A (Busman’s) Holiday in the Dolomites
© 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”.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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