Report and photos by Matt White
Each April, in the opulent surroundings of the Grand Palais in the bustling heart of Paris, something magical happens…
From immaculate garages all over Europe, a veritable feast of highly sought after, and meticulously prepared cars arrive to congregate under the vast glass domes of the Grand Palais. Organised by Peter Auto, the Tour Auto Rally is undoubtedly one of the marquee events of the European classic motorsport calendar.
Rekindling the flame of the original Tour De France Automobile, a race held on roads around France for almost a hundred years, Tour Auto Rally 2017 mixed sessions at Le Mans, Circuit Val De Vienne, Circuit d’Albi and Pau-Arnos, with a host of closed road special stages, designed to test both driver and machine against the challenges of the phenomenal French roads. Complete with a stellar entry list, ranging from prototype race cars from manufacturers such as Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari through to rare classics in concours condition, all the ingredients are there for an explosive mix of classic motorsport, set in some of the most sublime surroundings imaginable.
After departing the Grand Palais on a cold, wet morning, the entrants made for the direction of Le Mans, where a cool track and overcast conditions would certainly prove to be a baptism of fire for the 2017 edition. A biting wind also caused issues for the drivers, as the gravel traps were tested a number of times, but fortuitously, no damage was sustained during the afternoon. This allowed the field to progress the remainder of the route, which led them towards the coast of Brittany, and the conclusion of the first day in the walled city of St Malo. The cloud had cleared, and after surviving some intermittent rain storms, a cold yet wonderful evening saw the cars fill the port area.
Since 2017 was the first year in which the Tour Auto Rally had ventured into Brittany, it seemed only right, that the following morning, the cars took a tour of the splendid countryside, cutting through the heart of the Bretagne peninsular, with the spring colours in full charge. With the absence of a circuit visit on the second day, there were three special stages to test the competitors. Comprising a mix of undulating countryside and rolling hills, the area around Les Roches du Diable were particularly suited to this challenge, seeing the ever impressive pairing of Andrew Smith and James Cottingham in their Ford GT40 extend the lead by the end of day two. While the hills still resonated with the sound of engines and squealing tyres, the cars, ever willing after their three road tests, pointed south into the Loire Valley and towards their resting place at the spectacular Chateau De Goulaine, to catch their breath before an early start the following day.
Thursday commenced with a special stage, followed by a visit to the Val de Vienne circuit in Poitou-Charentes, a remarkably challenging circuit with a great number of tightening corners. With the sun high in the sky, conditions were ideal, and a large number of spectators adorned the grassy banks around the circuit.
The good weather continued into Friday where the competitors headed south from Limoges, in the direction of Toulouse, taking in a late afternoon trip to the Circuit D’Albi. Despite a few delays during the day, the event ran to good time, however, this didn’t prevent the final race of the day heading into the dusk, on a gloriously warm April afternoon, seemingly perhaps a pre-emptive practice for the night stages at the end of the event. The racing at Albi saw some very evenly matched competition, and some enthralling racing, exhibiting fantastic driving skills, and some technical overtaking escapades. Leaving the circuit long after the sun had set, under the cover of darkness, a snarling pack of BMW 3.0 CSLs, Porsche 911 RSRs, Ferrari 308 GTBs trailed the Ligier JS2 and De Tomaso Pantera leading the last group on their way from the circuit to Parc Ferme in Toulouse.
Saturday, the final day of the Tour Auto Rally 2017, saw the field head into the snow-capped Pyrenees for a spectacular special stage in the Haute Garonne. With soaring mountains above, engines echoed and boomed through the forests of the foothills under the blazing morning sunlight. Taking high mountain passes with snow coating the sides of the road, the competitors navigated their way through the twisting route, before making their way towards the final circuit of the Tour, at Pau Arnos. Spectators filled the circuit, and were treated to a fantastic session to end the track based tests at this delightfully undulating and challenging track. With the end in sight, the field headed for the finish at Biarritz, but with only a short rest, there was the small matter of the final two closed road special stages, the sting in the tail of this year’s event. Racing into the pitch black, navigating by torchlight, this was certainly a fitting finale, the glowing of brake discs and spits of exhaust flames illuminating the night stages.
At the return to the Cite De L’Ocean, the winning team of Smith and Cottingham in the remarkable Ford GT40 took the overall honours, with class wins for the spectacular Ligier JS2, Ford Escort RS200, Porsche 356 and Maserati 200SI. As corks exited bottles, countless glasses of champagne were filled, drunk, and filled again. Cigars were lit, and as the fumes mingled with the heady Atlantic air, Tour Auto 2017 drew to a close in the dying embers of the Biarritz evening.
In addition to Julien Mahiels’ Main and Behind the Scenes galleries, photographer Matt White also documented the 2017 Tour Auto Rally with the following stunning set of images from the modern iteration of the Tour De France Automobile.
Tour Auto Rally 2017 – Photo Gallery (photos: Matt White)
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[Source: Matt White]