I’ve always had a ‘bucket list’ of sorts – cheesy, I know. Nevertheless, this list is populated entirely by automotive-related items, ranging from the easily achievable; pulling down an engine yourself, for example, to the seemingly more far fetched; driving a supercar really, really fast, and passengering in a sub-nine-second quarter mile. It’s a list filled with things I probably never thought I’d actually be able to achieve when I first thought of them, but life has a funny way of working out if you commit enough energy into pushing it a certain direction.
I had two options that could set me on a path to see through as many items on my list as possible. Either I become Dan Bilzerian, or I become an automotive journalist and work for the likes of Speedhunters. Although I have a great handle on the beard, it was the pectoral muscles, the piles of money and the upper body strength that would allow me throw strippers off roofs that evaded me. So here I am, running with plan B and ticking as many things off my list as I can, while recording it all for the world to see through the magic of Speedhunters.
On the third weekend of August every year since 1926, the steep hillsides surrounding the quaint medieval township of St. Ursanne, perched on the banks of the river Doubs in Switzerland, reverberate with the sounds of some of the world’s fastest hill climb cars, their drivers all pushing the limits in a quest for glory.
This is Round 10 of the FIA European Hillclimb Championship, held on the famous Les Rangiers, one of the most loved yet feared Course de côte events anywhere in the world. It’s also number one on my ‘must attend’ automotive bucket list.
Now, in the event’s 71st year, and my 31st, I was finally on my way. To get there required driving a big loop all the way around the town to the tiny eastern entrance (the start line for the Course de côte and first kilometre of track is located at the main western entrance to the town, which rules out the direct route…) through the most incredible roads that wind their way through the mountainous Swiss countryside.
At this point, even if for some reason the event was completely cancelled, I still would have been a happy man as I threw my ever-faithful BMW rental car into tightly cambered corner after tightly cambered corner early on Saturday morning.
With fading brakes and protesting tyres, we reached our destination; the town I had dreamt about setting foot in for so many years, and I was instantly blown away. Driving through the archway and into the village, which has been inhabited since the 600s, made me feel a little like Marty McFly in a far more reliable DeLorean. I’d almost expected to see armoured knights trotting around on horses and peasants sitting around the well talking about their latest brush with the black death.
Of course, once you pass through that ancient gateway, it’s not like time travel at all. It’s more like a weird parallel universe that you’d expect to see on an episode of Rick and Morty, in which medieval people somehow had access to the most amazing race machinery in the world, and the high octane elixir to run them, of course.
I hate to use the word ‘juxtaposition’ for fear of sounding a little on the pretentious side, but there is simply no better way to describe walking through the uneven ancient streets past even more hilariously uneven houses, while dodging snarling open wheel GP2 cars, rumbling late-model Porsches and ultra-wide custom racers.
I was excited to see David Hauser roll past in his new Wolf GB08F1, especially after watching the in-car video of the Luxembourgian driver running Les Rangiers last year, many times over. There’s nothing quite like the sound of carbon fibre scraping over what are no doubt centuries-old cobblestones to get you pumped for a full weekend of balls-to-the-wall, warp speed racing.
It was off to the start line on the other side of town to catch the beginning of the first of three practice runs for all the classes. Walking through the town, drivers could be seen in every corner, hurriedly changing their tyres over to the treaded wets as the drizzle began to fall. This is one course you really don’t want to climbing on the wrong rubber.
The FIA championship is split into two main categories, the first, CAT 1, is for closed-roof cars like Stefan Schoper’s Audi 50. It runs Group N production cars, Group A touring cars, SP Group super production cars, Super 2000 rally cars, GT1, GT2 Grand Tourers and other tin-top machines.
The second category, CAT 2, is for the open wheel and sports car machines and contains production sports cars, sports prototypes and open formula single seater race cars.The Green Heaven
Drivers wait with their cars and within their classes on the road heading out of town. Due to the very limited space, most of them have driven over from various pit locations all around the outskirts of St. Ursanne, some of which would be an easy kilometre away.
The cars are released at one minute intervals, putting down massive launches that echo off the surrounding buildings and up into the hillsides. Even if you’re way over the other side of town, you can hear exactly what is going on with good enough accuracy to be able to tell what class is currently being released.
From there, it’s a mad dash through the very eastern part of town, alongside the river Doubs. The definition of automotive nirvana might just be watching Bruno Ianniello hammer his incredible Lancia Delta S4 Group B monster through this section of road.
The road, though it doesn’t look too tough at 30km/h, is a very different beast at six times that speed, and the undulations have a tendency to unsettle the rear of the car, as Julien Lavile quickly found out when his Citroën AX GTi swapped ends and sent him into the barrier. Check out those tell-tale skid marks!
From this danger point, the cars then crest a final rise and get their first glimpse of the famous landmark of St Ursanne; the iconic railway viaduct, which was completed in 1929 and still accommodates multiple passenger trains every day.
The intersection that leads onto the main road is attacked at full throttle, with many drivers clipping the inside curb before apexing out towards the outside barrier. A heads-up to any photojournalists that might be reading this; if you plan on attending this event at some point and standing behind said outside barrier to capture some magic, make sure you attach your largest, most impressive set of gonads when you get up in the morning.
Ear plugs will also help too. The sound and speed of the faster classes is genuinely frightening as they head straight towards you before quickly straightening up millimetres from the wall.
At this point, I really must admit that before coming to St. Ursanne, I was a little unenthused, perhaps even slightly ‘meh’ about open wheelers and open top sports cars – even if they are the fastest things on the hill. To me, they just didn’t seem like real cars that I could identify with. But all it took was 20 minutes sitting under the viaduct attempting to capture these cars at full pace for me to realise how dumb I had been. These machines are gifts from the heavens. Experiencing the speed, the hummingbird-like handling and the pure sound first-hand is quite possibly new my favourite pastime.
Sure, you can see formula cars on a track anywhere, but going 250km/h up an uneven, winding public road followed by a trail of sparks and the deafening thud of each gear change at 11,000rpm? That’s something special. It’s the kind of sights and sounds that can make a grown man emotional, like that time you got a lump in your throat watching the end of Titanic, but told everyone you fell asleep because the movie was so boring.
After passing under the viaduct, it’s all throttle up a series of gentle – well, nothing is gentle at these kind of speeds – bends, chopping through every gear on your way to the fastest section of hill climb anywhere in Europe, ‘Les Grippons’.
The long straight leads into a left hander running under a main highway, where digital boards flash up with the top recorded speed, much to the approval of the big crowds that gather there.
The fast open sports cars, like Otakar Kramsky’s bright Reynard K14, are easily clocking over 260km/h.
From there, it’s hard on the brakes to prepare for the steeper, more technical section, kicked off with a concrete-lined slalom before heading into the dark forest and all the brutal hairpins, sweepers and unpredictable undulations it contains. The exhaust manifolds on Alain Pfefferle’s monster Porsche 935 turbo give a pretty good indication as to how hard the cars are working by this point in the climb. Unfortunately for the huge turbos on this car, they’ve still got a long way to go before getting anywhere near the finish line.To The Top
At 5.7 kilometers in length, you’d have to be a decent tramper to walk all the way from the town to the finish line, 350 vertical meters up. Thankfully the organisers run free bus services up the hill, stopping at various vantage points as all the competitors come back down to the pits after each session.
A huge grass bank situated at the end of the forest section is the most popular spot for spectators. There’s a big timing board on the opposite side of the valley and the natural amphitheatre acts as a sound shell of sorts, magnifying the howling induction notes and crackling back fires as the cars approach the final section.
Emerging out of the forest and into the top part of the course, the competitors are full-noise up a long kinked straight…
This rear-engined Renault 5 and its accompanying flames, driven by Enzo Bottecchia, perfectly illustrates why it’s a good idea to check out the end of this straight as drivers aggressively down shift and stand on the brakes.
The two banked and sweeping hairpins that come next seem easy when you’re daudling up at legal speeds, but prove a challenge when racing against the clock.
Putting power to the ground seemed like a big problem for many of the rear-wheel drive cars in this slower section, which of course made for some epic shows – especially from guys like Lauret Metral and his loose Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. I’m sure he wasn’t crossed up at some point in the run, but I never saw it.
It was then up a few more final bends and a quick sprint to the finish line. Watching these drivers whilst looking out over the huge drop to the valley below, I couldn’t help but wonder how much pressure they were feeling. Split time boards can be seen the entire way up, so everyone know exactly how on-pace they are, or are not. I’m not sure how well I would handle the pressure – it would probably be enough to see me heading off a bank, white knuckles and all.
Which does on occasion happen. At one point during Sunday’s competition, we wondered why the racing had ground to a halt. Half an hour later, it was all explained when Dan Blaho’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X came back down the hill on the back of a truck in an entirely different shape.
The course record, set by current European champion Simone Faggioli last year, sits at 1:43:11 and it’s guys like David Hauser in his new Wolf, and Christian Merli (pictured) driving a Osella PA2000, that were looking to take it from him.
But with two runs down and one to go, Faggioli had a pair of 1:43s under his belt, and no one else had been able to touch it. Anticipation was high for the final run, but as the sun dipped behind the hills, worried faces could be seen all across the staging lanes. Soon, an announcement was made over the PA; due to big delays in the morning caused by fog, and subsequent setbacks due to crashes, the third run would not take place, instantly giving Faggioli not only the win at St. Ursanne, but as it would transpire, the entire FIA European Hill Climb Championship, with three rounds yet to take place. This brings Faggioli to a grand total of seven titles and a continued status as the undefeated Course de côte king of Europe. Merli would end up in second spot for the weekend and Hauser third.
While the big players get the limelight, and rightly so, all the categories and the amazing cars they contain were just as impressive to watch. Just because an old VW, roaring Opel coupe or angry Japanese hatch might take a full minute longer to reach the finish line, doesn’t make them any less of spectacle to watch as they push up the hill well past what you would think each car is capable of.
And that’s the great thing about hill climb racing. Sure, these guys (and girls) aren’t banging doors with each other, but they are, for the most part, pushing well beyond their car’s and their own capabilities in an effort to shave a few milliseconds off their time, all on a public road and over a short distance. It’s that dynamic that now has me well and truly hooked.
Ending this article is tough for me. This is an event I have wanted to go to most of my adult life, and it’s something I could blather on about for days. There are so many interesting cars and memorable moments that I don’t have the time or room for, so I will leave you with some more of my favourite images and a solid recommendation: go to St Ursanne Les Rangiers hill climb at least once in your life. If this article doesn’t have you convinced, I suggest spending a few hours on YouTube consuming every bit of video you can find featuring this event. Spending way too much time watching all this amazing footage is the reason I’m sitting here in a hotel room in Europe putting together this story right now, and it might just do the same for you. See you next year St. Ursanne!