Featured: The Bernina Gran Turismo Brings The Sound Of Internal Combustion Music To The Swiss Alps

The Bernina Gran Turismo Brings The Sound Of Internal Combustion Music To The Swiss Alps

By Virgiliu Andone
September 22, 2020

Photography by Virgiliu Andone

I am behind the wheel of my Alfa Romeo Stelvio in Switzerland, making my way back home. We cross into a tunnel where someone in a black Lamborghini downshifts and floors it, filling the tube with pure noise. I don’t blink, neither does my friend in the passenger seat, Tony. This is the time and place for such antics if there ever was one, but we aren’t phased—what’s wrong with us?

We’ve have just experienced an event that dwarfs any V12-in-a-tunnel experience right down into insignificance. There are some events in life that redefine your concept of relativity. Most of them happen fortuitously, in circumstances beyond our control. We have just attended one that happens—with clockwork Swiss precision—every year for the past five. Fabulous classic cars fill the alpine valleys and climb the mountains that make them, the echoes picking their notes up and turning them into a chorus played off of the rocks.

These cars are here to race the clock as they climb through the clouds, their drivers wringing out the abilities of car and self alike. Twin-cams, flat-sixes, inlines, engines that sound like they belong in airplanes, Formula One screamers, the aggressive chop of two-stroke motos, and of course the V12 yawp of a certain black Countach.

The Bernina Gran Turismo is an homage to the limited but exciting pre-war racing scene in Switzerland (read: hillclimbs), with the modern event taking place between La Rosa and the Ospizio Bernina on the snake of a road that takes you to the 2308m peak of the Bernina Pass.

It starts in a quaint-looking Swiss village, complete with the oblivious cows and the leisurely chime of their bells, more stone houses than you one visitor can keep track of, and of course the proud red and white flags flapping in the crisp air against an open blue sky.

As the course makes its progress upwards, the forest thins out to make room for high altitude grasslands before ascending into the harsh peaks, their jagged rock faces poking through the perennial snow. Danger surrounds all the way to the top, with menacing drop-offs practically coming corner after corner near the top.

In modern motorsport, it can be hard for the audience to get a real sense of the effort that it takes to drive a race car at speed. Vast runoffs and spectator areas situated well away from the action may give the wrong impression that anyone could do it, given the chance. Cars don’t often show their speed from a typical grandstand quite as much as they do when you are looking straight down on them. Vintage cars have a lot of pros in the visceral column already, but out here the sensation is magnified by the narrowness of the road and the uniquely elevated vantage points. In other words, seeing somebody countersteer an Audi Quattro after exiting a hairpin with a more than a few vertical feet waiting just past the guardrail is a much clearer picture of talent and bravery than you’d see on a professional circuit. It’s not that modern racers don’t have that talent and bravery, it’s just less salient compared to this context.

But we can see it all here, and for each year of the Bernina GT so far, the pros mix in with the gentlemen drivers on the entry list. People like Arturo Merzario, looking sharp as a razor at the age of 78, still wearing his trademark cowboy hat. This year, he drove a two-liter Abarth hillclimber, and he didn’t hold back. Nobody seems to here. Whether it’s a pre-war Bentley or a BMW M1 Procar,  everything is shifted at the limiter. Even when I parked myself at the very top, I could still distinctly hear the engines at the starting line far below.

It’s way too far to see the car itself, but one can tell an Alfa was just set out, for instance. It could be one of the two TZ2s present this year, or one of the army of GTAms, or the white  Giulia. In addition to the Alfa representation, the always-strong Porsche contingent was headed this year by a 550 Spyder, surrounded by all sorts of members of its air-cooled family tree. Besides the orange Jägermeister M1, the BMW turnout featured Alpina’s own E30 M3 touring car, as well as various versions of the Neue Klasse and E9 coupes.

Rally heavyweights Lancia and Audi both battled it out once again here, without factory backing of course but with some interesting anachronisms, like a Stratos versus a Quattro, with a Delta S4 in the mix to represent the crowd-favorite Group B days. Also, true to the nature of the event, luxurious Ferrari grand tourers stretched their legs on the climb, showing that they have always been more than just beauty queens to be collected and socked away into storage. I could go on listing the whole impressive lineup, but as you can see there were nearly too many to count. I was not alone in having my attention pulled at from every which way this past weekend. I must have fallen in love a few dozen times in the course of just a few days.

Scrutineering took place on the lawn in front of the Kempinski Hotel in St Moritz, which turned the scene into a quasi concours better than most of the big ones. From all the races I have seen, this must be the most lavish take on the procedure. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, this year, what is normally a technical and quite straightforward part of a motorsport event, has transcended its original mission. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned into a full blown officially titled concours d’elegance in the future. Really, all you’d need are some judges, and even then, who really cares besides the owners who wins what?

After the drivers showed their credentials at the entrance, each car was directed to its discreetly pre-marked spot, with areas curated to achieve the maximum aesthetic effect. The backdrop also includes the characterful architecture of the Grand Hotel des Bains, framed by the snowy grey peaks that surround this iconic winter sports resort. Where you would normally have judges and owners wearing gloves pointing out the pristine details of their (enclosed) trailer queens, you now have the race stewards checking out the condition of the car, before the owners stick their racing numbers on themselves. This seems a much more pure experience than a normal concours, and frankly it is one that celebrates the cars in a more genuine way, too.

This is an event that’s getting bigger and bigger each year, with more and more people being stunned by the views and accounts from those who’ve been fortunate enough to attend. It will be interesting to see how this event scales up in the future, but for now it is in a very good format, where the emphasis is still firmly on the cars and the driving, not the putting on of airs. The Bernina GP celebrates the love of sport, and it carries with it a keen understanding of how to bring the past into the present. It’s curated, it’s rather exclusive (simply by way of location, among other reasons), but it is eminently welcoming and inviting to those who make the journey. You won’t feel left out if you can’t afford a ski chalet, in other words.

I have confidence and hope for the future of this event staying true to its original mission. This is a special weekend in the historic motorsport world, and though I encourage anyone interested to try to attend, I hope the GP remains the same as it has been. Truly awesome nature, mixed with legendary and obscure cars alike, and populated by true enthusiasts, what more could you want?

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