Talent tested on grand tour

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The Tour de France Automobile lured drivers from all disciplines – including a future FIA president – as well as some unique cars

Over recent years, it occurs to me that the finest pound-for-pound competition driver in harness today isn’t a Formula 1 star. I know he has perhaps been favoured by the car he drives, but that does nothing to minimise the gut-quaking hazards that the modern World Rally Championship drivers happily ignore, so the star driver I’d propose as currently the world’s best is Sébastien Loeb. His combination of coolly applied, yet frequently utterly blinding pace with consistent common sense has seen few equals either on stage or circuit. And the lesson confronting Kimi Räikkönen since he has switched disciplines from Formula 1 circuit racing to world-class rallying must have applied some re-adjustment to the 2007 World Champion’s sense of proportion…

For some years from the 1950s into the ’80s, ‘the real’ Tour de France Automobile provided a multi-discipline challenge to factory teams, privateers and all competitors alike – mixing rally-style public road stages with substantial circuit races at, for example, Reims-Gueux, Montlhéry, Clermont-Ferrand, Ricard, Montjuich, Spa and the Nürburgring. The Tour probably peaked pre-1964, after which it vanished from the calendar until its revival in ’69. That year saw another rally star turned circuit driver, Gerard Larrousse, winning in a Porsche 911R, navigated by Maurice Gélin. But in 1970 the Tour really took a step up, as nothing less than the Matra Sports factory team competed, with its Le Mans-derived MS650 V12 sports-prototypes. Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Patrick Depailler shared the driving of what proved to be that year’s winning Matra , and scrunched into the left-side seat in that sleek blue projectile’s open cockpit was their navigator, future FIA president Jean Todt.

Larrousse then won the Tour for a second time, in 1971, driving Matra-Simca’s MS650, this time navigated by the intrepid French journalist Johnny Rives. Setting up the Matra V12 to make it road tractable for the long liaison sections between the assorted mountain climb and circuit race stages must have been quite a challenge. Ground clearance would have become a critical factor. And in that 1971 Tour two MS650s were fielded again, crewed by Larrousse/Rives and Bernard Fiorentino/Maurice Gélin. Their main challenge came from the then-new, fleetingly active works Ford GT70 from Boreham. This rare little silver-grey rear-engined coupé was crewed by the well-connected young French Formula 2 and 3 driver François Mazet… and tiny Todt.

Ford’s GT70 rally car was to prove an interesting might-have-been. In the 1970 Monte Carlo Rally the Boreham-based works team’s Escort Twin-Cams had been humiliated by the pace of the winning Porsche 911S and Alpine-Renault A110. On the subdued flight home competitions manager Stuart Turner sketched out a potential rear-engined, two-seat car to match them. Ford director Walter Hayes backed the project and a running prototype emerged after just nine months work. It was the first rally car from former Ford Advanced Vehicles GT40 and Alan Mann Racing designer Len Bailey, and the first-off chassis was built by dear old Maurice Gomm’s specialist panel bashers at Gomm Metal Developments in Old Woking – then-recent builders of the prototype Formula 1 Tyrrell 001. I believe Joe Oros designed the interior layout, closely advised by Hannu Mikkola.

The GT70 was a bitsa, using as much off-the-shelf Ford material as possible to minimise cost, right up to the Capri RS 2.6-litre V6 engine, though the ZF DS25 five-speed transaxle had to be expropriated from bought-in stock. Roger Clark drove the prototype in its debut event, the September 1970 Ronde Cevenole, but retired with multiple engine, brake and suspension problems. Hayes sought production funding for 500 GT70s from Ford Detroit, describing it as a ‘prestige sports car’ capable of taking on all opposition in international rallying. But Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations division, which would have built the batch, then required dozens of changes to facilitate production. Detroit proved unenthusiastic, unsure of the need for a GT70, a two-month Ford strike delayed matters and then the Oil Crisis loomed and, after only half a dozen or so had been built, the notion was consigned to history.

The gruelling, multi-day Tour was also in some respects a laugh a minute. Scrutineering was conducted in a tiny Esso petrol station on one of the busiest crossroads in Nice, during the lunchtime rush hour. The Matras were towed there and back. Jean-François Piot’s Capri died between scrutineering and the parc fermé with a flat battery, adding to the traffic jams. Engines, gearboxes and axles were daubed with radioactive paint to prevent too much jiggery-pokery by any entrant… whose mechanics hadn’t brought along matching paint of their own…

Poor Fiorentino’s Matra was hampered by assorted problems but the stylish Larrousse reigned supreme, although Ford’s promising GT70 went well. Big drama of the first night was one particular ‘Left minus over brow’ which had a Camaro slithering 50 yards straight on before it punched through a bridge parapet. An unfortunate spectator was hurt. He had been sitting on the parapet. Rauno Aaltonen then rolled his BMW on top of the crashed Camaro, and a private BMW completed the sandwich.

The 32-lap race around Barcelona’s Montjuich Park circuit was run in such torrid heat that Ecurie Filipinetti Ferrari Daytona drivers Vic Elford and Jean-Claude Andruet both had to be revived with oxygen. To local joy, the stage winner there was the José Juncadella/Jean-Pierre Jabouille Escuderia Montjuich Ferrari 512M.

Torrential rain then lashed the return leg up through France, the Matra crews sitting in six inches of storm-tossed water. The MS650s’ cockpits were so cramped that their service car had to carry the crew’s spare crash helmets. Each man had three: one for the circuit races, one with integral intercom for the hillclimbs, and a lightweight shell for the road sections.

In a German time control at Birkenfeld, sited in another of sponsor Esso’s cramped service stations, ‘French’ parking jammed the town solid, without a trace of any Polizei to help. When an officer finally arrived, his appearance coincided with that of the yellow Ferrari 512M. As Juncadella whooped the throttle to clear the V12’s throat the officer took profound exception. It was strictly forbidden to run open exhausts on German roads, but as the officer was still writing down the Ferrari’s infringements everyone suddenly clocked out, the jams miraculously cleared and he lost his culprits in the rush.

Larrousse/Rives won the prototype class handsomely after Mazet crashed the Ford GT70. The ‘real’ Tour was quite an epic event in period, and it offered in some respects an illuminating opportunity for circuit and rally specialists to meet one another in an event of real substance, toe to toe. It’s such a pity this is no longer possible.

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