In its 24rd year, the Tour Auto Rally is one of the highlights of the motorsport calendar. Rekindling the flame of the traditional Tour De France Automobile, a sports car race held on roads around France on an annual basis between 1899 and 1986. The event was reinvented a mere six years later, and renamed as Tour Auto. Closely following the format of its predecessor, the event allows drivers the chance to re-enact the great event by competing in sports cars built before 1974, in a race around France on country roads, race circuits and closed road time trials. With an extensive entry list, ranging from prototype race cars from manufacturers such as Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari through to rare classics in concours condition. The 2000km race through France also attracts World Class drivers, keen to sample the atmosphere of the event, Ex F1 Driver Olivier Panis, Le Mans Winners Jurgen Barth and Emanuele Pirro, and World Rally winner Armin Schwarz amongst others.
The Grand Palais in Paris is the traditional start of the event, where the drivers embark on the 2000km route through France, sampling a unique drive through many picturesque country roads which span the sublime French landscape. Each year, the planned tour through France includes circuit races in addition to a number of closed road stages, akin to rallies or hill climbs. This allows for the drivers to fully explore the limits of the cars, free from the constraints of speed limits, other traffic, and the watchful glare of the local Gendarme.
The first stop, en route after leaving Paris, was a break for an early lunch at Chateau Bussy-Rabutin. This immaculately manicured chateau was developed from a 12th-century castle in the Cote D’Or region of Bourgogne. This was the first real opportunity to become familiar with the two hundred cars enrolled in the event. One of the great aspects of Tour Auto is the opportunity to get up close with both the cars and drivers competing in the event. To witness such a spectacular array of machinery in the grounds of an opulent French Chateau is certainly an opportunity to relish.
Following the lavish lunch break, the cars arrived at the Dijon-Prenois circuit, on the western side of the city of Dijon. The circuit, formerly used as a host for the French Grand Prix until 1984, is renowned for its challenging undulations and sweeping curves, making it a true test for any driver. The continental sun was making an appearance, following the overcast conditions of the previous couple of days, warming the track nicely which produced great, grippy racing conditions.
At this stage, the cars are separated into groups, where cars of similar potential are pooled together in order to provide the best conditions for close, competitive racing. There are three ‘Racing’ groups, and two groups comprised of sports cars which compete on a Regularity basis.
Despite qualifying starting at around 1.30pm, the racing continued until the sun went down, and into the blue hour and onset of darkness. It is quite a spectacular sight to see a Porsche 906 tearing down the pit straight, lights ablaze, while standing mere metres away behind the Perspex protection of the pit wall.
The second day saw the first two closed road trials, which are a particular attraction of the event. Not only are the spectators treated to such delights as De Tomaso Panteras and Ford GT40s let loose in the hands of world class drivers but, also, the closed road stages are often the most exciting to watch, as the spectacular scenery, and unpredictable road conditions, twinned with the proximity to the cars make it a truly exhilarating experience. Between the villages of Remiront and Val D’Ajol in the Vosges mountains in Eastern France, the reverberation of engines straining at maximum revs echo through the valleys with an ominous presence. Spectators line the hillside and the unmistakeable smell of barbecues, combined with the exuberant enthusiasm fuelled by numerous bottles of Rose, all help to make the atmosphere akin to a festival. As the cars scream past, at 60 second intervals, darting through patches of light, where the forest has allowed the sun to break through, the smell of hot rubber and high octane fuel penetrate the air to enhance the already remarkable atmosphere.
Released from the challenges of the forests, the drivers headed further east toward the German border, and the vineyard laden foothills of Alsace. The second day was concluded by a visit to L’Anneau Du Rhin circuit, north of Mulhouse, yet only a stones’ throw from Freiburg. A much more open circuit than the previous day, L’Anneau Du Rhin excels in facilitating the opening up of some of the monstrous v12 engines, loud enough to pierce an eardrum at 100 paces. Primarily used as a drift and test track, the circuit almost appeared shocked at the wealth of classic cars that arrived that day. Again, a tremendous turn out of fans, supporters and enthusiasts lined the spectator areas, with keen anticipation for the cacophony of sound from the volley of engine noise to punctuate the afternoon. Despite the long straights of the track providing an obvious advantage to some of the competitors, the racing was closer than expected and, once more, ran right through into the glorious dusk of deepest Alsace. Olivier Panis again provided the main spectacle on track, manhandling his Saba sponsored Ferrari 308 GTB Michelotto to record the fastest time in qualifying, and subsequently the category win. As the day gave way to night, the last of the dying sun provided some fantastic photographic opportunities, the painted blue lines surrounding the circuit reflecting the golden evening tones, the cars side lit by the most fantastic amber tones.
The following day proceeded to take a route back west, passing north of the Swiss border, taking in another closed road stage on the outskirts of Montbeliard. The heat of the day was rising rapidly, pointing towards a demanding circuit test later in the day. An enjoyable route through to the small town of Pontarlier took in some spectacular scenery in the Doubs valley. At Pontarlier, there was an unmistakable buzz in the town, as the convoy proceeded to announce its arrival with the signature raucous sound of performance engines wheezing for air, following the morning’s trials. The town square was remarkably busy with a broad cross section of spectators looking admirably at the impressively turned out sports cars, bonnets laden with dead insects from the tribulations of the morning. As much Rose was consumed, as is de rigeur for France, the cars passed by with great aplomb, relishing at the chance to adhere to the 50 kilometre speed limits in force, allowing the highly tuned engines to take a brief respite from the morning’s endeavours.
A short sprint later, the first cars started to filter through the gates at Circuit de Bresse. Another relatively under used circuit on the French motor racing scene, but one that would certainly prove a strenuous test to the drivers. Air temperatures by this time had reached a comfortable 26 degrees for the spectators, but the combination of warm air and blazing sunshine made for an excruciating prospect for the drivers, about to embark on a gruelling test of their abilities in the heat of the midday sun. Yet again, the French crowds had accumulated in unprecedented numbers for the afternoon, a sure sign that Tour Auto, as an event was not only growing in popularity but, also, that its significance was recognised by automobile fans from France and further afield. A walk through the paddock would testify to that, as a melange of languages could be heard, from spectators and competitors alike. Competitors from 25 countries comprised the field in 2014, showing that the event was not only internationally renowned, but also recognised as one of the most gruelling week long events open to drivers.
As the events of the afternoon commenced, initiated by a ferocious, fire spitting Mercedes 350 Gullwing taking the honours in the first race, the temperatures soared, and drivers and spectators alike were to be found clinging to the few shadows provided by pit buildings and the occasional tree. Comparatively, the circuit provided much more of a test for the traction and handling ability of the cars than the previous two tests. A standout performance by the British crew of Shaun Lynn and Kevin Kivlochan in the AC Cobra made for a spectacular race in the VHC class. The top class saw another victory for Olivier Panis, but he was certainly kept honest by the GT40 of Phillipe Vandromme
As the cars peeled off track, into Parc Ferme, the scorching heat escalated, and engines, at the very limit of their capacity secreted fumes through any means possible, the paddock seemed nothing less than a sauna, with the scent of boiling hot oil gaining the air. Drivers, soaked in sweat from their exertions, leant in the cool shadows, and refreshed themselves with ice cold Evian from the line of fridges placed to cater for the escalated hydration need of the drivers. Far from the day being done, the conclusion to the day was a lengthy 150km drive to the alpine town of Aix-Les-Bains, situated in the foothills of the Alps where the day came to a close. Certainly seeming to conclude one of the toughest days of Tour Auto 2014.
Despite the following day looking much easier for competitors on paper the twisty mountain roads of the Alps make for slow progress, and the inclusion of three closed road stages adding to the prospective difficulties of the ensuing day. Again, fine weather prevailed, and despite not reaching the heady heights of the previous day, clear skies and bright sunshine shone down on the cars as they made headway into the toils of the day.
The three special closed road stages often prove more of a challenge to the drivers, due to unpredictable road surfaces, the lack of run off areas or safety measures, and the relatively unknown route, very different to a well-documented lap around a circuit. To combine three of these tests in a day proves one of the more difficult challenges to the teams undertaking Tour Auto. Conversely, it is also one of the main factors that make Tour Auto a unique event in European motorsport. The combination of long road distances on country lanes, twinned with full output efforts on both circuits and closed road rally stages make it a unique experience for European drivers.
On perhaps one of the most dramatic days of this years event, the teams took to the demanding mountain roads in the foothills of the French Alps, passing through the spectacular Vercours and Chartreuse National Park, and winding their way through sleepy French villages to the delight of residents and spectators alike. The penultimate day finished in the city of Valence, a slightly earlier end of the day, allowing the drivers a chance to catch their breath before the excitement of the final day, and the grand finale in Marseille.
The blazing sunshine and temperatures hinting to the early onset of summer were all but a distant memory on the final day of Tour Auto 2014. As the dawn broke in Valence, a think veil of fog enshrouded vast swathes of France. The great visibility and grippy road conditions of the previous few days were long forgotten, as the teams tip-toed out from Parc Ferme and embarked on the final stage of the journey. With the special stages complete, the final test for the drivers lay at the world famous Paul Ricard circuit, renowned for its 1.8 kilometre Mistral Straight and vivid blue and red stripes that adorn the sides of the track. The blue and red stripes use a combination of precious metals in order to maximise traction. In the event that a car ventures off the circuit, the stripes help to provide a much more grippy surface in order that the cars can decrease their braking distance, and return safely to the track. The circuit was built in the 1960s with funding from the eccentric Pastis magnate Paul Ricard, and has been host to all manner of top level motorsport events, from the FIA GT Championship, the WTCC and numerous Formula One races. Paul Ricard sits on a beautiful plateau in the foothills of the Var, it is hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a top level circuit. The cars arrived in good time, with the mornings fog having dispersed slowly, after masking the mornings journey through the heartlands of the Vaucluse and Provence, passing close to the legendary Mont Ventoux.
After a brief pause for lunch upon arrival at the circuit, the drivers clambered awkwardly into their cars for the final stage of Tour Auto 2014. An expectant crowd lined the circuit, with an anticipated hush broken only by the ferocious sound of the first engines firing up and the rumble of assorted V8 and V12 units springing into life with a purposeful rumble. The first class saw a great battle between a group of AC Cobras, GT40s and Jaguar E Types, that had been jousting it out all week for honours in the class. One of the most entertaining classes to watch every year, due to the competitive spirit and proximity of the racing, Phillipe Vandromme dragged his prototype Ford GT40 to a hard earned win in the competition class, with Olivier Panis in the Ferrari 308 Group 4 Michelotto, and Erik Comas in the Lancia Stratos both failing to finish. With the first groups now departing the circuit, the Regularity classes jousted for position on track, with the Belgian run Austin Cooper S taking victory in the second class in an incredibly close session, which saw the first 19 cars covered by just two seconds in the fastest recorded laps.
With the clear azure tones of the Mediterranean in sight, the cars left the circuit and made tracks toward Marseille, taking in yet another scenic drive along the coast, and through the delightful town of Cassis. As the heat of the day started to dissipate, and the haze that hung in the heady Mediterranean air started to cool, the first cars caught sight of the city limits of Marseilles.
At the Museum of Mediterranean and European Civilisation in Marseille, a generous crowd had gathered to welcome the drivers, weary from the trials and tribulations of the previous five days, the cramped conditions of inhospitable cockpits, the searing continental temperatures twinned with the piercing heat radiating from performance engines, the constant rumble of exhaust notes, the maze of pace notes and navigation from assorted maps and lists, and not least, the concentration and focus required to drive a high performance classic sports car to the pinnacle of its potential.
As corks exited bottles, countless glasses of champagne were filled, drunk, and filled again. Cigars were lit, and as the fumes mingled with the heady mediterranean air, Tour Auto 2014 drew to a close in the dying embers of the Marseille evening.