Saturday, June 25, 2016
False Start: How a Rookie Mistake Almost Ended a Racing Season Before It Started
Mario Berthiaume will never forget May 21, 2015.
The rookie racer from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Canada is laying down pre-season testing laps in a brand-new racecar prior to the first race of the Nissan Micra Cup. The car feels good. Mario’s lap times are falling, albeit gradually, thanks in part to a new set of tires. His approach is methodical. He’s taking on one corner at a time; after perfecting one turn as much as he can, he moves on to the next. After all, mastering braking points, lines, and apexes at Mont-Tremblant is key to getting the most out of the low power, pint-size racer.
Everything is going as planned.
That is, until seven laps into the fourth shakedown session of the day. Mario makes a rookie mistake and it happens. The rear of the #7 Micra swings right-then-left like a pendulum. The fresh rubber digs into the warming tarmac on the inside of Circuit Mont-Tremblant’s turn 10, causing the Micra to tip and roll. In under 10 seconds, Mario’s racing dream has turned into a $30,000 nightmare — and the twisted aftermath is resting on its side on the outside of turn 10.
His season is over before it even begins.
The air is still crisp when we arrive at Circuit Mont-Tremblant for the Fall Classic in September. My girlfriend and I have driven up from Montreal in a Nissan 370Z press loaner after flying in the night before from Halifax.
Unbaffled exhaust notes produced by all sorts of racing cars — from Micras to Formula BMW open-wheel cars — fill the usual aural emptiness of the surrounding wood. The 2.65 miles and 15 turns of twisting tarmac nestled in one of Quebec’s première ski-resort towns are anything but quiet this weekend.
“Welcome to Mont-Tremblant!” says one of the public relations handlers in a very distinctive Parisian accent as we arrive at the hospitality tent. “Enjoy ze weekend. Enjoy ze racing. You are our guest.”
“Thank you,” I reply, “but I want to find a story while I’m here, too. Unfortunately, our readers aren’t too keen on motorsports. Let me know if you hear of anything in the paddock beyond the typical results-and-points stuff.”
An hour or so later, the Parisian public relations handler bounces out in front of us.
“Mark, I zink I have somezing for you,” he said. “And I don’t zink anyone else ‘as written about it.”
Mario and his wife Valérie are sitting under an awning attached to their car trailer when we approach their space in the paddock. We collectively shuffle off into the trailer to get away from a particularly boisterous Sportsman division turning laps.
Mario is about as green as one can be in an organized spec-racing series. The electrician and a father of two from Trois-Rivières always wanted to race, but, he explains, nobody else in his family shared the same desire.
“I got a motorcycle when I was sixteen years old and I did a lot of different types of motorcycle track days, but never motorcycle racing — only for fun,” he says.
Mario is a rookie racer, one of seven that competed in the Nissan Micra Cup series in Canada in 2015. His car, which is his own and — at the time of the crash — devoid of sponsor decals, is a specially prepared Nissan Micra S with a simple livery. Mario paid for everything out of his own pocket to get in the series. It was a small price to pay to realize his dream of becoming a racer.
But I’m not here to ask him about being a rookie. It was here, just a few months before, that Mario’s season nearly came to a tragic end.
“I was confident with the car,” he says of his first practice session at Mont-Tremblant in May, before the start of the season’s first race. “I drove the car before on another track. But I want to go slowly during this session — I need to walk before I run.”
His second session is more of the same.
“In the morning, we were learning the track. My coach was telling me, ‘At this turn, keep to the right’ or ‘keep to the left’ or ‘apex earlier.’ Things like that. It was very good. My laps were getting faster, gradually. I wanted to make gradual progress.”
By session three, “Each corner was better because I learned more each time around the track.”
“I can tell you, he was smiling through the phone at lunch time,” Valérie said, interrupting her stellar translation abilities with her own take on the event. “I could hear him smiling! Everything was okay at this time.”
Mario opted for new tires for the fourth session. “I took two laps to warm them up. My times were going down, but very slowly. I told myself, ‘This is only a test day.’ I was not pushing the car or anything. I was trying to be smooth and easy with the new tires.”
However, even a smooth and easy driver can get into trouble, especially when they rely on reflexes and instincts built up over years of driving on the street.
“Well, it’s something I know in theory,” he explains, “but I didn’t know it in practice at that point in time. The back of the car started to spin, I tried to correct with the steering wheel, and I know I don’t have to get off the gas. However, the car continued to spin around. My reflex was to lift my foot off the accelerator, even though we are taught to push the throttle. I lifted. The car swung the other way, the wheels dug in, and I ended up rolling the car.”
As Mario’s car sat on its side with him inside, only one thought went through his mind: “I want to do a replay!” Unfortunately, this isn’t Gran Turismo. Not this time. And the reality of the moment sets in.
“We heard some interesting words on the video. French words,” Valérie explains with a laugh.
“I put my head in my hands and I said, ‘Oh no!’”
“We heard that on the video, too.”
Mario was able to extract himself from the car. Paramedics checked him out and released him. A wrecker came for his car.
“I went to the trailer and cried and cried and cried,” says Mario.
He called Valérie and broke the bad news. It was a shock to her considering the tone of the earlier call.
“I didn’t have any sponsors so everything is coming out of my pocket. I can’t buy another car,” Mario says.
He was dejected, and he told Valérie on the phone not to come to the track the next morning. She did anyway.
“The next day, I arrived, and we were in solution mode,” explains Valérie. “We decided we wouldn’t do Montreal or Tremblant in the summer (the next two rounds of the series), and we could save money from not going to those events to buy another car. In our minds, it was possible to come back to the series in Trois-Rivières, and we want to be there because it’s our home town. It was a big deal for us. We were in solution mode because I just wanted him to realize his dream. And it’s my dream too because I love him.”
Mario silently lets out a couple of tears.
Valérie recounts that she coaxed Mario into watching the race on Saturday. They sat together on the same corner he crashed the previous Thursday.
“I saw him smiling. It was the first time since the crash that he was smiling,” she says.
Drivers asked how Mario was doing, but he was still in no shape to visit the paddock. Mario wanted to go home after the racing on Saturday, but Valérie talked him out of it. She was too tired, she told Mario, or at least that’s the excuse she used to get him to stay another day.
On Sunday, they went to the track again and were approached by someone toward the end of the day.
“Later, someone said, ‘Someone from Nissan Canada wants to talk to you.’ I told Mario, ‘He wants to talk to you. It will be good news. You are not obligated to see the other drivers. You don’t have to talk to everyone. You just need to see Nissan. I will wait for you here.'”
Mario walked toward the stage where a Nissan rep was waiting for him. Someone from his team told him to hurry up. Another person told Valérie she should run up there too.
The Nissan rep brought Mario on stage for what he thought would be a pat on the back. It wasn’t.
“They start to tell me that Mr. T, the Nissan Academy driver, won the two races over the weekend, and he gave me his two checks. $1,500 each. $3,000. After they told me that, they said Nissan Canada would give me another $1,500. Then the series gave me $1,500. Total (the lubricants company) said they would do the same, and gave me $1,500.”
Mario ended up with $7,500 in the end, just $2,500 short of the cost of a new Micra S.
The team was able to rebuild the car and get it running for the next round of the series in Montreal during the Canadian Grand Prix.
“The car was purchased the week after the crash. The team rebuilt the car the following weekend and the car went out for graphics on the Thursday morning. The car was on Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve on Thursday afternoon,” says Mario.
In the end, Mario and Valérie feel like they’ve found a new extended family.
“Whenever anyone needs help, someone says, ‘Can I do something for you?'” says Valérie. “There’s a lot of people doing that. It’s a big family. We felt that in Mont-Tremblant. In Montreal, a lot of people came to the trailer to say, ‘We are happy to see you! You have a new car!’”
Mario is racing again this year, and again without a main sponsor. Drop us a line if you’d like to help him out and we’ll put you in touch.
Nissan Micra Cup returns this year with an expanded schedule, which sees the series visit Ontario, and it will have its first American driver, 2014 Nissan GT Academy U.S. winner Nic Hammann. The first race is scheduled for May 13-15 at Calabogie Motorsports Park in Ontario.
Disclosure: Nissan Canada provided the flight, hotel, and vehicle to get my girlfriend and me to the season finale of Nissan Micra Cup. We also had fancy dinners and many beverages.