This Is How A Few 20-Somethings Are Creating A New School Of Classic Racing
Photography by Mathieu Bonnevie
The purpose behind the Classic Racing School is easy enough to glean from its name, but it provides more than just a way to learn the basics of driving on an old car around any old race track. The young French entrepreneur behind the project, Julien Chaffard, has created the only full-service curriculum for open-wheel racing enthusiasts looking to connect with the past as they build and hone their talents in vintage machines. We recently visited the school’s facilities near the central French city of Clermont-Ferrand to learn more about this unique program that Julien’s been dreaming up since his childhood.
Located just a few miles from Clermont-Ferrand, the birthplace of Michelin, the school hosts its events at the nearby Circuit de Charade when class is in session during more cooperative weather than we got on our latest visit during the holiday break. Even under a cover of snow, fans of Formula 1 history should be familiar with this legendary racetrack that was part of the championship calendar on and off between 1965 and 1972, when the likes of Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and Jochen Rindt found victory there. But even with that legacy aside, the circuit is plenty dramatic. Carved into the mountains around an extinct volcano, the course features striking elevation changes that once prompted Sir Stirling Moss to claim, “I don’t know a more wonderful track than Charade.” It’s hard to think of a better endorsement than his.
The Classic Racing School runs its track days at Charade from the spring to fall, where they have exclusive use of the track to run their ten cars, exact replicas of the privateer-favorite Formula Fords manufactured by the Crosslé Car Company, which won the European Championship in 1969. The brand remains one of the oldest racing car manufacturers in the UK, and in fact, the cars used by the school are beyond mere replicas, they’re exacting continuations built by Crosslé itself.
In the Crosslé production works in Dublin, everything besides the engine and gearbox is built in-house, by hand, all just about exactly as it was in-period. The chassis numbers still follow the original nomenclature from the time when these models were created decades ago. The only significant difference is that the continuation cars have replaced the original Ford Kent 1.6L engines with Ford Zetec 2.0Ls, providing more torque without deviating too far from the original feeling or upsetting the sublime power to weight balance. From the outside, besides the different exhaust setup necessary to keep the decibels under the track limit, the only difference you’re likely to notice between these and the originals is a slightly taller roll cage.
In addition to driving classic open-wheeled and sports prototypes, guests are also welcomed at Classic Racing School’s clubhouse, a group of four pit boxes in the middle of pit lane at Charade, decorated with period automobilia, comfortable Chesterfield couches, and an expansive bar for the “après-race” portion of the day, which I’m told often goes on late into the night. A driver in the program can expect two hours of driving per event (broken up into six 20-minute sessions) coached by Pierre Sancinéna, a Renault Sport (now Alpine) engineer, and the 2018 GT4 Cup World Champion and Alpine Europa Cup winner.
Classic Racing School offers three types of packages to get behind the wheel; a Track Day for enthusiasts who want to partake in classic single-seater action on a more ad-hoc basis, a Racing School for its more dedicated clients who join for several events during the year (which feature a smaller grid for more teaching opportunities and seat time), and finally a Competition Experience, which is an doorway into official historic racing series. These drivers in the competition group follow the sanctioned racing calendar at tracks like Spa-Francorchamps and Hockenheim, with the Classic Racing School working as a mobile structure, handling everything from transport to mechanical work to overall coaching.
Despite the fact that Classic Racing School—a seasonal business with significant fixed costs— is at the mercy of changes in track ownership and regulations, during my visits and conversations with the team I was given the sense that everything runs smoothly, everyone works in a calm yet enthusiastic environment. It’s a young team no doubt, seeing as none of the company’s six employees from the in-house mechanic to the events coordinator are above the age of 30, and their collective energy is a perfect reflection of its founder, Julien, an affable and easy-to-like 28-year-old with an infectious positive attitude. He’s trained as an engineer, but refused to surrender to the comfort of a corporate job, deciding instead to follow his dream of owning a racing team.
After an internship which allowed him to drive some Formula 1 cars from the 1980s, Julien began toying with the idea of organizing track days that celebrate the camaraderie, spirit, and style that characterized the headier days of motorsport. He’s not alone in wanting to go back in time to try his hand in 1960s and ‘70s motorsport, and his mission is to provide a means of getting there. He started by securing a student-entrepreneur loan after his internship, and then began his search for the perfect open-wheel car to use for his program, exploring vintage F1 and F2 options (too expensive), before realizing the Formula Fords really hit the sweet spot: manageable performance, reliable, and much more affordable.
He went to Lotus next, asking to buy and then eventually build copies of one of their Formula Ford race cars from the 1960s, but he says he was literally laughed out of Craig Chapman’s office (the son of Colin Chapman), who argued that the market was too small for such an idea to work. Undeterred, Julien then went to Crosslé, a company whose significant contributions to Formula Ford series and F2 have kept them afloat all these years later, making spare parts and restoring their historic cars for customers.
To sway them, Julien bought one of their original cars, a 16F, which took up almost his entire loan, and then, feeling a little over-zealous, he signed an exclusivity deal and ordered seven new cars on the spot, realizing on the flight home he had no idea how to pay for them. In a display of grit and determination fit for a character drama, Julien went to every car and track event he could, talking with participants and teams and anyone else who would listen to his pitch. Within a year, he’d gathered a solid network of collectors and drivers and offered them a chance to support the project by becoming de-facto sponsors, buying the cars outright and leasing them back to Classic Racing School in return for a rental fee, maintenance, and storage. It’s a testament to his persuasion skills that he’s found a sponsor for each of his ten cars, and a good reminder that determination and patience can pay off.
With Classic Racing School’s reputation well established now with a solid base of clients and sponsors, Julien is already thinking about the company’s next steps. With the ambition of offering more premium experiences, he’s building a period-correct Formula 2-inspired car, exploring opportunities to run events in the UK and the US, and managing a growing list of customers eager to join the Competition Experience that’s already in place. The long-term goals are to become a key player in the historic racing preparation market, and fulfilling his dream of running a race team, but in this sense with multiple types of cars and drivers.
During our snow-covered visit, he was in the midst of preparing a client’s semi-lightweight Jaguar E-Type, with a Ferrari 355 Challenge and a Ford GT40 waiting in the back for their own restoration work, so all indications point to another of his dream’s crossing over into reality.