Gstaad Classic Prologue
In the tradition of my adventures on here, this rally started with a panic that our chosen car, a semi-race prepared Aston Martin DB2/4 wasn’t ready and so I collected the Aston DB2 that regular readers will recall from the Milano-San Remo adventure back in March from its garage near Nice and drove it up to Geneva. A 6 hour journey on the fabulous Route Napoleon. Arriving in Geneva too late to find a hotel before my flight back home, I was pleased the car was fitted with a bench front seat as I “kipped down” for a few hours. The crew then collected the car from the airport car park on their way up to Gstaad where Wednesday she passed scrutineering and I signed on for the 2011 Gstaad Classic with an non-ideal car and a novice co-driver, well known to friends of EFG Bank, Keith Gapp!
Sensible 9.30am start for Day 1 of Gstaad and we set off for a liaison past Montreux to SS1, “Dent de Jaman” on a hillside above Lac Leman. Unfortunately the approach to the stage was on a vicious hill and we arrived at the start line with the clutch alight! The touring specification gearbox in the Aston Martin is able to cope with the average English hill, but is struggling with the Swiss mountains. The stage itself was gravel coated and extremely slippery and had a number of waste skips on the route that meant squeezing the Aston past between them and the drop over the edge at high speed. I was pretty pleased they were on Keith’s side and not mine! We felt like we’d set a decent time however for the car and the surface... given I’d never had this Aston sideways before, to have drifted her from one side to another for most of the first half of the stage felt like an achievement.
We charged confidently into stage 2, a twisting climbing stage but Keith chose this point to make his one big error of the rally. Well actually it was my fault as I’d not explained that occasionally he would have to navigate a couple of junctions within a stage so he was doing the traditional “sit down, shut-up and hold on” of the co-pilot on a blind rally stage! And so we shot off in the wrong direction and lost several minutes climbing the wrong road. However, when we got back on the correct route it became obvious that the stage had been cancelled due to the Swiss police withdrawing their permission to close the road! We’d got away with it. We were still in the rally and still competitive!
After lunch in the spectacular Chateau at Aigle there were 3 more stages before returning to Gstaad for the night. The first, Massongex was a 3km climb that didn’t suit the Aston at all and we came a resounding last overall, 12th out of 15 in VHC was a little better in SS4, Bex and 13th on Huemoz was also pretty fair given the age of the car etc... so by parc ferme at the end of the day, we felt we’d acquitted ourselves well, we’d no road penalties which was very good for a novice navigator and we were lying 11th of 15 in the VHC category outright. A satisfying day, but as the Aston had got hotter, her willingness to pull away on a sharp hill was noticeably reduced and the crew had to work flat out in the 1 hour servicing permitted in order to get the distributor and plugs changed to try and improve the car for tomorrow.
An early start as the longest day of the rally beckoned. North east out of Gstaad all the way to Gurnigel. This was never going to be a good stage for the little Aston as her weight and gearing were just not designed for what is a legendary hillclimb venue. Unsurprisingly we’re the slowest up the hill. But then the troubles began for the rally organisers as police speed traps appeared everywhere on the route, permission was withdrawn for stages 7 and 8 and then a group of farmers deliberately blocked the route with their cows to stop the rally passing. By the time we stopped for lunch at Schwartzwald Alp after passing the stunning scenery of the Thuner and Brienzersees, feelings among the competitors were pretty downbeat. It was clear the Swiss authorities were making a point in some fashion. The next stage up to the Col at Grosse Scheidegg promised to be pretty spectacular though, as long as we could time our runs to avoid the local bus service! The first cars accelerated away but then the message came through that another Swiss policeman had materialised out of nowhere on the side of this mountain and blocked the stage, refusing to let us run competitively. A disappointed field drove up the hill in convoy and slowly back to Gstaad. A long long day for just 3.6km of competitive stage and a high price paid by a number of competitors who had their licences removed on the spot by the Swiss police and rumours of some heavy fines. The organisers had all the permissions beforehand, so why the Swiss would be so shortsighted as to try and “stuff” a group of historic car enthusiasts in this manner, given the amount of tourism dollars the rally represents and also the joy these fabulous old cars provide to everyone along the route is a mystery.
It can only be better than yesterday... but at the startline for the day we’re notified that the Saanan authorities have decided not to let us run against the clock on the final stage. BUT the good news is that the longest stage of the rally, Hongrin, will be repeated twice instead. Also news received on the final startline is that astonishingly we are lying 4th overall in the competition section! Unbeknownst to our novice crew, there is a handicap system that takes into account age/weight and engine size for the 23 cars in the Competition section and on this basis the “Indice de Performance” or “Weighted Classification” is awarded! And we’re 4th just 11 seconds behind the Ferrari 250GT SWB of Daniela Ellerbrock. Suddenly it’s got serious!
First stage is a 3.8km run uphill through the village of Le Sepey, a tricky stage not suited to us and we’re 13th again of 15 but on weighted times we manage to snatch back 1 second against the Ferrari. Just 10 seconds and 2 stages left.
A monster climb up to the start of SS11 leaves both me and the car breathing heavily, I’ve also torn something in my right bicep in SS10 on the heavy steering of the Aston in hairpins but the scenery at the top of the hill is stunning and the stage even more so! A downhill run (suits us!) through long sweeping bends that rewards the brave. And I want a “pot” badly! First run through I try and make a mental note of the dangerous blind corners in the nearly 15km long stage, again, we take 1 second out of the Ferrari but we’re still 9 seconds behind overall. It’s going to be do or die on the second run through.
This is where the lack of suitability of our car comes to the fore, sat on a bench seat, I have nothing to brace my torso in the fast corners and we have no roll cage. Not really ideal for a stage where we’re going to average over 60mph in a car that I’ve never taken above 80mph!
So back to the startline for the final hurrah of the Gstaad Classic 2011. Focussed and determined, we make a good start and I try and keep it tidy through the twisting opening section, knowing that sliding wide here would spell disaster as it did the crew of the #28 behind us who broke the rear suspension of their 911 on a kerb. Then into the big sweepers I’m totally committed, using the “if in doubt, flat out” mantra for lots of the blind corners relying on the fabulous neutral handling that the Speed Scotland crew have installed in the Aston and the great brakes to sort things out if I’m wrong. Drifting the car for 70 metres + through a couple of long long corners over bridges we take a spectacular 33 seconds out of our previous run. Lots of screaming and shouting in the car as we cross the flying finish with the Aston close to the rev limiter in top gear. The old girl has NEVER been faster approaching 3 figure speeds!
On handicap we finish 29 seconds ahead of the Ferrari which has had a moment in the stage and gone slightly slower, clearly she was taking risks as well. 3rd place is ours!
A quick demonstration run on the airport at Saanan and back to Parc Ferme in high spirits. A well deserved glass of Mumm Champagne and then off to the Gala dinner to collect our trophies. Given that we were in a pure road car and our lack of experience, especially with a total novice co-driver in the shape of Keith who managed to guide us to zero road penalties on his first rally, we are understandably chuffed with the result.
The Swiss do manage one last hoorah though, leaving the hotel at 3am on Sunday morning to catch the first flight out of Geneva, I’m presented with a £40 bill for 3 small beers that were drunk before we’d checked in on the 31st. Guessing by the last occupant of my room? It kind of summed up the week really!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank EFG for not only sponsoring the Gstaad Classic, but also their support for us on this rally. And letting me borrow (and try to terrorise) their Head of Marketing for 3 days to co-drive. A fabulous experience all round.
Your “downhill sideways with style” correspondent