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Tuesday December 13, 2016 - Email this article to a friend

It's known as the Free Fall and this is why. The slope is 45 degrees and the downhillers at the World Ski Championships in February will reach 140kph in 6 seconds. PlanetSKI was invited up top to take a look.

"When you come up there and you look down, you think - s**t, it's quite steep."

The master of that understatement is Bruno Kernen, the 1997 men's downhill World Champion and winner of the bronze medal the last time the World Championships were held in St Moritz in 2003.

The Swiss racer is talking to me about his first experience of the Free Fall, which was designed for those 2003 championships.

Bruno KernenBruno Kernen

















"On my first training run I thought I'll take it easy," he says. 

"As I was going out of the start I pushed hard once with my arms.  Usually you push your arms in front of you three or four times, but here it was not possible because you are already accelerating too fast.

"I was quite impressed."

The racers reach an astonishing 100 kilometres an hour within 4.6 seconds, and 140kph - that's 87 miles an hour - in just 6 seconds.

Racer in the start gate, Free Fall, St MoritzPhoto: Alessandro della Bella/Copyright: Ski WM St Moritz 2017















Bruno Kernen says he made it to 120kpm in around 4 seconds when he won his bronze medal in St Moritz.

"I was thinking I never had such a fast car!"

If he did, I wonder whether that fast car would also corner well.

After the first 250m of the downhill course, there's a compression and a sharp left turn.  You really don't want to get that wrong.

"The turn is super important," Bruno tells me, "as after that it's super flat.  You need two things for the flat - a fast ski and the maximum speed from the exit of the turn.

"If you miss that turn you immediately lose 10 to 15 kilometres an hour and you pay heavily."

Fortunately, I do not get the opportunity to test this out.

But I do get to look down from the top.  It's a privilege offered to a small group of international journalists ahead of the 2017 World Championships.   

The Piz Nair cable car takes us up Corviglia mountain and drops us off at a platform.  From here we -  and the ski racers - must ascend a 187-step metal staircase to the start at an altitude of 2840m.

Staircase to the top of the Free FallUp to the top













Staircase to the top of the Free FallUp to the top













We are told the racers - men only, the women's downhill starts further down the hill - have to carry their own skis up for practice but not for the race itself.

They might have to pose for photographs on their way up to get their breath back. {#emotions_dlg.wink}

Jane Peel on the Free Fall staircaseJane Peel taking a rest













Photos from the top looking down cannot do the Free Fall justice, but you can see the sharp left hand bend below.

Looking down on the Free Fall, St MoritzIt's down there














Looking down on the Free Fall, St MoritzSharp left













There's limited snow at the top of the course during our visit 2 months before the World Championships begin, but we are told that soon a snow cannon will be brought up to begin slope preparation.

The process of getting any course race-ready is time-consuming and requires expertise. 

Here it also requires crampons, ropes and harnesses.

Preparing the Free FallHold tight - photo Bruno Kernen




















Whoever thought of putting a race start in such a difficult location?

That would be Bernhard Russi, the 2-time world downhill champion and 1972 Olympic gold medallist, who has designed all the major downhill courses for World Championships and Olympic Games since 1988.

He claims to have had the idea for the Free Fall start as long ago as 1974 when he was still competing and St Moritz hosted the World Championships for the 3rd time.

Bernhard RussiBernhard Russi - photo FIS













Daniel Schaltegger, Chief of Media 2017 Alpine World Ski ChampsDaniel Schaltegger at the Free Fall














"He said the race here was flat and boring," Daniel Schaltegger, Chief of Media for the 2017 Championships says.

"He said if we come back here (to St Moritz) it has to be special."

Free Fall men's downhill start, St MoritzFree Fall - not boring















It was another 29 years before the Championships did come back to St Moritz and the Free Fall was created to make the men's downhill less "boring".  

Now every time there is a race here - the last was the World Cup Finals in March 2016 - the initial preparation of the start area costs about 3 million Swiss Francs (roughly £2.3 million).

That preparation is about to start in earnest, and on Saturday 11th February 2017 at 12.30pm local time, the first racer will launch himself out onto the Free Fall.

This camera footage using a fish-eye-lens, from the 2016 World Cup Finals, gives an idea of what he'll face.

The World Championship men's downhill will be roughly 2.7km long with a vertical drop of 800 metres and it will probably take the racers under 1 m 20s to complete.

Its route follows the path of the Corviglia piste and spectators will be able to view the race along almost its entire length.

2017 World Ski Championships coursesThe World Championship courses




















For those who can't make it in person but can get near a TV set,  Bruno Kernen will ski the course from start to finish wearing a helmet camera. 

It's a role he now undertakes for Swiss TV and he will be on the downhill course recording his point-of-view footage just before the first forerunner is sent down.

By then, the first of the racers will be climbing those 187 steps ready to tackle the steepest downhill start in the world.

The countdown to the world championshipsThe countdown has begun















The FIS Alpine World Ski Championships take place in St Moritz from 6th to 19th February 2017.

PlanetSKI stayed at the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains in St Moritz. The trip was arranged by: Switzerland Tourism, Engadin St Moritz Tourism, Swiss International Airlines and Switzerland Travel System

See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.

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