Boys on Tour Auto Across France. At speed. In a #Porsche-911
Editor David Lillywhite takes part in the 25th running of the Tour Auto in a fast ’n’ loud 911. Photography René, Mathieu Bonnevie, Julien Hergault, David Lillywhite.
Forget the name. Until the bike race kicked up a fuss, this was the Tour de France. It’s where the #1957 #Ferrari-250GT
obtained its TdF moniker. It’s the source of legendary tales of automotive derring-do and, frankly, madness: from 1899 until 1986, more or less annually, cars raced across France, and sometimes into Germany and Belgium, taking in hillclimbs and race circuits. Of course it was stopped eventually. But only five years later it was revived as a historic event, as spectacular, bonkers and simply French in as many ways as the original. That event, now called Tour Auto and organised by Peter Auto (the group behind Le Mans Classic, Chantilly Arts & Elegance, etc), celebrated its 25th running this year.
And so it is that Team Octane is wandering wide-eyed through the Grand Palais in Paris a day before the start of Tour Auto #2016
, applying stickers to a #Porsche
911 and staring in trepidation at the tome-like roadbook. ‘Team Octane’, by the way, is me and property developer friend Guy Harman, whose 911ST seemed a perfect choice. We’re parked alongside other 911s and a neat Alfa Giulia, with a gorgeous Alfa TZ2 just behind. In all there are more than 300 cars in the beautiful 1890s building, most of them French-owned.
They vary from tiny Abarths to monstrous Group 4 Panteras. Oh, and a Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda, which we agree is as gauche as it’s inspirational. In essence we know that the plan is to leave Paris on the Tuesday morning and head for the start proper, just outside the city. By Saturday evening we should be in Cannes, in the south of France, having by that point sampled four circuits and countless closed-road regularity stages, some of them with Monte Carlo Rally history. Plus, this being the 25th edition, there’s a never-done-before treat of a night stage out of Cannes on the Saturday night, going into the early hours of Sunday. There’s nothing on that in the roadbook, and much talk around the Grand Palais of what it will consist of.
Most of the cars have arrived over the weekend. Porsche specialist Steve Monk of Bodywerks finished checking over Guy’s newly bought 911 the previous Thursday, and it was picked up a day later by a transporter to be brought to France.
Could it have been driven over? Probably, except that Guy and I were both working frantically until just hours before leaving on the Sunday-night Eurostar – and the car is set up for competition, so not the most comfortable steed, and we’re relying on Tour Auto’s rescue squad and a can of oil, two screwdrivers and a 3/8in-drive Christmascracker socket set for technical back-up.
Monday is set aside for signing in, be-stickering the car, and collecting our nice Tour Auto jackets. Turns out the jackets are too big, prompting some fine Franglais (‘Bonjour, je suis trop… er… puny… pour la veste’). Incredibly, we get smaller replacements and, even more incredibly, that’s it, the day gone, finished off with a beer at the cocktail party amongst the cars. Most of the time has been spent trying to work out what we should be doing and where we should be. If only I’d concentrated in French lessons 30-odd years ago.
Tuesday starts early. The 300 cars are divided into grids: 1-3 for Regularity, 4 and 5 for Competition. Basically, in regularity you drive fast to achieve a stipulated average speed on special stages, and a consistent time over four laps on circuits; and in competition you just drive fast. We’re in grid 2 – more on that later – which happens to be the last grid to leave from Paris, so the hall is near-empty as we line up behind car 76, wondering why so many pictures are being taken of it. More on that later, too.
The first few minutes of any rally are always tough, as you acclimatise to the style of directions (tulip diagrams on the Tour), and it’s not helped by not having a proper rally tripmeter – we’ve had to remove the new RetroTrip, because neither of us had realised that Tour Auto has to be navigated via the car’s own tripmeter. Cue lots of craning across from the passenger seat to read it (for the next five days) and a stark reminder that it’s important to read all the notes and regulations. Guy has driven the 911 for approximately 20 minutes before today; I’d not even sat in it before.
It’s built to ST specification, a retro-fit kit sold by Porsche in 1970 and ’71 for conversion to a road/ track specification. Because of this, there’s no set specification for an ST but Guy’s car is fairly typical, with a 2.5-litre short-stroke engine, Weber 46IDA carbs, wide rear ’arches, 7in Fuchs at the front and 9in Minilites at the rear, and RS bonnet. It’s a revelation! Sure, it’s stiffly sprung and suffers a heavy clutch, but it’s easy to drive even through Parisian traffic, the power just keeps on coming and the steering is perfection. By the time we arrive at the start, at Château de Courances, we’re both in love with the rorty Porsche.
After the hectic early start from central Paris, Courances is as relaxed as can be. Cars are set off at 30-second intervals into the countryside, and once again we follow car 76 – an early 911 – as it’s surrounded by camera crew and selfie-takers.
Seems that its driver is famous, but we don’t know what for. We’ve already said hello to ever-cheerful Jochen Mass in a De Tomaso Pantera (‘Why is it you Englishmen always choose German cars?’ he asks) and spotted Ari Vatanen in a new #BMW
M4 official course car and Porsche engineer Jürgen Barth in, of course, another 911.
Navigation that day is relatively simple but the pace is fast – really fast – overall. The grids up front are in the Competition category, while we’ve ‘sensibly’ opted for Regularity, this being our first time on Tour Auto. Some of our grid are taking it much easier than others on the roads from the lunch stop at the famous Abbaye de Fontenary to our first circuit, the equally famous #Dijon-Prenois
, once home to the French Grand Prix.
The idea at the circuit is to practise for ten minutes and then, on sight of a green flag on the startline, continue for four timed laps, which have to be as consistent as possible. But this is our first time on track in the 911 and we’re excited by how well it handles and how strong the engine feels.
Guy is enjoying the drive, I’m keeping an eye out for other cars taking less [cough] conventional lines, and somehow neither of us notice the green flag, which means our times end up all wrong. But we come away amazed at how narrow but wonderfully undulating is the track, and a little bit more in love with the 911.
Honestly, though, the two of us are having doubts about the event at this stage. The regularity is more serious than expected, the roads not quite as good as we’d hoped, and a queue into one of the small towns and a very deliberate Tour Autotargeted police speed trap have flattened the mood. Have we done the right thing?
Then, at the exit to the circuit, a #Maserati-200SI
pushes in front of us, and we both bristle with English indignation at the lack of respect for orderly queuing until the driver shouts across an apology and explains that they’ve been delayed, and are meant to be much further ahead. Perhaps it helps that his female co-driver is as beautiful as the car, but we relax, and spend the next hour following the perfectly formed ensemble at high speed along sweeping roads as dusk falls.
It’s a turning point in our attitude to the Tour Auto; it’s not a French Mille Miglia, it’s much more refined. Dinner that night in Beaune is superb, catering for drivers, co-drivers and service crews – over 700 people in all – and from that point Tour Auto just gets better and better for us.
The further south we go, the more the roads improve. The more regularities we do, the further up the results table we climb (though our times remain horribly inconsistent). The more fellow competitors we meet, the more friends we make. The harder we drive the Porsche, the better it feels.
On day two, we visit Circuit de Bresse, which I drive, call in at Abbaye de Cluny, and finish in lovely Lyon. There we chat with the driver of car 76, who turns out to be Grégory Galiffi, presenter of an extremely popular French motoring TV show. The locals go mad for him, and he spends all his time generously signing autographs, posing for pictures and promoting a children’s charity. A very nice man with a lovely girlfriend. We secretly hope he’s hiding a dark secret…
On day three, to Valence, there’s no circuit but one of the regularities is at Saint Bonnet le Froid, a Monte Carlo stage, and the afternoon’s route twists through the rocky tunnels of Route de la Combe Laval. The views are spectacular, and improved some more by the accompanying cars – the Hemi ’Cuda, a full-bore Stratos , understated Cobra 289 and a sublime #Ferrari
250 GT SWB.
Day four sees me on track at Circuit de Lédenon, which looks like an oversize kart track, but serves up a brilliantly technical drive. The special stages are stunning, if treacherous, and the day ends at the regenerated old harbour in Marseille, a fine location for a bière or two.
Day five, and we’re off to Paul Ricard circuit. I’ve driven there before, and it’s Guy’s car after all, so he sets off at a super-fast pace that gets harder and harder to match as we encounter more traffic on later laps – but it would have been criminal to take it any slower. It’s then a fast run, via the Saint- Baume and Esterel mountains, to the finish at the Croisette seafront at Cannes. It’s gone so quickly.
The Majestic club on the beach has been set out for food, and there’s just time to grab some and drop bags off at the hotel, because we’re due out on the night stage at 10.30pm. Grid order has swapped, so the Competition bunch won’t start to leave until after midnight, and there’s talk of 200km…
We’re given the route book at the start, and breathe a sigh of relief to find that it’s 100km, with two special stages. The first stage gets cancelled, which means we’re able to make full use of the twisting closed-road climb without having to worry about timing. With spotlights piercing the darkness and exhaust bouncing off the rockfaces, it feels like a real rally drive. The exhilaration is only mildly tempered when we nearly run out of fuel, but we make it back to Cannes.
It’s been one hell of a week. The 911 has been incredible. I always forget how much the steering wheel waggles in an early 911, feeding back every bit of information about the road surface, but this ST does that in the extreme, which is disconcerting at first, delicious once you’re used to it. It turns in oh-so-precisely, grips ferociously, and when it lets go it doesn’t seem to snap round.
That 2.5-litre flat-six pulls and pulls, never seeming to run out of puff, the cooling fan noise gradually replaced by a wonderful howl of intake and exhaust. What an engine!
If there was a downside it was the long, heavy clutch and equally long gearshift. Typically 911, and noticeable only when ambling along; mix in a bit of adrenaline and it all comes together, though – which just leaves the uncomfortable seats to moan about. Guy has already changed them.
And Tour Auto? It’s really quite special, and it would be spectacular to do it in something truly lairy, such as DK Engineering’s much-admired GT40. It costs €9000 for a crew of two, with hotels and all meals, so it sure ain’t cheap. But there’s a waiting list, and plenty who come back year after year. We’d love to do the same.
THANKS TO Peter Auto, www.peterauto.peter.fr, Bodywerks, CARS and the many friends we made.
Left, above and below. The finish at Cannes; David and Guy after the final night stage; and the overall-winning Group 4 #Ferrari-308GTB-Michelotto
‘With spotlights piercing the darkness and exhaust bouncing off the rockfaces, it feels like a real rally drive’
Clockwise from above. View through the Octane 911’s windscreen; Stratos sounded as good as it looks; Shelby Cobra on one of the special stages; the Octane 911 at Dijon-Prenois circuit; French TV star Grégory Galiffi signs yet more autographs; #Alpine-A310
V6 at special stage start; lunch at Abbaye de Bouchet; awesome #Ligier
JS2 DFV; Italian metal dominates.
Clockwise from left. Pre-start gathering at the Grand Palais, Paris; the Octane 911 ST awaits the official start at Château de Courances; 911s are a perhaps-too-popular choice; quick snack, Tour Auto style.