Motor racing: School for boy racers

David Tremayne discovers a university which concentrates on honing motor skills
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The Independent Online
The idea that your schooldays are the best days of your life is one of those deliberately misleading adult concepts that most kids see through by the time their thoughts turn to birds and bees. But there is an academy - fittingly enough, located in Le Mans, home of the classic 24- hour endurance race - where students are desperate to attend.

The brainchild of Daniel Trema, head of motorsport for the French fuel giant, Elf, the Elf La Filiere was inaugurated two seasons ago and is dedicated solely to providing secondary and higher education for those wishing to make their way in motor sport. "The idea," Trema said, "was to create something totally new, totally radical. To put forward an idea that nobody had ever considered before: a motor-racing university. Obviously, because of Elf's heritage, we wanted to bring on new drivers, but we wanted to provide them with the training to start their racing at a young age, while also learning sufficient skills to make it professionally in other fields should their careers as drivers or mechanics fail to take off."

Elf funded a programme of driver development in the Sixties that created a Who's Who of French competitors: Alain Prost, Patrick Tambay, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Henri Pescarolo, Francois Cevert, Patrick Depailler, Rene Arnoux, Jacques Laffite, Didier Pironi, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Olivier Panis. But as its marketing ambitions expanded, Trema was tasked with widening the scope. "We are no longer limited to French drivers; this season there are 15 among our 24 students, but the others are from Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Japan, Spain, Argentina and Britain."

As students in the UK receive their A Level and GCSE results this summer, these Elf pilotes are as much concerned about the next round in the Elf Formula Renault Campus Championship as they are about their examinations in more prosaic subjects.

Part of the key to La Filiere's burgeoning success is the ability to allocate students educational positions in the colleges around the Le Mans area, so that no matter what their origins, each can enjoy a programme tailor-made to his or her individual requirements. Most, however, are resident at the Lycee Sud du Mans or the Le Mans University, where they receive a guaranteed 800 hours of specific education annually, a third of which encompasses La Filiere's "support" courses. Subjects here include English and French; communications, public relations and marketing; all forms of management; law, including sponsorship and team contracts; taxation; physical preparation; and a thorough grounding in automotive technology on a theoretical and practical basis.

It's the racing tuition that provides the icing on the cake, with 120 half-day sessions available to the students on the adjacent Bugatti circuit, where the 1967 French GP was run, and the Elf Formula Renault Campus championship, which is open to drivers between 16 and 20.

Young British hopefuls can now take advantage of La Filiere via the Elf Fastrack initiative developed in conjunction with the British Racing Drivers' Club, Silverstone Driving Centre and Elf Oil. After a three-day course of single-seater driving the best pupils will be put forward to compete in finals which will determine three beneficiaries of a dream prize: enrolment at La Filiere and a fully paid season of single-seater competition. Any F1 racer will confirm that the biggest asset on the driving side is sheer time in the car. Tom Davis, a British student at La Filiere, has no doubts of the college's value to his aspirations to a career in the sport.

"Since I moved to La Filiere my driving has improved enormously and the disciplines I have learnt there, such as commercial skills, physical fitness and public relations techniques, will prove vital in helping me to further my career. It's been a dream come true, without a doubt. 'Incredible' is the only word I can think of to describe what has happened to me since I joined."

Traditionally, young sportsmen build up their experience in a discipline as they graduate, but that generally works best in ball games where they can start playing early. When you want to race cars it is more difficult, given the inherent basic costs. "That," Trema said, "is where we really score, because a prime requisite for Elf La Filiere is that students must not have had previous car racing experience."