For five days every year the French public roads are crowded with machinery usually only seen on racing tracks. The occasion is the annual Tour Auto, which treats approximately 250 participants with the best France has to offer in roads, food and parties. In each small village along the route this high speed procession is greeted by the locals, who have the opportunity to experience through sight and sound, some of the finest automobiles from their own front yards.
The Tour is not just fun and games however, but a serious competition element is present as well. The program consists of a number of race track visits and special stages on closed roads to let the cars perform as they were meant to. Entry is restricted to any car that raced in the original Tour de France between 1951 and 1973. An exception can be made for a vehicle of particular interest; a popular example being the Ferrari 308 GTB Group 4. To add to the complexity, there are a number of separate award classifications. In order to keep the event interesting for older models, the overall victory can only be scored by a car from before 1966. This coincides with the last year the original Tour de France was organized. It did return again in 1969, so later cars are eligible to run, but can never claim the overall victory, in spite of producing the fastest times at the end of the event. A third classification is based on ‘regularity’, where drivers have to match times chosen in advance; precision over speed. This year, the cars were divided in two regularity and three competition classes. In previous years the competition cars started first, but that was reversed this year to prevent the competition cars running too far ahead.
All previous 13 editions of the Tour Auto had originated at Trocadero Square in Paris, however the Auschwitz Liberation 60th Anniversary ceremony was concurrently underway. Organizers relocated across the Seine River to the ‘Hotel des Invalides’. This new location for the pre-event scrutineering offered much better parking facilities, but the Tour will return to Trocadero next year.
Traditionally the Tour Auto winds through one of two routes: south from Paris through the west, finishing at the Mediterranean, or south through the central/east, finishing at the Atlantic coast. The 2005 edition took a central route with a finale in Europe’s surfing paradise, Biarritz. The public roads chosen were quite impressive, leading the competitors, support staff, press and spectators through the Central Massif and Pyrenean mountains. Much of the 1648 km excursion was traveled on small roads that would regularly see only a handful of cars each day. Four racing tracks were visited including Magny Cours, Clermont Ferrand / Charade, Nogaro and Pau. The Clermont Ferrand and Pau tracks were particularly impressive with few straights and several elevation changes to test more than just horsepower.
Thanks to wonderful luck, the majority of previous events were held under dry conditions, but this year saw some rain on the first two days. Fortunately, it didn’t compare to the heavy rain that soaked one of last year’s stages. After the two mildly wet days, the weather brightened and the Tour finished in summer-like conditions.
There were some close battles within all of the competition classes, that naturally spread out as the rally went on. Four cars from the second grid maintained very close times and were contending for the overall lead right to the end; two Lotus Elans and two AC Cobras. One of the Elan drivers, Hans Hugenholtz, had already won the event five times before. Of historic interest was Frank Sytner’s recently restored Cobra, which in 1963 was among the first two Cobras to compete at Le Mans. He was sadly forced to retire on the fourth stage with a broken chassis. Eventually John Sheldon’s red and gold Elan was the only car of the four that managed to reach the finish without incurring significant penalties, to take a well deserved victory.
The first competition class track events were dominated by two cars; the Bernd Hahne driven, astonishingly fast Alfa Romeo GTA and the stunning Ferrari 250 LM, driven by American Steven Read. Both cars picked up a number of penalties and despite their speed on the track they were never in contention for the overall win.
The fastest cars were found in the third competition group, where two former teammates fought for first. John Bosch and Danny Sullivan shared a Ferrari at Le Mans last year, but at this year’s Tour Auto they took each other on with a Ferrari Daytona Competizione and a Porsche 911 RSR 3.0 respectively. It was a battle between the hugely powerful, but slightly overweight Ferrari against the nimbler, but less powerful Porsche. After four days the mighty Daytona had a slight edge over the 911, but problems forced the Ferrari driver to retire.
The charm of the regularity class is that all cars have an equal chance for victory, but it is impossible for the crowd to figure out who is winning. The Lesseps/Brand entered Aston Martin DB4 GT eventually took the win ahead of an Alfa Romeo Giulia 1600 and a Porsche 911 S 2.2.
After five long days another successful Tour Auto came to an end. Some might say it doesn't have the legendary status of the Mille Miglia retrospective, but the Tour Auto offers more excitement to both the drivers and the spectators. The organization should be particularly commended for the route chosen this year. To give you an impression of the event we have compiled a 250 shot slideshow
, which presents a cross-section of the magnificent scenery and the sometimes surprising entries.