Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Road Trip: The Stelvio Pass



About The Route:

Best time to Go: Weekdays during May, June, September and October

Total Distance:  41 km

Altitude: 2760 meters

Starting Point: From Bormio, Italy take route SS38 northeast through the Stelvio National Park on to the village of Stelvio itself.

Places To Stop: At 9.4 km, a nice pullout to view the West slope hairpin complex and tunnels. 20.3 km, the peak with a small village of restaurants and tourist kiosks, as well as one of the most spectacular views of the Northern hairpin complex.

Road Type: Very narrow mountain pass with rock retainers and a mixture of smooth and rough tarmac.

Warnings: Tunnels are dark and narrow so flashers and horns needed; bikers are suicidal as well as oncoming farm tractors.

 

Review:

It is in a constant state of trying to take your life. The Stelvio Pass, or Passo dello Stelvio, has so many different threatening driving situations that your life can be taken any number of ways. It is a living entity that will haunt your dreams if not handled with the proper respect, yet requires a level of aggression to concour and enjoy as adrenaline flows through your veins. It is a truly terrific creation that the ass kissing bureaucrats of Ottawa would have heart attacks at the mere mentioning of building such a spectacle in Canada. So what better place to test the limits of BMW’s new Z4.

 

My journey starts in Munich where I went to talk to BMW’s head of Chassis and Brake testing, Andreas Lichte, about what car gave him the most pleasure to drive and what road would he most enjoy driving it on. Lichte has been testing BMW’s since 1991, and for him there is no greater road than that of the Stelvio Pass, a route well used by BMW to test their braking systems and suspension components. If they can survive the Stelvio, they can survive anything the average motorist can throw at them. Lichte’s prime choice for this road was the all-new 2009 Z4 sDrive 35i, BMW’s premier sports roadster/coupe. And so, I left BMW’s test fleet facility with a Z4 in hand, heading for the Italian-Swiss boarder to experience the Stelvio.

 

After the long drive I finally arrived in Bormio Italy, stopping off at a large pullout at the base of the mountain on highway SS38 to mount in-car cameras and check the car over. Despite the low season, it came as no surprise of the Stelvio’s popularity as I was soon joined by several other high performance rides, piloted by drivers from all over the world. A TVR Chimaera driven by some Brits, some Aussies in a Mustang, a couple Frenchmen in a Renault Clio Sport RS, and several Germans sporting the best of Zuffenhausen and Ingolstadt, while I held up the pride of Munich in the Z4, sporting a small maple leaf on the back. With the glorious roar of V-8, V-6, Inline-6 and a screaming four-banger power, the multinational train of performance cars raced up the western valley. With a group like this however, a leisurely tour over the pass was never a possibility as we all competed to get to each look-out before any of the others, get our pictures than jump back in to do battle on this amazingly challenging stretch of road.

 

As our little convoy worked its way up the narrow west slope, dodging oncoming bikers and a tractor of all things, we appeared out of the last of six tunnels carved into the rocky cliff-side. Ahead was the first hairpin complex towering so high above it was blocking out the sun. Our narrow rocky run that demanded absolute confidence in the dimensions of the automobile now dives into a series of tight switchbacks that climb up onto the alpine highlands. Bouncing back and forth between 2nd and 3rd gear as I zigzag my way up the slope we break out onto a long stretch full of high-speed bends through a beautiful green meadow. A nice calm before the perfect storm that was to come, and come it did, as our little competition came to a full and complete halt at the top of the pass.

Just meters beyond the mass of tourist kiosks on the peak trying to rid you of your money, lays one of the most spectacular sites of the automotive world. Standing in shock, with a cold sweat rolling off my brow, a dropped jaw and a little bit of drool hanging off the corner of my mouth as I gaze upon the engineering masterpiece that is the Stelvio East slope. What I saw was mile upon mile of excitement written in tarmac, stretching as far as the eye can see. Mile after mile of driving glory on a slope so steep some of the hairpins aren’t even visible from the lookout. Jumping into the drivers seat, my hands have a slight shake in anticipation of the route ahead. But the Z4 is an extremely capable beast, and Mr. Lichte used this very stretch to hone its performance.

Nerves quickly fade as I plummet the car down the mountainside, there is no room for error now. One slip up now and I either tear off the side of the car on the stone barriers, or launch it through a hairpin, to spend eternity rolling down one of Europe’s tallest Alps. With the adrenalin flowing and sweat beginning to form, I was not the only one heating up. A third of the way down and the distinctive scent of well-worked brakes began to fill the cabin, the technical difficulty of the road challenging both driver and machine. Carving around banked hairpins with the cobble stones from the old road showing through, the driving ecstasy seemed never ending as the road continued to fall down the alp into the Stelvio valley.

 

Cruising through the thick forest into the village of Stelvio, a stop was required to take in the magnitude of what I had just accomplished. To a driving enthusiast, the Stelvio pass has a character all to itself, giving drivers extreme challenges of steep slopes, narrow roads, a great mixture of slow and fast corners, spectacular views and a route that is more enjoyable than most racing tracks.

 

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