Getting High On Emotion In The Swiss Alps At The Bernina Gran Turismo
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
“Conquer the mountain.”
We hear this expression often, but sometimes it still has a literal meaning. Such is the scale of the Swiss Alps however, that calling them mere mountains is an injustice. Giants would call them giants. The truth is that you never truly conquer places like this, and climbing them is to be an ant crawling up the leg of something that barely notices the presence. But those few precious moments at the top are still very much worth the effort, as demonstrated last weekend at the Bernina Gran Turismo. The masterful motion of the cars surging upwards along the asphalt coils draped onto these Goliaths of terrain creates an interesting synergy, a rhythm of movement that gives life to the rocks. Everything looks and feels right during this utterly unique hill climb.
It is no wonder that the Bernina GT faithful return every year to race up the same course. It’s a very addictive experience to just watch them do it, after all. Every year a few familiar faces return, sometimes racing with different cars, but always with the same passion for this place. The event has only been held a few times at this point despite tracing its origins back to the earlier part of the last century, but it has been naturally growing into an even bigger celebration with each iteration, transcending the original mountain race, while still keeping it at the core of the weekend’s automotive activity.
This year, for the first time, the Bernina GT became part of the International St. Moritz Car Week, a festival dedicated to classic and collectible car culture that I can only see growing in the years to come—it’s about time that there was a European challenger to Monterey’s own week of wheels. Kilomètre Lancé kicked off the week by unleashing cars and bikes on the tarmac of the Samedan Airport for some good old fashioned straight-line racing. Motorsport Rendezvous—a concours-type event—followed, and is dedicated to racing cars with illustrious pedigrees, hosted on the lawn of the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinsky in St. Moritz. To add to this, RM Sotheby’s hosted a boutique auction in the same location. These developments have given the Bernina Gran Turismo community a little more time to share with each other, and it also is a blessing for people who, such as myself, need a couple of days to acclimate to the Alpine altitude and generally get in tune with the flow of mountain life.
Driving on top of the world is undoubtedly the major symbolic appeal of the Gran Turismo, as masterfully illustrated by the opening dinner, where the participants were welcomed by the sight of four special cars, placed high above the clouds, next to the appropriately named El Paradiso restaurant. It felt like being on another planet, to say nothing of what it looked like. The land speed record Jaguar XK120 offered up a very good UFO impression with its streamlined bodywork and fighter jet-style canopy, looking very much at home up here in the cliffs and clouds. That evening was a surreal start to the Gran Turismo weekend, but it also somewhat unfortunately underlined the ephemeral nature of it all. Minutes after I took a few shots of the cars, an almighty cloud claimed the peak as its own, rendering us short-sighted for the rest of the evening. Nature is always keen to show you who’s boss up here.
Having a bit more time on hand allowed the more mischievous character of the Bernina community to come through a touch more than in previous editions. But make no mistake, every driver who takes part in this event is a true racer; the organizers are very careful to ensure that only people who share the spirit of the event are allowed to participate, handily eliminating the posers with too much money and not enough sense. This is not to say that all drivers are always steely-eyed, stone-cold pros who are only interested in getting to the top in the shortest of times. At least not these guys, for sure. Fun is had here, in spades. Case in point, an Italian Job homage through the lobby of the Kempinsky hotel as the wind and rain lashed the windows and brought us all indoors. I wonder how they got the five-star hotel’s management to agree with this, but I’m definitely not complaining.
The next day, with the sun out and the forecast promising even better weather to come, it was time to check out this year’s flotilla that was about to take on the mountain pass. Diversity is another splendid trait of this event. Opening the race was an ex-works 1928 Aston Martin Team Car LM2, while at the other end you could find an Alfa Romeo 155 DTM car, the very same that Nicola Larini drove to pole position in Magny Cours in 1995. The usual suspects were in attendance as well, as in every year. Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Jaguar, BMW, Ford, name it. The numbers and alphabet of the automotive world was well represented; 356, 550, 911, 908. 8C, 6C, 1900 SS, Giulietta Sprint, SZ, TZ, TZ2, GTA, plus that aforementioned 155 DTM, which were joined by Aurelia, Fulvia, Stratos, XK120, C-Type, D-Type, all types. And, of course, Cobras. As long as it’s cool and has some history under its belt, it’s welcome here.
This year seemed to gather more pre-war cars than in previous editions, my favorite being the impossibly cool Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza, an ex-Scuderia Ferrari car once driven by none other than Tazio Nuvolari. It’s just incredible to see such a piece of history not in a museum or a concours lawn, but being driven full throttle on the edge of a cliff. Of course, with a field so varied, chances are if you are a fan of a particular performance car manufacturer, there would be at least one example out there flying their colors.
As for me, I was rooting for one of the two red Ford Galaxies present at the start. Having one of them out on the course is a treat for the senses; you can be at the top and literally hear it all the way from the starting line in La Rosa when it sets off. And this year there was a second one furiously attacking the course, lifting wheels off the ground, laying it all out. Rain or shine. Behind the wheel, my friend Adriaan Blok. We’d been discussing him entering the event for a couple of years at our regular Wacky Racers Coffee Club meets, kicking tires and dreaming of his car in the Alps. Finally, despite the complexity brought about by Brexit and the pandemic, his Galaxie was in the field. I thought the moment that car arrived in front of the Kempinsky was going to be my moment of the year for us. But then they won their class. Not bad, rookie.
That Saturday on the mountain saw us all treated to the best possible weather for the entire day. I could not believe my luck. Everywhere you looked there was a shot just waiting for you to point and click. And, as much as I was tempted to gorge myself on a location that the light was hitting just right, I had to keep moving. Onto the next one. And the next one. And so on. The race deserves this. There are so many spectacular angles and spots that one person cannot get to them all, but you feel compelled to try, to do it justice. The adrenaline really kicks in and you get springs in your legs—rarely do my photoshoots feel like a climbing expedition. And every year I keep finding new places to shoot from in this land of boundless, severe beauty. By mid afternoon I was still in a shooting frenzy that I can only experience on the Bernina Pass.
Even on the most scenic of racetracks, you have nowhere near the amount of photo opportunities as you have in a place like this. It only takes about one minute between shooting positions, so if you get your timing right, you get a chance to capture every single car going up. Yes, the price you pay is not spending as much time in the paddock as you would at a circuit race, so when the weather on Sunday turned into a rainy cold nightmare once more, I didn’t even attempt to get back out on the course, but instead spent the morning connecting to the drivers and exchanging our thoughts from both sides of the event, driver and chronicler. I believe you have to respect these mountains no matter what you’re doing on them—their rewards come with steeper risk. They don’t just look like they belong on another planet. In many ways the world just works differently up here.
Personally, getting into the mountaineering spirit is an essential part of experiencing this event to the fullest. It’s a special type of living and interacting with the world, and it lends its inhabitants–full time or temporary—a particular state of mind that I never tire of. It’s full of contrasting experiences that create a special balance that’s very, very different from city life, even if that’s what most of us have just come from. You look up at a turn of the track and it seems impossibly far, but in just a few minutes you can climb up to it. Your heart rate goes up, but your inner pace slows down, giving way to calm determination, fueled by fresh mountain air and a less-filtered sun. It’s enough to induce a nearly meditative state, pure wondering at the world. Getting high on oxygen. If this feels so good for the photographers, I can just about imagine what it does to the drivers. Here’s to the next one.