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Gurnigel Bergrennen: Swiss time attack

Two, not one but two. That’s the number of helicopters they had at Gurnigel to ferry the VIP clients from the paddock up to the hospitality area. It’s not like any hillclimb I’ve ever done (maybe a luxury Chamrousse), set high in the Swiss alps south of Bern, it’s ear popping territory where the backdrop is a deep azure sky met by pale blue mountains. On the way here I drove under huge eagles soaring on thermals, Swiss flags draped from ever house and the melodic sound of cow bells chiming on the breeze (I had the roof down), you can’t help but love Switzerland. 

The plan to race here came about over dinner at St-Ursanne, a group of us were hurriedly eating before prize giving when Ronnie Bratschi mentioned that entries for the penultimate round of the Swiss Hillclimb Championship closed the next day. On top of being a beautiful race with 10’s of thousands of spectators, and the chance to drive the Norma M20 FC once more, there was also a special prize for fastest lady…

So early the next day emails were sent, flights were booked, and I added a bonus round to my calendar.

I landed in Basel to meet Fabien before typing up the blog for Turckheim just the weekend before. It was Thursday by now and I’d only been back in the UK for a couple of days to put in an appearance with my cat and pick up clean clothes before driving back to Luton airport, my second home. 

VIDEO DIARY #12: Gurnigel BergrennenA final bonus round to finish the season, what an amazing race in #Gurnigel!! Massive thanks to #TectriSA, François Tosoni, Ronnie Bratschi, MPZRace Video & Andreas Finger http://www.swissrace.ch/ for the awesome footage & #Graham1695 for the beautiful watch! #NGK #Norma #Eurocarparts

Posted by Charlie Martin on Monday, September 19, 2016

 

The following morning I followed François and Yann Hêche towing his Mazda MPS Rotary in full sunshine for around an hour and a half before we arrived in Riggisberg, and finally Gurnigel. I had pretty much the whole day to drive the hill, at 3.7km it feels quite narrow in places and has some nasty adverse cambers on the exit of a few bends. The onboard really doesn’t convey the gradient (it never does) but even so I was surprised by how steep it is – the startline up to the first corner feels almost vertical! Then there are sections through the forest where the low afternoon sun forces it’s way through and tries to blind you, after Vuillafans I was glad to have found a happy place with my visor (now clear with a thicker sun strip). It’s a relatively easy hill to memorise, I found the most challenging parts to be the blind crest that sweeps left over the horizon and the left by the house with it’s intimidating armco on the exit…

With time on my hands I took the opportunity to wonder the paddock, it’s interesting to note that in Switzerland the vast majority of the cars entered are saloons with only a handful of single seaters and even fewer protos. As I’ve come to appreciate with most things en Suisse, presentation is important and there were some gorgeous cars on display – wide arch VW’s, an M3 GTR, Will Hoy’s BTCC Mondeo parked next to a Merc 190E EVO, more Opel Kadet’s in yellow and white than I had fingers to count them and a 355 with a Zytek V8. Yann was parked next to us and I must have spent hours over the course of the weekend marvelling at the level of engineering that’s gone into his car, the cage, undertray and carbon are all works of art, and when you see how far the rotary engine is buried into the bulkhead (sending drive to the rears) you appreciate that this little rocket must be incredible to drive.

It’s a new experience finding myself in this German speaking part of Switzerland (most people speak French too but with an accent that I’ve never heard before), there are also a lot of Italian drivers so there’s a really diverse feel to the event. That evening we joined a birthday party for one of the drivers before making our way back to the hotel some distance away and over some of the best roads I’ve ever driven on, literally a late night (deserted) rally stage. We arrived to find that they had no record of our reservation and were fully booked, but somehow we managed to talk our way into a couple of rooms (and a salad) so we shared a couple of beers before turning in.

Collecting a birthday cake for Ronnie Bratschi en route the next morning, we arrived early and warmed the transmission with the car on stands, I was soon lined up on the start line for the first of three practices. I was acutely aware of the full width of the car and took it steady, I’m fully comfortable with the LHD aspect but instinctively placing the extremities inches from the grass and using all the road take time to master, so a time of 2:10:43 was fine for now. On the second run I took nearly 7 secs off and felt a lot more comfortable, being more confident with the accelerator in 2nd also helped cure the kangaroo effect (so embarrassing!) which becomes harder to cure once it starts shaking the car… By the time we took the 3rd run the sun was dropping but vision wise I was trouble free, although feeling a little jittery for some reason so I dropped around a second. Still, 2:3:68 was enough for practice.

There were only two other Norma’s running with Herbert Huntziker & Daniel Mauerhofer, both had done sub 2 minutes, but I felt confident that come race day I could find a few seconds… 

Cramming in the free practice on Sunday meant starting earlier, and I was wondering whether it might be cold and damp under the trees. a quick chat with Frederick Neff confirmed that the track was good though, and I set off with the bit between my teeth. It was tidy run but twice the gearbox refused to downshift into 2nd at a couple of the hairpins, leaving me in either 3rd or 4th as the car bogged down on the way to the next corner. A time of 2:03:35 wasn’t bad considering, and I thought perhaps I’d just not pulled back hard enough or been too quick and light with the paddles. 

Sadly the first competition run was even worse, it happened four times and by the end of the run I was livid, I’d pushed the car harder but lost so much time! I saw 2:03:06 flash by as the car jammed itself in 3rd and I had to get a push into the paddock with the clutch hard down. Driving back down the hill it seemed to work ok, although every now and again it failed to respond, François methodically worked his way through but found no signs of a problem even when we ran through the gears on stands. 

In Switzerland (like the EHC) it’s both times added together that you’re classed on, and having given away around 5 seconds there was no way I could possibly make up the deficit, unless I hitched a ride in one of the choppers. I knew this, but part of me was unwilling to accept it and I was determined to crack 2 minutes.

Gurnigel BergennenMy final run and best time up Gurnigel, 2:02:91 (lost a lot of time with gear selection problems) a beautiful hill to drive in an incredible setting, the best way to finish the 2016 season! :D #NGK #SchrothRacing #Eurocarparts

Posted by Charlie Martin on Friday, September 23, 2016

 

François could clearly read me like a book, politely reminding me of the fact that I couldn’t win the class, but I could win the fastest lady prize if I just shelved my ego and drove swiftly to the top. An incident would however leave me without anything, just a bill to go home to… of course he was right and I duly took note. I crossed my fingers for the box’ and set off at a good pace, albeit a leaving a margin for error, but the problem quickly manifested itself again. And again. I crossed the line on a 2:02:91, consistent if nothing else but still with a score to settle. Simply put I didn’t want people to think I’d just come for a Sunday drive and not pushed, that’s not me.

But coming to a rest in parc fermé with the mountains clearly visible on the horizon, sharing a beer with everyone and having my photo taken with a little dog called Martin Campagnoli (it’s a long story) I felt anything but frustration, I’d had an incredible weekend. Later at prize giving I was presented with the ladies prize by Eric Loth of Graham Watches, a Lady Moon Diamond that has to be the most incredible thing I ever have and ever will win, it’s gorgeous and I don’t think I’ve taken it off since!  

I want to thank Tectri SA for arranging my entry, François for all his hard work and advice throughout the weekend, Yann Hêche (especially for feeding us so well!), and of course Ronnie Bratschi, happy times :D 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dynamite post, Charlie. Wondering if you could leave the camera on following the race. Curious how the cars are marshalled and taken back down the hill.

    1. Thank you, they normally let us roll or drive (us to us) back down as we are lined up very tightly in the paddock. At some of the hills we might drive 6-8km back to the paddock (like here, Turckheim or Beaujolais) with public traffic coming the opposite way. You can’t marshal that too effectively due to the distances involved but everybody behaves respectfully and it just works 😀 I’ll try and upload something and send you the link.

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