On Track in The Charente – Circuite de Haute Saintonge in France

France has a rich history of motor racing and while the country did not have the huge number of redundant post war military airfields that started motorsport in the UK, if you’re enjoying a driving holiday in France, they have some truly superb tracks for driving and competing.

The walled town of Angouleme in The Charente is famous for the Circuit des Remparts street race. Each September, the town centre is closed as historic racing cars from all eras converge for a spectacular, maniac street race. You’ll love the Tour Des Remparts, but if you’re enjoying a driving holiday in France, you really should take time to visit a track just a few kilometres further south in The Charente.

Circuite de Haute Saintonge

The relatively new Circuite de Haute Saintonge is owned by the family of French F1 driver, formerly Matra and BRM, the late Jean Paul Beltoise and is a must-drive track.

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Race prepared Porsche 911
Race prepared Porsche 911

Around 2.2 kms long and between 11 and 15 metres wide, I’d describe it as a mini Cadwell Park. Nestling in the natural bowl of the land just along from the pretty market town of Chalais, the track was built in 2009. Unlike some small tracks elsewhere in Europe, it’s finished to a very high standard, with a superb surface and a challenging layout that was clearly designed by someone who understood driving.

The crisp, clean, air conditioned pit complex would put many famous race circuits to shame. Add in some excellent buildings renovated to provide dining and hospitality plus the sunny Charente climate and you have a winner. Oh yes, and there’s a pool.

Porsche and Lotus incredibly popular in the Charente
Porsche and Lotus incredibly popular in the Charente

We visited on a Friday when a regional track day organiser was holding a combined Porsche and Lotus event. Despite not seeing a single example of either on the locals roads in the previous week, the paddock area was buzzing with 911’s and Lotus Elise and Exige. A Ferrari F430 Challenge was also on hand, together with the prettiest Porsche 356 in primrose yellow.

The atmosphere is typically relaxed, with an open pitlane. Hanging around, it’s not long before we start talking cars. British expat Roy Parker is here with his Lotus and he kindly offers a passenger seat to take a look around the track.

Fast downhill past the pitlane
Fast downhill past the pitlane

It’s a superb layout with a degree of elevation that isn’t apparent from the video. Dropping downhill from the pitlane exit, there’s a fairly long, off camber right, followed by a straight. Over a crest, there’s a big stop to an uphill hairpin right, the track reversing it’s course. Then a series of steadily climbing left hand bends which, once you were familiar, are probably one long, continuous climbing curve, before braking hard and changing direction through a long, wide 180 degree curve, the exit plunging back downhill past the pit wall. Just past that, there’s a series of quite small deviations left and right, which requires a bit of brain power to get just right.

Assorted Porsche 911's some on track, some just enjoying the sunshine
Assorted Porsche 911’s some on track, some just enjoying the sunshine

While some many wish for a longer layout, it’s character and challenging elevation means that you’re constantly thinking. Judging the degree of speed to carry into the upward curves, which will inevitably sap speed, would clearly take a little time to master. Equally, the downhill, off camber right with the switchback kinks before it challenges you to figure out how much downhill pace you can carry.

As ever in France, lunch is a leisurely two hour affair, together with local wine. I’m sure that was for the non-drivers….. If your French is up to it, here’s another video showing the layout of the track with commentary.

Circuite de Haute Saintonge is a superb layout, with excellent facilities. Clearly designed by someone with drivers at heart, the beauty of the area, the layout of the track and the Charente sunshine make it a great place to visit. Lapping the circuit with the roof off in a Lotus, the heat of sunshine and surrounded by sunflowers, driving doesn’t get much better.

Excellent track surface and facilities
Excellent track surface and facilities

Getting There.

If you’re travelling south from Angouleme, you could simply take a stretch of Peage. I’d recommend you ignore that. There’s a far more interesting route. Take the D674 out of Angouleme and head for Montmoreau, around 14 kms south. No matter how many times I drive French D Roads, I always marvel at the smooth surfaces, the light traffic, the long straights and the gentle curves.

The D674 is no different, the arrow straight roads linked with long curves. Keep your eye on the vanishing point around the curves, then power out of the exits. The Charente area of France is legendary for it’s blazing blue skies and vast sunflower fields, so enjoy the views. South of Montmoreau, you pass though a tunnel and arrive at the beautiful town of Chalais. The Monday morning market has to be experienced, as does the huge selection of bistro cafes for lunch. At the roundabout in Chalais, turn right onto the D731 briefly, then after 50 metres, left and climb uphill on the D20. If you get to the fire station (Pompieres) you’ve missed your slot.

Don't forget to enjoy the Charente sunflowers
Don’t forget to enjoy the Charente sunflowers

Climb out of Chalias, past a beautifully kept grass airstrip and then look for a right hand turn, the D135. The rally drivers amongst you will call the junction as a ‘Fast K Right’. The road narrows now and becomes a little more bumpy and twisting. GT3 owners will find it challenging. If you’re driving a lightweight air-cooled car, you’ll love the feel of your steering doing it’s thing over the undulations and significant camber.

Drive through a tree lined section, forest on both sides, before you realise you’ve arrived at Circuit Haute Saintonge when you see an absolutely huge solar array on your left, surrounded by sunflowers. Brake hard, it’s easy to overshoot and take the majestic driveway into the circuit. I promise you, you’ll love this track.

Useful Info.

Tour De Remparts
Circuit de Haute Saintonge

Food and accommodation – http://www.chalais.net/castle.htm The Chateau in Chalais.

Not everyone has an urge to drive on the track...
Not everyone has an urge to drive on the track…
Pretty Porsche also enjoyed a few laps
Pretty Porsche also enjoyed a few laps
A most-visit track in the Charente
A must-visit track in the Charente

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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