I haven’t been this scared in quite a while. It wasn’t a fear so much as it was an overwhelming of sensations. Three hundred horsepower firing up just behind your head does that to you. Three hundred might not sound like that much in street terms, but we were in a full on race car in which what made that power was the heaviest thing it had to propel. The tubular chassis of this Solution F Touring Cup race car was meant to keep rigidity to a maximum and weight to its barest possible minimum. Also, there were no nods to comfort and convenience here. No sound deadening material, no comfy padding of seat or shell. So yeah, it was justifiably jarring especially when we pitched into the curves while only making a fleeting acquaintance with the brake pedal.
I began in the passenger seat, with the pilot’s seat being occupied by Philippe Charriol. For those who know only his brand, he is a popular watchmaker and designer. For those who have met him before, in person or in the pages of Calibre, he is a hard core car guy. This is his racecar, and he is shaking it down and getting some serious seat time in preparation for his assault on his latest motorsports campaign.
His previous weapon of choice was a Corvette, and he switched to this purpose built machine just this year to take things up a notch, and to leave behind the unnecessary accoutrement and complication when you take a street car and bring it to the track.
Mr. Charriol is a race fan and a consummate conversationalist, but like any serious track inhabitant his mind switches once things get real, and you see the focused stare you really only see at the circuit. His movements went to a minimum, just coaxing the steering wheel or tapping the pedals as needed. Shifting the gears required a little more effort, as these were full race paddles and not your namby-pamby street mechanisms. You needed a good solid connection, and you needed to be firm with this one. That was for low speed, because as soon as you brought the velocities up, and they did come up quick, the shifting became slick and smooth and fluid.
Snaking through the pits and warming up the car took a bit of time, and the tightness and tautness of the chassis and set up was evident with the purposefulness of the feel and the lack of any unneeded pitching or yawning. Everything was as expected. Then we warmed up and hit straights.
We were at the Circuit Paul Ricard, which I will defend as possibly one of the most beautiful, soul stirring places on the planet. The racetrack layout is amazing, and it is used for testing by almost all of the top teams that can afford it. It has a long back straight that comes onto a sweeping curve that feels like you were at Mulsanne in Le Mans. Coming out of that at a good speed, then into some sweeping esses that lowered your velocity a bit, you are set up for the main straight. That’s where the acceleration hits you like a hammer first time out. The noise, speed and vibration shift you completely into the zone.
We had been on this track before, and in some road cars (barely road legal in some cases) that put out more power than the engine of this Solution F Prototype. This racecar is geared for a top speed of around 230kph, while with a good cornered exit we’ve run a Ferrari 599 past three hundred on the back straight here. But the racecar is different, and it is handled ably and efficiently by Mr. Charriol. We have none of the body roll of even the Porsche GT3 or the Audi R8 we were using the last time we visited here, and the level of grip was phenomenal. This racecar, and indeed many racecars, give up horsepower numbers to the big hoary supercars, but racecars only live for one thing and they can come out of those corners with velocities the street cars can only dream about when they are run right. And with Mr. Charriol, we were running right.
I say this because then we pulled into the pits and switched seats.
This had all been discussed previously, between Mr. Charriol and team head Gilles even before I got into the conversation. Just as watch enthusiasts can converse without sharing common language, car guys and track guys know what is going on even without actually comprehending the language. In this case, Mr. Charriol would look at Gilles expectantly, after which Gilles would look at me in a very questioning way, then he would go back to a rapid-fire French with Mr. Charriol. After a bit of this, Mr. charriol gave a kind of universal “your call” gesture to Gilles, and Gilles came up to me and said “so what exactly have you driven before?” I mentioned a few race and street cars to him, and his response was kind of a “yeah, but anything serious?” So I enumerated the supercars, to which he responded “yeah, but how fast?” So I gave him some numbers, to which he responded “Yeah, but on what track?” When I told him how I still can’t get myself not to brake too hard after that damn back straight, he smiled and said “OK, sit up.”
So I made my bones, at least verbally. That quickly changed, but by that time it was too late for them to do anything but save themselves by not getting in the car with me. After a hot lap session with Mr. Charriol at the wheel and me in the co-driver seat, it was time to come in. Mr. Charriol gestured to me to start loosening my straps as we rounded the curves before the pits. As we came in, I popped the releases and slipped out the harnesses. Coming to a quick stop, the doors were pulled open from the outside and I swung out and ran around the back of the car to hop into the pilot seat.
Getting in to a racecar seat is not as easy as you might think. In proper racecar, much of what you see isn’t loud-bearing and you are expected to know what it is and what isn’t by experience. This being a tubular chassis prototype car with a standard shell, the door sills a very wide and the door opening is obstructed by the tubes of the chassis/roll cage itself. Entering as you would a regular car will usually leave you feet-up in a very weird angle or force you to exit and re enter correctly. On the passenger run I did everything right the first time, stepping in and onto the seat itself before pulling in my arms and lowering myself and then moving my arms out of the way so they could strap me in. The run around the back, however, must have disoriented me. I came around fast, and got to the right side before Mr. Charriol had cleared his seat. End result was that I jumped in as I would in a normal car, contorted, turned a shade of red that I’m positive was seen through my helmet visor, then exited and stepped in correctly. I don’t understand any French, but I can tell you exactly what everyone in the pit crew was saying or thinking at that moment.
I was therefore extremely careful as I exited the pits, and proceed with a few happily uneventful get-acquainted laps. The car handled brilliantly, tight and responsive but surprisingly easy to drive once you got your speed up. Gear shifts were solid and positive, and smooth again as you increased speed. The brakes were quite good, extremely capable while still producing a good amount of feel. On a cicuit like this, braking is done smoothly not just to slow you but also to settle the car and get the front wheels planted for the upcoming fast corners, and for that the big Brembos were spot on. The car did take a bit of getting used to, mainly because it was better than you would normally be used to. I would carry so much speed through the corners that I would arrive at the next corner much faster than I was used to. Rather than brake in a curve or turn the wheel a bit more, I let the car stay a little loose and move off the racing line and off the main track a bit just to be safe. In reality, I quickly learned that the car was stable and sorted out well enough that none of these would have been an issue. The straights got shorter, the curves got straighter as I got more familiar with the car and how it was changing my previously learned lines braking points and grip levels. I stayed out as long as I could, but the session came to a close all too quickly. I pulled into the pits, and jumped out of the car with a spring and a swagger that would be all too familiar to anyone who’s had a good, fun, educational, enticing track session.
The team and the car are run by Gilles Chatelain of Volant Touring, a group that stables these and the other race cars for different levels of competition. Gilles and his guys compete internationally, and you may have seen their cars in the popular Race of Champions series that pits the world’s best drivers from different disciplines in similar equipment. The car Mr. charriol uses, and the one we tested, carries his distinctive plum coloring along with the yellow it used to have over all the body when it was run in the ROC by Michael Schumacher.
The cars themselves are produced by Solution F, a race company with over twenty years of experience in creating racecars. These cars a re built for strength, weight and ease of use, maintenance and set up. They are what some might call silhouette cars, in that they can be bolted under many different body shells designed to mimic manufacturer production cars. There are full support and parts systems in place, and the cars can be set up for anything from short sprints to endurance races. The Charriol car, for example, was set up for the endurance series and had particular features such as a bigger fuel tank. Solution F designed these cars to be particularly appealing to both manufacturers and those whose racing bug is still tempered by the need for a less than full time commitment. Gilles’ program of “Arrive and Drive” is quite successful, and a full complement of crew members and gear comes along whenever you race, including the transporters built specifically to act as truck and headquarters and in our case changing room. All systems and construction in the cars are fully FIA approved to the appropriate series they are running and more, everything from safety cage to electrical to fuel and delivers. The car weighs 960 kilos, and is propelled by a 300+ horsepower naturally aspired 3.5 liter 24 valve V6 mounted longitudinally in the mid/rear. The transmission is a semi-stressed (meaning it is an integral part of the chassis) box located at the rear, and is sequential by paddles on the steering wheel. Steering is hydraulic, allowing for a smoother transmission for those whose lives aren’t spent only on the track.
All in all, it is a brilliant system, a full race car in every way, but tuned to be flexible enough for different jobs when needed. The cars are easily and safely fitted with second seats, for example, which allows drivers, teams and companies to treat their guests to an experience they usually won’t get anywhere else. As Mr. Charriol said, it’s much easier now for him to bring his son around for a few laps. But make no mistake, this is nothing but a racecar. We were out-cornering everything else on the track except for other prototypes and full race sportscars (Le Mans type) and that included a Porsche Carrera GT. Though I expect he was a little more worried about body damage than we were.