We did it again. Taking the car and going to the Top of the World to listen to the echoes of classic cars in the Engadin valley is our new favorite pastime.
For the third time, we took part in the beautiful Bernina Gran Turismo hill race, which has been held every year since 2014 in the vicinity of St. Moritz. The race got its name from the Bernina Pass and became part of the Automobile Week, which brings all kinds of fun for veterans from all over the world. You can win a car at an auction from RM Sotheby’s, just display your jewel or race at one of the events. In addition to the Bernina Gran Turismo, there is also an orientation rally, where only supersports up to the year of manufacture 1990 and with a manual transmission can go, as well as a sprint at the nearby airport called Kilomètre Lancé.
But we do not date the origin of the automobile week to 2014, its roots can be found already in the 20s of the last century. So we’ll take this opportunity to talk about the history of the race and get a glimpse into the secrets of how racing used to be. St. Moritz, including the Bernina pass, lies in the Engadin valley in eastern Switzerland. Until the end of the 20s of the last century, cars were prohibited from entering here. But shortly after being admitted, the locals discovered the magic of this individual mobility. And where there are cars, there are their fans.
First International St. Moritz Automobile Week was held in 1929. Back then, the event was subsidized by the tourism industry, who thought that automobiles would attract new tourists to the area. The event consisted of a one kilometer sprint, a skill ride, a beauty pageant and a rally. Back then, the word rally still meant a long-distance race, which today we could describe as endurance. For example, the one kilometer sprint is already run at the aforementioned airport, but at that time there was no airport here. So the sprint took place on the only asphalted road in the Engadin valley that connected Samedan and Punt Muragl.
The first uphill race, which is today the Bernina Gran Turismo, was won by the legendary racing driver Hans Stuck in an Austro-Daimler. It was driven on gravel on a route approximately sixteen kilometers long, during which an elevation gain of approximately 1,400 meters was overcome. At that time, of course, there were more similar uphill races, and not only in Switzerland. And it was Hans Stuck or Louis Chiron who won these races. Unfortunately, these events were canceled only after the second year, because the organizers found motorsport dangerous. And of course rightfully so.
Maybe that’s why you don’t know about the Bernina Gran Turismo from mainstream sources, because there simply wasn’t much to tell. Switzerland generally does not like motorsport very much, remember for example the widespread cancellation of motorsport on the territory of Switzerland after the tragedy that happened at Le Mans in 1955. There is no racing here in the true sense of the word to this day, but the car culture here is one of the most widespread in Europe. Enthusiasts have been gathering in the heart of the Alpine mountains since 2014 to honor the now almost century-old tradition and compete while observing today’s safety standards.
Today’s route is 5.7 kilometers long and the original race is perhaps only reminiscent of the composition of some of the cars. The guardrails are no longer hammered out of planks, but are made of solid steel. There is not even a trace of dust and stones, everywhere there is a first-class asphalt surface, which you can find in most places in Switzerland. It’s where you’ll see a Lancia Stratos in full gear, followed a minute later by a thunderous TVR Griffith 400, and a flat Jaguar Lister rushing behind.
Even today, amazing stories are being written here. Last year I witnessed a nasty accident when Karl Fazer, behind the wheel of a Ford RS200 Group B, skidded in the penultimate corner and crashed. Karl was fine, but the car didn’t look good at all. When I saw the car like that again this year, my chin dropped. It looked absolutely wonderful, as if nothing had happened the previous year. Until the competitor’s son revealed to me that the repairs were only completed two weeks before the race and they could leave their hands on it. And the best part is that they weren’t Germans, Austrians or Swiss. They came with several other competitors from as far away as Sweden under the banner of the Motikon company.
The weather was not kind to us this year. Fog alternated with rain, and sometimes these two elements came together at once. I can only recall two stints where the sun was shining but the temperature was far from pleasant. This is beautiful and scary at the same time in the Engadin. It was the same last year, but the year before last I was running the hills in a trike. You just never know here. In general, however, the Swiss autumn is like the Czech winter. A sweater is not enough for you.
This year’s winner was Christoph Rendlen behind the wheel of a Porsche 908/03 from 1970, a thoroughbred racing car that was created under the baton of Ferdinand Piëch. Version 03 also remembers the endurance race on the North Loop of the Nürburgring for a thousand kilometers or the iconic Sicilian Targa Florio rally. Rendlen was also helped by the racing simulator from TCCT, where the track of this race is carefully designed and you can both train there and drive a separate virtual race.
This year’s Bernina Gran Turismo race was not kind to the weather, but the echoes of post-war racing engines in the Engadin valley will lift your spirits even if there’s a tornado. I write it every time and I’ll write it again: Get out here. It doesn’t really matter if you choose just one of these events or spend the whole week here. As a car fan, you will remember it for a long time. So don’t forget that next September it will all start here again. And definitely not slowly.