The annual Tour Auto retrospective is one of a dying breed of events where (classic) racing cars can still explore public roads without attracting controversy or creating problems with the various law enforcement agencies. In fact this year a squad of 'gendarmerie' on motorcycles provided an escort for the cars on the entire route through France. That must be one of the most coveted assignments of the year. As usual the event was spread over five days and ran through some of the country's most beautiful areas. Each day included a visit to a track and at least one timed stage on a closed off section of public road. The 250-car strong field was divided in a 'competition' and a 'regularite' section. Time is the determining factor in the former and in the latter consistency is awarded.
Unfortunately not all cars entered could take to the start as several of the drivers and co-drivers were unable to make it to Paris due to the volcanic ash-cloud that severely interrupted air-traffic over Europe in April. We had no such problems and visited the scrutineering next to the Louvre museum in Paris and followed the cars for three stages. Our best photographs can be found in this exclusive 190-shot gallery
Ferrari 250 GT SWB
Ferrari dominated the original Tour de France for many years with the 3-litre V12 engined '250 GT' series. So much so that one of the models received the universally accepted 'Tour de France' nickname. For the 1960 season the Italian manufacturer introduced a short wheelbase (SWB) version (2400 mm vs 2600 mm) of the car. The 250 GT SWB went on to win the gruelling race for three years in a row and scored numerous class and outright victories in all the major races around the world. The 2010 Tour Auto celebrated the 50th anniversary of the highly successful GT racer in great style; no fewer than 17 examples were entered. These ranged from the road going, steel bodied 'Strada' versions to the final evolution with alloy body and tweaked engine, which is commonly referred as the 'SEFAC Hot-Rod'.
In 1962 the SWB was replaced by the even more legendary 250 GTO, which was driven to victory in the Tour de France in 1963 and 1964 (the 9th consecutive victory for a Ferrari 250 GT). It shared some of its underpinnings with its predecessor but sported a much more aerodynamic body. Less than forty were built and they are among the most valuable cars in the world. Two owners nevertheless brought their GTOs to the Tour Auto this year.
Other cars of note
With some exception, the only cars eligible to participate in the Tour Auto are those of a type that raced in the original Tour de France between 1951 and 1974. The final race of this period was won by a Maserati engined Ligier JS2. A year later a similar car, powered by a Cosworth DFV V8, finished second outright in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Both incarnations of this very rare Ligier were entered in the Tour Auto this year. Despite running what was basically a Formula 1 engine, Paul Knapfield managed to complete all five days. With its howling V8, the metallic blue and white was one of the most spectacular machines in the field.
In addition to the 250 GTs there were many more Ferraris entered. The number of Ferrari 275 GTBs was particularly high. Complementing the numerous standard road cars, there were are also several 'official' competition cars like Steven Read's example, which was the only car that could match the sounds of the DFV engined Ligier. Other Ferraris of note were the Entremont brothers' 308 GTB Group IV liveried in striking Pioneer colours and ex-Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona Competizione of Dudley and Sally Mason-Styron. Further highlights included an Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, two Alfa Romeo TZs and several Porsche 906s.
Even though the cars departed from the centre of Paris, the official start of the first stage was 40 km south at the the beautiful Chateau Fontainbleau. At 483 km, it was this was the longest stage of the event and brought the competitors via the Magny Cours track to the centrally located city of Vichy. The following morning the first stop was at the undulating Clermont Ferrand circuit. Located at the base of the Puy de Dome volcano, this is one of the most beautiful tracks in France and provides drivers with some very challenging corners. Lunch was served at the imposing Vollore castle, which towered over the valley. Lyon, France's second biggest city, served as a stop-over for the first time in the Tour Auto's history. From here the route continued through the Jura into the Alps, finishing in Megeve at the foot of Europe's tallest mountain, the Mont Blanc. The fourth day was spent in the Alps and no circuit was visited. Instead the competitors were scheduled to complete three special stages but poor weather conditions forced the organisers to scratch one. The final stage started in Aix-en-Provence and finished on the 'Cote d'Azur' in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. En route the Tour Auto visited the modern Paul Ricard / Le Castellet track and also passed over the panoramic 'Corniche' route between Monaco and Nice.
The competition section of the field was separated in three different groups depending on the age of the car. Only the middle group 'Plateau 4', built roughly between 1962 and 1971, was eligible for the outright victory. Last year's winner Shaun Lynn was back to defend his title although he had swapped his victorious Ford GT40 for his AC Shelby Cobra at the very last minute. He nevertheless managed to win the opening stage and looked in a good position to repeat his victory until a technical problem left his red cobra stranded late on the second day. The top spot was taken over by Jean-Pierre Lajournade in a Lotus Elan. The Frenchman made no mistake and won the VHC class and the Tour Auto outright.
In the group for the most modern cars Knapfield was particularly quick in the Cosworth engined Ligier on the circuits. He lost considerable time on the much tighter special stages, leaving the class win to a very strong running 'Mr John of B.' in his all white Porsche 906.
There was also an index of performance leaderboard, which considered the performance of each car relative to its potential. This 'class' was won by Yves Junne and Lee Maxted-Page, who shared a very early Porsche 356.
At the end of the five days, the Spanish driver pairing of Carlos de Miguel and Secundino Suarez proved to be the most precise and consistent. They clinched the 'regularite' victory in their Ferrari 275 GTB ahead of last year's winner John Ruston in a brightly painted Porsche 356 Speedster.
Unlike many other classic car events, the Tour Auto is mainly organised for the competitors and not the spectators. The word was nevertheless spread very well and in most villages along the route the streets are lined with public. The crowds at the various tracks were even bigger, which contributed further to the appeal of the event. For the participants, the Tour Auto provides a unique experience. We had a taste of it again but driving these fabulous routes in a Citroen C5 is not quite the same as screaming along in an Alfa Romeo GTA or a Ferrari 250 GT SWB!