Targa, Targa still burning bright

Sicily’s epic road race has cracked the ton. Although the event’s golden era is 30 years past, the mountains still echo to the scream of competition cars. Words: Johnny Tipler. Photography: Antony Fraser

You’re a Time Lord and you’ve just materialised at Campofelice in Sicily. You ask what year it is. Early 1970s, judging by the 60 or so sports, GT and touring cars filtering through the town. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1973, to be precise, as the ratio of Porsche Carrera RSs, Lancias Stratos and Fulvia, Alfa GTAs and Alpine-Renault A110s on the entry list of the centennial event (held in June 2006) was entirely consistent with that of the last Targa Florio to boast world championship status.

The days of an 11-lap, 490-mile Targa are long gone, sadly. Even this island’s carefree populace understand that this can never be revived. So the 21st century version was a comparatively tame three lap’s worth of regularity rally stages, the 44.7-mile Piccolo Madonie having been chopped into three timed sections. But it lacked nothing in the way of action for all that, as full-shot race cars hammered over the mountain roads. Flagged away at minute intervals from the old Cerda pits, their progress (complete with spine-tingling soundtrack) could, from innumerable lofty vantage points, be enjoyed for at least a couple of miles as they wound up and down gradients and gearboxes until they blasted by, drivers working like mad.

Based at the ancient coastal town of Termini Imerese, the 2006 anniversary encompassed a lap of the island in the style of the old Giro di Sicilia race, a concours, an art exhibition, a vintage car display and an autojumble, before culminating in the weekend’s regularity event. For the latter the Palermo Automobile Club and facilitators Promoinvest had attracted an impressive field of mainly Italian-crewed GTs, plus a smattering of Prototypes. The oldest runner was Martin Shelley’s 1911 SCAT, which gamely managed a couple of laps, as did David Biggins’ 1913 Nazzaro – both winning marques in their respective years.

The tortuous course is composed of poor-quality B- and C-roads. Rockfalls and slumping asphalt are spectacular in places. Sometimes half the road has fallen away. It was never this bad in the old days, according to 1968 winner Vic Elford, although, as he says, “The potholes and deformed surface were often further complicated by the fresh application of animal by-products!” And much of it is Armco-lined now, which wasn’t the case in the 1960s, when spectators did the job.

In 1970 Elford hurtled his Porsche 908/3 up Cerda’s high street at 150mph; this time there was no racing through the towns, but they all still hustled smartly through Collesano and were mobbed by enthusiastic locals at the Campofelice checkpoint. Elford, who drove the Porsche Cayman course car, and local hero Nino Vaccarella – a winner in 1965 with Ferrari, and in ’71 and ’75 with Alfa Romeo – who was competing in a Lancia Aurelia on this occasion, were made honorary citizens of Termini Imerese in a gala dinner ceremony.

In their heyday Elford and Vaccarella were regular Targa sparring partners and occasional team-mates. The former was a race/rally driver with a prodigious memory for a road. The latter taught law at a Palermo school and could be heard religiously learning the circuit on balmy evenings. Both knew this bewildering course like the back of their hands.

More noted for his sportscar performances with Ferrari – for whom he also won the 1964 Le Mans 24 Hours – and with Alfa Romeo, Vaccarella was paired with Jo Bonnier in the Porsche 718GTR that came third in the ’62 Targa Florio.

In turn, Elford, a Porsche stalwart, returned from a stint developing Can-Am Toyotas at Fuji to drive for Autodelta in 1972. Partnered by another Porsche refugee, Gijs van Lennep, Vic’s weapon was the V8 Alfa Romeo T33TT3, the precursor of which had been very successful in the 1971 world championship – winning three times, including the Targa – and thus looked a reasonable bet this time around in the absence of works Porsches. Alfa, however, had been regularly humiliated by Ferrari’s 312PB, and although Maranello sent just one car to Sicily, it was enough: Alfa finished 2-3; Vic retired when his engine let go on the first lap.

Vaccarella had his Targa dramas too. Although he crashed his Ferrari 330P4 on the second lap in 1967, throwing away a huge lead in the process, he still cites it as his favourite car. He better enjoyed his stints with Alfa Romeo, though: “I got on very well with [chief engineer] Carlo Chiti. He was a good man whom you could talk to, whereas Enzo Ferrari was more difficult.”

Vaccarella came close to another Targa win in 1970, sharing a Ferrari 512S with Ignazio Giunti. They kept the purpose-built, lightweight Porsche 908/3s honest until their 5-litre car’s profligate mpg caught up with them and they were forced to settle for third: “The Porsche was easy to drive; the Ferrari was more powerful, much more difficult. Two laps was okay, but you were tired after that.”

The 2006 winners, Antonio Stagno/ Sergio Palazzolo in a Porsche 911 RS 2.7, were hot and sweaty, though they didn’t look exhausted. But it’s the spirit that counts, and there was plenty of that in Termini Imerese this year.