By on April 20, 2016

Mario tips his Nissan Micra during a testing day at Mt-Tremblant

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.

Mario in his #7 Nissan Micra Cup Car, Image: Nissan Canada

“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 Berthiaume wearing helmet, Image: © 2015 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars

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.

A touching moment of solidarity crowned the inaugural series event. During the second race’s podium, the winner and Nissan GT Academy driver decided to offer his two Nissan Canada cheques of 1,500 worth of parts to new driver Mario Berthiaume, who was unable to start the race after seriously damaging his car in a practice session accident. Image: Nissan Canada

“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.

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18 Comments on “False Start: How a Rookie Mistake Almost Ended a Racing Season Before It Started...”

  • avatar

    nice story, thanks for sharing it.

  • avatar

    Very nice to see nobody hurt and others step up to help, but is lifting the throttle actually mistake #2? Rookie racer in a $30,000 car he can’t afford to replace seems like mistake #1. You can race Tremblant with VARAC in a $10,000 Spridget

    • 0 avatar

      He overcorrected too. The cars are top heavy, stock.

      • 0 avatar

        I think I said this before but rule #1 on track day (granted NO racing, just HPDE) is never try to save the car. Two in (brake and clutch) is default if things don’t go as planned. If Mario had done this then all that would have happened was a big slide. However by attempting to correct that made things real bad. The slide slowed the car down enough to regain grip but by then (happens fast) he was turned in the opposite direction already. This additional grip basically stopped the car’s sideways motion but not its momentum, that made the top heavy vehicle roll over.

        In this case the gripper race tires made things worst… I’d bet standard street tires would have just continued the slide. I was told early on to stay with a harder tire and learn the car before moving up to softer, gripper “race-like” rubber because high grip tires have more of a knife edge. Standard street tires scream in protest when your pushing hard long before they totally give up, but race tires just let go suddenly.

        Glad he was OK and nice of people to help him out. In general the racing community works that way. Even at HPDE events I attend people will loan you tools or offer a hand swapping tires or pads if you ask nicely. I have even know people who drove me (multiple times!) to the auto parts store to grab some needed parts and supplies, plus pitched in to fix or troubleshoot issues I’ve had.

        • 0 avatar

          Had he done that, it definitely would have saved him. The problem with that advice is that if he had any comprehension of what to do in this situation, he would have had the correct reaction: staying on the throttle and giving the steering wheel a quick little correction. I don’t know how you’d teach someone who’s so green that he doesn’t automatically do that to then do the complete opposite of the proper initial reaction while he’s still probably overwhelmed by the situation. You can’t think your way through it as it’s happening.

          I think that advice applies best to novice drivers experiencing power oversteer, where the proper reaction actually is to ease off the throttle a bit. They usually lift completely off and correct the steering way too slowly, so they’re better off just giving up at that point, since they’re on corner exit and traveling toward clear space anyway.

          Again, you are correct though. Once you’ve lost it sideways, if you’re going in the right direction you’re best to just lock up. It would have saved his car. I just doubt his ability to pull it off when the initial save would have been easier to execute than knowing when to give up on it. That’s all.

          I agree on the tires. As I see it, the biggest problem here is that the car’s center of gravity is simply too high and suspension too soft to be running tires with that much grip. That’s a very unforgiving setup. You might as well be racing with an SUV.

          • 0 avatar

            Things happen in a snap and your training/experience has to kick in, in a ‘faster’ snap.

            It doesn’t sound like he’s had much seat time on dirt/gravel courses, go karts, slick tracks, etc. You can skip all those, get trained then you’re “racing”, but then ‘this’ happens. Hot asphalt with grippy tires is very unforgiving.

      • 0 avatar

        I can’t believe they race cars so top heavy that the can roll without hitting an obsticle, this is just bad planning on the race organization. In sixteen years of autocross, HPDE, and time trials i have only seen this happen one time. A mini that slid into a curb while auto crossing and rolled.
        Sticky tires on a rolling toaster is a recipe for disaster. As always, the answer is Miata.

  • avatar

    There was an article recently about how they build the cars for this series. Not much stock about them except the body and engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Comparing this to most racecars, I would say the Micra is pretty damn stock. The structure is the same as a stock Micra. The dashboard is still intact. Some racers even run the stock instruments (though you can go up to a MOTEC panel).

  • avatar

    The Rally guys have a saying for this.

    You can’t win a Rally in the First Stage, but you can definitely lose one.

    Sorry to hear of your loss :(

  • avatar

    How was club/spec racing ever so popular? Incidents like this show how eye-wateringly expensive it can be. What happens if he rolls another one?

  • avatar

    Nice story ! .

    A little help from new friends ~ that’s racing at it’s best .


  • avatar

    I expect better from real racers. I was in sideways situation with heavy (2-lane) on coming traffic at 60+ mph and had to fight off the natural instinct to lift on the throttle, with everything I had.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Great story, *tear in eye*, thanks for telling it.

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