£56 return on Ryanair: that was enough to persuade me that I couldn’t afford to miss this year’s FIA Hillclimb Masters. The biennial feast for uphill racers this year targeted Gubbio in Umbria for its third edition. A few days of autumnal sunshine in one of Italy’s prettiest regions and perhaps the finest hillclimb field in history proved irresistible.
Though a Fiat Tipo hire car may not create quite the aura of dolce vita I had envisaged, soon we escape the Roman suburban sprawl and the beauty of the countryside gathers pace. Hilltop churches perch on craggy outcrops and foreboding fortified towns pepper the landscape, with lush green fields punctuated by atmospheric, spiky poplars rolling towards the horizon in all directions. This is the Italy of a thousand postcards.
Gubbio is around three hours to the north east of Rome and we pass the likes of Spoleto, Assisi, Perugia and the charming-sounding Bastardo during a gentle afternoon drive. Even the service areas are relaxed, with fine coffee and pastries an accepted part of any pause in a journey. Starbucks at a Welcome Break this is not.
Gubbio is a remarkably well-preserved historic town – and a tourist attraction in its own right. It sits in the foothills of the Apennine mountains and has hosted hillclimb racing since 1966 under the moniker of the Trofeo Luigi Fagioli. Fagioli was among Gubbio’s most famous sons, competing for Scuderia Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union and Lancia before and after the Second World War. The tradition of racing up the mountains continues in his honour.
The FIA Hillclimb Masters is higher profile event than the annual Trofeo; bringing together the most successful protagonists from hillclimb competition across Europe. This offers domestic racers the chance to size themselves up against the best from the entire continent in an all-out celebration of this enduring motorsporting niche.
I’m fortunate to have attended one major continental hillclimb previously – Rechbergrennen in the Styrian mountains of Austria. While this offers some preparation for the informal madness that greets us but Rechbergrennen takes place in a quite rural corner, way from civilisation. Comparatively, Gubbio is a bustling metropolis which has opened its doors to racecars and shut its roads to accommodate them. We find competition machinery scattered around every corner of the town.
Perhaps the greatest shock is finding the first tranche of cars lining up in the shadow of a Roman amphitheatre. Dating back to the first century BC, the amphitheatre may be mostly ruined but – as backdrops go – few can rival this for historical significance. There are racing cars delicately placed on hastily-laid tarpaulin everywhere. Scott Moran’s legendary Gould GR61X – by an enormous margin the most successful British hillclimb car in history – is parked kerbside with barely a gazebo to protect it.
This story continues throughout the town, with only the biggest European teams bothering to store their precious cars in transporters. Meanwhile, the peace of the Friday dusk is shattered by the occasional race engine as the machines blare from their ‘pits’ to the scrutineering bay – itself scarcely more than a gazebo plonked outside a fine old church.
Meanwhile, team members scurry around on paddock bikes, scooters and anything else they can find. Members of the public enjoy the opportunity to amble among the cars and there’s a real buzz in the air. This is how to bring motor racing to the people – and the people seem to adore it. It feels slightly manic in that distinct fashion of all Italian motor racing events, but mixed with the inclusive informality which makes hillclimbing such a draw for those long weary of the elitism of top-level racing.
While the wonderful open paddock format might bring to mind the open harbourside garaging at the Monaco Historique, the atmosphere is rather less austere and reverential. All the teams are dining out and the chat is lively, with vino flowing. Wallace and Nicola Menzies are visible from our table and triple British champion Trevor Willis stops to chat to friends as he’s passing. Later in the evening we bump into a lively Portuguese contingent, singing both merrily and loudly. But more of those guys later.
Spectating on this kind of event is disorientating for the uninitiated and must be treated rather like a stage rally. You need to get to your parking spot long before the stage closes and be prepared for some waiting around. By good fortune, our route takes us directly up the hill itself so we flash our tickets and head for the startline.
The Fiat Tipo is far from the ideal vehicle to tackle the course but it’s a rare and special opportunity to enjoy a driver’s eye view of a race track just an hour before the drivers themselves. The road is fabulous – as you might expect for a prestigious hillclimb venue. It’s usefully cambered but still crowned and it features a challenging mixture of technical medium-speed bends punctuating ultra-quick corners before everything slows down for the final 20 seconds in a series of steep, tortuous hairpins.
It lacks the absolute majesty and scale of Rechberg but it is still stunningly picturesque and the kind of road you could drive endlessly but of which you might never tire. The finish line is situated at pretty much the highest point in the road and the drivers have a final challenge to anchor on in time to make an abrupt hairpin right before coasting to their resting places. The quickest entrants will complete the entire climb in less than 90 breathless seconds.
The morning sun is just peeking out over the trees but there’s dew on the ground as we settle onto a perch on a clifftop high above the final hairpin. This last section of the track is our home for the weekend and we explore various vantage points over the weekend, combining as it does a set of ferociously fast high speed esses and a trio of hairpins to close out the climb.
All around us, autumn is taking hold of the arboreal life and the changing direction of the sun produces the most beautiful kaleidoscope of greens, oranges, reds and browns along the gorge and towards the horizon. I had thought The Bungalow on the Isle of Man Mountain Course to be the most scenic spectating spot in the racing but Gubbio in October is arguably even more dramatic. To witness motor racing at either is a rare joy.
In fact, if you believe the only true motor racing to take place upon closed public roads then continental hillclimbing and motorcycle road racing are perhaps the last true outposts: the final links to the early days. As a riposte to the sanitised spectacle of F1 around Abu Dhabi or Bahrain, this remains raw and true to the bloodline of our sport. These are the last places where you can witness pur sang racing machinery over the most challenging and dangerous sealed surfaces anywhere in the world.
As the first unsilenced exhaust trumpets the arrival of the inaugural participant, the pure incongruity shocks any lingering weariness from my eyes. For the rest of the day we are treated to the sight and sound of every conceivable kind of hillclimb weaponry, the cars launching at 30 second intervals, meaning only in the event of incident does the action stop.
Sadly, such is the remoteness of our location, mobile data is a distant dream and the temporary PA system is mostly Italian but even when punctuated by English commentary, it’s pretty unintelligible. That rather takes the tension out of the competitive element of the event but it’s not much of a problem as the raw spectacle is so captivating.
The field runs broadly in reverse order of pace, meaning we open with road-going rally reps and hot hatches, closing with the most brutal and performant sports prototypes. The evergreen Mitsubishi Evo fills much of the early running. These Group N-spec cars look to be struggling among the hairpins; their noses pushing wide and tails staying resolutely nailed to the apex. No amount of exhaust flatulence can invoke massive drama in these tortuous switchbacks.
While giving away a driven axle, the hot hatches are infinitely more fun for the fired-up crowd. Peugeots, Citroens, Hondas and Renaults of varying age and creed make up the majority of the field. The drivers have allowed themselves no period to warm up and are immediately cocking an inside rear into each hairpin in turn. Barking induction noise and occasional forays into the grass verges on the inside of the corners only adds to the amusement. UK runners Richard Brant and James Kerr have both brought road-registered hatchbacks and seem to be relishing the challenge; this being rather different in character and atmosphere to Prescott or Harewood.
The vibe across both days is jovial, inclusive and often theatrical – certainly among the Portuguese contingent. A sizeable group of enthusiastic Portuguese fans has made the trip and brought with them all manner of props to illustrate their allegiances. There are special t-shirts, flags being waved and balloons released at every native driver in turn. Their sheer will reminds me of the fans in the forests of Rally Finland; the booze is flowing and nothing will stop them from hollering at their heroes, irrespective of their relative competitiveness.
With approximately half the field having ascended the hill, the runners return to base in the town. Unlike UK climbs, where the day might run in batches of 20 cars, the sheer length of a continental hill makes the logistics of handling the cars rather more difficult. At this point, the crowds flood the course in order to cheer on the drivers at close quarters. It all feels rather anarchic to a buttoned-up Brit but there’s a carnival atmosphere and the drivers wave to each punter in turn. This inclusion and reverie was a fascinating part of the essence of Rechbergrennen for me. Gubbio is no different and the genuine interaction adds tremendously to the character of continental-style hillclimbs.
The second half of the field ups the ante significantly. Pure-bred racing machinery over this kind of road makes for a truly fearsome sight. The cars approach at enormous speed through a series of flat-out sweeping bends. These are heavily crowned and the top runners are carrying terrifying speed while threading between unyielding barriers. A trio of hairpins might not sound terribly interesting for observing such potent cars but, such is our proximity, it’s very easy to judge the difference between the various entrants – especially during the early practice runs when everyone is still getting their eye in.
This is a major change for the British competitors but they seem to be adapting well. The top single seaters are very different beasts to the European contenders, being open wheeled and of unlimited engine capacity. That means the likes of Will Hall and Trevor Willis are dragsters in a straight line. These extreme motoposto (for apparently that is both the singular and plural of the noun, my Italian friend assures me) look flighty and occasionally difficult over the strongly crowned Italian roads.
That doesn’t stop them trying and the ferocious speed out of the final hairpin marks them out as possessing accelerative savagery no other entrants can approach. It’s magical listening to them throwing gears at it up the hill; tight, dense engine sound bouncing around the valley and among the trees.
There’s no lack of firepower from the British contingent but their cars appear to lack a little in terms of overall aerodynamic stability and mechanical efficiency compared to their Italian brethren. That means they look to be unable to carry quite the same otherworldly speed through the quick stuff; but also don’t have as much front-end bite in those tight hairpins. Watching the videos after the event confirms that the likes of Simone Fagioli also possess incredible confidence handling bumps and compressions – perhaps a legacy of a lifetime spent competing on public roads.
Whatever the ultimate time against the stopwatch, all the top runners are hugely entertaining to behold. There remains something so beguiling about the sight and sound of a true racing car among the mountains – a singularity of purpose which completely captivates me. This is the ultimate evolution of the breed and the battleground upon which the combatants wage war is virtually unchanged. And the challenge is disarmingly simple: convey oneself from point A to point B in the shortest possible time. Forget tyre degradation, fuel saving, lift and coast, pit stop tactics…this is flat chat, balls-out competition.
Despite the best efforts of Frenchman Sebastien Petit, the battle for outright honours has boiled down to a competition between the two mighty Italians: multiple European champion Simone Faggioli in his Norma and the domestic king, Christian Merli aboard a stunning Osella FA30.
These two are visibly the quickest all weekend. Their speed in approach through those sweepers is way higher than their rivals; they brake later and turn into the following right-hander hardest of all. It’s a proper demonstration of talent, experience and commitment and they are both super-smooth through the demanding hairpins; no lock-stop showboating from these two. Interestingly they both coast over the finish line on Saturday so there’s some practice day gamesmanship at play.
In spite of internet speculation, it doesn’t look like the British team will be battling for outright honours against these two: they’re just too well-optimised for this hill. But the intra-team rivalry looks fascinating and the fight for rostrum honours is wide open in all classes.
Up and down the field, there are stories and scores of intriguing cars catch the eye. While the Group N Evos are frustrating to watch with their persistent understeer, further up in class E1, there are a number of wild specials. These are more akin to Time Attack monsters, featuring outlandish aero and simply wicked power. They are able to tuck their noses in and fire out of the corners in cartoonish fashion.
The Mitsubishis face down a class full of notable machinery. Multiple Lancia Deltas feature bulging wheel arches, outrageous bodykits and bucket loads of torque. Outputs of 700bhp are quoted in the most extreme examples. The famous Bulgarian Audi Sport Quattro of Nikolai Zlatkov is a crowd favourite – as it ought to be with 850bhp from a remarkably smooth five cylinder motor.
Class E1 also gives us a crazy Greek Sierra Cosworth RS500 which appears to spend more time going sideways than it does forwards – and is all the better for it. The Portuguese fans go wild for the Ford Fiesta Proto-Mitsubishi. Pilot Mariusz climbs the mountain amid a barrage of exhaust crackles, accompanied by bursts of flame on the overrun.
For pure aural fireworks, though, there can only be one winner: the Ford Escort WRC of Panagiotis Lioris heralds its appearance with artillery fire that bounds along the valley and frightens the birds from the trees. Each upchange as it charges for the finish line is signalled by a mortar shot so loud and so abrupt that it seems impossible to believe it is the product of mere automotive internal combustion and not out-and-out warfare. It’s terrifying and theatrical in equal measure.
The field is 175-strong and features a nice mixture between home-brew specials and off-the-shelf machines from categories like GT3, R5 and TCR.
The most attractive specials of all are the two mighty Judd-powered rivals: the legendary BMW 320 which took the late Georg Plasa to multiple European titles; and the Mercedes SLK of Reto Meisel.
The BMW is particularly special and returned to competition at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed where driver Joerg Weidinger sped to third fastest time of the weekend. His entry speed to the Flint Wall was otherworldly and betrayed his huge talent, as well as the ability of the BMW. He is on strong form during Saturday’s practice runs before gearbox gremlins on Saturday morning curtail all running. It’s a sad end but at least such an important car is in one piece and the crowd treats it with suitable reverence.
The SLK suffers no such woes and sings up the mountain with increasing verve, necessitating corrective lock out of the penultimate hairpin by Sunday afternoon. It’s great to finally see this car in action as it was promised for Rechbergrennen in 2015 but failed to materialise.
One of Meisel’s key rivals in the E2-SH class is the diminutive but spectacular Fiat X1/9 of Manuel Dondi. The Italian hurls the Fiat at the hill with ridiculous enthusiasm; the car agile, responsive and apparently tail-happy. It looks the most exciting and biddable ride of the entire field.
There are simply too many diverting cars to mention, with motorcycle-engined sports prototypes catching the eye. I’ve never heard of Silver Car, nor BRC, and yet they climb the hill at a considerable lick. L. Joseba Iraola puts on one of the most stirring displays in his Hartley-powered Norma. Motivated by a tiny, turbocharged unit boasting over 400bhp with evidently little mass to push, the ultra-nimble Norma enables Iraola to punch way above his weight.
Particularly unusual is the Lobart LA01. This open-topped sports prototype is totally new to me and looks like nothing else on the grid with full carbon fibre bodywork, vast shin-shattering dive planes and an LMP-esque fin. Even Google struggles to provide much in the way of solid information but, motivated by a howling Mugen engine, it flies in Marcel Steiner’s hands.
Coolest of all, though, are the multiple Osella FA30s. These are aesthetically unique, featuring a central seating position, topped by a high airbox and surrounded by low-drag bodywork. They look part LMP and part GP2 – handsome and unfamiliar because they appear to compete solely in this niche branch of the sport.
After dominating practice, it comes as no great surprise to find Christian Merli using an FA30 to capture overall honours at Gubbio. He beats the great Faggioli by less than a second, both drivers finding a second overnight with Merli doing the climb in 1:17.85 – an average of over 95mph. The nearest Brit is Will Hall, who hauls his wayward Force to the top in 1:23.27 to beat compatriot Scott Moran by a scant two tenths. Their great domestic rivals Trevor Willis and Alex Summers are within half a second, suggesting that there isn’t much more time to find in one of the big bangers from Britain.
The whole weekend is massively enjoyable and the perfect advert for the sport of speed hillclimbing. The town of Gubbio has thrown open its doors to the event – and has proven to be the perfect setting for this kind of racing. The downtown chaos is welcome and the charming informality of proceedings is refreshing when compared to most FIA sanctioned events. This is motor racing how it used to be – and an antidote to the increasingly anodyne world of circuit racing. Just like motorcycle road racing, let’s hope it’s allowed to continue in this vein. It’s perfect just the way it is.