Not your regular race or hill-climb by any means. This highly selective, hair raising Gran Turismo takes place in South East Switzerland at the Bernina Pass to be exact. This year’s event celebrated the 90th Anniversary of this highly regarded motorsport event dating back to the 1920s. Mahmoud Ezzeldin tells us more.
The first two races were held in 1929 and 1930, the race was about 16km long rising steadily from 1,100 to 2,500 meters above sea level. It wasn’t tarmacked yet, back then it was a dirt track. The first race in 1929 was won by a German driver Hans Stuck in his Austro-Daimler. The 2019 Bernina GT made history, as the original winning Astro-Daimler driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck no other than Hans Stuck’s son! The son is a former 24h of Le Mans winner (1986 and 1987) and former Formula 1 driver. He also won the 1990 German Touring Car Championship (DTM).
The recent editions of the Bernina Gran Turismo are run on a course of 5.7km of very good Swiss asphalt, beginning at La Rosa and ending at Ospizio Bernina. Elevation at the start line is 1,880 meters, and cars have to tackle 52 curves and bends before reaching the finish line at 2,328 meters above sea level. Cars are literally racing in the clouds at these heights.
The participating vehicles are split into three categories: race cars, sports cars and grand touring cars. Entries included a 1970s McLaren Formula 5000, 1960s Maserati Tipo 61, Bugatti Type 35B, 1928 Austro-Daimler, Lancia Stratos Group B, Lotus Cortina original Jackie Stewart Car, Ford GT40 MKIII, Lancia S4, Original works 1970 Monte Carlo Rally Porsche Cars, 3 beautiful and very rare Alfa Romeo Zagatos (from the collection of Dr. Kaufmann, owner of Leica). The amazing one and only 1962 Ferrari 250GT SWB Bread-van!! Also to complete the list of amazing cars, Jaguar D-Type, an early (narrow-body) AC Cobra 289, a more recent brushed aluminum AC Cobra one of the last few by Carol Shelby, Audi Quatro Group B Rally Car, 1965 Serenissima 308V Jet Competizione which did not race after finding our that another Original Serenissima Scuderia car was competing, the 250GT Bread-van. , a couple of Jaguar XK120, a couple of Mercedes 190 SL and a Group B Lancia Stratos.
There were also modern but very unique, exotic and super-sports cars participating. A very late edition Lamborghini Countach, The new (1500 HP) Bugatti Chiron and a Prototype BMW 535 Stationwagon Alpina B7.
At Bernina, in the heart of the Alps Mountains, the setting and location is like no other in the world. The temperature can change and weather can flip in seconds. The start line is already foggy, and the race track takes all cars through the clouds and above to where the sunlight is shining… it’s a magical unforgettable experience.
Just imagine for a moment, seriously well-maintained Swiss roads, climbing the Alps to temperatures just above zero, while twisting and turning in all directions. There are quite a few hairpins making this another joy, to again go through all the gears of your well-tuned machine and listen to the echoes and bellows, whines and growls as you climb up to Bernina. Each unique car and engine is an orchestra appreciated by only the real auto-aficionados a through the picturesque valleys and mountains of south-east Switzerland.
Very few races witness cars leaving a museum to join the action of fuel burning, rubber squealing and then go back to the museum walls and confines. I can only confess that the Bernina Grand Turismo is truly today’s ultimate historic race. The recipe in making this very tricky and logistically challenging “BGT” race can be told by the few men and women behind the scenes. As the organizers have plenty to worry about, I myself had to make sure I cover the action in the best way possible. The location with its charming beauty or undulating countryside greenery, laid back farms and mountains hugging you as you venture deeper into the valleys. The lush green surrounding one is soothing and pleasant, yet the sharp-edged rocks and cliff faces stand as a serious reminder of hazards just off the tarmac. As you are literally racing in the mountains at elevations of 1800 to 2500 meters above sea level, the weather can change rapidly. Add a splash of unexpected weather and you are faced with racing conditions, that are tough yet, permissible. The racing marshals are always busy with their flags, as there were just a couple of breakdowns but a few over-takes. Cars start at two-minute intervals but some faster cars close the gap ahead sooner than one expects. Witnessing all the cars with their chassis flexing as they manoeuvre their way around the twisty hill climb is not something you see regularly not even in most other historic races.
The legendary (love me/hate me) 1962 Ferrari 250 GT SWB “Breadvan” was a feast for the eyes, not to mention the beautiful V12 snarl in high revs. Only one was created and yet after years of compiling history, competing for the 1962 “24h Le Mans” and winning both “Guards Trophy” & “Ollon-Villars Hillclimb” also in ‘62. Many year and races later, this very Ferrari competed and raced at Bernina GT in the sun, rain, fog and spread joyful emotions among so many attending the 2019 BGT. Cars were made to be driven.
Insight on the Ferrari Breadvan: the car is originally chassis #2819 GT, a 1961 250GT SWB which underwent a body change to improve aerodynamics and to compete with the then-new 250 GTO in 1962. Owner of the car back then Count Giovanni Volpi owner of Serenissima Scuderia (Racing Team) hired Giotto Bizzarini to upgrade his Ferrari. The “Breadvan” Ferrari first appeared at the 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans. It quickly passed all Ferrari GTOs and was 7th overall during the 4th hour when a driveshaft failure caused its retirement. Results at other races proved the design’s effectiveness, as the car won the GT class in two races during the 1962 season.
Special thanks to everyone from the Bernina Gran Turismo organization committee, marshals, media, St. Moritz traffic police, racers, mechanics, and passionate fans.
There are always race results, but at the Bernina GT, it’s an achievement for each participant and car to have conquered the mountain. Time doesn’t make a difference, it’s the joy of driving one’s car, feeling every vibration, attentive to the faintest new sounds, sweating a bit and always gripping the steering wheel with your eyes focused on the near and far horizons… Bernina Gran Turismo, I will be back…
Words and images Mahmoud Ezzeldin