Report by Anna Morser and photos by Tim Scott
A fine, eclectic selection of 30 cars entered in the 2011 Grand Tour London to Barcelona gathered early on Sunday, 10th July on the grounds of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent Royal Hospital, Chelsea. The famous red-uniformed residents happily rose from their beds at this ungodly hour to admire the glistening machines, which ranged from a 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso to an all-girl equipe in a 2009 Ferrari California.
The destination? Barcelona, via more than a 1000 miles of the best roads that France and Spain have to offer plus some fiendishly difficult cryptic clues along the way. The Grand Tour is not a traditional rally, but a “navigational scatter event” where the contestants who gather the most points by correctly solving clues along the way scoop the prize.
The run to the Eurotunnel into France posed a different challenge: with watches from sponsor Frédérique Constant to be won, contestants could earn points by answering as many of 40 quiz questions correctly as possible, and by achieving a time from the gates of the Royal Hospital to registration at the Eurotunnel as close to the group’s average as possible.
With its literally breath-taking acceleration, we failed the regularity test in spectacular style.
Those keen to compete stuck with the middle of the pack. Unfortunately, we couldn’t resist the urge to see what our 1986 Ferrari 288 GTO could do (me navigating, Sports Car Digest snapper Tim Scott taking care of driving duties). With its literally breath-taking acceleration, we failed the regularity test in spectacular style.
On the French side of the channel, we had our first taste of the locals’ enthusiasm for the event, with crowds gathering in the villages we went through and young and old alike making the international sign for “go faster and make it loud.” After lunch in Samer, we were given the afternoon’s clues and directions through the pastures and Calvados orchards of northern France to our first overnight stop, Château de Rosay.
The route on day two guided the Grand Tourists through beautifully peaceful French countryside, where often the only witnesses to the stunning convoy were some slightly startled cows. The roads did justice to the event and the drivers justice to the cars, and we were rewarded for our hard day’s driving by easing into Château du Breuil’s sparkling swimming pool. The only downside was the travails encountered by Jamie Orton and Jo Simonds in the Ferrari 288 (swapped by us for an equally fabulous Ferrari 355) which had developed problems.
Day three got off to an ominous start, with thunder and lightning followed by the hotel’s Gordon Setter cocking a leg against a carefully selected Ferrari. The drivers relished the extra challenge posed by the wet conditions, and speeding south soon left the rain behind. Emergence into French wine country was heralded by the sight of a roadside wine tasting hut.
The organisers’ customary precision planning and eye for detail guided us to a picturesque hillside setting where a table groaning with local produce and chilled rosé (for the navigators) greeted us. People didn’t dally for long though, as at the end of the longest day’s driving lay the promise of a sumptuous welcome at Château de Suduirat. Most teams arrived in good time to enjoy the stunning hospitality, but the Ferrari California led both Austin-Healeys astray and they happily arrived just in the nick of time for dinner. The culinary highlight of the week was a starter of regional delicacy Foie Gras paired with the Château’s own Sauternes wine. The evening finished with some fierce competition at the snooker and poker tables.
Jamie Orton’s confidence in the Ferrari marque was restored with the overnight arrival of his new 458 Italia. When comparing its ride to the 288 GTO, he quipped that it felt like going from a tent to a luxury hotel room! Another new Ferrari in the shape of a titanium gray 599 GTB Fiorano joined the Tour, having been swapped for the previous 355 at the owner’s French château halfway down. Nice work if you can get it.
Day four enticed with the promise of a lunch stop at gracious hosts Chris and Tania Howse’s Château de Sauveterre to visit their Ferrari collection, followed by crossing into Spain and the prospect of a drive through the Pyrenees. Climbing into the pass we encountered a dire combination of roadworks and fog that cut visibility to about 200 metres, but the enjoyment of the Spanish construction workers at the sight of such special cars put a smile on everybody’s faces.
Luckily, the fog dissipated as we drove deeper into Spain and the drivers were able to take full advantage of the roads. The Ferrari 458, 1965 Ford Shelby Mustang GT350 (previously owned by baseball legend Reggie Jackson), and the 1955 Jaguar XK140 had the most fun, getting the cars sideways through a set of mountain switchbacks repeatedly in quick succession.
The final hour of Pyrenean roads into our hotel for the night provided the most exhilarating drive of my life.
The mountain roads also offered more opportunities for play in the shape of tunnels. As the first tunnel loomed, the 355 and 458 both slowed right down and then revved the engines hard, creating a Ferrari symphony that had people pumping their fists out their windows in excitement.
The final hour of Pyrenean roads into our hotel for the night provided the most exhilarating drive of my life. A Ferrari convoy, with us in the 355 and Jamie and girlfriend Jo in the 458 (Jamie fresh from two wins at Zandvoort the previous weekend) enjoyed the very best that the endless climbs, drops and switchbacks had to offer. The boys uttered another of their endless mechanical clichés about ‘Man and Machine in perfect harmony!’
Upon arrival at the hotel, the Grand Tourists could talk about little else beyond the thrilling drive. The drivers relaxed with a well-deserved beer on the terrace and compared notes, whilst the navigators swapped stories on their tolerance for speed. One team confessed to the embarrassment of being nearly overtaken in their Audi R8 by the luggage van! Dinner was served in a castle above the hotel and the wine flowed freely with competitors safe in the knowledge that there would be a late start and short drive into Barcelona on the last day.
The final day of the Tour dawned with some sore heads. A far more leisurely drive allowed people to savour the majestic scenery that most had missed as it flashed by the previous day. After lunch in yet another spectacular castle, the Tour joined the motorway for the last leg into Barcelona. The finish line was beside the harbour, where some contestants entered into the spirit of our host city, and arrived dressed as flamenco dancers.
Finally, it was a short run to the stylish W Hotel, where the Grand Tour was joined by friends and family for a sunset drinks reception poolside, then the awards dinner. None of the teams we thought were taking the contest seriously placed in the top three, but the winner of the wooden spoon award was no surprise, going to the Australian team with severe navigational issues. The Dutch girls in the Mini Cooper with false eyelashes on the headlights scooped the best female team prize, whilst Spirit of the Tour went to stalwart Robert Coucher, editor of Octane, who was unable to drive his car due to a broken arm. Shelby Myers received special recognition for the fine noise generated by his Mustang in the tunnels.
Grand Tour London to Barcelona 2011 – Photo Gallery (click image for larger picture and description)
[Source: photo credit: Tim Scott / Fluid Images]