Following a weekend in Ottawa, we travelled north in the glamorous confines of a particularly recalcitrant and wallowy Dodge Grand Caravan to the Mont Tremblant National Park. This area had jumped out when planning the trip, due in part to its stunning countryside, but also because the eponymous village features one of Canada’s longest-running race circuits. Established in the 1960s, it has hosted Grand Prix, Can Am and, in 2007, the ailing Champ Car series. I was keen to find the track and learn a little more – its reputation suggesting it to be fast, sweeping and slightly dangerous, in the tradition of the North American road course.
We were directed to the circuit on Tuesday afternoon, though our guide suggested the gates would likely be locked as it was a week day. Not to be dissuaded, the Grand Caravan lurched its way down some spectacular roads and, to our delight; we found the gates were open. It came as a surprise when we stumbled not upon the main circuit, but instead a brand-new, very long and utterly enticing looking kart track. A little investigation revealed a workshop full of equally brand-new and enticing looking karts – obviously immaculately prepared and pretty serious bits of kit.
At this point I’d rather assumed it was a closed test session of some kind, but persisted and found myself in reception. It transpired that this housed a very recently opened Jim Russell karting academy. They offer a range of instructional race courses for all levels of age and experience; this taking an educational bias, rather than ‘Arrive and Drive’ sessions prevalent in conventional commercial tracks. The senior instructor at the Acadamie, it transpired, was a remarkably friendly French Canadian with a long international career in racing and providing tuition in both cars and karts. Much banter about racing history swiftly ensued and before we knew it a credit card had appeared and we were booked the following day onto one of their courses – to drive 125cc Rotax Max race karts. While we were organising the booking, Sebastien – our instructor – was interrupted in French by a colleague. He explained that on the Wednesday morning he had another visitor to the circuit and we might end up sharing the track with him. Duly sworn to secrecy (actually not difficult with no phone reception or internet in the Canadian wilderness), he revealed that Lewis Hamilton was due to attend the following day.
This caused a certain degree of excitement, and of course I immediately planned an overnight crash diet in order to lose enough weight to make myself competitive with the great man. Before leaving we spent a few minutes getting seats fitted so the karts could be ready for us the next morning. This duly done, we decided to go round to the main circuit to see if anything was happening – the sound of distant race engines had been teasing from behind the trees. It being late afternoon, the place was only due open another few minutes, but it seemed worth a punt.
Driving into the paddock, there was little going on, but one could see a sizeable transporter and awning in one corner which required further investigation. Mechanics were packing away but the front of the awning was open and the contents just visible under covers. Not often do I find myself struggling for words, but the sight of a longtail McLaren F1 GTR with Ferraris 333SP and FXX Evoluzione lined up next to one another was enough to render me briefly speechless. An attendant from the circuit was happy to allow a look around the cars (as much as one could see from the partial coverage) but photos were strictly forbidden.
With a little research it was possible to ascertain that the cars all belonged to the circuit owner – a Canadian multi-millionaire who earned his fortune in the fashion and clothing worlds called Lawrence Stroll. He regularly uses the facility to exercise his enviable fleet of cars which also included two Ferrari 250GTOs, an ex-Penske 512M and a 330P4, among a number of others. Sadly there was no opportunity to see these cars running in anger, but a little time with a search engine reveals photos and race reports of the very machines we’d seen. Jacques Villeneuve had raced the McLaren in an historic race a few years previous and it was the very chassis we’d seen splashing victory in a famously soggy FIA GT race at Silverstone in 1997. I never imaged we’d be reunited under such circumstances…This was turning into something of a day.
Next morning and the tuition began at 9.00am, hosted by Sebastian and another instructor, Zac, an aspiring young racer with a successful career in karts already to his name. It started with a session on braking, which was particularly informative as it is certainly an element of my own track driving which I know suffers on track as a result of my slightly conservative attitude to road driving. We discussed some basics concerning traction and threshold braking techniques before heading out to try them on the main straight. A fairly rudimentary-sounding exercise was employed where one accelerates to good speed and then brakes in the shortest possible distance. Initially there were locked brakes aplenty, but with feedback and practice, it became far more natural to carefully regulate the pedal to ensure maximum pressure without braking traction, and stopping distances came down accordingly.
With a new-found confidence under retardation, it was back inside and to try to get to grips with cornering. Mark Hales writes a fascinating monthly column in Octane Magazine concerning track driving techniques and he often employs the ‘Wheel of Traction’ to illustrate his descriptions. He recently revealed that Mark Donohue referred to it as the ‘Wheel of Life’, which struck a chord. Sebastien used simple PowerPoint slides and two props: a tyre; and a steering wheel with a piece of rope and a noose attached. Mercifully this isn’t for hanging slow English tourists, but instead a succinct way of illustrating steering position relative to brake or throttle openings. The rope hangs from the wheel with the noose tied around one’s foot. As you pull your foot down to imitate acceleration or braking, the wheel is naturally pulled straight: Simple but effective. The ‘Wheel of Life’ was also highly illusionary and made a huge amount of sense with a little discussion and tuition. It helps to offer some scientific articulation of something which I vaguely understood, but could never really explain, or grasp how it could be utilised to go faster.
With some good, solid theory under our belts, it was time to hit the track. Suitably armed with box-fresh clobber (including on my part a pair of overalls 3 inches too short which made me look slightly ‘special’) we started getting comfy in our conveyances for the day. Wearing rib protectors was a first, but certainly welcome later as cornering speeds increased. Another first was a starter button on the steering column; no cord-pulling antics for once. Very helpful as the engine was a proper little bugger which spluttered under anything other than generous throttle openings and would stall in the pitlane at every available opportunity. Somehow this imbued it with a sense of character I rather admired – thus ever spoke a Lotus owner.
These early laps were completed behind Zac, who acted as pace car and introduced us to the correct lines. We were running on one of the short configurations of the circuit which was initially a disappointment as the full 1,300m layout looked astounding. However, with considerably more horsepower than any other karts we’d driven previously, learning fewer corners soon became of huge benefit. The first time Zac gave it full beans down the long back straight and I obediently did the same, was briefly shocking. The acceleration was brutal, with that rasping, buzzing engine having a peculiar, cammy delivery which took some getting used to. Throttle response was sharp, as one would expect, but it felt as if there were three different cam profiles, each more savage than the one which preceded it. This session lasted about 20 minutes with the speed steadily increasing each lap. By the standards of the kind of machinery I’d driven previously, we were really motoring, but barely scratching the surface of the karts’ capabilities.
The end of the session and back inside to top up on water and debrief which proved welcome as the ambient temperature was rising quickly and the karts were physical to drive, even at low speed. We followed this with two sessions out by ourselves, with Sebastien and Zac stood trackside to monitor our progress. I experienced a couple of scary moments when the back stepped out suddenly, once under braking and another through a flat-out left hand bend. I had barely caught the ensuing slides but Sebastien called me in and a deflated tyre was diagnosed, which was something of a confidence booster. Upon returning to the track with what felt like a new kart underneath me, I immediately span under braking for the hairpin. Evidently too much of a confidence booster…
While I cannot claim to have achieved anything like the dynamic potential of the karts, they were astoundingly good fun. Significantly quicker and more agile than anything I’d piloted on track before, there was a joyful purple patch in the middle of the last session where suddenly everything was coming together. The kart felt as if it was just dancing on the edge of adhesion, little dabs of corrective lock through the fast stuff. Everything was slowing down and it felt as if I was almost thinking the kart around the track, though the illusion of serenity was marred slightly by the constant physical assault. One corner in particular was entered at very high speed and featured three apexes, using the lateral acceleration to slow the kart as the final apex was the tightest. By the end I was simply hanging on, my tired shoulders struggling to cope with the forces involved. What a tremendous opportunity though.
After the practical sessions were over we received certificates and a pack including the PowerPoint slides, which should prove a useful reference document for all track driving in future. As we were winding down, a helicopter made its presence known in the vicinity. So it was true…Lewis Hamilton was really here. As it transpired, he was a guest of Lawrence Stroll and had been around the main Mont Tremblant circuit. He had come to look at the karting facilities and also to meet Lawrence’s son Lance, who is a Ferrari junior driver – at the tender age of twelve! What was remarkable about this scenario is that Lewis was present without minders or groupies. He was in ‘civilian’ clothing, without branding from McLaren or Vodaphone. He was just there as a normal chap, enjoying being in the presence of racing machines. Whatever you might think of him, I can resonate with that passion. He chatted with Lance for some time about international karting before retiring to the shade. I decided it was my opportunity to steal a few minutes with a World Champion. He turned out to be a witty and down-to-earth conversationalist and we enjoyed some banter about poor qualifying strategy at Monaco and the problem of how to defeat Red Bull, he even complimented us on our choice of grandstand for the forthcoming Grand Prix. A quick photo, a couple of autographs and he was off again. A surreal moment, but definitely one to treasure.
Following all the exertions and excitement, it seemed an appropriate time to head off so we thanked Sebastien and Zac sincerely for their wonderful hospitality. They have a fabulous facility to work with and I dearly hope they will be able to make a success of their Academie. The quality of the equipment, tuition and the circuit is all second to none so they will doubtless do extremely well.
We wandered over to the full Mont Tremblant circuit where a Ferrari Owners’ Club event was taking place. A number of 458s and 599s were circulating at varying pace. A bit of investigation revealed it was a private session so there was no possibility of jumping in for a blast ourselves but it was enlightening just to see high performance machines on track. With instructors driving, the 458s looked savagely quick and sounded amazing, very much at home. Unfortunately we were prevented from spectating around the full perimeter but the location is spectacular – epic topography, surrounded by forests, mountains and even a lake nestling adjacent to the paddock. Whoever thought it was a good idea to ruin such a lovely place with a race circuit…?