Michel Trollé – The Brands day that changed everything

All of us know motor racing is dangerous…. And the number of drivers that saw their careers stopped or hampered due to 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 on the usual high-attrition races of the main F1 feeder formula, and saw their careers changed forever. Trollé and Herbert were two of the biggest 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 (Facebook)

Michel Trollé was born at Lens, on the 23rd June, 1959. His father used to drive a Renault 4 CV and then a Dauphiné on the thriving local rally scene during the fifties and sixties, so young Trollé caught the racing bug on his childhood, and as a teen 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 newshouse to raise money to buy a kart and then, first goal achieved, switched jobs to work for a friend in a restaurant. On the other hand, his friend was his mechanic…

It was in 1979 that Trollé made his debuts on the Classe Bleue (for karting debutants), immediately taking the Nord-Picardie regional title, which allowed him to contest several races on the whole country, and by the end of the season Michel took the French title at Pontarlier. In fact, Trollé won 19 of the 22 races he entered, and with twenty years old soon became one of the hottest prospects of 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 karts with gearbox, which implied a more technical approach. Among his main prizes were two Nord-Picardie titles in 1981 and 1982, a podium on the French championship and an eighth place (and first French) on the 1981 World Karting Championship.

First successes with SuperKarts (Facebook)

In 1981, perhaps due to his familiar heritage, Trollé debuted on the local rallying scene, first with his own car and then with a Gr.2 VW Golf from a local dealer, taking some group wins, namely on the renowned Rallye du Touquet. His rally career ended after a season and a half, when he crashed the car, as local rallies had too low prize money and Michel felt he couldn’t sustain a career, even if 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, winning the title immediately and failing the World Cup at Silverstone when something broke on his kart on the last lap of the final! Trollé won again the French Superkart title in 1983, but was already planning his future on single-seaters, enrolling at the Magny-Cours Elf-Winfield School, and he duly won the coveted prize 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 definitively for a racing career.

Winning his second title in 1983 (Superkarts)

For 1984 Trollé advanced into the French Formula Renault championship, driving a Martini Mk41-Renault for Patrick Jamin, one of the top-teams (supported by Elf), alongside Eric Bernard and Jean Alesi. Again, he adapted very easily, qualifying on the first row on his debuts and winning his second race at Nogaro, establishing himself definitively as one of the biggest French prospects of the era. Despite the fact the team hadn’t 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, but ended the season on a high when he bet the latter on a race-long wheel-to-wheel fight at the Renault Finals in Paul Ricard.  With such strong performances as a rookie, Elf decided to support Michel’s progress into F3. Besides, Patrick Jamin also chose to do the same, and chose a Ralt instead the ubiquitous Martini’s, wisely thinking it would provide a privileged relation with them, while Martini had already very strong ties with ORECA. It proved a worthy choice, and Trollé was again at ease on a higher level, winning two races to finish joint third with 80 points, beaten precisely by both ORECA’s drivers, Raphanel and Dalmas.

Paul Ricard 1984 (Facebook)

Trollé leading the grid before the formation lap at Dijon 1985 (Facebook)

Now Trollé wanted to win, and refused a proposal to cross the Atlantic and drive on the USA 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 Mk49-VW for ORECA, alongside Dalmas!! It was certainly the perfect way to go forward, if there weren’t 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 disappointed Michel, as going for his 27´s he knew he was on the right time to advance to F3000, even if he won his third race at Magny-Cours, but during most of the year played second-fiddle to Dalmas, till his patience expired on the last round at Croix-en-Ternois, his homely round. Even if Alain Rouy, F3 team manager, told him to hold behind Dalmas as the race was transmitted by Marlboro France (ORECA’s sponsor), Trollé was the best at the start and leaped forward, never looking back… despite all the pit signs to slow down! Michel won the race and took the third place of the championship, just two points behind Alesi! Besides the French championship, Trollé also proved himself against the European field at the international F3 Cups – third at Monaco, sixth at the European Cup at Imola, and finally sixth at Macau. It was also a season where he managed to try out different categories, as the European Touring Car Championship, driving a Garage du-Bac sponsored Alpina BMW 635 CSi in five races, his best placements coming with two sixth places at the Silverstone’s Tourist Trophy and Jarama; and also made his debuts on the Le Mans 24 Hours aboard a John Fitzpatrick’s Porsche alongside F1 driver Philippe Alliot and Paco Romero, finishing tenth.

Trollé (#15) trying to take the lead at Mgany-Cours 1986 (Facebook)

Michel Trollé/Fabien Giroix/Jean-Pierre Maclher at the 1986 Spa 24 Hours (Marc Boels Photography)

Despite his disobedience, ORECA offered him a contract for another season at F3, but Trollé had also been contacted by Gilles Gaignault and Jean-Paul Driot shortly after his performance at Croix-en-Ternois. The last ones were setting up a F3000 project called GDBA Racing, and Trollé thought it was worth the risk and signed for them shortly after Macau. Despite being on their first season, GDBA proved to be on the right pace at the winter testing sessions and Michel was consistently faster than his teammate Paul Belmondo. Right on the first race, at Silverstone, Trollé qualified third and finish second – he was running third when he accidentally actioned the circuit-breaker and fell to eighth, only to do a splendid recover to second after an amazing pass on Stefano Modena! – and, after a complicated weekend at Valleunga, Trollé grabed the first win for him and GDBA in the usual difficult weather of Spa! As usual it rained and they all started on wets, but the track began to dry and Trollé took the risky option to delay as much as possible his stop, 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 on the Raidillon, Trollé was leading and was awarded a lucky, notwithstanding deserved, win!

Great performance on a rainy day at Spa gave him his sole F3000 win (Michel Trollé)

Morale was high for Pau, but Michel fell victim to the usual first lap pile-ups, then was fifth at Donington, retired at Enna-Pergusa and then was fighting for the last points place with Russell Spence at Brands when they collided and Trollé’s Lola somersaulted into the gravel, crashing into an abandoned car and ending upside down! It was a prediction of his bad luck at Brands Hatch, but this time he didn’t suffer anything serious and, as the race was red-flagged, he was awarded the sixth place. Another crash ended his race in Birmingham and then he was a lowly eleventh at Imola, but at the Bugatti circuit the knowledge from the team proved useful and Trollé was among the best the whole weekend to take the lowest place of the podium, before more mechanical trouble sidelined him on the final round at Jarama, thus ending the championship in sixth with 16.5 points (Spa win was awarded just half-points). As expected with any new team, GDBA suffered with 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 for our days, and even back then it was quite ambitious, but who knows… GDBA was content with Trollé and kept them, now partnered with another rising French hope, Olivier Grouillard, as well as 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.

Trollé/Belmondo/de Thoisy, 24h Le Mans 1987 (Martin Lee)

GDBA proceeded to the reinforcement of the technical side of the team, including hiring the ORECA manager Alain Rouy, the one that told Trollé to stay behind Dalmas! The changes proved to be fruitful for the team, as they immediately appeared to master the brand new Lola T88/50, even if Reynard appeared immediately able to meddle on the title fight. When they arrived at Jerez de la Frontera, both Trollé and Grouillard knew they were genuine contenders to the title, and they were under the scope of some F1 team managers. Michel started the season with the lowest place on the podium, and was dominating the second round at Vallelunga till a wheel problem delayed him to sixth. Pau was another nightmare for the team, even worse than the precedent year, when both cars crashed, and Silverstone and Monza were hampered by mechanical problems.

Enna-Pergusa 1988 (Michel Franzone)

The GDBA cars were the fastest among the Lola teams, but those first five races showed the car to have was the Reynard 88D, and there were some tensions already between the founding members of the team, which certainly couldn’t help it to progress. However, just before the “summer break”, the team appeared to recover and Grouillard and Trollé finished second and third at the rough Enna-Pergusa circuit. In between, Trollé was invited to drive a March 88S-Nissan 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 for them, but again he retired when the engine broke. Then he did again the Spa 24 Hours for Garage du Bac, this time with a Div.2 BMW M3 Evo (with Jean-Pierre Malcher and Pierre Petit), and amazingly put another strong rhythm the whole weekend, till their race ended with another broken engine. Then, it was Brands Hatch. GDBA had invested on some upgrades on their Lolas, so they had every reason to be optimistic… Sadly, it all turned to a big disaster…

Brands Hatch, 1988, moments before… (Getty Images)

Apart when fatalities occurred, few weekends were so traumatic for motor racing than those late August days at Brands Hatch. The scenic British circuit was fast but quite technical, and it 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 that place. On the free practice session, 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 they absorbed the whole impact and the front of the Lola almost disappeared. Back then (unlike F1), F3000 drivers still had their feet beyond the front wheels, so in such a high-speed frontal crash both feet and legs were almost unprotected. Trollé was stuck in the car with multiple fractures on 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 carbon fiber!!! He was unconscious and with severe blood loss, and had to be inducted to a coma, and only ten days later Trollé was repatriated to France on a special plane, and put under the care of the renowned Professor Émile Letournel.

The remains of the car… Easy to understand why his legs and feet were so badly damaged (TBK Light Forum)

Letournel had already on his curriculum as a surgeon some big names of motor racing – Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Didier Pironi, Jacques Laffite, Hubert Auriol, Cyril Neveu – and when Trollé arrived to his clinic at Choisy after a month in coma, he “met” there his fellow F3000 contender Fabien Giroix (who suffered an awful crash at Monza) and rallyman Bernard Darniche! He remained there for six months, a period of painful and complicated surgeries, mainly to reconstruct his knees, and then one year on a wheelchair and more than 10.000 hours of reeducation therapy!!! Among this Calvary, it was certainly good for Michel to hear from Prof. Letournel the following: “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… On the restart, poleman Johnny Herbert made a bad start, so he arrived to Druids side-by-side with that same Foitek, and they crashed after another foolhardy maneuver by the Swiss, launching Herbert straight into the Armco… Needless to say he suffered heavy injuries on his feet and legs and, even though they weren’t serious as Trollé’s and Herbert returned to a car on the winter, he was never the same again and suffered from heavy pain till the end of his long and well-succeeded career. In fact, only a miracle prevented any death during that often chaotic F3000 races that year, and it led to several car safety measures, and more attention to driving standards.

Meanwhile, GDBA was also reaching its budget limit and political infighting between team founders appeared to undermine all their efforts, and it was rumored Trollé had signed the cheque due to GDBA for his drive till the end of the season and it had been cashed, even with the driver in a coma, and never returned, something that was also denied by some of the GDBA managers. Nevertheless, even with these troubles, the team was reaching its best 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 Deletraz, managed two podiums! Surely the title would have been quite difficult as Moreno had a comfortable advance, but it’s worthy to note that Grouillard ended the year in second with 34 points against Moreno’s 43, and by Brands Olivier had just 12 and Trollé 9, so undoubtedly there were potential for much better than his sad eleventh overall. Worse than that, all his F1 prospects vanished definitively. Trollé was courted by some F1 teams, namely the French ones – AGS, Ligier and Larrousse – but his best option was with Tyrrell, and he duly signed a preliminary agreement days before the crash… As we all know what Alesi made with that car in the second part of the 1989 season, it’s unavoidable to question what could have Trollé done, as he was rated jointly with Jean as one of the best French F1 prospects at the moment! Even if his focus was mainly on F1, Michel was a coveted driver on other categories, as Nissan in Sport-Prototypes and BMW in Touring Cars had been impressed with his occasional forays into those categories and his pace at both 24 Hours races that year.

But all that fantastic momentum was lost as Trollé only managed to drive again early in 1990, and he was yet walking with crutches and one of his ankles had its movements severely hampered. Nevertheless, his old boss Gilles Gaignault had promised to help him to find a drive when 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 him a place on the French Supertouring Championship, but Trollé pushed for a return to the Prototypes, as he knew he wasn’t fast enough for sprint races, being partnered with Pascal Fabre aboard a Cougar C24S-Porsche for the WSPC, even if Michel would be able to return to competition only by May. It happened at Silverstone and surely it was a great joy for him to drive again at high level, but Trollé knew his injuries prevented him to reach his prior form, and with 31 years the interest from F1 teams or the biggest factories in other series had simply vanished. And Michel never had strong sponsors behind him, so he had to abide that he couldn’t expect much more on the ultra-competitive racing world.

Trollé/Fabre/Robert, 24h Le Mans 1990 (Jean-Charles Colombier)

The Cougar wasn’t able to match the best teams, but it was reliable, and allowed Trollé to grab his best place at Le Mans, finishing seventh in 1990 alongside Fabre and Lionel Robert, the highest point of his season. For the following year he remained with Cougar, but the WSPC was on the verge of collapse and, amidst increasingly small entry lists, he did just three races, the best place being a sixth on the Nürburgring while, at Le Mans, the Trollé/Brand/Bourbonnais Cougar C26S-Porsche was contrived to abandon late in the race. Without prospects on Prototypes, Michel turned to the national scene to drive on the Peugeot 905 Spider Cup for Jean Lombard, but the one-make series turned into a disappointment, because there were clearly some cars far better than others and after just one season (1992), Trollé decided to quit. During these years he did occasional races on the French Porsche Carrera Cup, and also at the French Sport-Prototype series and some minor single-seaters trophies at home and in Belgium, just for the pleasure of driving. However, in 1994 he briefly planned a return to the international scenario driving a Venturi on the International GT Series, but he just did Jarama and the Le Mans works place never materialized. After that, Trollé did just some races for gentleman-drivers, namely the Fun Cup and occasional appearances at the V de V Series till the first decade of the 2000’s, his lone and last significant international outing being the 1997 Spa 24 Hours, driving a BMW M3, but it ended after an accident.

Trollé/Brand/Bourbonnais, 24h Le Mans 1991 (Jean-Charles Colombier)

During his long convalescence, Trollé became interested on his native Rallye du Touquet, which had been in between relegated to a regional rank. Yet in a wheelchair, he helped to save it and soon become enrolled into its organization, accepting the City Council 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 on the French National 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 began to have stronger interests and intrigue took it over, which prompted Trollé to leave definitively in 1999, deeply saddened by such an unpleasant and avoidable situation. He had also been member of the French Rally Commission, and after that he managed the young Franco-Canadian Bruno Spengler during his kart tenure (1999-2001) – later to be DTM champion in 2012. After that, he left racing for good and became an estate dealer with his wife, work he still does by 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 to finance his racing drives, he had good chances to be in F1 in 1989 or, at least, driving in a major championship, such as the World Sports-Prototype or on any of the many healthy touring car ones that flourished all over Europe after the demise of the ETC by the end of 1988. However, that Brands Hatch crash destroyed all his dreams, first because his ankles and knees were too damaged by the crash to allow a degree of recovery enough to be at the highest competitive level, but also because after such an accident the chances to find a good place were almost zero. Nevertheless, for all he achieved, both on track and during his fight to walk and drive again, Trollé deserves to be remembered.

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