andros trophy ice racing
a nice slice of ice
Global warming? You've got to be kidding. It's a perishing night, minus 15 degrees Celsius, and we're out in the snow, huddled together with a few thousand other hardy souls around a floodlit race track that someone has seen fit to carve into the lower slopes of Europe's highest ski resort. We're in Val Thorens for a round of the Andros Trophy ice racing series.
The frenetic rock music that's been issuing forth from the PA system subsides and the announcer unleashes a torrent of Gallic hyperbole in a bid to enliven his frozen audience. The crowd are unmoved, clutching their steaming beverages as if life depended on it. The warm-up acts take to the track, buggies and then motorcycles slithering around the hairpin bends of a course that's clearly been designed with sideways rather than forward motion in mind. This is just the qualifying for tomorrow's main event but a few pile-ups, spins and unseated riders later and the place is rocking, the carnage hungry crowd cheering, toe-numbing temperatures forgotten.
Most motorists can recall some unfortunate and quite possibly costly encounter they've had with a patch of icy road. All of a car's key operations from acceleration to steering and, crucially, braking depend on grip but grip isn't something you'll find a plentiful supply of on ice. The Andros Trophy, or Trophee Andros as our French friends refer to it, is a racing series designed to let drivers explore this absence of grip through outlandishly sideways cornering to its logical conclusion - increasingly spectacular rendezvous with rival cars and the scenery.
"these cars look like they've each been fitted with a full set of sabre-toothed space-saver spare wheels"
It's exciting stuff alright and by the time the top category racing cars have taken to the track for their practice and qualifying runs, the crowd is totally engrossed. Their frenzied support continuing unabated through the clouds of powder snow and raining ice pebbles deposited onto them as the competitors power past.
The vehicles themselves will be partially familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of UK market family hatchbacks. Toyota's Auris, Kia's Rio, Renault's Megane and BMW's 1-Series all feature amongst the familiar shapes slithering around the circuit but beneath the polycarbonate bodywork, the Andros Trophy racers are a very different breed. Four-wheel-drive and four-wheel steering with power supplied by a mid-mounted V6 engine developing around 350bhp, there's barely a trace of production car DNA left.
Stranger still are the tyres. Instead of the wide, slick rubber favoured by tarmac racers, Andros Trophy tyres offer maximum traction through aggressive tread patterns and vicious-looking metal studs married to a pronounced lack of lateral grip by virtue of the fact that each one is less than six inches wide. Viewed from the rear, these cars look like they've each been fitted with a full set of sabre-toothed space-saver spare wheels.
The Andros Trophy is an annual race series that's been running since 1990 and steadily increasing its profile. Much of the added attention has been generated by the flagship event - the Super Final held since 1999 in Paris at the Stade de France. Here, as many as 60,000 spectators have turned up to witness the mayhem but the other events are on a much smaller scale, letting spectators get as close as they dare to the action.
Races are held throughout the winter months at a selection of the top ski resorts in the Alps. It's here that UK residents get their best chance to take-in some racing Andros Trophy style as so many Brits are in the area each year for the skiing.
Day two and the sun's up, making the spectating conditions far more palatable. Having witnessed the groups of four or five Andros Trophy cars take to the track in qualifying, we think we know what to expect from the main event. How wrong we were. The devilishly twisting track is barely wider than a typical English country lane and must be far less than a mile in length. The surface is ice dusted with powder snow and the Andros Trophy final throws all the competitors on to it at once.
The prime place to stand is obvious. A vast huddle of spectators are jostling for position around the first corner, a classic alpine hairpin at the end of the start/finish straight. The lights go green and seconds later ten or so cars enter this tight switchback en mass, each at varying degrees of sideways or backwards. One after another they pile into the clouds of swirling powder, there's the crunch of tearing bodywork, the angry roar of engines battling to deploy their power and one by one they emerge, sporting varying degrees of panel damage, rushing headlong for the next bend.
What ensues as the laps pass looks like loosely choreographed carnage and the crowd loves it but the apparent idiocy of a Trophy Andros race shouldn't mask the supreme talent of these drivers. The cars have windscreen wipers on the side windows as it's these portals that the pilots must see out of much of the time, such are their unorthodox angles of approach into corners. Flicking the rear end round into a powerslide and balancing it with the throttle to avoid the full 360, all the time dodging the malevolent attentions of rival competitors, before straightening up and getting back on the gas. It's not for the faint-hearted.
The favourite overtaking manoeuvre on these narrow tracks appeared to involve snuggling up close behind your target on entry to a corner then simply side swiping him into the snow banks at the apex. All's fair at the Trophy Andros and only the eventual winner, who wisely kept out of trouble at the front, finished the race without significant battle scars.
There's a certain appeal to watching people clowning about in cars, especially those who do so with quite such a high level of skill. Add in the secret craving that most motorsport fans harbour for a spectacular accident and you have the basic formula that makes the Andros Trophy such a draw. With the spectators close enough to the action to hear the crunch of polycarbonate and feel the billowing snow clouds as they're thrown up, it's a brand of racing that truly excites the senses. The Alpine events might be a day's drive away from the UK but as a day's family entertainment on that week's skiing holiday, this unique brand of racing is tough to beat.
Planning your Andros Trophy trip - useful contacts
Andros Trophy - www.tropheeandros.com - The official site of the Andros TrophyPeak Retreats - www.peakretreats.co.uk or 0844 576 0170 - French skiing holidays.Ski Collection - 0844 576 0175 or www.skicollection.co.uk - tailor made four-star skiing holidays in the French Alps.