Lost In Gstaad: My First Regularity Rally, With A Good Friend And A Ferrari 328 GTS
Photography by Michael Shelford
Switzerland: Home to Toblerone, impartiality and a very high ratio of watchmakers to citizens relative to the rest of the world. It’s a place that reminds me of alpine snow and skiing, and while the Swiss are also adept at furnishing cozy rooms and making a good cup of hot cocoa, it’s always been a definitively wintery place to me. I only realized how limited my prior experience was when I had the chance to spend some time there in the summertime with a Ferrari 328 GTS.
Feeling like we had covered every corner of the UK between the two of us, it was time for me and my longtime friend Michael Shelford to fly the nest, venturing abroad in search of our European neighbors’ great driving roads. By a stroke of luck, we had received an invitation to the Gstaad Palace Challenge, a classic car rally of pre-1990 vehicles, hosted by the Gstaad Palace Hotel—I’m far from a veteran rally driver, but I’m confident that there are worse places to call home base for a weekend.
Honestly, I’m not a classic car expert either. I appreciate and respect the forerunners and the more modern vintage varieties, but I confess that I haven’t made the plunge into owning anything like that. Should a friend and I somehow find ourselves with the keys to something like this 328 however, I like anyone else am happy to play temporary caretaker and give the car some exercise without treating it like the valet guys in Ferris Beuller’s trip to the city.
To allay my nerves of accidentally mistreating somebody else’s car, I employed the capable hands of Zenith Ferrari in the nearby town of Sion. This is the place other than the Ferrari headquarters storing the FXXK program cars, so I assumed they could handle a 1987 328’s naturally aspirated V8. Which is not a knock on the 328. Complete with flip up headlights, removable roof panel, and an interior that was all but wall to wall red—seats, carpets, door panels—it was a total time capsule to the 1980s, and I fell in love with it (as if I somehow wouldn’t after a weekend flitting through the valleys and climbing on the towering spikes of classic Swiss topography with a mid-engine Ferrari).
On the initial drive to the hotel after picking up the car, I went through the usual new-to-me acclimatization:setting the seat, locating the basic levers and buttons, finding out if the gauges were working, etc. Everything important was fine, and I learned that in the case of the cabin air temperature, hot meant hot, and cold meant also meant hot. The fuel gauge was melodramatic going from reading apparently completely full to nearly empty, always with an uncanny ability to make the transition whenever you forgot to check for five minutes.
These were no worries though, just some minor externalities of age. The car was more mechanical than the modern things I had been habituated to, it had more character, and although there are more valuable, more visceral, and more venerated Ferraris out there—like the bright yellow 250 in the rally group—it would take a particularly hardened cynic to not have fun driving this car around in the alps with your good friend to share the experience with.
Arriving at the Gstaad Palace Hotel was one of those times where you feel bashful for being treated so well, but not so much that you can’t just laugh and let it happen. Almost as soon as we were out of the car we had a glass of champagne in our hands before being shown to our frankly gargantuan suites; rooms full of charm, warmth, and a wine fridge so well stocked it should have come with a sommelier. But we were there for the rally, so we met for dinner to prepare for the following day’s driving and meet the other teams as we collectively suffered through another bout of fine food and impeccable hospitality. You get what you pay for, and when you get lucky enough to be invited to cover the experience in exchange for the bill it’s enough to feel a bit guilty of getting a good deal—not enough to forgo the offer, of course.
After morning alarms and a groggy awakening to something that still didn’t feel totally unlike a dream, we had a chance to get to grips with the rules, the routes, and the other teams once more. Michael realized, quickly, to his credit, that the co-pilot was going to be the most important member of our team, so got his head down in the tulip diagrams. We figured we would enjoy ourselves even if we got a bit lost or finished in last place (this was a regularity rally), so we pulled up to the starting line feeling a bit in over our heads but unworried.
We coupled a bit of a cheeky wheel-spin start with a vague sense of direction and headed off. We had worked very hard on the first regularity section to nail the changing average speeds, and in fact we felt fairly smug about how well we thought it was going. When we realized we’d been reading the wrong page our boyish bravado was reframed as juvenile incompetence.
Kicking ourselves but laughing the whole time, we hit the next test with the same verve as the first, trying to make up for our error. It was going well until we took a wrong turn and displayed our apparent talent for getting completely lost. Resorting to a quick peek at Google Maps to avoid spending the whole day lost in the rather sparsely populated Alps wondering if the fuel gauge really meant what it was saying to us. We finished the day a little embarrassed but not stranded looking for jerry cans and remote gas stations. All in all, a fantastic day.
Arriving back at the hotel, we made a beeline for the temporary bar area for both the nourishment for a hard day’s work as well to check the notice board announcing how the day’s drivers had performed. By some stroke of luck (that and the fact I tore around the time trial test like there was really something on the line here) we were standing in 12th out of 31 cars despite the days’ calamities. Some people were obviously just out for a cruise, but hey winning is winning and 12 of 31 is 12 of 31 dammit! We spent the evening getting to know the other teams better, having moved beyond the basic intros the previous night. We once again dealt with a gourmet three-course meal and good wine. I don’t know how many days I could endure such treatment, but I suppose I would be willing to find out.
Having settled into the wine list with a little too much conviction, Day Two came around a little quicker than the night’s wobbly bodily clock had set an alarm for. Coffee and breakfast in our bellies, Michael and I made the trudge to our temporary Ferrari office for another day of hard work. Being down a few hours on sleep is easier to push through when you get to row around in the mountains with a gated shifter in one hand and a steering wheel with a prancing horse on it in the other.
A car of this age—not “vintage” but still undeniably “classic”— compared to my significantly faster and significantly more machine-like AMG GT63S at home, felt more like an organism than a collection of metal. It’s a little saccharine, and as I said it’s obviously all relative, but I think that the end of the analog sports car era is only going to heat up in value as more people come around to trying them out like I did. You can appreciate a new, fast car for more than its performance, and since that has always been true it means the 328 is still very easy to love. Sure, it’s not the most prestigious part of the Ferrari stable, but for those too snobby to appreciate cars like this, I will just say thanks for making them that much more available to the rest of us.
The simplicity of the 328 encourages you to get to know its personality in a way that modern cars obscure behind layers of smooth automation. When your car seems to stop on a dime and accelerates fast enough to do the quarter mile in the eleven-second range, it’s refreshingly challenging to have to work harder. Better yet, you get rewarded by the car noticeably reacting differently as you learn it. Finding the right rhythm to the gear change, figuring out how much it wants to lean going in and out of a hairpin, learning the time to start and stop braking for one of the endless hairpins, and all of those little adjustments that happen therein is something that I don’t think is necessarily lost from modern cars, but the performance limits are so high that you have to drive like a maniac to find them on the street.
We stopped for a lavish lobster spaghetti lunch—the torture continued—and looked at the car park outside for the umpteenth time that weekend before heading into the final challenges of the rally.
Finishing strong has always been a desire of history’s greatest sportsmen, so I wanted to ensure my legacy. I channeled Usain Bolt (he finished waving to the crowd most of the time, while Michael and I were more likely to end up flagging someone down to ask for directions if our cell service dropped). Michael took his inspiration from a Garmin SatNav. An expensive one. Our Ferrari would have popped its eye-light headlights and rolled them at us if it could, but there is no time for humor in competition this fierce. Then again, faced with a weekend as divorced from normal life as this one, sometimes all you can muster is a laugh and a happy shoulder shrug.
We were truly honored to have been invited to be part of such a special weekend. A cold beer was thrust in our hands from the makeshift bar in the car park—a service we would dearly miss upon our return home—and we shared stories with the other drivers from our final day on the road together.
All that was left was the awards ceremony and with Chopard providing some elegant watches as the prizes, we were genuinely keen to know how we’d done. Did we think there was a chance we’d won? Yes. Did we think we should do this professionally? Yes. Were we delusional? Newsflash: We didn’t win. However, we did come in 10th overall which we were quite pleased by in all seriousness.
As we made our departure the following day, we said goodbye to the wonderful Palace Hotel that we had called home for a few days, and took the 328 GTS back to its own. Michael and I had both grown very fond of the car by the end of the trip, and thinking back on my original assumption that Michael may have bribed someone to get us this invite and these keys, I will hedge and say thank you and money well spent, let’s do it again sometime!