52 Photos Illustrating Why The Vernasca Silver Flag Is The Ultimate Historic Hill Climb
Photography by Armando Musotto
I don’t like going to the same place twice if I can help it, but my bed and bathroom aren’t the only spots I make an exception for. I enjoy historic racing and tributes to the past because I understand that these events are the closest I can get to a tangible connection to the definitive moments in motorsport history that inspire me—I can’t sit alongside Nino Vaccarella as he navigates the Targa Florio in his Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 in 1975, but I can hike around the same route and take pictures as his old cars going past, and that counts for something.
My interest in and enthusiasm for historic motorsports has brought me to some of the finest circuits and stretches of road in the world, but no matter which new location I’m planning a trip to, there are some spaces on my calendar reserved for the familiar. One of my favorite event weekends of the year has become a sort of tradition in the last few years, and I recently confirmed why the Vernasca Silver Flag is worth attending each time.
Still, it does feel strange to look down at my feet crunching around the increasingly familiar hills of Piacenza. I try not to take any of it for granted, I try slowing down and devoting more attention to the scenery than trying to keep up with the pace of the cars that only occupy a small part of it.
The Silver Flag is presented simply: a reenactment of a hill climb that was held in the area a long time ago (1953 to 1972). There are plenty of other vintage car get-togethers with the same basic description, but beyond the root idea this particular mix of roads, food, and people keeps me coming back. As does the call of the gnocco fritto, an Italian dish that I order each year without fail. These ingredients make a simple but effective recipe, one which has become akin to a comfort food—reliable, well-known but still something to look forward to.
Every good recipe needs to support some flexibility in the process though, and the Vernasca Silver Flag has also been revised and tweaked to get just the right outcome. That target may change over time, but the event will reposition itself to aim in the right place if it does.
For instance, even if the 8.5km route between Castell’Arquato and Vernasca is the same as the one taken last year, the organizers (CPAE Club Piacentino Auto e Moto) keep things fresh by featuring different manufacturers, different types of racing cars, and by rotating through other thematic movements in the history of motoring. To use another metaphor, the members of the teams change, but they play on the same gorgeous pitch.
Since the year of the first reenactment in 1994 things have certainly changed. The event has grown bigger and bigger, becoming one of the most important in Italy and living up to the “Italian Goodwood” description that gets thrown around. Alfa Romeo, Porsche, Fiat, Matra, Bugatti, and other small and large manufacturers alike have had their share of the spotlight over the past few decades of the historic event, and the participating cars (there were around 220 this year) have always been at the top of their respective towers, whether as a case of rarity or exceptional preservation or restoration.
This year, the organizers decided to dedicate the Silver Flag to the most popular Italian manufacturer of all time: Fiat! Subtitling the event La Fiat che va di Corsa, they celebrated Fiat’s racing department history to the fullest. And even if Fiat was the focus of the event (in addition to the strong showing of Abarth cars), there were some out-of-towners that received their due share of attention as well, like the Porsche 906 and 935, wonders that, for a fan like me, are enough to induce a bit of giddy lightheadedness upon finding them parked innocuously in the staging area or screaming down the road between rows of trees.
Of course, Alfa Romeo was another well-represented marque, with plenty of the company’s models showed up in full racing dress to make their presence known over the course of the weekend. Among all these, the competition-spec Giulietta Spider won my personal award for the craziest race car I’ve seen outside of a proper racing circuit. Can you imagine moving between switchback with this thing at 150km/h with hardly enough space for two of you? Madness.
What drives someone to slip into a fireproof suit, don a helmet and gloves, and drive an old car that smells like engine and sounds like artillery under the hot summer sun with the added risk of losing a lot of wealth or health should things go sideways at the wrong time? It’s a passion for the way we used to race, and even if we can’t push these cars as hard as they once were, the drivers in the Vernasca Silver Flag are still channeling some of that history in the present. Even to experience it secondhand as a spectator is special, and it makes the hours and hours cooking myself among the brambles and wheat fields worth it if I can capture a piece of that in these photos—witnessing the cars among the hills of Piacenza in person was a memorable experience as always, and to share it with a group of friends only enhances the emotions I feel when I’m looking forward or looking back on Vernasca.
If you are a true enthusiast and want to enjoy a weekend of historic motorsport in a medieval village where you can drink well and eat like a God, you should join me here next year, I’ll save you a glass of Colli Piacentini wine. It’s a sporting and enthusiastic atmosphere, but it’s also a peaceful and laid-back event for those who want to have a weekend getaway that doesn’t smell entirely like exhaust and leave your ears ringing.
I wouldn’t expect the fanfare of the Mille Miglia nor a weekend of pure speed like in Monza, but the dance of cars in hairpins, the roar of engines echoing from forested slopes, and the ability to take it all in with access you won’t get at most events of this quality. I promise it is one of the most beautiful automotive experiences that Italy has to offer.