History Lives at the Bergamo Grand Prix Revival
Photography by Federico Bajetti
If you want to see some real road racing, watch the Isle of Man TT, the Ulster Grand Prix or the Northwest 200. If you want to see classic cars and motorcycles racing on a town circuit, one of the events you should not miss in the Bergamo Historic Grand Prix. It’s a small car festival held inside the ancient walls of the historic part of Bergamo, located halfway between Brescia and Milan. It’s the only remaining medieval track in the world, and the event has been held since 2004 to commemorate the only time the town hosted a Grand Prix, in 1935.
The circuit is for sure one of the most compelling ones that I’ve ever seen. It has severe elevation change, tight and fast corners—and it’s very dangerous. Walking close to these roads is like a throwback in time; watching the tarmac blend with the city’s ancient walls helps the fantasy of old cars racing for victory.
The original edition of the Bergamo Grand Prix was held in 1935, and it was full of now-legends like Tazio Nuvolari, Carlo Felice Trossi, Carlo Pintacuda and Nino Farina. The cars they were racing were equally famous: Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos, Maseratis and Bugattis, and of those, many were part of official factory teams.
The reborn Grand Prix was organized by the Automobile Club, which wanted to bring back top class racing on a fast Italian circuit. This event was also made to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Tazio Nuvolari’s win. There’s always a good excuse for celebration.
The legend says that among the drivers there was even Tazio Nuvolari’s arch rival Achille Varzi, who is thought to have raced anonymously among the others: it was later discovered that there was a racer who signed his entry papers with an “X”. However, we will never know the truth—but it’s a nice story to tell. In the end, the race was won by Nuvolari. No surprise, there.
Using the same layout in 2015 as it was 80 years ago, the circuit runs in a clockwise direction and through four passes to the old towns of St. Agostino, St. Lorenzo, St. Alessandro and St. Giacomo. In general, the track is very narrow—and its two long straights are lined with trees at the side of the road.
While the cars and bikes now race behind a pace-setting police car, the idea of being on the edge in such a place would make everyone today cringe. As I took a walk among the track, I couldn’t help but imagine how daring it should have been in the past: make a small error and catastrophe would soon follow.
After the main straight, you have sections where there is room for just one car, with very low walls that offer no protection whatsoever from falling down a very steep hill. Despite the event being more for show than wheel-to-wheel racing, the whole scene had the same dangerous appeal to the Irish road racing circuits: I could easily picture Guy Martin, Ian Hutchinson or Bruce Anstey racing in such a place.
The event had top racers on both bikes and in motor cars. Entries included Honda 500cc GP bikes, Benelli, Laverda, old Harley Davidsons, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, Gilera, and Norton. Many of those were official GP motorcycles that raced in period—witnessing them revving brought chills to my spine. It’s such a thrill to see machines from the 1920ies racing: it’s the sound of time and beauty.
The best part of the show was seeing the riders change gears with a stick and not with their foot; double clutching, and riding to glory. The cars were equally stunning, starting from beauties from the pre war era.The grid featured a 1928 Amilcar GCSS, a 1935 Alvis GP, 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C Monza, 1937 Delahaye GP, and a wonderful 1939 Lancia Aprilia Aerodinamica. Oh, yes: a menacing fleet of Bugatti Grand Prix cars were also there to scare everyone and make their tires scream.
As you can imagine, the real treat were the post war cars: a whole squadron of Jaguar XK120s, E-Types, and an unmistakable D-Type replica. The show was made, however, by a Ferrari 750 Monza driven by Mattia Colpani. He loved to rev the car, make it slide, and spit flames out of the exhaust. Take my word for it: the sound of a Ferrari 4-cylinder engine is equally as epic as a 12—in the right circumstances, of course.
There should be more events like the Bergamo Historic Grand Prix, especially to enjoy historic machines winding through such a beautiful, historic place.