The Tour Auto Optic 2000, originally known as the Tour de France Automobile, took place between April 24 and April 30. With Zenith as its official watch partner, this mythical race travels across France and brings together carefully selected old-timer cars in two separate categories (“competition” and “regularity”). In order to participate, your car model must imperatively have participated in the historical race.
For the third consecutive year, my Dad and I formed a joyful duo, sharing the cockpit of our 1965 Porsche 911 2,0 l., proudly dressed for the occasion with the Zenith colours. The Tour Auto is a smart blend of competition racing, automobile nostalgia and pleasurable way of life. These characteristics can all be found in the Manufacture from Le Locle, which, by the way, was one of the pioneers of mechanical timekeeping with its famous El Primero Chronograph, launched in 1969.
This partnership between Zenith and Peter Auto (the organizer of the Tour Auto) has given birth to wonderful automobile moments as well as to a watch: the El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto. Launched for the 2016 edition of the race, it was already to be found on the wrists of many participants during this year’s edition. Developed on the basis of the El Primero Chronomaster 1969 with a slate-grey dial opening up on the movement, it was decorated with blue, white and red lines in order to pay tribute to the host country of the famous race. Its stainless steel 42mm case has been mounted on a matching grey-coloured Nato strap. One must agree that despite a few adaptations and new editions, the El Primero model has successfully achieved to maintain its original spirit and transmit the brand’s love for mechanical movements to the most demanding connoisseurs. In that respect, we highly recommend the complete review of this watch on “Equation du Temps”, the specialized blog of our columnist François-Xavier “FX”, here.
But enough speaking of horology…let’s now get back to the race.
For their first night, the 245 participating cars found shelter under the majestic glass roof of the Grand Palais in Paris. Well, at least until 5h30 the next morning when the first 12 cylinder motors of these racing cars from another time started to roar and, one by one, “discretely” take off, tearing through the Parisian dawn.
After a round of coffee, a few croissants and a couple of hugs distributed here and there, the official start of the 2017 edition of the Tour Auto was given from the Château de Neuville. The programme was the following: Saint Malo, Haute Goulaine, Limoges, Toulouse and finally Biarritz. Five intense days (…and short nights), replete with fantastic scenery, and during which the kilometre counters would practically never stop counting. The itineraries would average 500km per day and be interspersed with special trials on closed roads as well a leg on a racing circuit. All in all, pretty intense days that would see pure pleasure alternate with rage, fear, adrenalin and plenitude. Moreover, such strong emotions would be further amplified by complicated weather conditions that made things, at times, less enjoyable…as for example when we set off on a special trial under strong hail or, on the contrary, when it stopped raining just the time of the circuit trial, when our 911 (and driving skills) could have caught up on the more powerful Cobra and Type E Jaguars. In the most challenging moments, we did hear an occasional “I’m too old for such things” and “I’m gonna give up car racing and start having babies”…but in the end, after covering several hundred kilometres, the Tour Auto remains a demanding, sporty, yet fantastic adventure.
However, this race should clearly not be perceived as a mere parade of old-timer cars, possibly just as beautiful, but definitely far less intense. In the competition category, the level of the pilots is impressive, most of them being semi-professionals or retired pros. As such, the trials organized on closed roads leave no possible margin of error. The cars are arranged in a “minimalist” way in order to reach an optimal weight and the only real security measures against nasty walls, narrow bridges and vicious ditches remains a good helmet and a tight harness. In these moments, the partnership between the pilot and the co-pilot takes all its importance, with ultimate trust and synchronization being the key ingredients.
As the car remains undamaged, the race may continue…Yet at the end of each leg, we just about had enough time to take off our helmets on the side of the road, to find the right page in our road book and drive off to the next check point. Each year, timing appears to be more and more tight, and the idyllic lunch breaks of previous editions unfortunately found themselves scrapped from this year’s adventure. In order to arrive within the given time, we often had to cover a good 50km in “trial” mode on countryside roads or mountain passes, cheered by passionate spectators eager to hear the loud roar of our motor. A pleasure we were more than happy to share as a way of thanking them for their smiles and sparkling eyes.
At the Tour de France Automobile, both pilots and cars have very little space for approximation. The cars are pushed to their limits and need to be extremely well prepared. In most cases, they only make it through the race at the cost of a couple of injuries, be it mechanical or on the actual bodywork (or both!). How not recall the incident, suffered right in front of us, of a sublime grey Ferrari 275 GTB that found its magnificent lines badly altered after attacking a bend at a slightly too optimistic speed? Anyhow, the ultimate goal is to reach Biarritz and to cross the finish line safe and sound. In order to pursue the adventure to the end, these beautiful cars are generally happy (as long as they can) to get fixed on the side of a road, or overnight by “super-hero” mechanics. In 2016, we had to resign ourselves to abandon the race due to an engine problem. This year, our team got luckier and we could proudly prove the reliability of Porsche 911. For the last day of the race, we would leave from Toulouse and head for the Basque coastline. After 1h30 rest at the Parc Ocean in Biarritz, we hit the road again at about 22h for two special night trials – yes, night trials! Right to the end, this year’s Tour Auto will have been like a dream (or rather a nightmare in these circumstances). The last leg took place on Sunday night at 1h30 in the morning, after waiting for over an hour due a series of accidents. Needless to say that we were tense and exhausted as we took the start; myself hoping to make no mistakes in my instructions, and my dad focused on driving at a more conservative speed in order to avoid any stupid incident so close to the goal. Firmly harnessed and with our helmets on, off we were for 15km of competition in a pitch-black night torn apart by our rallye headlights. A shame we couldn’t motivate ourselves with a good old tune by the Rolling Stones or, alternatively, soften the rhythmed swinging of the car on the windy roads of the Basque coastline with a piece of Opera. The verdict at the end of the timed trial? …We were still in the race! What a relief! Just enough time to catch our breaths and off we were again for the last 50km that still separated us from the final finish line in Biarritz.
We finally crossed the line at 2h20 in the morning, under pelting rain. Our Porsche 911 was making the noise of a saucepan and the bearings were about to give way…A few more kilometres and we would have had to finish the race on foot. The result: yet another fantastic adventure shared with my “super-hero” Dad that led us to the 15th position of a very tight classification (5 cars in the same minute), and to the first position in the GTS11 category. Sweet victory!
That’s it; we now only have 340 days to wait before we set off to duly defend our title in the 2018 edition.
– Macha Vananty
All pictures by Pierre Vogel