The Bernina Gran Turismo Is Peak Hill Climbing
Story and photography by Alexandra Adoncello
St. Moritz holds a long-standing automotive tradition going back to the late 1920s, when the region hosted the first International Automotive Week. The famous Bernina Gran Prix, held in 1929 and 1930 across the high-elevation Bernina Pass, saw a competition of skill and daring taking place on one of the most beautiful driving roads in the world.
However, since the 1960s, when circuit racing was banned in the country, it became increasingly difficult to host events like the Gran Prix. It was only in recent years when a group of passionate motorists and collectors, based in the St. Moritz area, banded together to bring the historic hill climb back to life.
Drivers face a challenging 3.4 miles (5.7km) of serpentine tarmac that cuts through the mountains from La Rösa to Ospizio Bernina. With a starting elevation of 6,138ft, there is a 1,500-foot climb over the course of 50 tight corners that test even the most seasoned Alpine motorists. In addition to testing themselves, drivers also get a perfect opportunity to test the technical limits of their cars.
This year marks the fifth iteration of the event. At the crack of dawn, the drivers, dressed in their fire suits and with their names embroidered on their belts, start their engines in the frigid, zero degree temperatures. A chorus of roaring engines join together and do their best to warm up. The event has the most varied field of participants across the globe. It is a melting pot of old and new with vintage Formula cars, Italian classics, and vintage English models as there is both a racing class and a regularity class. Where else in the world can one find a Ford GT40, Lancia Stratos, and a Jaguar D-Type compete against each other?
They have wisely restricted the number of participants to around eighty. Keep in mind that these are historic machines, so there was no such thing as traffic in the 1930s. As they wait in La Rosa to start, it is no surprise that a few overheat and are unable to launch uphill. The Bernina is a race that rewards quality over quantity, approving drivers only of good spirit.
This year we witnessed Hans-Joachim ‘Strietzel’ Stuck arrive with the Austro Daimler ADR 3.0, charging the silver bullet uphill to pay tribute to his father, the race-winning car and driver from 1929. Another unique occurrence was the inclusion of the latest Bugatti Chiron—a W16 engine and 1500 horsepower, driven by its owner and company test driver Andy Wallace, making for the perfect glorification of Louis Chiron, the 1930 race winner.
The weather also kept things interesting – on Saturday, we enjoyed a glorious blue sky, but come Sunday, drivers found themselves wrapped in thick fog and wet tarmac making for slowing times and dampening visibility. Photographically, however, it was visual ecstasy, and there was not a wrong angle. After the cars had their run, the vintage motorbikes raided the pass for a bit of fun. At a distance, they seem like ants crawling the curves, but on approach, they passed like bullets with their slimline shape. As a group, their exhausts screamed louder than the Formula cars.
Following the final race, there is an awards ceremony in the central piazza in Poschiavo, the historical starting point of the Bernina race. Results are delivered, and glasses are raised to toast to the efforts of all. Those who have had the pleasure to attend would agree that Bernina Gran Turismo is the quintessence of classic car hill climb racing.