Targa Florio

It was more than a race: It was a passion, a passion so strong that it still burns today. Paul Fearnley is swept off his feet by it, 23 years after the final chequer.

A straight. After the innumerable (832 if you really must know) twists and turns, it's a straight that sticks in my mind. Odd that. And it's not the four-mile, aching-aim-flexing, crotch strap-readjusting, gauge-checking blind out of Campofelice and along Sicily's northern coast, the one that gives the track's map its sawn-off look. No, its the uphill charge of Cerda high street.

A long drag, approximately three-quarters of a mile, bumpy, with steepling cambers and towering buildings, under which the populace has gathered in the welcome shade. The baking countryside is deserted — mad dogs and English journalists and all that — but the town is thronging. Young guns doing `stoppies' on lurid mopeds, those weird three-wheeler efforts better suited to hauling luggage around the platforms of mainline stations, and lowered, lairy Fiat Linos. Leather-skinned, whiskery seen-it-all types in black waistcoats, white shirtsleeves rolled up, sit astride rickety chairs Christine Keeler-style, smoking untippeds and drinking coffee you could stand your spoon up in. It's suddenly a mad, mad, mad, mad world — a shock to the senses.

Yet this is just a bog-standard Saturday. Imagine it's the evening before the 1965 Targa Florio. Nino Vaccarella has been testing for months, blatting along roads `closed' by word of mouth. His practice times in the works Ferrari 275P he's to share with Lorenzo Bandini have been sensational, and expectation of a Sicilian victory borders on the maniacal. Cerda is packed to the rafters.

Now imagine it's race day. Wrought-iron balcony buckling under the strain of craning spectators. And Vaccarella's out to impress. First lap. Through the second-gear right-hander at the bottom of the hill, the start of the high street. A fair bit of width to play with here to get a good exit. Then hard on the pipe, peak revs in every ratio, all 3.3-litre V12 boom and reverb. Shattering echoes. Then he's gone, weaving into his beloved mountains, and the 'Viva Nino!' hubbub subsides. Gradually.

Forty minutes later, though, Their Man is back and it begins again. He's already well on his way to the first of three Targa wins — and a dressing-down from team manager Dragoni for showboating in front of his flock when an easy victory is on the cards. But what the hell. No one gets anywhere near his 39min 21sec best. A lap of a god; a race for heroes.

We stumble across the track. Even when the pits suddenly hove into view, it doesn't immediately register we've found it; the fact that the pidane appears to be part of an impromptu dual carriageway the reason for our confusion. We stop.

The place is a microcosm of the studied decay Sicily leads the world in. The five-storey grandstand down the road appears to be in a state of imminent collapse. But then two workmen in a van eye us suspiciously, unlock the gates and disappear behind it. No, things are still ticking along. Just. On the grandstand is painted the date of this year's Targa Florio, now a stage rally and part of the Italian championship. We've missed it.

The pits have been whitewashed recently. Elsewhere, though, we are besieged by evocative flaking paint: Banco di Somewhere, Agip, Alfa Romeo.

The stand directly opposite the pits is on a smaller scale and features a cantilevered concrete roof. Very '50s. We are in for a surprise, however. It's not that a local stops to talk — even the most mundane happening provides a catalyst for a crowd in Sicily — or that he happens to have several black-and-white Targa photographs on the back seat of his car, an Uno of standard ride height. No, the shock is that one of his snaps, depicting Achille Varzi opposite-locking the winning Alfa Romeo P2 past the pits in 1930, has the very same grandstands in the background.

I only have four words of Italian — Targa, Florio, Nino and Vaccarella — but that is more than enough, and our new friend insists we follow him to Cerda. Having nudged our way through the out-of-the-blue traffic, we park. He beckons us over to a large silver roller shutter, yanks it up and over, opens the door that lies beyond and we step into the cool of a delightfully higgledypiggledy, esoteric Targa museum: old newspaper cuttings, old programmes, old first-day covers, a ribbed sump off an Abarth of some description, a diorama of the pits. Organised it's not; oozing petrol-headed passion it is. These people love Their Race — even though it lost its world championship status 27 years ago and came to a grinding halt four years after that.

'All 3.3-litre V12 boom and reverb. Shattering echoes. Then he's gone, weaving into his beloved mountains'

Later in the day a lowered and lairy Uno pulls up alongside us while we are photographing in Collesano, the town on the opposite side of the track to Cerda. Three young blokes pile out and want to know what we are doing. Again Targa, Florio, Nino and Vaccarella is sufficient lingo to find ourselves among new friends. They tell us this, tell us that, want a copy of the magazine. No, due. No, tre. They can't have been born when Vaccarella was doing his thing. But that doesn't matter; they've heard the stories, read the faded graffiti, been imbued.

In contrast, the old bloke who owns the tiny garage in Collesano — a light-blue Fiat Dino Coupe stands amid the cramped chaos under a dusty dust sheet — was there when it happened, when Vaccarella did the unthinkable, slapping a stone wall at the muchphotographed Collesano hairpin on the second lap of the '67 Targa. His Ferrari 330P3 had lapped three minutes faster than the rest of the field in practice, so this was a howler of epic proportions. Had it not been for a sturdy high kerb he might have added to the garage's cramped chaos. Our newest friend disappears and reappears armed with the relevant books and photographs, and the ensuing pidgin conversation leaves me with the distinct impression that here was a man who had contested the race, shared the track with Nino. Viva!

Campofelice, Cerda and Collesano are the public face of the race — their photogenic shadows and numerous vantage points drawing snappers to them like moths to a flame — but it is the mountainous loop which rises 2000ft above sea level and skirts underneath the eagle's nest of Caltavuturo that provides the meat of this 44-mile track's challenge. And what a challenge. There is simply no let-up: bend, bend, bend, left, right, left, up, down, up. Bumps, crests and cambers. It's little wonder that the Porsche 908, a car built specifically for the Targa (and Nordschleife), had its top gear tucked away off on a dog's leg — it was, quite simply, surplus to requirements. This is secondand third-gear terrain: punch of power, jab of brake, kick of power, stab of brake. Supremely physical. Back-to-back laps were enough for most competitors. A real in-cockpit beating.

'Punch op power, jab of brake, kick of power, stab of brake, Supremely physical. A real in-cockpit beating'

Mental torture, too. Vaccarella is adamant he knew it down to the last pebble. So did Vic Elford, his intense concentration and memory for a road legendary among his rallying peers. Everybody else, though, was surely driving on sight and snippets of recognition. This must have been a regular thought process: 'I know this': fully commit; 'Er, no I don't!' You were balanced precariously on your nerve ends during a Targa. Big drops into boulder-strewn streams, jutting parapets, forbidding rock faces, half a million half-crazed spectators, most within touching distance of the cars, scores of roaming dogs, the odd goat herd and all the demons these hazards create in your mind.

Yet that's only half of it. When car-mad Vincenzo Florio first served up his 'plate', on 6 May 1906, the lap ran to 92 miles, extending beyond Caltavuturo into Castellana-Sicula, PetraliaSottana, Geraci, Castelbuono, Termini Imerese, and back past that tiny, cramped, chaotic garage in Collesano. The Grande Circuito, they called it. They weren't kidding.

This was 'shortened' to 67 miles, the Circuito Madonie, after the First World War, and the race only adopted its best-known layout, the Piccolo Madonie, in 1932Tazio Nuvolari's Alfa Monza averaging 45mph for eight laps to win that race.

By 1936, however, the event was in decline and a Palermo street circuit carried the title in 1937-40. The honour was then bestowed upon the Tour of Sicily (a 670-mile road race) in 194850, before it returned to its rightful place the following year. The first race of this new era, 1951, brought perhaps the greatest 'unknown' victory for a British marque, Franco Cortese winning in a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica. He thus joined Antonio Brivio (Alfa Romeo in 1933 and '35) and Achille Varzi (Alfa Romeo in 1934) on the track's roll of honour, to which was then added Lancia's hat-trick men: Felice Bonetto, Umberto Maglioli (who won the race three times 1953, '56 and '68) and Piero Taruffi.

The race now entered its golden age, the 39th running being the first to be accorded world championship status. This was a season darkened by the Le Mans disaster and illuminated by Stirling Moss' sensational sportscar drives in the Mille Miglia and Tourist Trophy. Yet his Mercedes team, which had withdrawn from the 24-hour race as he and Juan Fangio were headed for victory, lagged two points behind Ferrari in the championship when the fight entered its final round, the Targa.

Mercedes went all out to win, sending three fabulous 300SLRs for Moss/Peter Collins, John Fitch/Desmond Titterington and Fangio/Karl Kling. The race had been extended from eight to 13 laps, but Moss still set a furious pace — for which he almost paid the price, sliding on mud, vaulting over a wall and launching into a field on the third lap. Fortunately, Sicily's ever-reliable instant crowd materialised from nowhere and heaved the incredibly strong Mere back onto the road. Sure, they wanted a red car to win; but more than anything they wanted to watch great cars and great drivers compete in a great race. If a silver car won on this occasion, it simply meant the rejoicing when the defeat was avenged would be all the more fervent. And precious.

Moss handed over to Collins, who also suffered an adventure, having to reverse off a stone wall, but held station to set up yet another memorable Moss charge to victory.

Surprisingly, the impressive Collins was nowhere to be seen at the post-race ceremony. The handsome English star was there, however; it's just that he was under the stage, in the company of Miss Targa Florio.

After a lull in 1956 — and no race at all in 1957 — the Targa became a key fixture in the sportscar championship from 195873 — especially for the lesser marques. As Ferrari and Ford went toe-to-toe, big banger-to-big banger, in the mid-60s, Porsche and Alfa Romeo built light, nimble cars ideally suited to Targa demands. The Stuttgart marque ensured that any 'red' victory celebrations were long-awaited, fervent in the extreme and very, very precious: Edgar Barth/Wolfgang Seidel got their ball rolling in 1959 with a 718RSK andlo Bonnier/Graham Hill (RS60) won in '60. In '63 it was Bonnier/Carlo Abate (718GTR), then Colin Davis/Antonio Pucci (904) in '64. Willy Mairesse/Herbie Muller (906 Carrera 6), Paul `Flawkeye' Hawkins/Rolf Stommelen (910/8), Elford/Maglioli (907/8), Gerhard Mitter/Udo Schiity (908/2) and finally Jo Siffert/Brian Redman (908/3) took the spoils from 1966-70.

Now imagine you are in Cerda the evening after the race in 1965, or 71, the years that Nino stopped the rot, in Ferrari and Alfa respectively. Leather-skinned, whiskery seen-it-all-types have coffee to hand, cigarette to lips and tears in their eyes.

'The English star was there; it's just that he was under the stage, in the company of Miss Targa Florio'