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2018 Tour Auto
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The annual Tour Auto has been a set fixture on the classic racing calendar for over a quarter of a century. In 2018, the Peter Auto organisation staged the five-day road rally for the 27th time. As always, the Tour Auto combined road sections with visits to four different tracks and times stages on closed roads. The 239-car strong field was split in competition entrants, spread over three groups, that sought outright speed and those in the regularity classes where consistency was key. Over the last few years, the fabulous Grand Palais in Paris has served as the assembly area and this year was no exception. What does change every year is the route and in 2018, the eastern and south eastern part of the country formed the decor for the five-day rally that finished in Nice on the Cote d'Azur. A more gradual change has affected the French roads, which has seen a substantial increase in speed bumps making it more difficult for true competition cars to participate. Nevertheless, there were some truly special cars that took the start, which included one of the six Shelby Cobra Daytonas and a Ferrari 250 MM. The event also focussed on forgotten Italian marques and featured three Oscas and a brace of DeTomasos.
Our photographers chased the field through some of France's finest back-drops from the start to the finish with this 270-shot gallery as the result.

Day 1: Paris - Besancon
Even before the break of dawn on the opening, the first competitors left the Grand Palais for a neutralised run from Paris to the Chateau de Courances just south of the French capital. Here the official start was given for the opening stage that saw the competitors venture through the Bourgogne area and, after a stop at the Dijon-Prenois circuit, finish in the historic city of Besancon at the foot of the Jura mountains. Traditionally, the opening day of the Tour Auto sees the field cross through fields of yellow flowers, which add to the profound feeling that spring is in the air. Before the competitors reached the circuit most famous for the legendary battle between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in 1979, they stopped at the first special stage in Sinotte. As always, the contenders for the overall victory are not necessarily the fastest cars but those that fall in the VHC period with a cut off date of 1965. This was chosen as up till this period the original Tour de France Automobile rally was run as a truly international event. Clear favourites going into the rally were 2017 winners James Cottingham and Andrew Smith in the mighty Ford GT40. The British pairing lived up to the expectations and ended the first day in the lead with wins in both the special stage and the race at Dijon.

Day 2: Besancon - Megeve
One of the most highly anticipated stages this year was the second, which promised a route through to Jura mountains with a finish in the Alps after a traversing the 1,487m high Aravis pass. Along the way, the competitors had to complete two special stages and a run on the compact Bresse circuit. Once again, the Cottingham / Smith pairing proved unbeatable and they extended their lead with three more fastest times. Trailing at already a considerable distance were the Jaguar E-Type of Chris Ward and Andy Elcomb and the Shelby Cobra shared by Ben Gill and David Didcock. Unfortunately, the latter car could not complete the trip to Megeve and had to retire with a cracked head. Meanwhile, a 1968 specification Ford GT40 of Patrick Hautot and Sylvain Cantrel had taken the lead in Class G while Americans Gunnar Jeannette and Cooper MacNeil in their Porsche 911 Carrera RSR 3.0 were ahead in the Class H and I. The route did not disappoint and the snow-lined Col des Aravis indeed proved one of the highlights of the week.

Day 3: Megeve - Avignon
As the caravan ventured further south there were yet more mountain passes on the schedule. We were particularly taken by the rugged Col de Men�e, which, at 1,457m high split the Is�re and Dr�me areas. Like the day before, there was a pair of special stages on the schedule as well as a visit to a race track (Circuit de Ledenon). Unfortunately, the second special stage of the day had to be cancelled due to an accident with one of the official reconnaissance cars. Continuing their clean sweep, Cottingham and Smith again set the fastest time in the day's single special stage and also won the race at Ledenon. With Gill and Didcock already on a plane home, 'their' third place on the leaderboard was taken over by the Swiss pairing of Raphael Favaro and Yves Badan, who shared the former's Lotus Elan 26R. There was certainly more variety in the regularity class with a Maserati 200S and Peugeot 203 sharing the day's spoils but neither car managed to take the lead away from the CG 1200 S shared by Jean Rigondet and Olivier Souillard.

Day 4: Avignon - Aix-en-Provence
During the run to the Circuit de Ledenon on Thursday the mythical Mont Ventoux was already clearly visible but in the opening hours of the fourth day, the 'Beast of the Provence' really took centre stage. The Friday started with a special day on the flanks of the mountain, in the town of Bedoin, which is the traditional start of the climb made legendary and also infamous during many editions of the Tour de France bicycle race. The opening special stage sparked a surprise as the Ward and Elcomb Jaguar E-Type, a two-time Goodwood TT winning machine, set the fastest time. Their joy was short lived as an ignition failure forced Ward to retire on lap four of the race at Paul Ricard. This allowed Smith to take yet another dominant win ahead of the Shelby Cobra Daytona of Olivier Ellerbrock and Oliver Luisoder, which had bounced back well after suffering from a suspension failure on day two. There was also drama in the H and I class race as the leading Porsche failed to complete a lap in practice due to a loose wheel nut. Having started from the pits, Jeannette managed to keep the time lost to second placed Christophe van Riet and Caroline Grifnee in a similar Porsche to just 11 seconds.

Day 5: Aix-en-Provence - Nice
After what had already been four challenging days, the route for the final stage of the 2018 Tour Auto offered little time to relax. Kicking off with a short run on the highway, the route veered north into the mountains yet again. With no track on the schedule, the fifth day featured three timed stages, all on hill climbs. As a desert, the final stage this year was the mighty Col de Turini, which is a set fixture on the Monte Carlo rally. Such was its appeal that some competitors later remarked that they got emotional driving on the mythical route. One team that, unfortunately, did not get to experience the sensation was the previously unchallenged Cottingham and Smith pairing as their GT40's gearbox had imploded on the penultimate stage. This propelled the Favaro / Badan Lotus Elan into the lead and they won the Tour Auto in style by setting the fastest time at the Col de Turini. Having pushed their stricken GT40 across the finish line, Cottingham and Smith vowed to come back and have another go at the Tour Auto next year, perhaps in a Shelby Cobra to level the playing field. The other leaders did not change but the GT40's retirement meant that purely based on time, the Jeannette / MacNeil pairing had completed the 2018 Tour Auto fastest of all.

Final thoughts
If anything, the annual Tour Auto is a five-day long commercial for France and its fabulous countryside. Particularly with the route taken this year, through some of the country's most iconic regions, it is not difficult to understand why France is such a popular tourist destination. For the competitors and their machines, it was also a very hard edition and there were numerous of retirements. Just why all competitors and the numerous spectators come back year on year for the ordeal can be found in our action packed 270-shot gallery that covers the 2018 Tour Auto from start to finish.

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Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Wouter Melissen and Pieter Melissen for Ultimatecarpage.com