As I slowly open the curtains, a mild ray of sunshine lights up my room. I open up the balcony doors and step out to take a deep breath of fresh mountain air. It’s the first day of the 20th edition of the Silvretta Classic Rally in Montafon, Austria. This year’s rally would take me across several mountain passes in Vorarlberg and Tyrol over a total distance of 595 kilometers.
At breakfast I received a crash course on the rules, regulations and overall objective. The basics are as follows; the Silvretta Classic is not about who is the fastest from checkpoint A to checkpoint B, it is more about precision in special assignments on the way. Every participant starts with a provisional time and will have to reach the next checkpoint within a certain amount of time. For instance, the first stretch of the day from A to B may be 45 kilometers long and participants are given 65 minutes to reach the next checkpoint.
So if you start at 9:00 AM, your target time for the next checkpoint would be 10:05 AM. There is a one minute error margin on both sides, but teams that arrive way too early or late are heavily penalized. In case you are too early, there is a waiting area right before the checkpoint where participants can wait and then clock in the right time. That being said, you can overtake other participants and drive as fast as you can, but you will have to let the teams that started before you into the checkpoint first – if they are on time that is.
On the way there may be a variety of ‘special assignments’ that include driving a small stretch within a certain amount of time. The more seconds you deviate from the target time, the more penalty points you get which ultimately sets you back in the rankings. The special assignments are illustrated in the road book and can be paced using a pre-programmed app on an iPad that is handed to every team. Occasionally there may be an unannounced ‘secret’ assignment on the way as well, which is not pre-programmed and requires precise pacing skills of the co-driver using an analogue stopwatch.
[Stage 1] 116 km – Partenen to Schruns
“So it’s quite simple really; here is the gear lever, there is the handbrake and this is the handbrake release.” After breakfast I was given instructions on how to operate the classic 1972 Mercedes-Benz 280C (W114). It had about 45,000 kilometers on the odometer but looked in pristine condition. Compared to some of the participating cars manufactured as early as the 1920’s and 1930’s, the 280C sure was one of the better-equipped vehicles on the starting grid. It even has an electric sunroof and a primitive version of today’s climate control.
Once I turned the key in the ignition, the inline-six engine came to life with a modest rumble. Reversing out of the hotel’s driveway was probably the most challenging of things the first day, given that the 280C is not equipped with a sideview mirror on the right. After a bit of maneuvering we were soon on our way towards Partenen, where we would start the first stage of the rally.
I was part of the Mercedes-Benz classics team which additionally included the 1928 SSK driven by former racing driver and brand ambassador Klaus Ludwig, the Mercedes-Benz C 124 and the 300 CE 6.0 AMG ‘der Hammer’ driven by former Formula 1 driver Karl Wendlinger.
There was no time for a warm up the first day, within an hour of the starting shot we found ourselves on the highest point of the Silvretta Hochalpenstraße, one of the most picturesque pass roads in all of Europe. The first few kilometers uphill were challenging but fun. Large crowds of people and enthusiasts made it out to see all 203 classics and young-timers take on the Silvretta pass.
The 1972 280C quickly proved to be a very capable companion. The inline-six produces 160 horsepower, which was plenty to get us to the top of the pass road. Linked to a 3-speed automatic gearbox, this classic is all about the comfort but still very enjoyable to drive. It took me a while to figure out that I could press down on the pedal even further, giving the 280C that little extra punch needed to get up the mountain faster. I have to say, shifts were quite seamless and direct for a car that is 45 years of age.
As we enjoyed the scenery and the curvy mountain roads we soon approached our first time trial. Let’s just say that there was a small learning curve before I got the hang of it. Once we continued back down the pass I quickly forgot all about my mediocre first performance and enjoyed putting the 280C through its paces, exactly as it should be. With the Silvretta Pass behind us, there were a few more time trials left before we finished our first stage in Schruns.
[Stage 2] 326 km – Partenen to Gaschurn
With 326 kilometers through several Austrian provinces, the second stage of the 2017 Silvretta Classic Rallye was by far the longest and most challenging. After all it was a competition, breakfast at 6 AM is definitely not something I do for fun. As the sun started to light up the valley in the morning we again made our way to Partenen for a 7:50 AM start.
During the second stage I was the co-pilot, which doesn’t mean you can just sit back and relax. I was in charge of the roadbook, timing and directions, which is just as challenging as driving the car. The first highlight of the day came about an hour or two later when we drove up the Flexenpass, a challenging pass road with a peak altitude of 1773 meters. The Hammer would always start behind us, so during the way up the Flexenpass I managed to get a few nice shots of the iconic AMG.
After passing through the famous ski-town Lech we crossed into Tyrol and took on the Hahntennjoch pass at almost 1900 meters above sea level. The views were as breathtaking as some of the classic metal taking part in the rally.
After a well-deserved lunch break we geared up for the biggest challenge of the rally: the Kaunertal Gletscher. The toll road leading up the glacier is every petrolhead’s dream. It is the fifth-highest paved road in the European Alps and features 29 180 degree turns until you reach the highest point at 2750 meters. The views, the road, it was absolutely stunning. To realize that the majority of classics made it all the way to the top made it all even more impressive. Although we were under a little bit of time pressure, we took a short break to take in the scenery and snap some photos with the 280C, almost able to touch the snow.
The way down was just as exciting, really putting the 280C’s brakes to the test. All that was left that day was an enjoyable rendez-vous with the Silvretta Pass as we made our way back to the heart of Vorarlberg, where we would meet that day’s checkered flag in the town of Gaschurn.
[Stage 3] 153 km – Partenen to Vandans
The final stage of the 2017 Silvretta Classic would take us and the Mercedes-Benz 280C through the heart of Vorarlberg and included some imposing mountain passes over a stretch of 153 kilometers. With peak temperatures of well over 30 degrees celsius we already saw a few participants stranded on the side of the road by the end of the morning.
The real action would start early afternoon, when we took on the Faschinajoch (1487 meters) and the highest point of the third stage, the Furkajoch (1760 meters), shortly after. The brutal heat and steep mountain passes again formed no match for the highly capable 280C, which saw us safely cross the finish line in Vandans late afternoon.
Right before crossing the finish line there was a final time trial, the grand prix of Vandans. We had to take on the Hammer with Karl Wendlinger behind the wheel and drive a stretch of 40 meters in exactly 9 seconds. Having had a few days of practice, I was proud to have clocked in just a few tens before 9 seconds, ending the rally on a positive and satisfying note.
The evening program included a lengthy awards ceremony and a nice recap of this year’s Silvretta Classic Rallye, which has been one of the most fun and exciting events I have been able to experience so far. I would like to thank Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Benz Classic and the organization of the 20th Silvretta Classic Rallye for having me on this fascinating adventure.