Enter the dragon

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Italian rally legend Sandro Munari’s love affair with the Targa Florio road race began in 1967 with a Lancia, culminating in a dramatic win for Ferrari in 1972

By Anthony Peacock

Sandro Munari was known as il drago (the dragon) and his following at home was such that his most devoted fans used to kiss the asphalt he had just driven on. Insanely competitive, he became the first person to win the Monte Carlo Rally three times in a row and made the twisty mountain roads of Sanremo his own – you can still see the legend ‘Munari’ daubed in fading paint on more than one crumbling wall. 

Surprisingly, Munari only won his home rally once but he was driving a Lancia Stratos, so who’s counting? 

In 1967 il drago won the Italian Rally Championship driving a Lancia Fulvia HF coupé for the first time, and in the same year his employer decided to try him out on the Targa Florio in the same car. He retired but his racing debut sparked a minor obsession, so Lancia entered him again in 1968. 

Realistically, Munari could not hope for much from the 1298cc V4 Fulvia against the might of the Porsche factory team. It was also almost foreign territory for him – the Targa Florio was as far away from the area around Venice where Sandro was brought up as it is possible to get in Italy.

Contrary to expectations, the little Lancia beat several far more powerful cars to finish 11th, and Munari was also gratified to beat his illustrious rallying rival Paddy Hopkirk, who was competing in an MGB GT.

Much as he enjoyed driving it, the diminutive Lancia was never going to give one of Italy’s biggest motorsport heroes the chance to win that he craved. For that Munari had to wait until 1972, when he was called up by Ferrari to drive the new 3-litre flat-12 312PB. Alfa Romeo had dominated the previous year with Nino Vaccarella, so Ferrari gambled on some fresh young talent for its single entry, in the form of Munari and Arturo Merzario, who had just started in grand prix racing. By contrast, Alfa Romeo entered an intimidating line-up that included Vaccarella, Vic Elford and Helmut Marko. 

Elford took the lead as expected before damaging his Alfa at the end of the first lap, but the Munari-Merzario 312PB’s pace was surprising. After Vaccarella’s engine failed, Marko took the fight to the Ferrari, passing Munari at the half-way point to record a fastest lap of 6min 41sec. A bit of luck came the Italian’s way when Nanni Galli, sharing with Marko, spun. But Marko was soon back in the Alfa, hounding the winning Ferrari all the way to the flag – finishing only 17 seconds behind. Not only was it the fastest and closest Targa Florio ever, but the most spectacular. No surprise, then, that it was won by Italy’s most flamboyant driver.

The final irony is that Munari, now 66, runs a safe driving school in association with Mercedes in northern Italy. Yet he does not take his safety crusade too seriously. “These days, I think racing drivers and rally drivers have it a lot easier,” he says. “The risks are gone, but also the adventures. And events like the Monte Carlo Rally and the Targa Florio were real adventures. There was no room for mistakes…”