Viva Nino!

Sicily came to a standstill and held its breath when 'their man' took on the rest of the world. Paul Fearnley meets the island's uncrowned King.

The cheek of it. There is nothing wrong with a Peugeot 306 per se, but this one was a particularly tatty, extremely dusty example that happened to be wedged in a car park already crammed with 8C Alfa Romeos. We smiled as we trudged off for lunch and an interview with a legend.

Nino Vaccarella is a slight man, pinched face, hawkish nose. Walk past him on a street and you'd guess teacher. Or lawyer. And you'd be right on both counts. You would not think motor racing god. Yet no driver has been so inextricably linked to a single event or received as much unswerving adoration as this native of Palermo did from the half a million fans who lined the route of the Targa Florio each year.

When he won for the first time, sharing a works Ferrari 275P2 with Lorenzo Bandini, this already passionate island pushed the boat out. A week after the event Vaccarella was invited by the mayor of Collesano to receive a special award.

"Collesano was the village that loved me the most," says Vaccarella, his hands instantly twitching into Italian semaphore. "When I arrived in the village there was a Madonna procession going on. It was the most important holy day of the year and there were about eight people carrying a statue of the Madonna on their shoulders. But when they saw me they put her down and picked me up. It was a little bit embarrassing, but it was a demonstration of great affection and human passion."

You can imagine, then, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted Vaccarella's many Targa near-misses. When he hit a wall at Collesano's hairpin on the second lap in 1967, several pins were heard dropping — in Africa. Such love can be a doubled-edged sword: "I felt a lot of responsibility because the people always hoped I would win and, from 1961 onwards, I was usually in a position to do so."

And that was because practice made perfect. Vaccarella knew the 44 miles of the Piccolo Madonie off by heart.

"Every centimetre," he asserts. "I did hundreds of testing laps. Every evening after I had finished my work at the school, I used to do two or three laps. For every single corner I had my point of reference: a tree, a house, a wall, a dip down. I knew every corner and how to set the car up for it."

But Vaccarella is adamant that he was not alone in this: "Other pilots knew it as well as me. From 1961 the race was very professional. Before then, perhaps some of the drivers did not know the track as well, and so were improvising, but after that it was all good, professional pilots: Elford, Siffert, Rodriguez, Kinnunen, Merzario, Moss, Collins. Which is why you had to be flat out, even on the Targa Florio.

"I don't know how many thousands of times you had to change gear. It was the most tiring thing in the world; continuous gearchanging and concentration. After two or three laps I was physically exhausted — especially in 1970 when I drove a at 620bhp Ferrari 512S. After one lap in that car I was dead, absolutely finished. I thought it was because I was eight years older than my co-driver, but even [Ignazio] Giunti said, 'I'm destroyed'."

Vaccarella on the Targa

1958 Retired — shared a Lancia Aurelia with Enrico Giaccone

1959 10th — co-drove Giuseppe Allotta's Maserati A6GCS

1960 Retired — shared Lucky Casner's Maserati Birdcage with Umberto Maglioli. Both led but Nino holed the fuel tank on lap eight.

1961 4th — shared a Scuderia Serenissima-run MaseratiT63 with Maurice Trintingnant Nino was fourth after lap one...

1962 3rd — shared Serenissima's Porsche 7I8GTR with Jo Bonnier. They might have won but for total brake failure from lap three

1963 DNS — works Ferrari debut that never was: Nino prevented from starting by local police following a road accident

1965 1st — led from start to finish in a works Ferrari 275P2 co-driven by Lorenzo Bandini

1966 Retired — works Ferrari 330P3 was leading comfortably when co-driver Bandini was forced into ditch by a slower car on lap eight

1967 Retired —Vaccarella was easily quickest in practice with a Ferrari 330P4 and held a big lead after lap one, only to crash in Collesano

1968 Retired — co-driver Udo Schutz shunted their Alfa Romeo 33/2 on lap four when lying in second place

1969 Retired — running best non-Porsche, fifth, when the Alfa 33/2 he was sharing with Andrea de Adamich blew up on lap seven

1970 3rd —Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti manhandled their Ferrari 512S to give Porsche a fright. Led briefly but slow stops cost them dear

1971 1st — Nino and Toine Hezemans couldn't match Porsche pace early on but, when the leaders punctured, their Alfa 33/3 pounced

1972 Retired — shared an Alfa Romeo 33T13 with Rolf Stommelen and retired on lap four with a blown engine

1973 Retired — co-driver Arturo Merzario led but retired their Ferrari 312PB on lap two after running on a puncture damaged a halfshaft

1975 1 st — won comfortably in an Alfa Romeo T33T1I2 co-driven by Merzario. But non-championship race a shadow of its former self

That race was a microcosm of Vaccarella's situation: Ferrari sent what they had; Porsche built cars ideally suited to — then specifically for — the Targa. The German marque was the dominant force in the second half of the 1960s, yet Vaccarella only drove for them once on the island. This paucity wasn't for the want of opportunity, however: "Porsche had a great love for me and they courted me in 1966 and '67. But my love for Ferrari was even bigger; I preferred their P3 and P4 to the 2-litre Porsches because I preferred cars with lots of power."

And that's because Vaccarella preferred the faster circuits: Monza, Spa, Le Mans. And that's because, he says, his style was better suited to them than the twists and turns of the Targa. Now there's a thing. You sense an element of cussedness to this revelation: Vaccarella loves the Targa, what it stands for, what he stands for among his people, but it would appear to niggle that this one race overshadows his other achievements. His greatest year was 1964 when he finished second at Sebring and won Le Mans (with Jean Guichet) and the Niirburgring 1000 Kilometres (with Ludovico Scarfiotti) — all in a works 275P.

You can see why he preferred other races. Elsewhere he was a quick, safe, competent driver; in Sicily he was an icon, a figure of hope for an island all but ignored by Italy's prosperous industrial north. At times this elevated him; at times it deflated him.

"There's never been such an intense feeling between people and a pilot," he says. "My victory was Sicily's victory. They used to throw flowers onto the road in front of my car." There is none of that now as he climbs aboard his road car. But his drive home will take him past several bits of graffiti bearing his name. A 67-year-old in a dusty Peugeot 306. A man with nothing to prove. A legend in his own 34-minute lap time.