Italy's historic hillclimbs

words - Peter Robinson
photos - Tim Wren
Robbo and a Ferrari 599 turn demolition team on four of Italy's most compelling historic hillclimbs wheels magazine

Hill razer

Wheels Magazine
December, 2008

This I love. A single white line transverses the bitumen. From the evidence of fresh, violent wheelspin that squirms up the hill it's obviously the start-line for a competitive motoring event. This is the N45, the old road link between Trento and Vason and notorious in certain European motoring circles as the Trento-Bondone Hillclimb.

Men and machines have been coming here since 1925, pitting themselves against an absurdly dramatic climb that soars from 275 metres in the Adige valley to 1650 metres high in the Alps. Just 17.6km of endless blacktop that twists and curves and crests and dips and dives and climbs in the race to the clouds. It is, we discover, one of the truly great European roads, more challenging and with much greater variety than even the heralded Stelvio Pass and, as we will realise tomorrow, vastly superior to the legendary Futa Pass that formed a key section of the Mille Miglia road race.

Today most of the local traffic uses the newer and wider, far less cornered, N45 Bis that now forms the main road from Trento to the northern end of Lake Garda. Our Ferrari 599 Fiorano rests at the start-line early on morning three of a four-leg adventure that takes in four historic northern Italian hillclimbs. The 599 has served us well but now faces its greatest challenge. Via the F1-style steering wheel manettino, I've moved the tactile little switch to Race and CST-off mode. Flick the right paddle to select first, hold the car on the brake, tread throttle, check and build revs, lift left foot, shove throttle. In theory the Ferrari should light up the 305/35ZR20 rears; instead there's a momentary chirp and a flash of hesitation before the 599 lunges forward. The sickly stench of fried clutch fills the interior. Either I've made a mistake in setting up the car for the blazing departure that circumstances surely demand ... or is it possible that such a steep ascent throws enough additional weight over the rear end to stop you seriously spinning the wheels? My fault, I suspect.

Prudence insists there is no second chance - we don't want to destroy the clutch. Instead, the 599 abruptly gathers itself and the rush up the long climb begins. Initially, the road is virtually straight for 500-plus metres, the Ferrari accelerating hard to 175km/h before the first tight left-hander demands flicking down three gears via the left paddle - fifth to second in an instant - and squeezing hard on the brakes. We're into the shade of forests and a series of hairpins the 599 demolishes. The Ferrari handles superbly, the steering surprisingly light but fast and accurate, while traction out of the bends is flawless, helped by the same active differential that works so well in the F430. These are ideal conditions to prove traction is the 599's great advantage over its nose-heavy 550/575 predecessors. Despite the 1690kg mass and bulk of a 1961mm body width, through this severe workout the bloody thing feels agile. The (optional) ceramic brakes are well up to the job and far more progressive and user-friendly than those on the $502K, 412kW Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4.

The texture of the bitumen may change, yet the quality of the road surface is excellent and a full two lanes wide. Surprisingly, sight-lines are mostly good, only occasionally is caution required. I can only imagine how fantastic it must be to drive this road during the annual hillclimb, knowing there's no on-coming traffic. Even as a sole runner with no stopwatch to worry about, it's magic.

Slow now through the alpine hamlet of Sardagna. Ancient houses cling to the slopes, the mountainous countryside verdant. Always the spooling road climbs relentlessly, the scenery streaming through the screen as your fingers constantly work the paddles and the ugly part-carbon/part-leather wheel rim, and your feet play with the pedals. The 6.0-litre V12 feels utterly seamless above its 4600rpm torque peak, the thunderous sound bouncing off stone walls, the world spilling into fast forward whenever its full force is unleashed.

A sequence of tight bends, stacked so closely you can see the apexes one above the other, drops the Fiorano to first and second. Some corners are almost full circles, defined by wooden barriers and set among oak trees. I don't dare look over the edge to the valley, now at least 1000 metres effectively straight down. In the seemingly empty villages of Candriai and Vaneze, twin black streaks often mark the entry to hairpins, the only obvious proof that this road is, for one weekend of the year, a race track. Now we're above the tree line and the road has opened out; there's even an occasional sweeper. Mostly I'm still working second, third and fourth gears on the unremitting climb. It must be exhausting to race here against the clock, for it's a challenge even when you're not in a real hurry.

There is only exhilaration at the summit. We are seemingly on top of the world. Stretching away to the east are five - or is it six? - layers of blue Dolomite mountain ranges, their peaks still snow capped, despite the mid-summer season. We could be in an aircraft, the view down into the valleys is so distant. The air temperature has chilled, plunging from 26 degrees at the start to just 14 up here. The only sound is a clicking from the Ferrari as the hard-worked V12 cools.

Editor Bulmer suggested my last summer living in Italy should include a couple of epic drives. To Nardo by Gallardo as the first (Wheels, October, more here). Discussions with Maranello generated the idea of taking a 599 Fiorano to four of Italy's most famous hillclimbs. It seemed right and proper that the first should be the Parma-Poggio de Berceto hillclimb where a young Enzo Ferrari made his debut as a racing driver. On October 5, 1919, 21-year-old Ferrari drove his CMN to a fourth-in-class finish in an event won by Antonio Ascari - father of twice world champion Alberto - in a 4.5-litre Fiat GP car.

Research reveals that the event, run between 1913-1939 on a course that varied in length between 53 and 50.6km, started in Parma's historic Piazza Garibaldi. For the first 25km this is no hillclimb, the Ferrari slowly making its way south across the utterly horizontal Po Plain. It's not until Fornovo, on the edge of the Apennine mountains, that the N62 Cisa Pass road becomes remotely interesting. Fortunately for us, most of the traffic now prefers the A15 autostrada that also connects Parma with the Mediterranean coast. This road, used on various Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo press launches, I know reasonably well. As the N62 winds quickly up into the mountains, it's far from smooth and often narrow, demanding in the extreme on both car and driver and not all that enjoyable to drive. Even in a 599.

Over the years the surface has become disfigured by seismic activity; in parts it simultaneously undulates laterally and longitudinally. If taken at speed, the inconsistent ripples could easily throw a poorly suspended car into the undergrowth. Not the Ferrari, whose double-wishbone suspension soaks up the punishment, the brilliant magnetic dampers set to 'comfort' (rather than the default 'sport') mode and absorbing the brutal treatment, changing direction quickly and smoothly with controlled precision, the electronics happily sorting out things when the driver's talents end.

What also impresses is the very rigid structure. Still, we're not pushing. Not too hard, anyway. Dozens of twists later, the road eventually climbs to 957 metres before spectacularly dropping down to 808m for the finish in Berceto. Unless you must see where Enzo began his racing career, this is not a road I'd recommend. The first evidence of Ferrari's participation is a small circular plaque - Prima Corsa Di Enzo Ferrari - on the outside of the left-hander just south of Riola.

Photographer Tim Wren, snapping the 599 from the apex, discovers that, 100mm below the bitumen, this road was once cobblestones. You can only imagine what that must have been like, even at 1920s racing speeds.

Time to point the Ferrari to the autostrada and 350km to the west into the mountains beyond Turin. Long hours in the 599 on the speed-limited Italian expressway (officially 130km/h, but an indicated 140km/h is acceptable) confirm its credentials as a consummate long-distance car. The roomy cabin, a perfect driving position on supportive seats (helped by electric adjustment of the buckets and steering wheel), proper refinement of ride and drivetrain, plus the Fiorano's naturally aspirated immediacy of performance and sharp chassis responses, make this one of the great Ferraris. Only a range, effectively limited to 450km by the 18.9L/100km average fuel consumption, disappoints.

Snapper Wren is still not convinced. He wants a supercar to feel like a supercar, and we agree that the Ferrari is not as extreme as the Gallardo. For a start, you sit much higher.

"The Ferrari feels like a grand tourer; I can't imagine anybody throwing it around on a circuit," he contends. "But I guess they do. I just don't get the same sense of occasion as I did in the Lambo."

Coming from the east, we drive the Cesana to Sestriere Hillclimb in the wrong direction, downhill. From the Winter Olympic town of Sestriere at 2035 metres, we descend 690m in 10.4km to Cesana, just 7km from the French border. Just after entering Cesana, Wren spots two parallel white lines across the road, complete with wheelspin tracks. A poster in a cafe reveals that just three weeks earlier, the 27th Cesana-Sestriere event took place over the weekend, attracting hundreds of entries.

There are just two corners and no Armco (apart from in the lone village, the only place where the road narrows) so the climb is fast and breathtakingly dangerous at speed. The near-empty road, a smooth surface, some fantastic sequences of hairpins, all mostly with terrific visibility, proves the Ferrari's sheer breadth of ability. This is a great GT car, yes, but the chassis offers handling and grip that means no matter how fast you go there always seems to be something in reserve, so it's also a brilliant sports car. Wren's comments are accurate, but I'd take the Ferrari's combination of skills anytime over the sharply focused Lambo. Maybe it's an age thing.

After the Sestriere and Trento-Bondone climbs, the Futa Pass is a major disappointment. Set close to Ferrari's Mugello race circuit near Scarperia in the rolling Tuscan hills north of Florence, the Futa and succeeding Raticosa Passes were made famous by the Mille Miglia. Today, they are overrun with trucks working on the new autostrada and high-speed train line that will connect Bologna and Florence. But it's not just the traffic. Trees cling close to the edges of the road, severely restricting visibility, and rationing any development of the flowing driving style that devours the road and leaves the 599 driver panting for more. Combined with a lumpy, slippery surface (created by close proximity to a few cement works), progress is muted. The road clings to the west side of the hills and, apart from the Mille Miglia reruns is, understandably, no longer used for competition. Four time MM winner Clemente Biondetta is remembered by a huge monument at the top of the 903m Futa Pass. Nearby, a German war cemetery reminds us that some of WWII's bloodiest battles took place in the Apennines.

That morning we washed the 599, but by the time we peel off the via Abertone Inferiore and through the factory gates, the gorgeous nose is splattered with bugs and road grime. It's been an epic week, 1846km in the making. We've found two of Europe's best roads and I beseech you to try them, if ever the opportunity arises. And we've confirmed the greatness of Ferrari's two-seater V12. The F1-style gearbox is not quite perfect, but when you tap into the Fiorano's latent ability you discover a spectacularly exploitable GT that can be fierce and utterly absorbing, yet in equal measure is also easy to drive quietly. The combination of these roads and this car is addictive.

Body: Aluminium, 2 doors, 2 seats
Drivetrain: Front engine (north-south), rear drive
Engine: 5999cc V12, dohc, 48v
Power: 456kW @ 7600rpm
Torque: 608Nm @ 5600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual
Size (L/W/H): 4660/1961/1340mm
Wheelbase: 2750mm
Weight: 1690kg
0-100km/h: 3.7sec (claimed)
Price: $650,300
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Published : Sunday, 4 January 2009
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