A (Busman’s) Holiday in the Dolomites
© Janos Wimpffen

Janos Wimpffen has been wending his way to and fro across Europe since Le Mans, for reasons he explains below. Before making his way to Oschersleben for a nine car grid of FIA SCC cars, he found a rather larger assembly of cars in Italy……without a hillclimbing section of the site, we’ll file this under “History”.

The endless slog through Europe in quest of photos for the next edition of Time & Two SEATS continues apace. A dollop of free time afforded some sightseeing combined with a perspective on a slightly different form of motorsport. This was inspired by a conversation with our colleague, Jan Hettler, of Munich. Jan is familiar to readers as a sometime contributor to DSC and a frequent writer for the German language www.GT-Eins.de.

Jan is a big fan of Italian hill climbs. He commented as to the informality and conviviality of the meetings, how the locals make it a festive occasion, and how the scene is a throwback to the days of the Targa Florio and the Circuito di Mugello. He’s correct on most accounts.

To the uninitiated, here’s a bit of a primer on hill climbs. Quite obviously, its hearth is in the Alps where it has been nurtured for over a century, just as circuit racing has a hold on the plains below. The major events have waxed and waned in importance over the decades. The first significant era culminated with the 1930s when the northern Alps of Germany, Switzerland, and the soon to be annexed Austria provided another venue to exhibit the awesome Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars. The European Mountain Championship became significant as soon as it was established in the late 1950s. During the following decade it became an exciting forum for battles between factory-built and entered specials from Porsche, Ferrari, Abarth, and others. Several of the rounds also qualified for the World Sports Car and GT Championships.

None of the events quite hold the grandeur today that they did during the 1960s, but they do continue as a viable link between amateur and professional motorsport. Most European countries maintain national championships. Italy, France and Germany - as well as the circuit-deprived Switzerland - have always been the most viable, but the range of events cover the continent from the Pyrenees to the Ardennes, from the Balkans to the Tatras. Interestingly, the center of gravity in hill climbs has shifted eastward over the last twenty or so years. The relatively low cost sport has long provided an outlet to the motor racing addicts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Many of the recent champions have come from those countries, a trend worth watching as their economies strive to match the west.

About a dozen of the most important events qualify for the host nation’s title as well as the European one, while there is a second tier of events called the FIA International Challenge. The latter is rather an afterthought grafted onto the various national titles. Only certain classes in any given event are eligible for these titles.

The class structure of hill climbs would bewilder even the heartiest sports car anorak. Entries are huge, with upwards of 200 not uncommon at many venues. The bulk of these are usually found in the production sedan categories of Group A and Group N, yielding an endless supply of small Renaults, Hondas, Fiats and the like.

Grand Touring cars are relatively uncommon at hill climbs, but Prototypes are a major feature. The fastest times of the day usually come this group or from the single-seaters common in many countries. However, the Italian championship is reserved for closed-wheel cars. While most of the production cars are hardly, if at all, modified, there is room in the upper classes for four-wheel drive, turbos, and preparation standards more akin to rally cars. The sports-racing categories are significant in several respects. Not only is this where most of the interest of our readership lies, but the link between the circuit cars and the hillclimb specials has had a long tradition. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Italy. Marques such as Osella, AMS, Lucchini, and Picchio may be familiar as entries in IMSA, Grand-Am, and the FIA SCC, but each began and thrived from their concentration on producing hill climb specials. Good power-to-weight ratios and handling outweigh power advantages, over courses where straight-line speed simply does not come into play.

Adding to the complexity as well as the spectacle of hill climbs is the frequent inclusion of an historic section. Typically, the “Storiche” and “Moderne” cars run in completely separate classifications, but the groups follow one another and all the entrants are housed in the same paddock. Hill climbs are, of course, time trial events with the cars being released in 30 second intervals and then one minute apart for the fastest classes.

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The event in question is Trento-Bondone. It is another classic, with the 2003 edition being the 53rd running. Trento (Trent in English) is the principal city in the Val de Sole area, located about halfway between Verona and the Brenner Pass. Like so many regions throughout Italy and the Alps, this was an independent country for centuries, governed by a Bishopric. Even today it retains its uniqueness. It is effectively a bilingual area, with the distinct Tyrolean sub-dialect of Austrian German spilling over from the nearby Südtirol.

The Dolomites bear some resemblance to parts of Colorado, the Sierra Nevadas, and the San Joaquin Valley. The vertical rocky cliffs are of course composed of the rock to which the name was applied. Many of the views are reminiscent of parts of Yosemite. Side roads lead to tight canyons, taking one back to the Rockies. Unlike their American counterparts, the relatively high latitude of the Alps allow for considerably more vegetation throughout. In fact, this has been put to the use in the bottom sections, with row upon row of verdant vineyards and other agriculture.

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The paddock for the race was located in a car park just off the exit from the Autostrade at the edge of the city. With over 200 cars, their attendant crews, support vehicles, and strolling families, it was a quite a feast. At every turn of the head a new bevy of race cars awaited. Certainly the most eye-catching were the historics.

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dailysportscar.comThey ranged from a pre-war Lea-Francis to an early Siata, and was rounded out by a good selection of 1970s sports-racers such as a very early AMS, a couple of Osellas, and a beautiful Abarth Sports 2000 berlinetta.

There were also some interesting one-off sports-racers, such as a Lotus 7 knockoff with an Austin motor, called Terrier (below).

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From nearby Austria came a quite unusual Steyr-Puch Spyder complete with a tiny 595cc engine. The Widi was based on the Lotus 23, while there was also a genuine Lotus 23 as well. It was driven by Guido Caffi, uncle of Alex. Next to this Cortina-powered car was another English gem, a D-type Jaguar. Both were entered by the British car enthusiasts wing of Scuderia Sportitalia, one of the better known such Italian clubs. Its president is the great Swiss driver, Clay Regazzoni.

The bulk of the historic category consisted of various 1960s Alfa Romeos, plus a hearty mix of Fiat-Abarths, including those built by the formerly independent marque of Autobianchi. Finally there was a pair of Mini-Coopers badged under Innocenti, the Italian distributor of the popular original.

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The climb up Mont Bondone begins about one kilometer west from the paddock. The 13.7-kilometer route retains about a 10 percent grade throughout. There is nary a straight of over 100 meters, with the turns alternating between broad sweeps and sets of switchbacks. A set of tight hairpins comes very early on, complete with daunting views of the valley below. Then a relatively fast section of lesser bends precedes a nearly unbroken pattern of switchbacks up to about the three-quarter distance. Most hill climbs are based on the best of two times, but the long run up to Bondone means that drivers must give their all on one determined run. However, Saturday’s lengthy practice day did allow most classes to complete two tries. Except for the seasoned locals, practice time is a precious commodity.

Indeed, it was a very Italian affair. Although it was nominally a round in the FIA Challenge, only two foreigners appeared. Ivo Sauter came from nearby Switzerland and Lászlo Hunyádi brought his BMW M3 from Hungary. While he has often been a podium finisher elsewhere, the lack of local knowledge left him well down the order in the Dolomites.

The historic section went first and the yawning discrepancy between the various types of cars meant that the actual interval between the cars on the road accordioned back and forth during the period. Perhaps as many as ten cars might have been on the course at one time, and unlike later during the modern car runs, the historics could be found passing each other along the route. Most troubled of these was a pitifully slow early 1950s Panhard Dyna, puffing away on its two cylinders. The Alfa Romeo GTV and Giulietta contingent seemed to be enjoying themselves the most. Among the expected fast Prototypes, the pretty Abarth was driven below its potential, while a very well turned out Chevron B19 (Roberto Benelli - above) was clearly the deserved fast one among the historics. However, nearly everyone is a winner. Except for the better subscribed Alfa and Abarth classes, many of the other cars ran alone within dozens of separate classifications by age and performance characteristics.

The fast parade up the mountain continued with the Modern cars, within which was a small group, labeled VSO, that falls somewhere between new and old. It consists of production cars prepared beyond the usual national and international regulations, as well as some quite potent ex-rally cars of recent vintage. The Lancia Delta Integrales were particularly impressive as were any of the turbocharged cars, with the click of the wastegate and the drivers on full throttle before even entering the turns.

The action continued unabated throughout the hot afternoon, with only three interruptions to wrest wayward cars from the trees. Only one, a Volkswagen Polo, seemed to suffer any significant damage. The breaks did provide an opportunity for the fans to break out their Italian sandwich lunches. The hills were dotted with clumps of people tucked away in the adjoining woods, and in true Italian fashion, red cars were cheered heartily, good driving was applauded, and especial encouragement mixed with derisive hand gestures were offered to those holding back. The arrangement is that for 8 Euros you could drive up the road before its closure and park near one of the many trailhead parking areas, or you could hike up for free. In my case, a simple flash of IMSA hard card and a path cleared for the giornaliste. Thankfully, we are half a planet away from Daytona.

An afternoon nap may have been in order with the approach of the hordes of Group A and Group N cars, but in reality they were quite interesting to watch. Although the cars themselves are only slightly more enthralling to me than your average NASCAR ground pounder and the drivers are unknowns, the ability to stand right next to the racing surface offered an interesting study on driving skills and style. From my vantage I could see three tight bends plus a kink two meters in front of me that was taken flat-out coming out of a 120-degree right-hander. A man next to me made a video recording of each and every car through our visible area. Upon an exchange carried on in pieces of three languages I found out that he was part of the organizing club and that they had videographers lining the entire length of the course. What an interesting library that would make!

Smoothness definitely counts as nearly all quick times came from those cars that went through our stretch on the edge, but on a consistent edge at each bend. On the other hand, the numerous thrashers made for exciting slides but little impact on the time sheets.

Also noteworthy were the differences in engine tuning strategy within the various classes. Those that opted for high-lift cams certainly roared along the more open parts, but when their revs fell badly off approaching the hairpins, the motors went gasping for breath. Sounds were part of the spectacle in a manner different than at other motor sport events. We could begin to hear the cars within about a half-kilometer after the start. Then they would fade away as the course jutted out over a more distant section. Then they could once more be heard approaching with anticipation mounting as you could hear every shift on every turn. But it was a false dawn as what you really heard was an uphill section that came straight towards us but was obscured by the woods. Instead the cars veered toward the Cliffside for a good 30 seconds before once more heading our way. Then indeed the sound increased and at last the car appeared about 300 meters downhill from my vantage.

The last view of a car would be drifting around a decreasing radius left located about 700 meters above me. A fine view of the Dolomite range lay beyond that. But it was not the last one heard of the car. As on the approach, the pitch would rise and fall as the bends swept to and fro. When there was a break in the action then the receding car could be heard for a good two minutes longer, but the nature of the course dictated that one generally had to listen intently to discern between the receding and approaching cars.

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In addition to Groups A and N, the Modern section included a class for completely stock Volkswagen Lupos, run as a promotional feature for a local dealership. Except for the final set of Prototypes that had low two digit numbers, all of the cars were released in numerical order. As the numbers and engine sizes increased, so did the visual aspects of speed and, for the most part, the professionalism of the driving.

The handful of fire breathing quasi-rally cars were perhaps the most consistently well-driven, as any amateur would be foolhardy to tackle one. Fulvio Giuliani made it to the top in about 11:10 in a Lancia Delta Evoluzione, followed by Marco Gramenzi’s turbocharged Alfa Romeo 155.

Then came a set of the only true modern GTs in the field, several Ferrari 360 Modenas. Note that in Italy, the Ferrari Challenge series on the circuits is taken very seriously. It has ample sponsorship and TV coverage, and is considered to be a valuable steppingstone to a single-seater or sports car career. The more gentleman drivers of the Prancing Horse prefer the confines of the hills, although Luigi Isolani more than exceeded everyone’s expectations with a 12:28.

Most of the Prototype class consisted of Osellas, with a handful of Lucchinis, plus lone entries representing Sighinolfi and Breda. Of these, only the latter has never seen action at the FIA SCC level. Gi Pi and AMS (with a Peugeot) were two other unusual marques running in the smaller CN/1 class of the Prototypes. Both of these have run in past Italian rounds of the sports car championship.

In the past nearly all the top hill climbers used BMW power, but the Mader tuned and other versions of the straight-six have generally been falling out of favor. Although they still were the engine of choice for about half the Prototype field, the fast runners all had Honda motors. Luigi Fagioli’s Osella-BMW could do no better than third overall with a 10:16. As these times indicate there is a huge discrepancy in hill climbing between the different classes, between the top and bottom runners in the larger groups, and sometimes even from first to second. Contrast those Prototype times with the plus 20 minutes for the slowest Historic machines.

The final standings were almost in inverse order to the order that cars took to the track. Andrea De Biasi had to wait until the last runner to see if his Osella-Honda’s time of 10:12 would hold up. It didn’t. Perennial Italian champion Pasquale Irlando set off last and was best with 10:06.58 in his similar Osella-Honda PA21S.

The results and the true competitive aspects of the event may have been a trifle anticlimactic, but this took nothing away from the enjoyable ambience of the event. Jan is very correct!

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Heading south along the more scenic route west from Trento, one heads towards the exquisite Lago di Garda, actually more of a small inland sea nestled in the mountains. Delightful resort towns abound along the near shore and boating and hiking prospects beckon on the far shore. At the far end is Salo, headquarters for the old Garda circuit that used a triangle of public roads between the lake, Verona, and Brescia.

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On the way back to Milan, I stopped off for a brief look around Brescia. I was surrounded by a unique blend of Venetian and pre-Venetian architecture, insulted periodically by the imposition of a Fascist era edifice. It was while slurping up a delightful gelato that the swell of the crowds stirred me up. Here I was at the very epicenter of one of the most historic locales in all of motor sport. As I strained to look around the corner of the Piazza there came Nuvolari rolling down the ramp to the thunderous cheers. Next came the wonderful Marzotto brothers, and then Fangio, Ascari, the silver haired Taruffi, and finally Moss and his gnome-like bearded co-driver.

Was I dreaming? Were they ghosts? Were they real? I could have waited around several hours to see who would return first from the long arduous journey to Rome and back. But I had miles to go myself and many promises to keep.

 

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