It has been a good 200 years now since the mountains lost their terrors and the first mountaineers to scale the Alpine peaks went off not only in search of the magnificent views stretching out below them, but also to seek a confrontation with themselves and to discover their own personal limits. Meanwhile, however, one would occasionally wish the mountainous regions had retained some of the deterring power they once possessed – because the thin air beyond the tree line would now seem to be increasingly clouding common sense. And you don’t even have to travel as far as Mount Everest base camp, which nowadays looks like the Tiergarten park in Berlin after the Love Parade. All you have to do is go for a drive on one of the famous high Alpine pass roads during the summer months to experience the limits of man’s ability to use his head in mountainous regions.
We too love the curves and hairpin bends of the Alpine roads of course. There is hardly a more satisfying experience for a sports car driver or motorcyclist than to open up the throttle and sweep through the curves on the Grossglockner High Alpine Road or to climb to the Stelvio Pass in the early hours of what promises to be a beautiful, cloudless day. But having said that, do adults – who were at least capable of putting all the crosses in the right boxes during their driving test –really have to drive with the exhaust flaps open, do they really have to raise the spoilers as an added boost in what are Europe’s most pristine natural paradises and scream through the mountains with scorching tyres as if they were attempting to qualify for the next race in Monza or Mugello? And does one really have to overtake the car in front on a blind bend in heavy traffic and on a public road high up in the Alps, when one has never travelled on the road before?
And quite regardless of whether you are a solitary kamikaze rider testing the limits of the centrifugal forces on your racing machine as you hurtle downhill or are following your pack instinct on a supercar poker run through Europe – if you overshoot the braking point on the mountain and end up leaving the road between two vintage milestones to disappear into a bottomless void, then the moment of realisation that an Alpine Road is perhaps not the ideal racing circuit is as profound as it is short. There were plenty of people travelling up and down the mountains at speed 50 years ago of course. But when James Bond is pursuing Goldfinger through the Furka Pass in his Aston Martin DB5, then he had 280 bhp – and not 600 under the bonnet. Many of today‘s sports cars and motorbikes have far too much power for the steep and narrow roads in the Alps. That also applies to the driving experience itself – in a purist classic car or a small, lightweight roadster, the experience of driving on mountain roads is undoubtedly more direct and more intense than at the wheel of an immensely powerful, hermetically sealed hypercar speedster.
Soul on board
We of course are also part of the problem. With every magazine and book in which we celebrate the beauty of Alpine roads and present them in the simple magnificence of their architectural aesthetics without the annoying distraction of long lines of traffic, we make them more attractive. And to grant ourselves special rights as alleged “curve connoisseurs“ would be both elitist and presumptuous. Even so, when you have been driving through the mountains constantly for many, many years and get out of the car to explore the countryside and talk to the people who live there, you develop a feeling for the bigger picture. You begin to think about the situation, attempt to identify your own standpoint and question your own sense of responsibility. And when it is not only the conservationists, but also mountain lodge wardens, helicopter pilots, hot dog stand owners and snow removal workers who tell you they are concerned about the condition of their Alpine world, then you should listen to what they are saying.
Because with every roaring hell hound staccato that shatters the tranquillity of the mountains and with every daredevil driver in his gull-winged, high-performance sports car that flies into the radar traps X times faster than the permitted speed and straight onto the front pages of the local newspapers, the discussion starts up again as to whether it would not be better perhaps to close the Alpine passes to motorised traffic completely. South Tyrol, as part of the “Dolomitesvives“ project, the aim of which is to make the Dolomite region worth living again, has meanwhile decided to close the Sella Pass to traffic in the summer months completely from 9 am to 4 pm. For 2019, a general ruling is expected – and it is only a matter of time before other state governments follow suit.
You will find our response to this discussion in the subheading of this magazine, which we take as our main theme: Soulful Driving. Put very simply, this means enjoying the driving experience and showing respect for the beauty of the Alpine countryside as we do for all the other people we meet on the road and close to it. To take the time to explore the Alpine roads and discover what they have to offer. And not to go so fast that you inevitably end up leaving your soul behind.
And here‘s another bold thought to end with – perhaps the nicest soundtrack for a tour through the Alps is not from a roaring eight cylinder, but the gentle whirr of an electric motor. To many petrolheads, the mere thought is still impossible to imagine. But to someone who had the pleasure of gliding silently and nimbly through the curves of the Fuorn Pass on a wonderful day in October at the wheel of an electric sports car – the window down, the cockpit filled with the fragrance of Swiss stone pine and savouring for a moment the gurgling of a mountain stream – it is clear where we are going. The technology is still not quite ready for the acid test in the high Alpine regions, but the development work is moving ahead at a fast pace. What is initially more important than the range of the batteries, however, is realising what intensive and impressive experiences the new technologies will enable us to achieve. And how we will be able to give back the mountains their former tranquillity – without losing them completely as places we long to visit.