Sicilian Sojourn

Author

D.S.J

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64

Britain Pays a Conquering Visit to an Island

In previous years the Paris Salon has ended my summer travel and I have usually headed north from the French capital and returned to a cold, damp England and winter hibernation. This year, however, the Sicilian nobleman, Vicenzo Florio, decided to organise his fabulous Targa Florio race on October 16th and the Automobile Club of Syracuse planned to run their postponed Grand Prix event on October 23rd, so, leaving the rather heavy atmosphere of the Grande Palais, I turned sharp right and motored over one of the bridges of the Seine and headed south. Now Sicily lies in the Mediterranean at the very toe of Italy and there are various ways of getting there, the easiest and quickest being to fly to Palermo; a restful way is to take a boat from Cannes, Genoa or Naples, depending on how much motoring you feel inclined to do; and the difficult way is to drive all the way down to the Straits of Messina and take a ferry-boat across the few miles of water to the island.

It was the last way that I took, being reluctant to give up driving the Porsche for very long, and just to make a change I took the coastal road from Cannes right down the whole length of Italy. An easier route is to go down the east coast of Italy and round the base, the way being very flat and fast, whereas the Mediterranean coast road is a horror. The main road runs down the centre of the Province of Calabria, from Naples, but having done this last year, I preferred to explore the unknown west coastal road. Once past Naples the roads are so twisty and mountainous that even with the Porsche at peak revs, in second gear my best hour’s run was 33 miles, while the slightest relaxation of effort dropped the average below 30 m.p.h., and a Porsche is one of the nippiest cars in mountain country. At the end of an afternoon’s motoring I contemplated advertising the top gear for sale, for I thought I was never going to use it again. After three and a half very full days of driving I reached Villa San Giovanni in the most wonderful sunshine, with the island looking delightful on the other side of the blue water.

Being the last to arrive for the ferry, I reversed on, ready for a quick get-away, and immediately the doors were shut we sailed away. These ferry-boats are open at one end only and take two lines of railway coaches as well as cars and lorries, and as the first train is put on the boat gives a sickening list to one side, righting itself when the second one is fed into the gaping mouth. Having a blunt nose, the business of arriving at the jetty is simplified, for an enormous wooden bulwark is made the same shape as the boat and the timbers are mounted against huge horizontal coil-springs. The navigator merely has to aim the boat vaguely at the wedge-shaped quay and wait until the boat makes contact, when it then comes up all-standing as soon as it fits the shaped jetty, whereupon everyone rushes straight out from the open prow.

Being the first of our boat load to land on Sicily, I was soon away and twisting and turning my way along the 165 miles of the north coast of the island, with the sun disappearing behind late-afternoon clouds and the sea turning from blue to green, and then becoming a brown muddy colour. Nearing Palermo just before dark, the heavens opened with no warning and a truly tropical rainstorm fell down, the roads being inches deep in water while the storm lasted. After another 15 minutes it was all over and I was motoring on dry roads again, which was all very puzzling after the wonderful summer weather I had experienced all through Italy, but it was apparently typical of Sicily at this time of the year, as I was to discover later on. The Targa Florio circuit runs along part of the coast road and I stopped for a while to look at the brilliantly floodlit pits and grandstands, where work was still in progress, even though it was 7 p.m. A little farther on I caught up with a DB2 Aston Martin towing a Mark IX Lotus and, stopping for a chat. I found it was Michael Young and Geoff Richardson on their way back to Palermo after some practice. The layer of mud on the Lotus looked as though they had come from a trial, but it seemed that the torrential mountain storms were washing the fields onto the roads faster than the peasants could shovel them back again, and there was a certain amount of chaos evident. Leaving them, I pressed on and just outside Palermo I was passed by a 190SL Mercedes-Benz, and the back of the driver’s head looked very like Peter Collins, while the car looked as though it was being driven by Collins! Arriving at one of the main hotels the day’s motoring was completed by finding that my booking bad gone astray and the members of some conference vastly outweighed the motoring contingent, but by a stroke of luck I chanced upon Carroll Shelby, who had space for me in his room.

This was  y first visit to the Targa Florio, though not the first to Palermo, and my first impression was one of complete chaos; the second impression was the same, but that’s another part of the story. With a circuit, of 45 miles to the lap and 13 laps to cover, the last few were going to be done in the dark, so everyone was going round the course at all possible times of the night and day in any available motor vehicle, and there seemed to be a continual stream of drivers coming and going. Castellotti and Maglioli were just arriving, Fitch and Titterington were just leaving, Collins had been, Moss was going late, Fangio was out there, as was Musso, and everyone was experiencing terrific rainstorms on one mountain side and dry roads on the other, while an hour later on the next lap the conditions were reversed. Officially, there was no practice, but that particular 45 miles of Sicilian roads was in continual use, as was the 30 miles from the start near Cerda back to Palermo where everyone was staying.

The next day dawned clear and fine, and after lunch I went out to the circuit to put in some laps as passenger in a certain type of German sporting coupé, driven by a well-known driver. Without doing some fast laps of the Targa Florio circuit the visit would have been wasted and I could not possibly have got an appreciation of what the event was really like. The roads were completely open, with the local bus running and mule-carts and peasants all over the place, but as this sort of unofficial practising had been going on for nearly 10 days, even the mules were keeping an ear cocked sideways for the sound of an approaching exhaust. One stretch of the course had a very good surface and the SL was slid round the never-ending succession of tight swerves with a rapidity that tore my stomach from its moorings with the effects of centrifugal force. The rest of the course was rough and bumpy, and the car had to stand up to a terrific battering. When we started, the sun had been shining but by the time we were half-way round visibility was down to a few yards and the rain was threatening to make dents in the aluminium body; in places there were two or three inches of mud completely across the road. An hour later we found everything dry and men with shovels putting the mud back on the fields and standing the walls up again. At one point there was no rain and we saw a very sound umbrella lying in the middle of the road so, after stopping, we reversed back to pick it up, for an umbrella would be a real asset we thought. Just as the driver was leaning out of his door to pick it up I looked back and saw a 190SL sideways across the road and making straight for us. When I opened my eyes again it had gone past and the umbrella was in the 300SL, but for a tense moment Daimler-Benz nearly lost two cars and the two Targa Florio winners, to say nothing of Motor Sport losing its Continental Correspondent. We did think of inverting the — umbrella to catch the sweat from our brows!

The week before the event went by with never a dull moment and every day someone bounced off something or struck a rock, but there was not a single personal casualty. Sicilian roads are so winding and twisting that you are either accelerating hard or standing on the brakes, so that you are either leaving the accident rapidly or arriving at it with ever-diminishing rapidity, and the resultant impact is seldom serious. On the 30 miles from Palermo to the circuit there was an accident of some sort every day, ranging from baby Fiats pressed against rock walls by large lorries, to lightless mule-carts rammed up the back by hurrying 1,900 Alfas, one such incident covering the road in vegetables, hurling the peasant driver into a muddy ditch and standing the very surprised mule on its head.

By the Saturday afternoon before the race there seemed a good possibility of it being postponed as the rains were winning over the road-sweepers and, apart from mud, large boulders were rolling onto the road. As a precaution the start was moved forward from 9 a.m. to 7 a.m., and that meant that the fast cars would just finish in daylight, for at this time of the year Sicily is dark by 5.30 p.m.

Of the race there is little to say as it was fully reported last month, but the day was clear and dry with a perfect blue sky and a blazing sun, so that the whole time was spent in shirt sleeves. By spending the first few hours of the race wandering along the circuit up into the hills I really found the true fascination of the Targa Florio. At one point, near a farm, the road went through a series of 70-m.p.h. swerves and round a tight right-hand corner over a bridge, then winding its way round a high bank. Naturally, no other vehicles other than competitors were allowed on the roads, but the Sicilian public were standing along both sides or walking across the road when it was clear. At midday the sun was blazing down and as competitors were coming by at irregular intervals, people lay in the sun with a newspaper over their faces, or under an umbrella, while on the veranda of the nearby farm-house a four-piece band was playing dance music. Two young boys were coming across the open hillsides on a mule and there was an air of complete calm and Sunday holiday, with bottles of Chianti, loaves of bread and garlic sausage being consumed in quantities or bunches of grapes and apples being munched. As a car approached the pit area, visible way down across a great valley from where I watched, a warning rocket was sent up, and the puff of smoke could be seen and the bang heard many miles away. At that sound everyone stirred and sat up, the keener ones taking readings on their watches and studying the time details laid out in the programme.

With field glasses, the progress of the car could be watched as it wound its way up towards us, and then, with a roar, it would hurtle past, sliding round the corners to wind its way on and up into the mountains, while a quick calculation would give its lap speed, and further sums would give its position in the race, for the competitors had started out at 30-second intervals and with only 47 cars spread round the 45 miles there were some big gaps when no car was in sight. If it was one of the leaders then the spectacular passage of the car would be accompanied by cheers and cries of “Castellotti, via, via” or “Forza, Maglioli,” then a return would be made to Chianti and sausage.

These were happy people, more than content to spend the whole day up in the mountains watching these brief passages of the cars, many of them having no idea who was leading the race, for there is no Tannoy system in the mountains, but they were thrilled by the mere passing of a fast car and the sound of a howling, exhaust. With such wonderful mountain scenery, blue skies, a brazing sun, and Fangio going by on an ordinary public road in a 300SLR, who wouldn’t be happy — I know I was, especially as Fangio was beaten by two English boys.

That night, after the race, the rains came again and everyone was convinced that the whole weather system was under the control of Vicenzo Florio himself; for everything else about the Targa Florio was.

The following Tuesday I set off for Syracuse, but instead of going directly across the island, I followed the route of the Tour of Sicily race, that takes place in March, running in an anti-clockwise direction round the island and being run on exactly the same lines as the Mille Miglia. In dry conditions the Sicilian roads are highly polished and very slippery, but in slight rain they become veritable ice-rinks, and the first half of the journey was a nightmare of swoops and slides from one side of the road to the other while trying to hustle along, and it was fortunate that traffic was pretty scarce. Just how people race cars over the roads used for the Tour of Sicily race is incredible for the surfaces, apart from being slippery, are terribly rough and bumpy. It is not surprising that Grand Turismo cars such as Fiats, Lancias and Alfa-Romeos are good, rugged vehicles with sturdy suspensions and chassis.

Arriving in Syracuse, a funny little seaport at the very end of Europe. I spent the day before official practice with some of the Maserati team drivers, first visiting the Greek and Roman antiquities, for Syracuse goes back a long way in history, and then walking round the Grand Prix circuit studying the corners, bumps and changes of surface. Although the Maserati team were sure of a sweeping victory, there being no Mercedes-Benz or Ferraris entered, they still took the race very seriously and their pre-race tour of inspection was most enlightening, on one occasion one of the assembled company driving a touring car over the level crossings at speed from varying angles to find the least bumpy line.

Official practice being in the afternoon, the next morning was spent doing over 30 laps in a 1,900 Super Alfa-Romeo saloon in company with Shelby, the man from Dallas, Texas, who was number four in the Maserati works team. This was a normal production six-seater saloon that had been used for Targa Florio practice for over 300 miles a day for a week and it was a joy to drive, having a race-bred driving position and gear-ratios well suited to the twin-cam four-cylinder engine, while the handling explained why they are driven so hard in rallies and open-road races. The first Grand Prix practice saw the four works Maseratis in full command and they were the same four cars used at Monza, those of Musso and Villoresi also being the ones raced at the last Oulton Park meeting, while Schell was in the fully-streamlined car that Behra had at Monza. The lap record stood to the late Onofre Marimon at 2 min. 03.8 sec., and in this first practice period Musso was fastest though nowhere near the existing record. The other entries out on the first day’s practice were Gould’s ex-works car, Salvadori’s Maserati. Rosier’s Maserati an old 2½-litre Ferrari, driven by a young French driver, Vidille, Piotti with an ex-works Maserati he had just acquired. Volonterio with his old ¼-elliptic rear-sprung A6GCS Maserati, and Manzon with the new eight-cylinder Gordini. Two factory Connaughts were entered but they had not arrived, though the drivers, Leston and C. A. S. Brooks, were both there and ready. In the Maserati camp there was an air of calm and confidence, and plans were being made as to how the four works drivers would amuse themselves with this gift of a race to the Scuderia Maserati.

Saturday’s practice saw them out before anyone else, and with the first four positions on the starting-grid already booked, it was just a case of doing a few quiet laps to keep the public happy. During the night two converted A.E.C. single-decker buses had arrived, containing a streamlined Connaught for Leston and the open-wheeled car used by Parnell at Oulton Park for Brooks. There was a momentary pause to wonder, “Brooks, with a Formula 1 Connaught …?” but the thought soon passed, for this was Sicily and there were Musso, Villoresi and Schell in works Maseratis, and Shelby too. Sitting in the Connaught for the first time, Brooks was shown the controls and pushed off to start practising, and a quick glance at the watch showed a lap at 2 min. 13 sec., then 2 min. 10 sec., to be followed by 2 min. 07 sec. Now Musso and Villoresi had been turning in 2 min. 09 sec., so obviously I had made a mistake, but Maserati thought they had made a mistake too, and then the loud-speaker announced that “Broo-oo-ks” had done 2 min. 07 sec., so we had not made a mistake, but at that point Brooks did and spun on the corner before the pits. There was it horrid pause while he waited for help to restart the engine and everyone was sure he had bent the car, but the Connaught team gave a huge sigh as they saw him restart and come up towards the pits, where he stopped to apologise to Mike Oliver.

Shortly after this there was a break in practice while the local train chuffed its way into Syracuse, the circuit being on the approach roads to the town. This gave Maseratis time to beat their drivers and thrust them back into their cars instead of letting them go home. When practice restarted, Brooks went round in 2 min. 06 sec. and, having got the hang of the circuit, he did 2 mm. 05.4 sec. The Maserati stick was brought out now and Musso did a searing 2 min. 03.6 sec. and Villoresi 2 min. 04.7 sec., but that was it, the others could not respond to the situation and the day finished with the lovely Maserati benefit completely spoilt by Brooks and the Connaught. Leston was not very happy with the streamlined car and had missed the first half of the practice as the fuel pump had given trouble, so that he was only able to avoid being in the back row of the start.

The race was due to be run over 80 laps of the 5.5-kilometre circuit, starting at 2.45 p.m.. but the organisers forgot that it was October and that darkness would fall before 80 laps were completed, so rather than spoil lunch by having an earlier start they reduced the distance to 70 laps. It was a fine sight to see a green car on the front row, alongside Villoresi and Musso with factory Maseratis, and I wondered how long Brooks would be able, to keep them in sight once the flag fell.

Being quite unpractised at Grand Prix starts with the 240-b.h.p. Connaught, he almost stalled his engine, and while he tried to regain lost revs, there was a rush and a roar, and Musso, Villoresi, Schell and Shelby had disappeared up the road, while the rest of the 15 starters were about to pass the faltering Connaught. The engine picked up and Brooks was off, leaving Gould on the line with a stalled engine, being pushed off by Maserati mechanics. That is that, I thought, Brooks will not keep up at all now, but anyway it was satisfying enough to have seen him in the front row. At the end of lap one Musso led, followed by Villoresi, Schell and Brooks (eh!), and then a gap, and the rest of the field led by Leston. Lap Lap 2 saw the same order, with a gap of about three cars’ length between it of the first few cars, and the thought was that if Brooks could keep up with the leading trio, that would be a good effort. However. Brooks had different ideas and on lap four he was third, on lap six he was still with Musso and Villoresi and they were leaving Schell behind; on lap eight he had passed Villoresi and was on Musso’s tail: while on lap 10 these two had left Villoresi behind. That wasn’t all, on lap 15 Brooks passed Musso and a green car was leading a Grand Prix, and while the Italian crowd yelled in dismay the little group of English people in the pits yelled with delight. This situation lasted until lap 20 and then Musso came round the corner first and while the English group groaned with displeasure the Italians stood up and cheered, but the next lap the cheers came from the Connaught pit for Brooks was leading again, and from then on Musso never looked back, he had to watch the green tail of the Connaught for the rest of the afternoon.

For a number of laps Brooks let Musso go past on braking for the hairpin for he knew he could out-accelerate the Maserati once they were round the corner and, without realising it, he played cat-and-mouse with Musso and completely demoralised the Italian. Being his first Grand Prix race, Brooks wisely decided to drive carefully, and he felt that if he tried to out-brake Musso he would find himself going up the escape road, whereas out-accelerating the Maserati was nice and safe. On maximum speed and round the fast bends there was little difference between the cars and Brooks was driving to 6,500 r.p.m. while this little battle lasted, and he had been given 7,000 r.p.m. as the safe maximum. All the time the Manchester dental student was getting more used to the car and the circuit, which is bumpy and lined with concrete walls for most of its length, and the gap between the green Connaught and the red Maserati began to widen. Starting at 1 sec., it crept up first to 4 sec., then 6, 9, 12, 15 and 17 sec. by lap 46, by which time Brooks had set a new lap record with 2 min. 01.3 sec. Then there was a cheer from the Italians for the Connaught exhaust note changed and a roughness appeared, and while the Connaught mechanics looked worried the crowd waved and shouted that it was all over now, they could hear the funny noise. But Brooks was looking completely calm and still lapping in 2 min. 02 sec., so obviously the noise was not in the engine, and the only thing it could be was a split exhaust manifold. The announcer was keeping close touch with the race and giving the time interval between the first two cars and, while the crowd were convincing themselves that the Connaught would not last, the loudspeakers announced the gap had risen to 25 sec., so the English had their turn at cheering.

By now the leaders had lapped everyone once and all but Villoresi and Gould twice, and so much concentration had been given to this wonderful performance by Brooks and the Connaught that the rest of the runners had been overlooked. After his good start, Leston spun and clouted a wall, which dropped him to ninth place, and subsequent bother with wetting plugs caused him to stop at the pits and drop to last place. Salvadori had first of all hit a wall, which bent a front wheel, and after changing it he then had the fuel tank split and retired after only 14 laps. The eight-cylinder Gordini was not going well and was being driven by Pollet instead of Manzon, dropping out when it lost all the oil from the double-reduction gears on the nose of the rear axle, while Manzon burst the six-cylinder car he was driving because the mechanics had forgotten to fill the oil tank. Gould worked his way steadily up after his bad start, taking fourth place from Shelby when the Texan went up an escape road, while he had already passed Schell, who was slowing. Rosier broke a drag-link on his Maserati and his Ferrari did not last either, though a similar car with a 2-litre engine, driven by Scarlatti, went the whole distance.

At the front of the field Brooks was running like a train, and though the Maserati pit gave Musso all the signals they had he was thoroughly beaten and replied with despairing gestures. On lap 55 Brooks recorded 2 min. 00.2 sec., another all-time record for the circuit, and that settled the matter. With 10 laps to go he was given the slow-down signal, to which he responded by lapping in 2 min. 05 sec., but by now Musso had relaxed and the gap continued to widen from 35 sec. to 50 sec. as Brooks was flagged home the winner, amidst the cheers of a very sporting and appreciative crowd. Not only had he won his first Grand Prix race but it was the first victory by a British car and British driver in a Grand Prix since the days of Segrave and Sunbeam. That Connaught were able to produce a car for him to achieve the great triumph is deserving of the highest praise, especially when it realised that British concerns far greater than they had failed to win Grand Prix races. The four works Maseratis with Gould in his ex-works car among them, followed the green car home, while Leston brought up the rear. After the event the race-director, Renzo Castegnato, who runs the Mille Miglia. asked to have the Connaught engine measurements taken and recorded, for he felt that the Italian newspapers would never believe it possible for the whole Maserati team to be beaten by an unknown car and driver; unknown, that is, to the Italian public, but not unknown to British enthusiasts, for Brooks has been a visible “natural driver” since he first appeared on a racing circuit. When the cylinder head was removed the bore and stroke were measured at 93.5 by 90 mm., which gave a volume of 2,470 c.c., and everyone was happy, except perhaps Maserati, for this rubbed in their defeat even more.

The next day I left Sicily and, as the ferry-boat bumped its way into the jetty at Villa San Giovanni. I decided that my visit to Sicily had been beyond all expectations. Moss and Collins had won the Targa Florio in a very convincing manner and Connaught had thoroughly dusted up the Scuderia Maserati. There have been signs of Britain getting a foot hold in Grand Prix racing all this season, and what better close to a perfect summer could one wish for than to watch a British car win the Syracuse Grand Prix. Although I had 1,800 miles to do to reach London and I was going to miss the Earls Court Show, I would not have missed my Sicilian Sojourn for all the motor racing of the last 20 years. It was in a very happy frame of mind that I returned up the fast Adriatic coast road, the average speed being just double that of the downward journey.

After reaching England a fitting postscript to this end-of-season trip was an invitation to a private celebration in the Connaught workshops, where the victorious car was standing proudly surrounded by the handful of men who built it. Around the walls were letters and telegrams of congratulations to Connaught from all manner of people, from those directly connected, such as accessory trades, to unknown enthusiasts who were appreciative of this fine achievement. As Rodney Clarke, the designer and main force behind Connaught Engineering, said: “Everyone is very pleased about this victory, but no one seems to want to help us do it again, for that was probably the last race by a works-entered Connanght we are completely broke.” And that is a very solemn thought that you and I might ponder on at the end of this historical 1955 season of racing. — D. S. J.

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