Where can you see the Ferrari 250 GT „Breadvan“, a 1978 Fiat 127, a 1924 Bugatti, a Volvo Amazon and an original Jaguar D-Type compete against each other? It happened at the Bernina Pass in September.
The fabulous Bernina Gran Turismo, held every September in the Swiss Alp region of Engadine, doesn’t only boast breathtaking backdrops, it also has the most varied field of participants anywhere in the world. Re-created in 2015 as an homage to the original “St. Moritz Automobile Week” of the 1920s, it now invites cars from that era all the way to the 1980s to a hillclimb up the 5.6 km long mountain pass over 50 curves and 448 vertical meters.
The Bernina Mountain Pass stretches from La Rösa at 1871m to the summit at 2330m. Long straights follow tight curves, and in September there can be sun, heat, cold, rain and snow. All in one weekend. But it’s not just about the racing. Says co-organizer Claus Müller: “We are an extremely relaxed bunch over here. For us, we are all having the same fun and we’re having it together, regardless if you have a million-Euro Ford GT or a Volvo Amazon, it’s the passion that unites us”.
The weekend starts with a fitting welcome in one of St. Moritz’ hot spots, the local “Dracula Club”, founded in the fabulous Seventies by industrialist and playboy Gunter Sachs. But the rest of the event is rather low-key, no champagne receptions and surely no black ties anywhere. The races themselves are divided in two familiarization runs on Saturday morning and two race runs each on Saturday and Sunday.
Enough for American collector Carl Gustav Magnusson to bring his UK-registered 1957 Abarth Zagato 750 GT Corsa. While mechanical problems plagued this rather tiny and rather loud Italian racer all weekend, Magnusson remained undeterred and enjoyed his chats with like-minded enthusiasts.
15 cars run in the competition class, where the fastest time wins, while the rest of the 80 teams run in “regularity”, where (in theory) the person closest to the set time of 4:25 min for the 5,6 km on the closed-off Bernina Pass would win the trophy. In reality, however, even regularity racers go for the best time. It’s all about the fun, the thrill of taking a classic car to its limits on a closed mountain road, to rev the engines, to hear the skinny tires squeal and to see spectators wave and cheer.
It is difficult to imagine, though, what it must have been like in 1929 when spectators cheered race legends like Hans Stuck or Louis Chiron on the old and much longer track. Viewers would have used the Rhaetian Railway, the regions historical train, to arrive at the Alpine summit. Participants got a glimpse of that, too, as the 100-year old UNESCO heritage trains were rolled out exclusively for the event to carry the entourage to Saturday’s dinner at Alp Grüm at over 2000m.
Sunday held a surprise of a different nature. Snow. “It’s not unheard of to see snow this time of year”, says Müller with a grin, “but it doesn’t last. All we get is a wet road surface and slower times”. Or more spectacular driving action. The drivers’ skills were wide ranging, from rookies like the author starting in a 1960 Jaguar MkII 3.4 generously lent by event supporter and classic car collector Kurt Engelhorn, to youngsters like 19-year old local Felix Schwarzenbach, who just passed his driving test this year and managed to equal his father’s time in a single-seater by “17 hundreds of a second” he says proudly. Mags (Margaret) Diffey brought her 1924 Bugatti T13 (Brescia), a tiny period racer with bicycle-sized wheels, all the way from the UK. While it’s been trailered to the event, she doesn’t spare it and gives it full whack on Sunday’s wet track as well. That the Bugatti is registered and road legal, makes it even more fun.
Englishman Ewan Cameron has perhaps one of the most enviable tasks. He looks after clients’ cars, one of which is the 1959 Jaguar D-Type, one of only 71 genuine race cars produced in the late Fifties. The viewers love the sound and the spectacle of Cameron revving the six-cylinder engine to its redline. After the award ceremony on the piazza of the town of Poschiavo, Cameron slides back into the D-Type’s cockpit and files into regular traffic back up to the summit. This is probably what it was like back in the day, when gentleman racers competed against each other on regular roads, then went to town in the same cars to grab a drink and something to eat. In 2017, it’s a spectacle definitely worth participating in.
The dates for the next running of the Bernina Gran Turismo are 21st to 23rd September 2018.