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The Brands day that changed everything


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Michel Trollé, Paul Belmondo, John Jones, Olivier Grouillard


GDBA Lola-Cosworth T87/50, GDBA Lola-Cosworth T87/50, Lola Motorsport Lola-Cosworth T87/50, ORECA March-Cosworth 87B




47. Grand Prix Automobile de Pau (June 8, 1987) // photo: Christophe Holin

Michel Trollé, Lola T87/50, Pau 1987

We all know that motor racing is dangerous – and the number of drivers that saw their careers cut short or hampered by serious accidents is quite high. The 1988 F3000 Championship was a good example of this, as three youngsters – Fabien Giroix, Michel Trollé and Johnny Herbert – suffered severe injuries in the high-attrition races of F1's main feeder formula, and saw their careers change forever. Trollé and Herbert were two of the greatest promises of the field, and if all we know what happened to Herbert, the Touquettois almost sank into oblivion. Time to remember and reevaluate his career.

Michel Trollé was born in Lens, on June 23, 1959. His father used to drive a Renault 4CV and then a Dauphine in the thriving rallying scene of the fifties and sixties, so young Trollé caught the racing bug in his childhood, and as a teen he used to travel – not always with permission – to nearby Belgium to see the races at Zolder. However, unlike his father, Michel always dreamt of racing and wanted to go karting, but his family found it too expensive so, while completing his studies, Trollé worked with his parents on a newsstand to raise money to buy a kart and then, first goal achieved, changed jobs to work for a friend in a restaurant. In return, his friend was his mechanic.

It was in 1979 that Trollé made his debut in the Classe Bleue for karting debutants, immediately taking the Nord-Picardie regional title, which allowed him to contest several races on a national level, and by the end of the season he took the French title at Pontarlier. In fact, Michel won 19 of the 22 races he entered, and aged 20 soon became one of the hottest prospects in the French karting scene. However, his rise to the Classe Europe wasn’t fruitful as Trollé was plagued by engine problems, so in 1981 he took the decisive step to advance further into the 125 cc class, immediately returning to his winning ways in these shifter karts that implied a more technical approach. Among his main prizes were two Nord-Picardie titles in 1981 and 1982, a podium in the French championship and an eighth place and first Frenchman in the 1981 World Karting Championship.

In 1981, perhaps due to his family background, Trollé debuted in the local rallying scene, first with his own car and then with a Group 2 VW Golf from a local dealer, taking some group wins in the renowned Rallye du Touquet. His rally career ended after a season and a half when he crashed the car. As local rallies had little prize money and Michel felt unable to sustain a career, even though he preferred the more laid-back entourage of that discipline. In 1981 he also took the Volant Production at La Chatre with a Golf GTi, and managed a deal with the racing school to finance his Superkart campaign in 1982, immediately winning the title but failing in the World Cup at Silverstone when something broke on his kart on the final lap of the final! Trollé won the French Superkart title again in 1983 but was already planning his future in single-seaters, enrolling at the Magny-Cours Elf-Winfield school, and he duly won it by the end of the season. By then, Michel was also an acknowledge shooter and member of the French shooting team, but his success at the Volant Elf-Winfield made him decide for a racing career.

For 1984 Trollé advanced into the French Formula Renault championship, driving a Martini-Renault MK41 for Patrick Jamin, one of the Elf-supported top teams, alongside Eric Bernard and Jean Alesi. Again he adapted very easily, qualifying on the first row on his debut and winning his second race at Nogaro, establishing himself as one of the biggest French prospects of the era. Despite the fact the team didn’t have the best engine tuning for part of the season, Trollé managed to finish second, well ahead of his teammates and just behind the strongest driver of the season, Yannick Dalmas. He then ended the season on a high by beating Dalmas in a race-long wheel-to-wheel fight in the Renault Finals at Paul Ricard. With such strong rookie performances, Elf decided to support Michel’s advance into F3. Besides, Patrick Jamin chose to do the same, and picked a Ralt instead of the ubiquitous Martinis, wisely thinking it would provide a privileged relation with them while Martini had already very strong ties with ORECA. It proved a smart choice, and Trollé was again at ease at this higher level, winning two races to finish joint third in the championship with 80 points, beaten by both ORECA drivers, Raphanel and Dalmas.

Now Trollé wanted to win and refused a proposal to cross the Atlantic and drive in Formula Super Vee, feeling it could destroy his chances to progress in Europe as he would enter into a completely different scene. Instead, he was signed to drive the Martini-Volkswagen MK49 for ORECA, alongside Dalmas! It was certainly the perfect way to go forward, apart from team politics that according to Trollé clearly favoured Dalmas who was the chosen one to win the title and had access to the best equipment and more testing mileage. It was a disappointment to Michel since at the age of 27 he knew it was the right time to advance to F3000. Even though he won his third race at Magny-Cours he played second-fiddle to Dalmas most of the year until his patience expired on the last lap at Croix-en-Ternois, his home round. Although Alain Rouy, F3 team manager, told him to hold station behind Dalmas as the race was transmitted by Marlboro France (ORECA’s sponsor), Trollé was best away at the start and leaped forward, never looking back… despite all the pit signs telling him to slow down! Michel won the race and took the third place in the championship, just two points behind Alesi. Besides the French championship, Trollé also proved himself against the rest of Europe in the international F3 Cups – third at Monaco, sixth at the European Cup at Imola, and finally sixth at Macau. It was also a season in which he managed to try out different categories, mainly the European Touring Car Championship, driving a Garage du Bac-sponsored Alpina BMW 635 CSi in five races, his best placings coming with two sixth places at Silverstone’s Tourist Trophy and at Jarama. He also made his debut in the Le Mans 24 Hours aboard a John Fitzpatrick Porsche alongside F1 driver Philippe Alliot and Paco Romero, finishing tenth.

Despite his disobedience, ORECA offered him a contract for another F3 season, but shortly after his performance at Croix-en-Ternois, Trollé had also been contacted by Gilles Gaignault and Jean-Paul Driot. These two were setting up a F3000 project called GDBA Racing. Trollé thought it was worth the risk and signed shortly after Macau. Despite being in their first season, GDBA proved to be on the pace in winter testing and Michel was consistently faster too than teammate Paul Belmondo. In the first race at Silverstone, Trollé qualified third and finish second – he was running third when he accidentally hit the kill switch and dropped down to eighth, only to make a splendid recovery to second after an amazing pass on Stefano Modena. After a complicated weekend at Vallelunga, Trollé grabbed his and the GDBA team's first win in the challenging weather at Spa. As usual, it rained and everyone started on wets but the track began to dry, and Trollé took the risky option of delaying his pitstop, allowing him to overtake his rivals either by their stops or by his better tire management. So when the race was red-flagged after de Vinuesa’s nasty crash in the Raidillon, Trollé was leading and awarded a lucky but well-deserved win!

Morale was high for the Pau round but Michel fell victim to the usual first-lap pile-ups, then was fifth at Donington, retired at Enna-Pergusa and was fighting for the final points-paying place with Russell Spence at Brands when they collided, Trollé’s Lola somersaulting into the gravel, crashing into an abandoned car and ending upside down. It was a prediction of the bad luck that was to come at Brands Hatch, but this time he didn’t suffer anything serious and as the race was red-flagged he was awarded sixth place. Another crash ended his race at Birmingham and then he was a lowly 11th at Imola, but at the Bugatti circuit the team's knowledge proved useful and Trollé was among the best the whole weekend to take the final spot on the podium before more mechanical trouble sidelined him in the final round at Jarama, ending the championship in sixth with 16.5 points (the Spa win was awarded half-points). As expected with any new team, GDBA suffered from a lack of experience and mileage, but there were glimpses of brightness, so they expected to fight for the championship in 1988 and, who knows, reach F1 by 1989 or 1990. Pretty optimistic compared with our days, and even back then it was quite ambitious, but who knows… GDBA was content with Trollé and partnered him with another French rising star, Olivier Grouillard, while keeping the Lola-Cosworth combo. 1987 also marked Michel’s second Le Mans entry, this time in a Brun Motorsport Porsche 962C alongside his teammate Belmondo and gentleman-driver Pierre de Thoisy, but they retired after an accident.

GDBA proceeded to reinforce the technical side of the team by hiring former ORECA manager Alain Rouy, the one who told Trollé to keep station behind Dalmas! The changes proved to be fruitful for the team, as they immediately appeared to master the brand new Lola T88/50, even though Reynard appeared able to immediately get involved in the title fight. When they arrived at Jerez de la Frontera, both Trollé and Grouillard knew they were genuine contenders for the title, closely followed bu some of F1's team managers. Michel started the season with the final step on the podium and was dominating the second round at Vallelunga until a wheel problem put him down to sixth. Pau was another nightmare for the team, even worse than in the preceding year when both cars crashed, and at Silverstone and Monza they were hampered by mechanical problems.

The GDBA cars were the fastest among the Lola teams, but those first five races showed that the car to have was the Reynard 88D, and already some tensions were forming between the founding members of the team, which certainly didn’t help in progressing. However, just before the summer break, the team appeared to recover and Grouillard and Trollé finished second and third at the difficult Enna-Pergusa circuit. In between, Trollé was invited to drive a March-Nissan 88S at Le Mans, alongside Danny Ongais and Toshio Suzuki. The team ran two cars under the banner of Italya Sport Team Le Mans but had some liaisons with the works Nissan squad, and Trollé was one of the fastest drivers, but again he retired when the engine broke. Then he again did the Spa 24 Hours for Garage du Bac, this time with a Div.2 BMW M3 Evo (sharing with Jean-Pierre Malcher and Pierre Petit) and put another strong rhythm into the whole weekend until their race was ended with a broken engine. Then, at Brands Hatch. GDBA had invested in some upgrades on their Lolas, so there was every reason to be optimistic. Sadly, it all turned into a big disaster.

Apart from the times when a fatality occurred, few weekends have been so traumatic to motor racing than those late-August days at Brands Hatch. The scenic British circuit was fast but technical, and had been slightly changed for 1988, including the addition of a chicane at Dingle Dell, but the circuit kept its high kerbs so they drivers used to jump them on the chicane. In free practice something broke on the suspension and when Trollé arrived at the chicane the car somersaulted over the grass directly into the Armco barriers. Apart from the small run-off area, the rails were fixed in such a way that they absorbed the whole impact and the front of the Lola almost disappeared. Back then (unlike F1) F3000 drivers still had their feet stick out beyond the front axle, so in such a high-speed frontal impact both feet and legs were almost unprotected. Trollé was trapped in the car with multiple fractures of his ankles, legs and knees, and it took more than an hour and a half to carefully extricate him and save his legs, because they were stuck inside a mixture of Armco and carbonfibre! He was unconscious and sufferinf from blood loss, so had to be induced into a coma. Only ten days later Trollé was repatriated to France on a special plane, and put under the care of the renowned professor Émile Letournel.

As a surgeon, Letournel already had some big names in motor racing on his curriculum – Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Didier Pironi, Jacques Laffite, Hubert Auriol, Cyril Neveu – and when Trollé arrived at his clinic at Choisy, after a month in coma, Michel “met” his fellow F3000 contender Fabien Giroix (who had suffered an awful crash at Monza) and rally driver Bernard Darniche! He remained there for six months, a period of painful and complicated surgeries to reconstruct his knees, followed by one year in a wheelchair and more than 10.000 hours of rehabilitation therapy. It was certainly good for Michel to hear the following from Prof. Letournel: “I don’t know how you’ll walk again, but I can tell you’ll be back on a car” [Echappement Classic, nº 68, p. 23]. Meanwhile, back to that fateful Brands weekend, the race had to be interrupted when Moreno had a crash avoiding a reckless Gregor Foitek. Then, on the restart, poleman Johnny Herbert made a bad start, so he arrived to Druids side-by-side with the same Foitek, and they crashed after touching, launching Herbert straight into the Armco… Needless to say he suffered heavy injuries of his feet and legs and even though they weren’t as serious as Trollé’s and Herbert returned to a car in winter, he was never the same again and suffered from heavy pain until the end of his long and successful career. In fact, only a miracle prevented any deaths during those often chaotic F3000 races that year, and it led to several safety measures, and more attention to driving standards.

Meanwhile, GDBA was reaching its budget limit and political infighting between the team founders appeared to undermine all their efforts, and it was rumoured Trollé had signed the cheque due to GDBA for his drive until the end of the season, after which it had been cashed, even with the driver in a coma, and never returned, something that was also denied. Nevertheless, even with these troubles, the team was reaching its high point by the end of the season, with Grouillard taking two poles and two wins and a podium, while Trollé’s replacement, the unknown Jean-Denis Delétraz, managed two podiums. Surely the title would have been quite difficult as Moreno held a comfortable advantage, but it’s noteworthy that Grouillard ended the season in second place with 34 points against Moreno’s 43 whereas at Brands Olivier had just 12 and Trollé 9 points. So undoubtedly there was potential for more than Trollé's sad eleventh overall. Worse than that, all his F1 prospects had vanished. Trollé had been courted by several F1 teams, including the French ones, of course – AGS, Ligier and Larrousse – but his best option had been with Tyrrell, which duly led to signing a preliminary agreement days before the crash. As we all know what Alesi did with that car in the second part of the 1989 season it’s an inavoidable to question what could have Trollé done, as he was rated with Jean as one of the best French prospects for the future. Even if his focus was mainly on F1, Michel was a coveted driver in other categories too, as Nissan in sports-prototypes and BMW in touring cars had been impressed with his occasional forays into these categories and his pace in both 24 Hours races that year.

But all this fantastic momentum was lost as Trollé only managed to drive again early 1990 while he was still walking with crutches, with one of his ankles severely hampered in its movement. Nevertheless, his old boss Gilles Gaignault had promised to help him find a drive as soon as he was able to come back, so Michel was invited to a test by Yves Courage. Despite all his suffering and limitations, he managed to adapt and Courage proposed a drive in the French Supertouring Championship, but Trollé pushed for a return to prototypes as he knew he wasn’t fast enough for sprint races. He was then partnered with Pascal Fabre aboard a Cougar-Porsche C24S in the WSPC, even though Michel was only able to return to competition at Silverstone in May. Certainly it was a great joy for him to drive at this level again but he knew his injuries prevented him from reaching his prior form, and at 31 years of age interest from F1 teams or the biggest factory teams in other series had vanished. Trollé was never backed by strong sponsors, so he knew he was at the top end of what he could expect in the ultra-competitive racing world.

The Cougar wasn’t able to match the best cars but it was reliable and allowed Trollé to grab his best placing at Le Mans, finishing seventh in 1990 alongside Fabre and Lionel Robert, the high point of his season. For the following year he remained with Cougar but the WSPC was on the verge of collapse and amidst increasingly smaller entry lists he did just three races, his best result being a sixth at the Nürburgring. At Le Mans, the Trollé/Brand/Bourbonnais Cougar-Porsche C26S was forced to retire late in the race. Without further prospects in prototypes, Michel turned to the national scene to drive for Jean Lombard in the Peugeot 905 Spider Cup but the one-make series turned into a disappointment as clearly some cars were better than others, and after just one season (1992) Trollé decided to quit. During these years he occasionally raced in the French Porsche Carrera Cup, and also in the French Sports-Prototype series and some minor single-seater championships at home and in Belgium, just for the pleasure of driving. However, in 1994 he briefly planned a return to the international scene driving a Venturi in the International GT Series but he just did Jarama while the Le Mans works drive never materialized. After that, Trollé only did a couple of races for gentlemen drivers: the Fun Cup, and occasional appearances in the V de V Series until the first decade of the 2000s, his lone and final significant international outing being the 1997 Spa 24 Hours driving a BMW M3, but this ended with an accident.

During his long convalescence, Trollé became interested in his native Rallye du Touquet which by then had been relegated to a regional rally. Yet in a wheelchair he helped save it and soon become enrolled into its organization, accepting the City Council's invitation to lead it in 1991, as his racing career was fading, and in 1993 the rally, now renamed Touquet-Pas de Calais, was reinstated in the main French Championship. Soon it became one of the best events in France and set a model of excellence, vying for a possible place on the long schedule of the European Rally Championship in 1998. However, all good things come to an end, and what was a friendly and devoted team that just wanted to save their rally was taken over by intrigue, which prompted Trollé to leave in 1999, deeply saddened by such an unpleasant and avoidable situation. He had also been member of the French Rally Commission, and after that managed young Franco-Canadian Bruno Spengler during his kart tenure in 1999-2001 – the later DTM champion of 2012. After that, he left racing for good and became a real-estate broker together with his wife, work he still does now, as well as running a restaurant at Merlimont.

Undoubtedly Michel Trollé was one of the best rising stars in the French scene during the eighties, and despite reaching F3000 older than many of his counterparts and suffering from a chronic lack of money he had a strong chance of being in F1 in 1989 or, at least, driving in a major championship such as the World Sports-Prototype Championship or on any of the healthy touring car championship that flourished all over Europe after the demise of the ETCC by the end of 1988. However, the Brands Hatch crash destroyed all his dreams, first because his ankles and knees were too damaged to allow a degree of recovery enough to return to the highest competitive level, but also because after such an accident the chances to find a good drive were almost zero. Nevertheless, for all he achieved, both on track and during his fight to walk and drive again, Trollé deserves to be acknowledged.