Bernina Gran Turismo: A throwback event in every sense of the word

Photography by Axel E. Catton and Berina Gran Turismo

It’s 6:30 on a fall Saturday morning in Switzerland. I have arrived at the Ospizio Bernina, the rather basic ski hostel at the top of the Bernina Pass, a 2253-meter-high Alpine route southeast of St. Moritz, and I’m surrounded by classic race cars.

We have single-seaters, coupes and GTs, many kitted out with roll bars, race suspension and very loud engines. It’s the Bernina Gran Turismo, a revival of an automobile race from more than 100 years ago, and people from all over the world have come into Switzerland’s Engiadina region to celebrate motor racing in the fantastic Alpine scenery. 

I’ve attended many times before, but this year I may have made a mistake. I knew I had to step up the experience to tell a new story, to describe things from the perspective of a driver, from behind the wheel, so I was daft enough to ask sponsor Mercedes-Benz what it had that I could possibly drive up the hill. 

And you know what? The company offered to let me take its 300 SL Gullwing up the 5.7-kilometer trek–more than 50 corners and some 450 meters of elevation change that the fast drivers tackle in less than 5 minutes. 

I thanked Mercedes profusely for its immense trust in me, but I had to decline. I’ve never driven a Gullwing before–and just for the record, I’d love to–so I don’t think it appropriate for an absolute novice wearing chinos and a polo shirt to storm up a challenging Alpine pass in a $1.5 million artifact. 

The event consists of two morning practice runs on Saturday followed by two race runs in the afternoon and then two more on Sunday morning. I simply wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near the full potential of a Gullwing in just six runs. 

And I need to qualify the word “race.” Here there’s only a very small number of dedicated race cars driven by people with full competition licenses, and they vie for the best time in their own category.

The rest of us run in the “regularity” class, where we’re measured by how close our run times come to the class’s target time. This is to avoid putting too much focus on the best times. 

Yeah, right.

The damp, curvy road that slashes through the Swiss Alps welcomes all comers, from singleseat legends to newer GT machines.

As 2023 marks 60 years of the Mercedes “Pagoda,” Paul Bracq’s 1963 masterpiece that debuted with the 230 SL, I thought competing in one of those–with a manual box, of course–might get people talking. 

While tackling 50 switchbacks–braking, shifting, fully accelerating–you don’t want to be paired with an automatic, and surely not one from the 1960s. “Sure,” Mercedes said, and loaned me a wonderful 280 SL. Automatic. On whitewalls.

So here I am on that Saturday morning, wandering around the garage where most of the cars are stored. It’s a concrete cave straight out of a James Bond scene, and it’s full of drop-dead gorgeous racers: Lotus Elevens, Porsche 911s, Alfa Giuliettas and even the odd Ford Galaxie and Mustang. 

All of them make an enormous racket, and as a spectator you’d want to pull up a chair and just sit there and listen. But I am no spectator, I am a “driver.” I’m carrying a temporary race licence, I’ve had my driver’s briefing before I had my first coffee, and I’m wearing a helmet that makes me look like Neil Armstrong. In my pocket: the keys to “my” 280 SL. 

Next to me is the Gullwing, but today it’s driven by Mercedes-Benz Classic’s own Patrik Gottwick–a much more appropriate pairing, methinks. He’s in charge of the whole shebang. 

In among all the noise of screaming engines and burbling exhausts, I turn the key to start the 2.8-liter inline-six engine. Wouldn’t know it, it’s already running. I can’t hear it; all I can see is the tach needle dance when I feather the gas pedal. That’s it. 

The auto box requires some getting used to, as it’s different from almost anything else from that time or any time. “P” is at the very back and “2” is at the top, so the pattern is reversed–something that could cost me some embarrassment. The “2” also indicates there’s no “1,” meaning shifts from first to second are entirely up to Stuttgart’s finest engineers from 60-plus years ago. 

A throwback event in every sense of the word: car and driver, road and rocks

The Pagoda SL, named for its indented hardtop reminiscent of a Japanese pagoda, is no race car. There. I said it.

There was a brief foray into racing the Pagoda by German Mercedes works driver Eugen Böhringer, who most famously won the Spa-Sofia-Liège rally in 1963 in a 230 SL. Generally, though, the open-top roadster is a cruiser, the proverbial GT, offering adequate room for taller drivers, enough space in the footwell for nicely spaced pedals, and plenty of luggage room for a couple on a weeklong getaway. 

On paper, the little Benz doesn’t look entirely unsuited to competition, to be fair. Its engine produces 170 horsepower at 5750 rpm, not bad for its time. However, peak torque doesn’t come on tap until 4500 rpm, so the driving experience involves a lot of high revving. With all this in a package that weighs 3000 pounds, perhaps I won’t come last. 

So why this car for this weekend? In addition to that recent big anniversary, the car is the underdog here. There are no expectations of it getting any good times at all. 

“Oh, and an automatic, too,” is what experienced participants call out with just that little bit of snark. At least it didn’t have the hardtop, which is a 100-pound hindrance that also takes away much-needed headroom. Although this is “just” a regularity class, it’s still an FIA-sanctioned event, and helmets are mandatory. 

The first practice run on Saturday is in the cold and wet and fog. The cloth top is still closed. My massive helmet touches the inside of the top–not too badly, but enough to make me feel uncomfortable. 

As I roll up to the starting gate at the foot of the pass in La Rösa, right behind the factory 300 SL, I think, “What have I done? Why have I agreed to this?” The road is wet and slithery, so my main concern this morning isn’t achieving a good time but bringing the car up in one piece. 

Now I get to learn how to operate the automatic box, as I can’t leave it to itself. So I choose “2,” step full on it, and at 6000 rpm the hydraulic clutch shifts the transmission from first to second so violently that I bang my helmet on the metal bars holding up the top. It’s an old-school auto using the Mercedes centrifugal clutch system–nothing as sophisticated as what the Americans had at the time or the three-speed auto with torque converter found in Benz’s later R107-chassis roadsters.

I leave the transmission in second gear–again until 6000 rpm–and then manually yank the lever into third as fast as I can. I feel the rear end moving about just a little, as if to say, “Caaaaareful.” At the tight switchbacks, I manually dump it back into second.

Up at the finish outside the Ospizio, Mercedes-Benz Classic mechanics Uwe and Klaus look relieved that I brought the car back intact. I kindly ask for the top to be lowered (that seems to be a two-person affair with tools), and the second run goes much better. I feel freer. I sit more upright. I try a little harder. 

Now onto the runs that count. By now the road is dry, the brakes and tires are warm, and I’m more comfortable. In the lower part up to the twisties, I now manage to stay full-on in third up to the switchbacks. This is enjoyable. This little open roadster is not meant to do this, but it’s doing well. 

Cars up through 1990 can take the green, but the newer the machine, the more historically significant it must be.

At the top, people start chatting about their times. I hadn’t paid attention on my practice runs. As Anders Bilidt from RM Sotheby’s exits the passenger seat of a race-prepped Alfa Romeo Giulietta GT, he proclaims to someone, “We did 4:52.” 

So I check the board for my time: 4:52. 

With glee I turn to Marcus Görig, owner and driver of the Giulietta, who is not having that. “In an auto!” he scoffs.

On his second run he manages 4:36, but I improve to 4:43, my best time of the day. I’m happy with that, as on my combined runs I’m just in step with the factory 300 SL, which admittedly wasn’t driven hard. 

On Sunday it’s raining. It’s cold, wet and foggy, and everyone’s times are worse by a huge margin. I’m cruising up the hill, knowing that the little roadster and I have proved that while we may not be ideally suited for the task, we’re damn well capable.

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