing everything I can in 2016 to qualify.
You can find my calendar and follow my season both on my website (GoCharlieHillclimb) and Eurocarparts where I’ll be writing a guest blog. I also have a series of programmes on Motors TV (GoCharlie Hillclimb Project) with the next one going out in July – the first race will be Hebécrévon in early May, I hope you’ll all stay tuned!
I’d like to thank Charlie for taking the time to write this guest feature – best of luck for your season! Also a big thank you and congratulations to Dare to Be Different for creating an amazing community that brought us together.
So, what do you guys think about hillclimbing?