Rallye De Paris: Circuits, croissants and contretemps

Fancy a road trip where everything is done for you? Jonny Richards did, and found driving between France's best race tracks memorable. And you can't argue with that...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

here's something about a road trip that seems to heighten the senses. Maybe it's due to the cabin fever of sharing such a confined space with the same people for so long. Or possibly it's due to the latent stress involved in covering hundreds of miles in unfamiliar territory. But whatever the reason, the highs seem to be that much more intense than in everyday life, while the lows have even the most balanced individual fantasising about having a go at his travel companions with the nearest wrench.

But it's precisely these moments that make road trips, and events like the Rallye de Paris, so memorable. Once back home, you can laugh at the fallings out, while the highlights remain so vivid as to have happened just days, rather than months or years, before. I can still, three years on, remember a fierce argument about the merits of driving 70mph along the potholed dirt roads of Senegal (it didn't seem a wise idea to me, having no spare and two tyres already temporarily repaired with expanding foam). While on the same Plymouth to Dakar banger rally, I only have to think of racing through the Sahara, feeling the sump guard catch like a giant sled on the sand every few seconds, and a giant smile spreads across my face.

In the case of the Rallye de Paris, a weekend blast taking in 500km of fast road-stages and track time at two of France's best circuits (Magny-Cours, home to the French Grand Prix, and Dijon-Prenois), there is nothing quite so outrageous. Yes, the start, with 200 cars, and everything from Cobras to Caterhams racing out from under the Eiffel Tower is truly memorable. But the real beauty of the event is how easy it is in terms of organisation. And unlike most road trips, where you spend huge amounts of time doing background research, everything is done for you. The route (with speed cameras helpfully marked on your road book), the good-quality hotel for Saturday's overnight stop, the secure car parks, the meals, the mechanics in tow-trucks offering free assistance should you break down or have a shunt - it's all in place.

All you have to do is get to the Saturday morning start, and then make your way home when the event comes to a close the following afternoon, having snaked its way a couple of hundred miles south.

Predictably, this still gives scope for the odd de rigueur drama, and taking part in last year's rally we managed to hit Paris during Friday night rush-hour on our way to pre-event registration. It's testament to the road trip rules already outlined that my brother and our mutual friend Nicholas can now all laugh about how our Mazda's satellite navigation sent us on laps of the city and how the RX-8 survived five circuits of the world's most treacherous roundabout, the Arc de Triomphe, but it seemed far less amusing at the time.

Sandwiching the other side of the weekend, there was also a small hiatus on our way back from Poitiers (the event finishes further east, in Dijon this year) with most French petrol stations being unmanned on Sundays. This would not have been a problem had they accepted cash or English credit or debit cards. As it was, GCSE French eventually triumphed, with a local biker being persuaded that we were not drug dealers (three men nervously counting out a wad of euros in a sports car never looks good) and, instead, wanted him to fill up our Mazda and pay on his card, in exchange for cash.

But these trifling problems only seem to add to the event's lustre, reinforcing just how convenient it is to have the bulk of tedious organisation cleared. Another huge plus is that you don't need special insurance (bar the clearance to drive in France) because it's a non-competitive rally. Nor do you need a racing licence, with the format at both circuits being a preliminary two-hour practice session, followed by lunch, and a regularity test (where competitors must cover a minimum of four timed laps, with the first serving as a target time for the next three).

This and the fact that any bona fide post-war sports car is eligible, means you get an intriguing mix of vehicles and personalities. On our event, the field spanned 55 years, from an elderly Citroën Traction 15 Six to a newly registered Lamborghini Gallardo.

Thanks to this eclectic mix, sit down with your fellow competitors for lunch, or dinner (at Saturday's three-star hotel) and the conversation can be full of surprises. We met a charming, very understated French couple who owned a small bakery. After much flattery about our RX-8, and its unique rotary engine, they were rather coy in telling us what they had entered. We presumed it was because they were in a more modest car, so it was a shock when, looking rather embarrassed, they admitted to being one of the Ferrari F430s that had decimated us in the day's track session (with vehicles being grouped together according to their age).

Entrants' driving styles are just as wonderfully unpredictable too, making the road-stages great fun not just for the fact they're usually empty, but because you never quite know what you're going to see next. With no prizes for getting to the checkpoints that line the route first (the idea is to get a stamp at each one), you're as likely to find yourself overtaking a gaggle of Gransports who've stopped for coffee in a pretty village, as you are to look in your mirror and see a BJ8 Healey closing-in fast.

And that really is the beauty of the Rallye de Paris. It's all things to all men (and the handful of women you see during the event's 48 hours). Frustrated you can't properly test your car's performance in the UK? Well, this is the perfect place to drive quickly yet responsibly on specially selected roads, before really testing your mettle on the track. For others, like us, the weekend gives you a perfect chance to enjoy the wonderful scenery, huge range of cars and hassle-free nature of the rally. There's also plenty of opportunity to argue on the way home about how many croissants you need to sell to be able to afford a £130,000 Ferrari. Well, it wouldn't be a proper road trip without the odd falling out, would it?

The 2007 Rallye de Paris takes place on 17 and 18 March, costing €1,270 for a two-person team. Deadline for entries is 19 February. Visit www.rallystory.com or call 0 33 (0) 1 42 12 07 08.

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