Guerlain Chicherit, founder of cult ski brand Coreupt, is such a legend in Tignes he has a ski route named after him.
Of course, it’s one of the most challenging off-pistes in resort – which is fitting for a man who’s made it to the top of not one but three of the world’s most dangerous sports.
After winning his fourth world title in freeriding – a discipline so extreme he lost 10 friends to it during his career – Chicherit suddenly quit to try ‘a new challenge’. Throwing himself into rally driving he won the French Rally Cup, FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup, and several stages of the Dakar – the toughest endurance rally in the world.
Moving on to stunt driving, he pushed the limits of his nerve, precision and determination to complete the world’s first unassisted backflip in a car, in Tignes in February 2013. The following month, again in Tignes, he spectacularly crashed attempting the world’s longest car jump. He emerged miraculously unscathed – only to start planning his next attempt in the ambulance.
The 37-year-old is somewhat of a celebrity in France, but not well known outside it – yet. So let me put you straight. If you’re imagining a cocky swagger, macho air and slightly unhinged demeanour; you’re way off. The man I interview is quiet, thoughtful and down-to-earth.
‘I need to have my adrenalin, I’m addicted’
After he matter-of-factly lists his death-defying exploits I’m on the edge of my seat. Doesn’t he feel any fear? ‘Yes’ he says; that anything should happen to his baby daughter.
Now that he has a family – wife Lauren, her 5-year-old daughter Marley, and their baby Charlie – he says he thinks ‘a bit more’ about the risks he takes. Though he’s still planning another attempt at the world car jump record in 2015, another world-first aerial car stunt the following year, and another crack at winning the Dakar rally.
“I like this feeling – to play with gravity,” he explains. “I think I need this like someone needs to smoke, someone needs to drink or needs drugs; I need to have my adrenalin. I’m addicted.” Though he’s careful to add, “I don’t think I play with my life. I do something because I know I can do it. I’m not playing Russian Roulette.”
Perfecting his work is an obsession for Chicherit. He spent 4 years preparing for the backflip; tweaking the angle of the ramp, the engine, building the car. In that time he had many crashes including three that put him in hospital. The worst was landing on the roof from a height of 17 metres.
“When you really want something you have to work hard” he tells me. “That’s the only way you can do something really well. You need to be really calm, think a lot and be well organised with everything. You can’t be crazy – if you are crazy you don’t feel the danger. I really feel the danger; I’m scared but I like to be able to control it.”
His energy and determination to push the boundaries was evident as a child. “I have been world champion because I work ten times more than the other guys,” he insists. “When I was a kid we would finish training at 12:00, then we’d have sport at 17:00. All the other kids went home to rest and watch TV; I stayed on my skis. I’d have my sandwiches in my backpack, eat them on the lift, keep skiing until 16:30 then go straight to sport. I never stopped – skiing, running, biking. When I was skiing I was always doing the highest jump, the steepest line; I’ve always been like this.”
His decision to quit skiing at the height of his career came as a shock to friends as well as the industry. But Chicherit shrugs, “When you accomplish your dream you need to find a new goal. The decision was quite easy but people were surprised. I was getting good sponsors, I was really well paid. I decided I wanted to stop skiing and drive, so I quit all my contracts and started again from zero. It was a new challenge. I won the French rally cup and signed more contracts.”
‘he finished the race with two broken wrists’
The risk level ramped up with the Dakar rally – 3 weeks of driving up to 15 hours a day, in 60 degree heat. The terrain was so harsh that the impact of landing the car twisted vertebrae in his spine and on one occasion he finished the race with two broken wrists. “That’s what you have to do if you want to win” says Chicherit.
But even he was powerless to carry on after his car set on fire and exploded seconds after he managed to jump out, blowing the tyres 30 metres into the sky. The near-miss only fuelled Chicherit’s ambition to win the race – hopefully in 2015. When that’s achieved “maybe it will be something else… I’m quite into dirt bikes”.
But first, plans are already in full swing for his second car jump record attempt in Los Angeles, America. So what went wrong the first time?
“I understood really quickly it wouldn’t work,” he says. “I heard and felt the back of the car touch the ramp and knew it couldn’t land. In that moment I was scared but knew it was going to be OK. I knew I would roll, but rally cars are built for that. I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m going to die’.”
After, a film was released which showed his wife and her daughter’s terrified reaction as they witnessed the car roll and break up. “That’s the first time she realised and understood it could be bad” he sighs. “It was a big panic for everybody. For her, to imagine me inside, she imagined I’m dead. That’s what everyone was thinking. But that’s my job, so my wife accepts that.”
Incredibly, he spent just one night in hospital feeling “really annoyed I didn’t do it. I felt I had failed. When I was in the ambulance 5 minutes afterwards I was already thinking of rebuilding the car and jumping again.”
He may not feel fear for himself, but what if Charlie wanted to follow in his footsteps in a few years?
“I will say do what you want. I never accept someone telling me what I have to do. If she wants to drive she’s going to drive. If she wants to ski she’s going to ski. For sure I will not like it. I will really not like it. But I will never say no. Now she’s starting to walk and I’m always stressed when she falls – but I let her. I have my eyes on her for sure; I let her try, and cry, and try again. That’s what makes you stronger.”
‘Vin Diesel’s motorbike perches in the living room’
Chicherit’s house reflects in equal parts his creativity and preoccupation with boy’s toys – and it’s a messy testament to the family life he loves. A twisted piece of metal from the remains of his last Dakar car hangs in his house – round the neck of a giant red plastic penguin. The motorbike ridden by Vin Diesel in the film Babylon perches on a stand in the living room. Original art pieces dot the rooms.
Nominated for the World’s Best Ski Chalet competition, he designed the luxury pad in Les Brevieres himself. After his ski brand Coreupt publically failed, going into liquidation at the height of its popularity in 2012 due to cash flow problems, Chicherit is training his business brain on property development. He plans to build a similarly glamourous chalet in Val d’Isere – this time the novelty feature will be a slide from the top floor to the exit. I couldn’t imagine building a normal house,” he says. “If I do something I have to be different, I have to be crazy.”
Property is a very different type of risk but a risk none-the-less, I observe.
“Even if I lose everything and start from zero I really don’t care, I don’t get stressed,” he smiles. “That’s OK, that’s the game.”
Update: FIA World Rallycross announcement, August 2015
It’s been announced this week that Chicherit will enter the upcoming French and Italian rounds of the 2015 FIA World Rallycross Championship, presented by Monster Energy. He will drive a MINI RX Supercar prepared by British-based outfit JRM Racing.
Chicherit admits his World RX debut will be a steep learning curve but is relishing the opportunity to learn a new motorsport discipline and to take the wheel of the MINI RX Supercar that JRM is developing this season.
“JRM is a really progressive team that is fully committed to World RX so I hope we can have a couple of great race weekends” he added. “I’ll be there to learn as much as possible about the car and the racing, and if I can cause a bit of heat on the track at the same time – even better! Racing at Loheac will be particularly special for me. I can’t wait to see my close friends, fans and the amazing French crowd. I hope I will be able to do them proud. The support I’ve had from around the world – and in particular from my home crowd – when I tackled the ‘Longest Jump’ and the ‘MINI backflip’ records – has been incredible and I hope they stay with me on this one. The pressure is on but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge presented to me.”
JRM Racing Team Principal, James Rumsey, concluded: “Guerlain’s motorsport experience is extensive and that will serve him well in a category of racing where natural speed and the ability to set up a car are critical. One of Guerlain’s biggest strengths is that he’s a driver who is prepared to attack a new challenge head on – you can see that from his recent record attempts with MINI. He’s a driver that clearly likes to put on a good show and I’m sure that will guarantee some on-track excitement in France and Italy.”
World RX of France will take place from 4-6 September, with Franciacorta in Italy to stage the penultimate round of the year (16-18 October).
Read the story about Guerlain’s luxury Chalet Quezac winning the title World’s Best New Ski Chalet 2014 here.
Watch Guerlain’s latest MINI advert, featuring pro skateboarder Tony Hawk:
And here’s their behind-the-scenes video, from the making of the advert: