Credit where it's overdue
Nino Vaccarella is remembered as a Targa Florio specialist, when in fact he won all the big events in sports car racing’s golden age
By Michael Oliver
We’d wager that Nino Vaccarella wouldn’t immediately spring to mind if you were asked to draw up a list of great sports car racers. A Targa Florio specialist surely, we hear you say, a one-trick pony.
But consider this: Vaccarella is one of only two people (Olivier Gendebien being the other) who won Le Mans, the Sebring 12 Hours, the Nürburgring 1000Kms and the Targa Florio during the halcyon days of the World Sports Car Championship – the period from 1958-73 when these races were all title rounds.
Each one was regarded as a blue-riband event and many drivers would have given their proverbial right arm to win just one, but to have won all four… Perhaps the label of ‘Targa specialist’ does not do him justice.
Motor Sport caught up with Nino at a hotel midway between Cefalu and Campofelice in his native Sicily which was being used as the headquarters for a round of the FIA Historic Rally Championship, the Trofeo Florio. Vaccarella was the Grand Marshal, driving an Alfa course car over much of the route of the Piccolo Madonie circuit on which he raced in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
For someone of 75, Vaccarella is in remarkable shape. Slim, immaculately dressed and slightly built, he has a proud but serious air about him that perhaps reflects years of having carried the hopes and dreams of half a million Sicilians on his shoulders, while also maintaining a career running a private school.
So how did he become involved in racing?
“It was a passion from birth. I come from Sicily, which has a grand sporting tradition – Vincenzo Florio had started the Targa Florio in 1906 – plus there were the ‘Grand Champions’ to look up to like Ascari, Castellotti, Musso, Collins, Gendebien and Biondetti.
“My first race was a local hillclimb in my father’s Fiat. After his death, in 1957, I bought a Lancia Aurelia 2500 [B20 coupé], a formidable machine, potent and difficult to drive. I was second in class three times that year in hillclimbs at Monte Pellegrino (Palermo), Monte Erice (Trapani) and Sant’Agata near Sorrento.”
Although he continued to focus on hillclimbs the following year, circuit racing gradually became a more frequent part of Vaccarella’s itinerary. For 1959 he had his first contact with one of the big works manufacturers, Maserati, negotiating a deal through Guerino Bertocchi to buy a four-cylinder 2-litre 200SI.
This was a car some way past its peak but Vaccarella won virtually everything he entered, including his first circuit race victory at Pergusa, while a ride to 10th place in the Targa Florio aboard Giuseppe Allota’s ageing 1954 Maserati A6GCS was his first chance to shine on the international stage.
Vaccarella’s success with the 200SI had not gone unnoticed at Maserati and they fixed him a drive with the Camoradi team in the 1960 Targa Florio, co-driving with Umberto Maglioli. But he was forced to retire when leading handsomely. His big break came via Count Giovanni Volpi, patron of Scuderia Serenissima, who contacted him to race for the team in both sports cars and Formula 1.
Volpi effectively paid for the Maserati works to keep racing for two more years in sports cars. But the rear-engined Tipo 63 Birdcage wasn’t a patch on its front-engined predecessor and a fourth place with Maurice Trintignant in the Targa was the best Vaccarella had to show for his efforts.
Volpi also ran an eclectic selection of F1 cars including Climax and Maserati-engined Coopers and a de Tomaso with Alfa Romeo power.
Nino’s Grand Prix debut came with the de Tomaso at the tragic 1961 Monza race in which Wolfgang von Trips lost his life: after qualifying mid-grid he retired early on with a blown engine. Later in the year, a puncture robbed him of potential victory in the Coppa Italia at Vallelunga in the Cooper-Maserati.
Vaccarella’s dalliance with F1 continued into 1962: sixth at the Pau non-championship race in a Lotus 18/21-Climax was his best finish, although he did manage ninth place later in the year in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza aboard a more modern Lotus 24. He even had a works drive with Porsche at the German Grand Prix, qualifying and finishing in 15th. But his heart wasn’t really in it: “At that time the F1s were 1.5-litres and the sports cars were 3- and 4-litres, much more difficult but fantastic to drive. I just preferred sports cars.”
Nino’s sports car season started inauspiciously when his Maserati Tipo 64 lasted just 16 laps in the Sebring 12 Hours. Things got better at the Targa when the team managed to do a deal with Porsche to run a works 718 GTR coupé with the two drivers to be chosen from the trio of Bonnier, Hill and Vaccarella. “In practice I was faster than Bonnier and Hill, and Graham had to stay in the pits for the race. On the second lap I lost the brakes and so we drove the rest of the race without them and finished third. Von Hanstein of Porsche was a big fan of mine after that.”
His time with Scuderia Serenissima gave him experience of all the important sports car circuits of the world, and in 1963 it was his turn for ‘the call’. “Ferrari telephoned to ask me to become an official driver for the World Sports Car Championship. This for me was the best championship, better than Formula 1.”
Success could have come early in his Ferrari career but for what Vaccarella believes was a slip-up by officials: “In the first race at Sebring with Mairesse and Bandini we were first, with a one-lap advantage over Surtees and Scarfiotti, but the American timekeepers were stupid. They didn’t see the Surtees car stop for a lap. My team manager told them but they said no, it was OK, the car didn’t stop. That was a bad error and it lost us the race.” (Surtees doesn’t agree! See p51 – ed)
It was an ominous taste of things to come: in the Targa Florio he couldn’t start due to having his licence taken away following a road accident, and things got even worse during practice for the Nürburgring 1000Kms when Nino crashed heavily and broke his arm. The injury was severe enough to keep him on the sidelines for the rest of the year.
He describes 1964 simply as “the year of success”.
It was a remarkable season, starting with a repeat of his second place at Sebring and then his first major international victory, in the Nürburgring 1000Kms with Ludovico Scarfiotti, banishing the ghosts of the previous year’s disaster for good.
Vaccarella recalls that win as being particularly satisfying given the legendary circuit’s unique challenges. “It was the best circuit in the world, very difficult and very dangerous,” he says. “Because there were no guardrails at the edge of the track, it was possible to go through the hedge and roll down a hill. And the danger of the cars catching fire was high if that happened.”
It was, however, his victory at Le Mans that year in the unfancied 275P Ferrari which really made the headlines. Driving a factory entry with Frenchman Jean Guichet, the duo moved steadily up the order as more fancied runners, including all three works Ford GT40s and the sister 330Ps of Surtees/Bandini and Hill/Bonnier, dropped by the wayside or were delayed by various niggles. By the 12-hour point they were in the lead and were never headed again, finishing with a five-lap advantage.
Having missed the Targa in ’64 as a result of Ferrari not sending any cars, the burden of expectation on Vaccarella’s shoulders for 1965 among his native Sicilians was high. He duly delivered, coming home four minutes clear of the second-placed Porsche.
As a reward for his Targa win, Enzo Ferrari gave him a works drive in the Italian GP, but in a second-string car. “My car was an eight-cylinder and Surtees and Bandini had the 12-cylinders…” A blown engine at three-quarters distance put paid to his race, in what would be his last front-line single-seater appearance.
During 1966, works Ferrari drives were sparse. In the Targa, team-mate Bandini was forced off the road while well in contention. Vaccarella even took a works Porsche drive with Jochen Rindt as his co-driver at the Nürburgring, placing third on the grid but crashing out in the race.
This, and the earlier good impressions he had made with Porsche management back in 1962, led to an offer of work for ’67. “Von Hanstein said to me ‘come and drive for Porsche’ but Ferrari had the more powerful 3- and 4-litre cars that I preferred. The Porsches were just 2-litres at the time. Of course, after that they moved on to build the 3-litre 908 and then the 917 and were very successful, so maybe I was a bit stupid to turn them down…”
Instead, he opted to take the occasional works Ferrari drive and whatever else was on offer, scoring a class win and fifth overall at Sebring in a Scuderia Brescia Corse Ford GT40 with compatriot Umberto Maglioli, and fourth with Herbie Muller in a Scuderia Filipinetti-entered Ferrari 412P at Monza.
When Ferrari outings came his way, Lady Luck did not smile on him: in the Targa he slid his P4 wide on the first lap at Collesano, putting him out, while at Le Mans, sharing with Chris Amon, the car punctured and caught fire. A win and some minor placings in non-championship races with the GT40 were scant consolation.
A fresh start was needed and Alfa Romeo, with its new prototype T33/2 sports car, was just the team to offer it. “My first race was Daytona with Udo Schutz. We finished fifth and first in the 2-litre class. Later, I won the Circuito Mugello, on a very difficult and dangerous road circuit, more dangerous than the Targa because the speeds were higher. I also won the Imola 500Kms, the first overall victory for an Alfa Romeo T33.”
In 1969, a new prototype 3-litre hit the tracks. “I was third at Hockenheim and also scored the first victory for the car at Pergusa. But everything on it broke – the engine, the gearbox. It was a new car, I suppose…” The only highlight was doing Le Mans with his old pal Jean Guichet in a Matra MS630 coupé, in which they came home a competitive fifth.
Frustrated by Alfa’s lack of reliability, Nino sought comfort once more in the bosom of the team he knew best – Ferrari – with its new 512S prototype.
“I was paired for most of the year with Ignazio Giunti, a good driver, and I think we had the best results in the team.
“We were first at Sebring with Andretti [largely, it should be said, due to a tigerish final stint from Mario], second in the 1000kms at Monza, third in the Targa Florio, third in the Nürburgring 1000Kms (driving with John Surtees) and fourth in the 1000kms at Spa. But Porsche’s 917 was simply quicker and they won the championship.” The Sebring triumph came seven years after being denied the win by officials and completed Vaccarella’s quartet of ‘blue-riband’ event victories.
In the absence of any offer from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo beckoned once more. By 1971, its 3-litre car was well and truly sorted, although unable to keep pace with the larger 5-litre cars in their final year. It proved ideal for the twisting roads of the Targa and a second victory, in front of an adoring home crowd, was a formality after the faster Porsches were eliminated.
“That year the Alfa was very good. They had done a whole week’s testing before the race and the car was fantastic.”
Staying with Alfa for 1972, he finished third with Toine Hezemans behind the dominant Ferraris at Sebring, but the rest of the year was a disappointment, early retirement in the Targa compensated for by a fourth – albeit distant – place at Le Mans. Then Autodelta decided not to field any cars in the remaining championship rounds.
At the end of that year Nino’s son Giovanni was born and his thoughts began to turn towards retirement. He confined his racing in 1973 to just a few events and didn’t even get to take his turn behind the wheel at the Targa when co-driver Arturo Merzario retired their Ferrari 312PB early on.
He couldn’t resist one final hurrah in 1975, when he drove an Alfa once more in what was now a non-championship Targa. “[Carlo] Chiti asked me to drive the new 12-cylinder with Merzario. Arturo was different by then, more quiet, and we won easily because there was no serious competition.”
So there you have it. Yes, he won three Targa Florios, but he also showed tremendous versatility in winning at Le Mans, Sebring and the Nürburgring. A clue as to why he may have been pigeonholed comes from the man himself: “Enzo Ferrari always used to say to journalists, ‘Oh Vaccarella, brilliant for the Targa Florio’ because I did well in it. But I preferred Le Mans and other high-speed circuits like Spa and Monza, not the Targa.” When you look at his achievements, it is evident that Nino Vaccarella is anything but a one-trick pony.