Motorsport in Switzerland: Racing to innovate

This past June, motorsport returned to Switzerland’s capital for the first time in 65 years. The Julius Baer Swiss E-Prix brought back memories of the last Swiss Grand Prix in 1954, delivered the same level of excitment – but with some new twists – and offered a glimpse into the future of mobility.

Those were the days: 1954

A war-weary Europe was on its way to recovery. Peace was in the air, with the recent establishment of both the United Nations and the European Coal and Steel Community (which was to become the European Union). Prosperity was rolling: Swiss national incomes were 25% higher than their pre-war levels. Entertainment had resumed, including important international sporting events between 1948 and 1954. Switzerland turned a hat-trick in sport, holding the 1948 Olympic Winter Games in St Moritz, the Swiss Grand Prix in Formula One from 1950-54 and the football World Cup in 1954. Berne sparkled as the jewel in Switzerland’s crown – playing host to the latter two.

Magnificent men in racing machines

In August of 1954, 17 drivers from eight countries blasted off for the 480 km (300 mile) Swiss Grand Prix, the seventh of nine fixtures in that year’s world championship. Drizzly rain didn’t dampen enthusiasm. Thousands of spectators crowded the course, a 7 km, more-or-less oval that wound through the woods, between the Bethlehem district of Berne and the neighbouring town of Bremgarten. From today’s retrospect, the whole thing looked rather quaint: drivers in goggles and leather helmets, cigar-shaped race cars, officials and spectators in period dress.

Harry Schell on Cisitalia D46 gets lapped by Jean-Pierre Wimille on Alfa Romeo 158 at the Swiss Grand Prix

Except it wasn’t

Actually, it was anything but quaint. Average speed of the winner, Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, was 181 km per hour on a wet track that was more like a series of semi-paved country lanes. And this was back before modern conveniences like power steering, computer-controlled brakes and automatic transmissions. Although Fangio in his Mercedes held the lead throughout, a fierce battle engaged either to catch him or to capture second. British legend Stirling Moss in his Maserati gamely chased the leader lap after lap, only to be overtaken by another British legend, Mike Hawthorne, in a Ferrari.

Stirling Moss in his Maserati 250F

The Brits then duelled, passing each other repeatedly, until both of their cars clapped out – Moss with a failed oil pump, Hawthorne with a lube leak. Fangio just extended his gains, lapping the field, while his Ferrari-driving countryman José Froilán González finished second, and his Mercedes teammate, the German Hans Herrmann, crossed the line third.

Sir Stirling Moss and the 1954 Swiss Grand Prix

The British racing legend Sir Stirling Moss is – next to the German Hans Herrmann – the only living person who stood on the starting grid of the 1954 Swiss Grand Prix. The man who competed in 67 Formula One races between 1951 and 1961, winning 16 of them, has a special connection to the fifth and last edition of the Formula One race in Berne, since it got him into the best cockpit of that time. The story goes like this: In 1953, his father had asked Mercedes whether his son could drive for the Mercedes team. “Mercedes racing manager Alfred Neubauer replied: ‘Your son’s a good driver, but he doesn’t have a competitive car. First of all, put him in a good car so he can prove how fast he really is,’” Moss told a journalist. So he and his father bought a Maserati 250F for the 1954 Formula One season.

In Berne, Moss managed to get his inferior car into pole position during the first qualifying session, ahead of both Ferraris and both Mercedes. The heavy rain certainly played in his favour, as wet tracks tend to level the playing field, rewarding skilled drivers. “Unfortunately it was dry the next day, so that I fell back to third position on the grid during the second qualifying session. In the race I finally had to pull out due to a technical issue. But Alfred Neubauer was impressed by the previous day’s pole position and offered me a contract shortly afterwards.”

All quiet on the Swiss front

Little did the drivers (or anyone else) in that 1954 event know that it was the swansong of Swiss Gran Prix. Racing was much more hazardous in those days. As Sterling Moss recalled: “In the fifties and sixties, dangerous types of sport were something normal, and death was an accepted occurrence.” But this attitude began to change. In the wake of a 1955 crash during the 24 Hours of Le Mans that killed some 85 people, Switzerland’s government prohibited most types of car racing. For just over 60 years that ban went untouched, but by 2015 public opinion had moved enough for the government to exempt one kind of race: that with electric cars. So opened the door to E-Prix in Switzerland: first in Zurich on 10 June 2018, followed by this year’s in Berne on 22 June.

These are the days: 2019

Much was different about Berne’s return to racing. Formula E cars buzzed past Berne’s Bear Pit overlooking the Old Town. A triangular course snaked its way around the Rosengarten above the city centre, down ordinary streets (that were of course cleared and made safe for spectators). 

The Julius Baer Swiss E-Prix race track in Berne 2019

Unlike most other courses, Berne’s wasn’t flat, it sloped down for one half and up for the other. This challenged drivers to conserve their battery power – a key factor in Formula E. Finally, e-racers have ultra-modern styling but without the hellish noise of their internal-combustion cousins. Their decibel counts are around 80, not much more than the 70 rumbled by ordinary street cars, while Formula One racers scream in at around 140. For all that, what’s not changed is probably the most important feature: the anxieties and thrills of a high-speed chase. A massive pile-up on the course’s first turn followed by an exciting 45 minutes of wheel-to-wheel action, a photo finish in the rain, and a podium finish for hometown hero Sébastien Buemi all ensured that the 2019 Julius Baer E-Prix would be another classic race for the motorsport history books.

Picture credits: Main image: Mercedes AMG, Grand Prix Suisse: Hallwag Publishing, Stirling Moss: French curious, race track Berne: Swiss E Prix.

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