Event of the month -- Tour Auto


While some of the favourites hit trouble, John Sheldon turned in a sublime performance to win the 14th Tour Auto -- Paul Lawrence reports, photography by Patrick Payany

A capacity entry gathered in Paris in late April for Tour Auto, the world's leading combined race and rally stage contest for classic sports and GT cars. The 200-strong field was packed with automotive jewels, including two significant cars making their event debut on the five-day trek across France.

Ludovic Caron, third in 2004, was back with a different AC Cobra. His new car was freshly rebuilt in time for Tour Auto and is an ex-Phil Hill/Dan Gurney car that finished fourth at Sebring in 1963. Also bearing a US history was the Ferrari 250LM of American Steve Read. Prior to being raced by the NART squad, it was driven by John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini and finished seventh at Le Mans in 1965.

The first day of competition, Tuesday April 26, centred on a race at Magny-Cours and it was Caron who threw down the gauntlet in his Cobra to win grid four — for the fastest pre-65 cars — from Frank Sytner's Cobra, while John Bosch took grid five (post-65) in a Ferrari 365GTB/4 after a fine battle with the Porsche 911RSR of former Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan. But Caron knew that a lot of competitive miles lay ahead, both on race tracks and asphalt special stages on closed public roads. "Tour Auto is such a challenge," said Caron. "Five consecutive days is a long time!"

Day two brought the first two road stages as well as a race at the Charade circuit near Clermont-Ferrand. Having lost a lot of time at Magny-Cours with a plug problem, Jean Ragnotti set about fighting back into contention and made the running on the first stage in an Alpine A110. But as the sun came out and dried the roads, Sullivan was able to exploit the power of the Porsche to beat Ragnotti by 2.6sec and went on to win at Charade. "On the wet road it would have been very difficult to beat the Alpines," admitted Sullivan. "But the Porsche is well balanced and behaves very well."

Thursday featured three special stages in mountainous terrain in the volcanic Auvergne region. Ragnotti again headed the times, but all the while John Sheldon was being neat and tidy in his Lotus Elan and made much of the running in the pre-65 category. As usual, the overall Tour winner would be the top performer from this division. Chasing the Le Mans veteran was a gaggle of Jaguar E-types in the hands of Frédéric Puren, Alexander Berstein and Michael Cowdray.

By now Caron was out of the reckoning after losing a lot of time at Charade. The Friday leg also signalled the end of Sytner's challenge when the Cobra suffered broken suspension at Nogaro. But before the race at this track came a road stage in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where Caron headed the pre-65 times.

The final day was scheduled to include a first Tour Auto visit to the Pau-Arnos circuit and a road stage at Bois du Bager. However, radio communication dramas on the mountain roads forced the organisers to cancel the stage and so the Saturday morning races at Pau brought the Tour to a close before the ceremonial finish in Biarritz.

Caron won at Pau, with Sheldon finishing second on the twisty track. His blend of speed and consistency as others hit dramas ensured that Sheldon added Tour Auto victory to his recent Tour d'Espagne success as he finished more than two minutes up on the best of the E-types, in the hands of Puren. Massive time penalties left Caron and Sytner way down the final results.

With dramas costing time for Ragnotti, Bosch and Sullivan, the Porsche 906 of Oliver Mathai took the post-65 spoils from the Ford GT40 of Chris MacAllister.