Tour Auto: seeing France the fast way

imageAs one of the greatest classic car events around, the Tour Auto combines action, adrenalin, stunning scenery and sumptuous lunches.

The annual Tour Auto is the most extraordinary classic car event many of you will have never heard of. Held in France for the last 20 years, it’s a loving recreation of the Tour de France Automobile, which was first run in 1899 and took competitors on a gruelling route around the country’s nascent road network in examples of the very earliest “horseless carriages”.

Like many of the original road races, the Tour de France Automobile started as more a test of reliability and endurance than raw pace, but as the event and the vehicles evolved, it adopted a unique week-long format of circuit races and closed-road special stages.

World wars, oil crises and other financial woes conspired repeatedly to interrupt the tour. Its sporadic running and ever-changing route probably account for why it never attained the notoriety of the great Italian events such as the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio. It enjoyed its heyday in the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies, but finally fizzled out in 1986, on its 50th running.

Yet the event still had the power to captivate. So when enthusiast Patrick Peter and a group of friends planned to revive the tour for owners of classic cars, they had no shortage of entrants. The inaugural event was in 1992 and has been going from strength to strength since.

This year’s event takes place from April 16-21. I took part last year, when a breathtaking line-up of 230 beautiful road and racing cars assembled in the Jardin des Tuileries, in the heart of Paris, for pre-event scrutineering. To see one £600,000 Ferrari 275 GTB is normally cause for celebration, but to see 15 is remarkable. So, too, a handful of £3 million Ferrari 250 SWBs, the brace of £5 million Aston Martin DB4GT Zagatos and a Ferrari 250 GTO worth £15 million.

Last year I competed in a 1965 Alfa Romeo GTA. Owned by friend Simon Tate and worth about £100,000, the GTA is an aluminium-bodied race version of the Bertone-designed Giulia Sprint GT coupé. Weighing just 750kg and powered by a high-revving, 160bhp 1.6-litre engine, the little red Alfa is ideal for the divergent demands of Tour Auto.

The entry is divided into two categories: Regularity and Competition. The former requires crews to complete stages and laps at a predetermined pace, with time penalties for going too quickly or too slowly. The Competition category is all about going as fast as you can on the stages and in the races, then completing the road sections within time limits set by the organisers. Simon and I were in the Competition section and shared the driving and navigating duties.

Each day followed a similar pattern: a road section, then a special stage, then more road miles (often on some of the best roads you’ve ever seen), then a race, then another special stage and a lengthier road leg to the overnight halt. It’s tough on the cars, drivers and co-drivers, not to mention the support crews in vans loaded to the gunwales with spare engines, gearboxes and vital fluids required to keep old racing cars fettled during the event.

Day one took us to the old banked racetrack at Montlhéry, where we completed a short-but-sweet special stage. Then we drove to Le Mans, where unfortunately Simon got clouted by a BMW on his way to a fourth-place finish. Amazingly, it was cosmetic damage only.

The rest of the week went by in a flash, each day passing in a vivid blur of action, adrenalin, wonderful scenery, amazing roads, sumptuous set-piece buffet lunches (well, this is a French event) and some of the best driving we have ever experienced.

Much against our expectations we became more and more competitive as the week progressed. The GTA was quick and running flawlessly and we even managed not to get lost. By day five we were neck-and-neck with another GTA for a class win and shaping up for a top-10 placing.

Despite epic last-day jitters Simon nailed second place in the last race, then we topped it off by posting quickest time on the final closed road special stage, beating all the exotica. We won our class and came sixth overall. It was the perfect end to a magical week.

April can’t come quick enough.

History repeated

If you love the idea of watching priceless old cars being driven as quickly as their creators intended, there’s never been a greater variety of historic events.

Tour Auto’s scale and varied competitive elements make it the biggest and most serious of the retrospective events. This year’s takes place from April 16-21. However, the modern recreation of the Mille Miglia from May 17-20 also enjoys huge popularity because of the calibre of the cars, as does the Targa Florio historic rally.

In the UK, Tour Britannia (June 7-9) adopts the Tour Auto format and is extremely popular with competitors and spectators alike.

Of the purely circuit-based events, the AvD Oldtimer Grand Prix at Germany’s Nürburgring on August 10-12 and the Silverstone Classic on July 20-22 attract an extraordinary gathering of amazing cars, while the Goodwood Revival enjoys the highest profile, attracting a star-studded entry and providing a stunning spectacle.

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