Held for the 24th time this year, the annual Tour Auto is one of the blue ribband events on the historic racing calendar. Celebrating the rich history of the original Tour de France (Automobiles), the five-leg road rally traditionally offers participants a lovely look at the country's often fabulous scenery, while also incorporating timed runs on rally stages and race tracks. Lining the roads in, at times, very remote areas, the French people in turn are treated to the sight of race-bred machinery on public roads. In this age of health of safety, this is a very rare opportunity indeed. The many fabulous machines that participated in 2015 ranged from a Citroen 2CV to a Ferrari 250 GTO, and also included roaring AC Shelby Cobras and delicate Alpine A110s. One of the features was the 'Barchetta', represented by the likes of the Porsche 550A RS, the Maserati 200S and OSCA MT4. As always, the 230-car strong field started in the Grand Palais in Paris and this year the final leg finished in the classic beach resort of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast near the Spanish border.
Our photographers chases the field through France and have returned with this mouth-watering, stage by stage, 310-shot gallery
Leg 1: Paris - Vichy
At the creek of dawn the first cars departed from the Grand Palais and headed south to the Chateau de Courances where the official start was given. The roads of the opening, 498 km stage ran along flowing countrysides often lined by the typical yellow flowers that mark the arrival of spring. After a single special stage, the competitors continued on to the Magny Cours track, which hosted the final French Grands Prix in the recent past. Although perhaps not the most inspiring circuit to look at, the circuit is very challenging from the two very fast opening corners down to the final chicane. As always, the overall lead of the rally was disputed for cars up to and including 1965, which were predominantly found in Plateau 4
. At Magny Cours, it was immediately obvious that a fleet of Shelby Cobras were set to dominate, rivalled only by the odd Ford GT40, Lotus Elan and Jaguar E-Type. In the following group for the most modern cars, Mr. John of B. absolutely dominated at Magny Cours with his Cosworth DFV-engined Ligier. The very long opening stage was concluded with a run further south to finally finish in Vichy.
Leg 2: Vichy - Clermont Ferrand
A quick glance at the map told us that the distance between Vichy and Clermont Ferrand was barely 100 km as the crow flies. Organiser Peter Auto had found a more exciting route that took the competitors through hillier countryside past a pair of special stages to the foot of the characteristic Puy de Dome
, which is a dormant volcano. The day ended on the most evocative of all circuits in this year's Tour Auto: Circuit de Charade, which is also referred to as Clermont Ferrand and is also a former host of the French Grand Prix. This undulating track has barely been touched and boasts some steep climbs, blind corners and even a banked final corner. During the day, runner-up in the last two editions, Jean-Pierre Lajournade and co-driver Christophe Bouchet had grabbed the lead in the former's newly prepared Jaguar E-Type Roadster. A consistent run in the special stages more than made up for the time lost on the track to the rivalling Cobras and GT40. In Plateau 3
, Ian Daglish looked set to grab a second consecutive circuit win until his prop-shaft failed. Determined to continue the rally, he had a new one flown in and was the first car back on the road on day 3.
Leg 3: Clermont Ferrand - Toulouse
Driving south through the volcano country known as Les Puys
, the first kilometres of the third leg offered some truly fabulous backdrops with snow-covered peaks. In some sections, the snow still lined the roads. This stage also featured a pair of special stages, which were more akin to hill-climbs and was concluded at the Circuit d'Albi. Lajournade extended his lead over the rivalling Shelby Cobras at the first stage, while the second was surprisingly won by the nimble but less powerful Alfa Romeo GTA of Alex Furiani and Max Werner. Built around an airfield, the Albi track is very flat and features three long straights, which ideally suited the most powerful cars. In Plateau 3
, the race was won by Arnold Meier and Sarah Amaroso in the former's beautifully prepared Ferrari 275 GTB/C. Mr. John of B. again excelled at Albi with his Ligier, which, when it was still fitted with a Maserati V6 engine, is the outright winner of the 1974 Tour de France.
Leg 4: Toulouse - Pau
Following three long days, the competitors were given a little time to sleep in on leg 4, and the groups that had started first during the opening three days were now last on the road. This added rest was certainly needed as this turned out to be the most challenging of all five stages. Driving south from Toulouse, the organisers picked a route through the Pyrenees mountains over several cols made famous by that other Tour de France. Among them was the Col de Portet d'Aspet, which holds the memorial to bike racer Fabio Casartelli as a grim reminder of the dangers of these often steep and tricky mountain roads. The route continued onto the Col de Menté, which is slightly higher at 1,349 metres above sea level. The most scenic of all cols in this stages was the Col de Soulor, which is barren at the top and especially the descend down a narrow road with large drop offs and no barriers will have left the competitors pinned to their seats. The stage featured no track and the second special was cancelled due to a radio failure but the route itself must have left the drivers and co-drivers exhausted at the end of the day.
Leg 5: Pau - Biarritz
Following an overnight rain shower, the weather cleared in time to provide the competitors with a dry passage from Pau to the finish in the scenic beach town of Biarritz, much loved by surfers for the big waves. The day started on the Pau-Arnos track, which offered quite a contrast with the Circuit d'Albi visited two days earlier. The road was never really flat and its tight twists and turns certainly favoured machinery with great handling. Also part of the 212 km final leg was a single special stage. Upon arrival in Biarritz the winners of each of the classes were honoured, while each finisher was awarded a bottle of champagne for completing the gruelling event. Having led virtually from the start, the outright winners were Jean-Pierre Lajournade and Christophe Bouchet in their Jaguar E-Type. Taking a well-deserved win in the Index of Performance was Frederic Puren and Caroline Bertrand in their early Porsche 356. For the second year running, the Regularity class was won by Jean Francois and Francois Nicoules in an Alpine A110 1600 S.
If anything the Tour Auto is a five-day commercial for France as it each year showcases some of the country's finest roads and areas. Underlined by a remarkable large number of retirements, completing the event already was quite an achievement. Despite using a modern car, we were also quite exhausted after five days on the road. As can be seen in this exclusive 310-shot gallery
, it was certainly well worth it!