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Dreamscape: Running Supercars Up Switzerland's Gotthard Pass

No oncoming traffic, no speed limit.

Ben BarrywriterRichard Pardonphotographer

The rain has stopped, but headlights still glimmer on the road's slick surface, and fog swirls over the mountainside like lace curtains whipping in the breeze. Immediately ahead, there's a Ferrari 812 Superfast and a Dodge Viper ACR. Beyond them, Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 road cars queue side by side, homologation specials from 25-unit production runs. In the rearview mirror, a Ferrari FZ93 and Aston Martin Zagato Shooting Brake stand out in the line of exotics that coils down the Tarmac, coach-built rarities normally found in museums. Soon we'll run with this incredible pack up the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, closed specially for the occasion. No oncoming traffic, no speed limit.

The event's organizers claim that the Gotthard Pass has never before been closed for fun, nor has any other street in Switzerland. The road climbs to 6,909 feet over the Saint-Gotthard Massif in the Alps, tying German-speaking Andermatt in the north to Italian-speaking Airolo in the south, a vital link that just so happens to be awesome to drive.

In fact, there are three ways of making it from Andermatt to Airolo. You can drive the original cobblestone route or take the Gotthard Strassentunnel, constructed in 1980 to bypass the altitude and the wiggly bits in an arrow-straight line. The third option is the newer mountain road, built alongside the original cobblestones. What this road lacks in history, it makes up for in driver appeal, geography you'd normally require a parachute to appreciate, and the majestic engineering of its vast tunnels and precipice-spanning bridges. Guess which road we're taking?

For $3,400, two guests get a night at the Chedi hotel, an evening meal, and the chance to run up the Pass as fast as they like before letting loose on a nearby airfield.

Florian Lemberger, a lawyer specializing in finance, regularly organizes driving events with the Supercar Owners Circle, and he somehow convinced the Swiss authorities to close the Gotthard Pass. In total, 72 supercars are here, the rules dictating that only one example of each may attend, though there's been some inevitable flex—it's hard to begrudge a trio of McLaren P1s. There's definitely only one Maro Engel driving a  race car, though. "It's a chance to drive the SLS but also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive the Gotthard Pass," the DTM driver says. "I couldn't miss that."

For a pretty reasonable €2,800 (approximately $3,400), two guests get a night at the high-end Chedi hotel in Andermatt (Lemberger's real estate fund bought the place), an evening meal and presentation, and the chance to run up the Pass as fast as they like before letting loose on a nearby airfield.

Our ride is somewhat modest in this company, but it holds its own: the latest Porsche 911 GT3 with 4.0 liters, 500 horsepower, and a six-speed manual transmission. You'll pay $144,650, if you can get one. That's the same as a PDK model, but you get a mechanical—not electronically controlled—locking rear differential and lose 37 pounds, and the 3.8-second 0-60 time is 0.6 second slower.

A day earlier, we collected the car from Stuttgart and were soon driving in pouring rain in one stretch through Germany, touching 160 mph once it dried and traffic thinned on unrestricted autobahns, slowing over the border into Switzerland with its colossal speeding fines, then skirting past Zurich on toward the Alps.

There are detail changes throughout this 991.2-generation GT3: revisions to springs and dampers, a new operating logic for the rear-wheel steering, and a new engine cover and rear wing that sits three-quarters of an inch higher. The latter sounds insignificant, but you notice how much more it impedes rear vision than before. Together with a revised rear diffuser, though, the payback is 20 percent more downforce, Porsche says.

Most crucial of all, a new 4.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-six, the one shared with the GT3 Cup, RSR, and GT3 R race cars, replaces the 3.8. Along with that 500 horsepower,
it produces 339 lb-ft of torque, increases of 25 hp and 15 lb-ft over the 3.8. And you of course also get to choose manual or dual-clutch auto.

The 4.0-liter in the previous GT3 RS and R is mind-blowing, but there's even more energy to how this new GT3 revs, an extra kick to a power delivery that feels entirely free of inertia. Push past 5,000 rpm, and the howl gets even wilder, and when you're screaming to an outrageous 9,000 rpm, it consumes the cabin. This is easily the best-sounding 911 of the present lineup, a hair-raising soundtrack rivaled by few modern performance cars.

As we arrive in Andermatt, teenagers with $3,000 cameras spill into the road like some hybrid of Hollywood paparazzi and 1980s Group B rally fans. They move in zombielike packs, stirred by the growl of an approaching V-8 or V-12. They know the GT3 is worthy of a picture, but it's understandable when the hotel valet asks us to park around the back.

A young guy, Johan Jakobsson, seeks us out. He runs what must be an inordinately successful wholesale coffee business ("and a few other companies") and will drive his Ferrari 458 Speciale over the Gotthard Pass. "The manual?" he asks, eyeing the GT3. "May I sit inside?" He sets the perfect driving position, grips the wheel, and slices the gear lever back and forth with a satisfied grin. "I've ordered one," he says. "I know someone at Porsche. They got me on the list."

Beneath the hotel, the parking lot is filled with the most remarkable cars you'll ever see. There's a Ferrari FXX K, the track-only version of Maranello's already insane LaFerrari hypercar. The owner fires up the V-12, the almost painful yelp of every throttle stab intensified by the concrete walls.

Nearby there's a Ferrari F12 TRS (one of two), its body inspired by the 1957 250 Testa Rossa and its silvery gold paint apparently inspired by C-3PO. The hood leaves the V-12 partly visible, its blood-red plenum covers exposed like a beating heart, and its chopped wraparound glasshouse is more speedboat than supercar. The driver turns out to be a minder because the real owner can't be here. He also owns the red one.

There's an Aston Martin One-77, one of the new-old Jaguar E-type Lightweights, a Maserati MC12, a beautiful Ferrari 250 SWB that'll be voted car of the meet, and a lovely Porsche 930 Turbo with a RUF CTR conversion.

That evening, I attempt to mingle convincingly with the super-rich. There's the guy who loaned his McLaren P1 to Ferrari for benchmarking ahead of LaFerrari's launch; an Italian property developer, he would've been in his late 20s back then. Elliot Ross looks even younger, and he owns the 911 GT1. He's from Scotland, says the GT1's clutch is heavy; you can't see out of the cockpit, but he loves it. Oh, he's also got a Ferrari Enzo and an F50.

Eugenio Amos, 32, owns the CLK GTR, a V-12-powered homologation special made so Mercedes could contest the FIA GT championship of the late 1990s. He says he made money in real estate, has raced in the Blancpain endurance series, and is enjoying the car. "There's plenty of traction, and even on cold tires or if you drift it, it's not so bad," he says. Gah.

More than ever it seems like everyone is building a low-volume sports car. Paolo Garella is here in a Glickenhaus SCG 003 mule; Ameerh Naran runs a private-jet business and has secured an engine deal with BMW for his sports car; the CLK GTR owner plans a "kind of Singer version of a Lancia Delta Integrale" and has created a full-size clay model of the project. There's even a presentation for the Aston Martin AM37 powerboat.

The next morning, this most extraordinary gathering of supercars fires to life outside the hotel, the constant volleys of revs sounding as though a SWAT team is storming the lobby. With the poor weather, some cars, like the FXX K and TRS, are heading straight to the airfield. The rest roll through Andermatt's narrow main street, ready to run the Gotthard Pass in small packs at timed intervals. I can hear the first cars leaving, our group edging closer all the time, nerves jangling, the road still disappearing into fog above.

As a flag waves, a Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale leads us away. There's the gruff growl of its flat-plane-crank V-8, the yell of the 812 Superfast's V-12 immediately in front, and the induction suck from the GT3's flat-six as I release the clutch and get back on the gas after each gear change; that's a markedly different signature from a GT3 with a PDK. As the rock faces close in to our right, the rush of mechanical noise combines into one swirling din, soaring on the straights, rumbling through the corners.

The GT3 feels sensational. There's no doubt the PDK shifts faster, but the physicality of the manual definitely adds another dimension of interactivity: The short little shift lever demands you work a bit to pull it home, and the clutch is delectable with its midweighted heft and oily consistency. Some might find the brake is higher than ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts; you might have to roll your foot over excessively to blip the throttle during downchanges. At least the blips come automatically in Sport mode.

But the precision of the GT3's steering—there's more definition at its top-dead-center, perhaps a side effect of the chassis tweaks—the violent stopping power of its carbon-ceramic brakes, the car's perfect balance, and the way its feral speed never feels like it'll overload the chassis unless you demand it are unreal. It is difficult to imagine feeling more at ease in anything else here.

 "What an unbelievable event," he says as we pull to a stop. "I've never experienced anything like it. "

The road flows so smoothly as it rises from the valley that there's little need to brake hard initially, but the wet, high-speed kinks get me wobbling at the wheel, praying the Porsche's cold front tires bite. They always do. We climb quickly, and the route becomes more technical, ascending aggressively through hairpins, those kids stepping out into the road again, digging for YouTube gold and—you've got to assume—desperate for us to crash.

Someone tries. As we approach the summit, the road enters a tunnel that hugs the mountainside, protecting the road from rock falls and avalanches. I hear the 812 accelerate, presumably the better to hear its raucous V-12 melody. We're doing probably 80 mph, and as the revs flick up, I watch the Ferrari's back end snap out of line, the wiggle quickly slapped down by electronics. It's probably no bad thing that the fog becomes much thicker as we reach the top of the Pass, forcing the pack to slow ahead of the checkered flag.

I park, unable to see more than the road around me, and wait for photographer Richard Pardon to get a ride to meet me as one extraordinary car after another punches like a phantom from the gloom. No one, it seems, balled themselves up.

Writer and photographer reunited, we run with a Lamborghini Aventador S Roadster with Monaco plates toward Airolo, and as the fog lifts, its V-12 battle cry rises, slamming gear changes giving a throaty punctuation to the soundtrack. The GT3 never loses touch.

At the airfield, suddenly it's a summer day, and we watch as McLaren P1s duel against Porsche 918 Spyders in hypercar drag races. They accelerate off the line like marbles fired from stretched elastic bands, a sonic blur of screeching tires and hybrid-powered fury, the crowd peering into the distance, unable to see whether England or Germany actually won, just two hypercars on fast-forward vanishing in the haze.

We line the GT3 up against a Mercedes SLS Electric Drive, figuring we'll be destroyed off the line by its instantaneous torque. I give it 4,000 rpm, drop the clutch, and feel the fat rear tires bite, and the car pulls hard. I glance to my right, and the SLS falls back, the surprise making me laugh out loud. The SLS draws level by the time the Porsche is in third, but it can never overhaul the GT3 and can't keep up as we push past 140 mph.

I line up again, this time with the RUF CTR. I beat it off the line but watch in delight as it refuses to fall back, maintaining the gap as we shift at peak revs from fourth to fifth. We cross the line, and the Greek shipping magnate—yes, they exist!—and owner Aris Pissiotis draws up, boyish joy and the rush of adrenaline written all over his face, laughing with a thumbs-up punching out of the window.

"What an unbelievable event," he says as we pull to a stop. "I've never experienced anything like it."

Truth be told, neither have we. There's a plane to catch and a GT3 to drop in Stuttgart, and the clock's ticking. But one more run? Why not.

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