The Klausenpass

In its day The Klausenrennen was the longest toughest mountain-climb of them all. Andrew Frankel journeys to Switzerland to find a forgotten gem.

You will be forgiven for never having heard of this place and forgiven too for wondering why a site which has never even held a race should be included in this series, particularly when its last serious stab at international motorsport was more than 65 years ago.

Then, however, the Klausenpass was spoken of in reverential terms, for it was the king of the European Mountain Championship, the Nürburgring, Monza and Spa of its chosen discipline. Mountain-climbing was no niche sport: it was seen as one of the toughest, most exacting forms of motorsport of all, as much a must on the calendar of the world’s greatest drivers as the German Grand Prix. You have only to look at how often the likes of Caracciola, Chiron and Nuvolari came here to know how important it was.

Oddly, it was not a picture of one of these greats but of another, Hans Stuck, which made me realise I had to come here. Balancing his monstrous V16 Auto Union in a colossal powerslide as the mountain surrounded him, it is as evocative an image to me as Fangio slithering through the downhill sweeps of Rouen in a dented Maserati 250F.

This was 1934. The day the shot was taken, August 5, on the last day the Klausenrennen would ever be run, he was pipped only by Caracciola. On the Grand Prix circuit he would win that year at the Nürburgring, at Bremgarten and in Czechoslovakia. It was cruel indeed that the driver’s championship started the following year for, had 1934 been included, Stuck would have walked away with it and his name preserved with the true greats and as the first to show the potential of Germany’s formidable new racing cars.

Spool forward to the present day and though the Klausenpass remains in all its formidable glory you should not venture there without thinking about the consequences of it being located within the borders of Switzerland. Though many racing drivers have chosen to live in this country over the years, there cannot be another in the western world more averse to the whole concept of competitive motorsport.

The terrible accident at Le Mans in 1955 caused a knee-jerk ban in Switzerland of all motor racing and you only have to travel down a motorway at l0mph over the limit and you will see with explicit clarity and some considerable expense just how frowned upon the concept of speed is in this country. And recreational speed? You have to be kidding. It is a minor miracle that in 1993 and again in 1998, the authorities closed the pass and allowed a few old historics to run up to the top.

So when you go there, abandon all expectation of finding any of the usual furniture of motorsport. There are no crumbling towers, no foundations for grandstands or any kind of overgrown paddock area. There is just a road emerging from a village called Linthal at whose westernmost point there is a chalk line drawn across the road with ‘Start’ written by it. Then, 13.4 miles later there is another line with `Ziel’ scribbled at its side. And that is it. But what a 13.4 miles it is! So far as I can see, this is the most exciting stretch of public road in the world and, by the time you have reached the top you’ll have decided it would have been worth the trek even if it had never once been used competitively.

And it is, to be honest, some trek and as full a day’s drive as you’d ever want to reach it in one hit from London. Had we had more time or a car less capable of devouring the miles than the BMW, we’d have split it up into a rather more gentle two days. But if cars like a 328Ci can’t do a journeys like this with ease, then they’re not worth buying. The tunnel took us to Calais where you can either take the direct but heavily policed and trafficked roads down through Belgium and Luxembourg to Germany or, rather better, take the longer but, in reality, much faster route through France. You pass Reims on your way to Metz where you turn south-east to Strasbourg, cross the Rhine and enter Germany. A quick blast down the autobahn — enough to prove the BMW will reach and hold a true 150mph — and into Switzerland at Basel before turning south-east to Zurich. The motorway network then takes you south of the city, running out some 20 miles short of Altdorf, the nearest town to the Klausenpass.

Ah, Altdorf. For those of you who don’t know already (and, until I went there I counted myself among your number) Altdorf is the birthplace of William Tell, Switzerland’s fruit-splitting answer to Robin Hood and a man with achievements rather more based in historical fact than his Nottinghamshire counterpart. Altdorf is more than a little proud of its heritage. You can’t move for shops, structures, statues and monuments dedicated in name and substance to the town’s favourite son. And if it does prove a touch grating once you have booked into the William Tell hotel, gone to the William Tell bar and drunk a few well earned William Tell beers, you have to have a certain sympathy for a town trying to do no more than make the most of its heritage from those plying the route to Italy from Switzerland via the San Gotthard tunnel.

References to the motorsports heritage of this place, however, are somewhat thinner on the ground. Make that non-existent, in fact. Much as I’d loved to have stayed in the Caracciola Gasthof and slunk out for a few Stuckies at Tazio’s, sadly it was not to be.

The following morning we set out early for the Klausenpass, light traffic and perfect weather promising much. We reached Linthal and scouted around for some sign of its illustrious past, a shop perhaps or a poster — something to tell the world that here started the longest (equal with Mont Ventoux in France) and most difficult mountain climb of all but it seems it’s not just Altdorf that’s ignorant or uncaring of the happenings here, so many years ago.

So we started up the mountain, looking for the one piece of Klausen history I was sure we would find: a tunnel, mentioned in the contemporary Klausen reports. It was near the start but, on the way down into Linthal there had been no sign of it But you can’t just knock down a tunnel like you might destroy a section of road and we felt sure that if we looked hard enough, we’d find it

It was Stan, our intrepid photographer who found it; behind a wall, up a rock strewn path that appeared not to have been visited by humans in years. A hole in the wall allowed the BMW access to the path but it was only after some of the more strenuous exercise I have ever taken that I was able to clear a path wide enough to reach the tunnel entrance.

‘Eerie’ barely does it justice. The tunnel is, in fact, two tunnels, blasted out of the side of the mountain, claustrophobically walled only by craggy rock face and paved by cobbles worn away by Auto Unions, Mercedes, Alfa Romeos and Maseratis. I have no better idea than you how long it has been since people were last here but of the usual detritus found in such tucked away, disused locations, the fag packets and beer cans, there was no sign.

All we found was a chipped and broken Linthal milestone and a sense of awe at the thought of lightless racing cars plunging in here at hideous speed, negotiating its fearsome curves in the dark before emerging into blinding daylight once more.

On the far side of the tunnel the giddy climb continues, the road switchbacking as the altitude passes a kilometre above sea level. The scenery is changing. Trees are more sparse, the countryside greyer. Suddenly the road opens onto a straight running beside a river as the course shoots through a valley between two mountains. Any car would reach within ten per cent of its top speed here and while the prospect of Stuck and Caracciola howling down here at 160mph seems daunting now, then it was probably a blessed relief, a few seconds peace before the final ascent.

And it is only here, on that last mad dash for the sky that you begin to see why Stuck and his A-type Auto Union might be able to hang onto the shirt-tails of Caracciola’s W25 Mercedes. Traction is what you need here, even on today’s dry and tolerably surfaced road. Back in 1934 it was so wet the organisers wondered whether the meeting would even go ahead. The mid-engined Auto Union may, in the right hands, just have held a trump card here.

The BMW copes well enough. It lacks the power to challenge the grip of its chassis, even with the traction control switched off and its preferred angle of attack is defiantly nose out. Brutal manhandling and wildly over-ambitious entry speeds will finally provoke the car into more neutral responses but it’s not a natural state for the car which seems to lose more performance with every additional uphill metre. By now the track is a seemingly endless series of tiny straights and hairpins. And by the time you near the top you will be above the snowline, whatever time of year you visit; this is surprising only until you consider it is fully 2000 feet higher than the summit of Ben Nevis.

At least up here, nearly two kilometres above sea level, some people have remembered what went on here. Near the top and, if you know where to look you will see the words “Tazio” and “Rudi” chalked into rock face. In Switzerland you have to rely on graffiti to know this place has not been entirely forgotten.

Back in 1934, on that last day of the Klausenrennen, Rudi reached the top 15 min 22 secs after leaving Linthal. Stuck was three seconds behind, beaten by one error when he allowed the Auto Union to drift too far and lost time collecting it all up. The next man, the Maserati-bome Whitney Straight, was nearly a minute behind.

It was the last time any competitive motorsport would be held on the course until 1993 when the authorities finally relented and allowed timed runs up the pass. Imagine, just for a moment, how much the road surface would have improved over nearly 60 years and how much more speed modem technology has been able to prise from old engines. Then bear in mind that the weather had been rather kinder second time around. Yet not one of the 450 drivers and riders beat Caracciola’s time.

The Klausenpass is one of the unsung heroes of Europe’s motor sporting heritage. In one way that is a shame as such places are to be celebrated. But at leastthis means no one has tried to exploit and, inevitably, spoil the location. Go there and, save the bypassed tunnels and resurfaced road, every inch of the course is how it was the day Caracciola last roared up there. And that, combined with the awesome majesty of the place and the incredible driving that can be done there should be all the reason you need to go.