The concept of ice racing is by no means new in the motorsport world, but if there is one country that does it better than everyone else, it’s France.
For over three decades now, the Andros Trophy – now fully electric since 2020 – has drawn in fans and drivers from all over, each one keen to soak up the very unique atmosphere against some of the most amazing scenic backdrops in racing.
At its heart, Andros Trophy – renamed e-Trophy Andros in 2020 – has its origins in rallycross thanks to its creator, French Rallycross Champion Max Mamers.
Mamers established Andros Trophy in 1990 alongside title sponsor Andros’ president Frédéric Gervoson, with the aim of bringing together some of the best drivers in the world and pitching them against each other in what Mamers labelled as “sophisticated cars, in front of a fervent public.”
Regrettably, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent nationwide curfew in France at the moment, the raucous band of highly knowledgeable Andros Trophy fans haven’t been able to congregate around the ski stations of Serre Chevalier, Isola 2000, Super Besse, Val Thorens or Andorra to watch the action.
Which is a shame, because the racing has been sensational and the field as close as it’s ever been, particularly since the main class of the championship made the switch from internal combustion power to electric cars for the 2019/20 season.
Jean-Baptiste Dubourg, who won four consecutive Andros titles between 2016 and 2019 for his family-run team DA Racing, believes that the championship has received a new lease of life thanks to the introduction of electric power.
“The championship is a lot closer now that we’ve moved to electric cars,” Dubourg told DirtFish.
“In the past, you could have a bit more of an advantage if you had a better engine or better mechanics, but now there is a lot less the mechanics can do with the car and it’s up to the driver essentially, which is a great thing.
“Far fewer drivers are winning a lot of races this year… okay, I’m maybe the exception because I’ve won three so far but that’s not often been the case in general. So, it’s a lot more open now.”
The technical specifications of the new electric cars are a wondrous illustration of what can be done with battery-powered machinery, as they add a unique dimension to the style of driving required to navigate the often tight and twisty nature of the tracks.
Such is the niche concept of racing on ice, the characteristics of the car have to adapt to the conditions as well, with not just four-wheel-drive but four-wheel-steering to aid rotation around the slippery, technical corners.
Each car is also equipped with 250 studs per tire and is driven by a 340bhp battery which produces around 1180lb/ft of torque.
Although the likes of Renault, Peugeot, and Audi are represented through the battery powertrains, the cars themselves are silhouettes built around the 1130kg common Andros Sport 01 chassis.
The tubular chassis is designed and manufactured by Exagon Engineering which is based in the Technopole within the Magny-Cours circuit in France.
For someone like Dubourg, who has raced in Andros Trophy since 2005, adapting to the new electric cars was a difficult task in the beginning, having been so accustomed to the internal combustion cars of previous years.
“Last year, we received the cars just 15 days before the opening round of the season, so it was really a short time for us to test it and understand how the car behaved,” Dubourg said.
“Compared to some of our rivals, who had almost a year of preparation, we were a bit inexperienced, but we worked with the car and exploited as much as we could from it in the first year, and we’re starting to get the most out of it this season.”
With three round wins from six races, Dubourg is sitting pretty at the top of the standings heading into the final round of the season, 25 points clear of nearest rival and reigning World Touring Car Champion Yann Ehrlacher.
Although a relative newcomer to ice racing, Ehrlacher’s links to Andros Trophy is a lot closer than you think thanks to his fellow World Touring Car champion and uncle Yvan Muller who picked up a mammoth 10 titles on the ice.
Ehrlacher is a classic example of a talented driver quenching his racing thirst during the off-season, but make no mistake, the Alsacian is a fierce competitor and revels in the arm-wrestle nature of Andros.
“For me, Andros Trophy is a great way for me to keep racing in the winter,” Ehrlacher told DirtFish.
“It’s electric and that’s probably the way racing is going in the future so it’s good to learn about how these cars work and of course it’s similar to how we race in touring cars as well. A bit of elbows out, hard racing, that’s what makes it really interesting for me.
“With that in mind, it’s nothing like circuit racing so while Yvan is on hand to give all the advice he can, I needed to make sure that my level was correct and thankfully the first year I did it, it went quite well.”
Ehrlacher finished third in the standings in his first year, not a massive surprise given he was already a title contender in touring cars at the time, but it was demonstrative of the natural talent within the Frenchman, who only started racing at the relatively late age of 16.
Another reason why Andros Trophy is so popular with the drivers lies in the structure of the championship classes, which caters for the professional driver as well as the amateurs.
Ehrlacher and Dubourg compete in the Elite Pro class, while team-mates Natan Bihel and Gérald Fontanel drive the exact same car in the Elite class reserved for amateurs.
Indeed, every car competes in the two classes, allowing for more equal competition between the drivers.
It’s the sort of format which has given amateur driver Clémentine Lhoste the chance to not only work her way up the ladder but turn heads around the paddock after becoming the first woman in the championship’s history to win a round in a main class car.
“I never did go-karting when I was younger,” says Lhoste, who also took part in Set Promotion’s RX Academy in 2019.
“My first experience was actually in Andros Trophy, in the Sprint Car class which are like small buggies.
“My dad didn’t race either, but he worked with Yokohama at the time, so I was around motorsport from quite early on and it gave me a good chance to enter the industry.”
Lhoste’s progression up the ranks has been as impressive as it has been rapid. Having graduated from Sprint Car into the second tier AndrosCar (now the ENEDIS Andros Trophy Electric) category, Lhoste is now a leading light in the Elite class driving for Sylvain Pussier Compétition.
A mere 24 hours after claiming her first victory at Lans en Vercors last weekend, Lhoste completed the clean sweep in the second race of the weekend at the same venue.
“What can I say about the weekend? It was incredible, to become the first woman to win a round of Andros Trophy was amazing,” enthused Lhoste.
“The conditions were not easy because the temperature was a lot warmer on the Friday and there were places where it was full asphalt and not much snow. That was hard because the grip was so changeable.”
As much as the Andros Trophy is a winter-based championship which relies heavily on snow and ice, it is not immune to mother nature’s intervention. The penultimate round of this year’s campaign was hampered by unseasonably warm temperatures which meant that the snowy parts of the tracks were reduced to slushy, wet corners with increasingly diminishing grip levels.
Similar conditions occurred at Super Besse at the back end of the 2020 season in which the circuit had almost no snow whatsoever.
It’s the sort of thing which affects the way even experienced drivers such as Dubourg approach the track lap after lap.
“It’s always complicated when the track conditions change [like that],” explains Dubourg.
“You don’t see the trajectory of the circuit, you have to alter the set-up accordingly, and the proof was that we won on the Friday but were only seventh for the second race.
“So, you really have to find the right balance with the car and get the set-up to match with the conditions and the changing nature of the track, which is not always easy.”
In the same way as the WRC crews gamble on the Monte Carlo Rally, choosing the right set of tires for the – often capricious – conditions, Andros Trophy teams must find a way to make their set-ups work for them.
Indeed, these set-ups are often worked on and tweaked during the practice session, which like in rallycross, consists of around two or three laps before heading straight into the qualification rounds.
The format, although similar to rallycross in its basic form, differs slightly in the qualifying heats. Drivers still receive points for being the fastest, but they are alone for both Q1 and Q2 segments. The cumulative three-lap times are added together with the fastest six progressing to a Super Pole shootout for Elite Pro only.
After that, it’s onto the racing, with the Super Pole drivers competing in the Super Final and the remaining six cars contesting the regular Final. Confused? It’s easier when you’re watching live, rest assured.
While Andros Trophy doesn’t quite have the level of panel bashing rallycross possesses, the racing is still incredibly close. Something which Ehrlacher not only used to, but unsurprisingly relishes.
“It’s true that to overtake it’s quite difficult in Andros,” Ehrlacher explains. “But you need to be so precise off the start, in the corners to not slide too much otherwise you can lose a lot of time.
“And the trick is knowing how much you can slide the car, because once you’re in a slide, if you brake too late you’ve already missed the apex and you keep on sliding a good two or three meters too far. When that happens, you can very easily go off or hit the snowbanks.
“Basically, the focus is on getting a good starting position and you do that by maximizing qualifying and getting into a good rhythm. But at the same time, the racing can be close and a bit like touring cars, so for me [and fellow WTCR regular Aurélien Panis, the reigning Andros Trophy Champion] it comes quite naturally, that kind of racing.”
It might sound a bit silly that drivers of the highest quality would struggle with a sliding car in icy conditions as much as Ehrlacher explains, particularly given the substantial torque of the electric motors and the studded tires.
But in fact, a major change from the older non-electric cars has been the removal of the clutch and gearbox, meaning drivers now have to approach tight hairpins in a completely different way.
“In previous years, if a driver took a hairpin turn too tight, they could use the clutch to slow the car down a bit and help with the rotation,” says Lhoste.
“Now, there is no clutch, no gearbox so we have to do things differently. We do have different engine mappings which we can alter to do the same job that the clutch would normally do.
“That’s the big difference between these cars and the old ones. There’s a mapping setting for the start, one which works well on certain kinds of circuits, another which is quite efficient when there is some asphalt.
“The cars might be a little easier to drive right now, but that means that it is the drivers who have to do more to be the fastest.”
The equality of machinery and tinkering with the mechanics of the cars might not suit the teams, who generally love to spanner and experiment with anything which makes their cars go quicker, but it certainly goes down well with the drivers themselves.
Another reason why Andros Trophy is so well liked within France is down to its accessibility. Yes, the races are held in ski resorts in the middle of vast mountain ranges and the drive to get to them is often long and arduous, but we’re not talking about physical accessibility. The openness of the championship is one of the highlights of Andros Trophy, with fans able to walk the length of the paddock, converse with drivers and have a bit of a ski while there at it – in a normal year.
For the drivers, the convivial atmosphere off track and the fierce competition on track is what makes it all worthwhile.
“Andros Trophy is an internationally famous championship, and it attracts the very best in the world,” Dubourg adds.
“We’ve had so many different champions from various disciplines, like Yvan Muller, [two-time champion] Alain Prost, Olivier Panis, Franck Lagorce, Sébastien Loeb etc. And it’s great to compete against these drivers during a period of the year where not much else happens.
“The environment in which we race also is magnificent, you know, racing on ice in the mountains, it’s incredible.”
The big names will still be on show for the season finale this weekend, with Muller’s nephew Ehrlacher looking to mix it with Dubourg, Panis, Nathanaël Berthon and series returnee Loeb for the victories. Added to that list for the final round is former MotoGP star Randy de Puniet and Miss France 2018 Maëva Coucke, who are competing in the VIP invitational class. Indeed Andros Trophy has a knack of attracting stars from all walks of life. And that’s really the best part of the championship: you just never know what you’re going to get.
Two rounds will be held again at Val Thorens, with the action taking place over the course of Friday and Saturday afternoon, before the long ice racing off-season begins once more.