Targa Florio: Lap of the Godfathers

Aristocrat Vincenzo Florio created it, local hero Nino Vaccarella made it his own. Return to the roads of the Targa Florio today and the echoes they created live on – even above the bark of a modern Ferrari V8

Crowds watch competitors in the 1965 Targa Florio as they race through the Sicilian village of Collesano. (Photo by David Lees/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Targa Florio: a race steeped in history

David Lees/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

“I’ll give you the same tip I gave to Jacky Ickx in 1973 when he was driving the Targa for the first time, in the Ferrari 312P,” says the voice on the end of the phone. “I told him ‘This is not a race!’ He crashed on the first lap and had an enormous accident. I saw him afterwards and asked him if he was OK. ‘Yes, I’m OK,’ he replied. ‘But I had a very interesting accident – a very long way down a mountain!’”

The voice is Brian Redman’s. I’ve called him at his Florida home a couple of days before my first visit to the Circuito delle Madonie on the volcanic island of Sicily, the ball at the toe of Italy’s boot. The Targa Florio. An epic race steeped in lore, where men pushed their limits of endurance, bravery… foolhardiness, to the edge and over it. Nazzaro, Nuvolari, MossVaccarella, Elford, Siffert… Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz – so many names, so many stories, so much history. And so many miles. To grapple with the Targa – nearly 70 years of myth and legend, a race that is hard to relate to from the safety of our homogenised, modern world of infinite run-offs, carbon composite construction and the HANS device – is daunting in the extreme.

And of course, I’m not even racing there. The last ‘proper’ Targa was held back in 1973, after which its World Championship status was stripped. It continued until 1977 when two spectators were killed as a car skidded off the road. Too much, even for the 1970s. Brian’s words – “This is not a race!” – are simply a reminder. These roads are perilous, the best and worst of their kind. Don’t get carried away.

Later when I read over the old race reports, it appears Jacky might have been spooked by the place: in practice he smashed the nose off his 312P against a wall and retired from the race when he hit a rock on lap three. Then I reflect on Brian’s record in the Madonie: four starts, only one finish – albeit a very special one. Victory in 1970 with Siffert in the squat 908/3 Porsche built specially for this race. Then there is ’71, a year on from his great victory, and the crash in which he was terribly burnt: “I had my accident about 20km in, but I don’t remember where. Siffert had crashed in practice and the car’s handling was very poor. I hit a concrete post and the fuel tank exploded. Do not crash – there are a lot of things to hit.”

Arturo Merzario / Sandro Munari, Spa Ferrari SEFAC, Ferrari 312 PB, action during the 1972 World Sportscar Championship, Targa Florio, on May 21, 1972 at Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie, Italy - Photo DPPI

Arturo Merzario / Sandro Munari Ferrari 312 PB during ’72 Targa


But I’m only visiting the place, there’s nothing for me to worry about. Except there is, you see. To make this a trip worthy of Motor Sport, I wanted to experience the Targa roads in something more than a Fiat hire car. Hence the stunning £170,000 Ferrari 458 Italia – everything a modern sports car aspires to be – awaiting me, fresh from Maranello. The violent yellow paint job is worth £15k alone, apparently. I’m no racing driver – just a bloke who got lucky. If I bend it here, this place is likely to bend me.

“We never really talked about the danger. Apart from the long straight it wasn’t all that fast,” said Redman last week. It’s time to take a leaf out of his book and just get on with it. The Ferrari glides out of the pretty, ancient town of Cefalù in automatic mode – surprisingly docile and ‘normal’ in traffic – in search of the Piccolo Madonie, the ‘short’ circuit on which the legends were created since WWII. I’ll worry about the pre-war Grande Circuito tomorrow.

Out of Cefalù heading west we ignore the signs for the autostrada and stick to the SS113 (A-road in Anglo-Saxon). It’s not very ‘Targa Florio’ here. It’s industrial, there are roadworks and it’s nondescript. It’s also very straight and images from period photographs flash through my mind. This is Buonfornello, the only proper straight on the Targa.

It offered a welcome slug out of the town of Campofelice di Roccella after the miles of twisting mountain roads. I’m starting at the end of the ‘Piccolo’ – but as I would later discover, the start of the ‘Grande’ circuit.

On the same day I’d spoken to Brian Redman, Vic Elford had also kindly talked me through a lap. Like Brian, he was on the end of a phone line in Florida, but with a little help from Google Maps he’d been my guide. “The straight was about four and a half miles long and with the Targa gearing we were limited to about 185mph,” he said. It’s a heavily populated road today and I keep it sensible. There’s no sense of the Africa-bound Scirocco crosswind he mentioned that would push his Porsche across the width of the road as he blasted down the straight.

Monte San Calogero looms large ahead of us as the road turns inland, away from an unsightly heavy industry plant. Ahead of a railway crossing, there are signs to Cerda and a junction turning left. We take it and within a minute we’re upon the pit buildings and grandstands as the road swoops up to the left.

From the archive

We stop and look back at the start/finish. It’s that shot of Arturo Merzario powering away in his 312P at the start of the ’73 race, crowds spilling on to the road, right there. A gap in the fence allows us to wander through the crumbling concrete stands. A monument to the Targa’s father, Vincenzo Florio, sits shaded under trees and, as is typical of such places, the atmosphere is still, quiet and spooky. Signage is visible, but fading fast, and I’m surprised how neglected these familiar buildings appear. They’re derelict, but at least they’re still standing.

We press on towards Cerda. Here, the roads begin to sweep, but there is still too much traffic to really enjoy the Ferrari. Vic told me the road is now 50 per cent wider than it once was – so single-track, then.

We enter the bustling small town of Cerda and recognise the long high street that climbs slow and straight. At the top it sweeps left then immediately into a long right. Today, traffic restricts us to a crawl. According to Elford, “At the top end of Cerda in the Porsche I was the only one in fifth gear. That was over 170mph.” The street is virtually unchanged and such speeds, attained while locals stood applauding from their doorsteps and balconies, are almost impossible to imagine. This is what I came to Sicily to discover.

My notes from the conversation with Vic read: “After 2km there is a junction – turn left. This is where the wheel of my 907 fell off in ’68. There’s a wall about 10 feet high where spectators were standing. They jumped down and lifted the car back on the road for me.” So this was where it started, the great comeback. Elford, sharing the Porsche with Umberto Maglioli, lost over 18 minutes at this spot, then set off on one of the greatest sports car drives in history, smashing the lap record on the way (see page 60). It’s why his name is still whispered with reverence in these parts.

Vic Elford in Porsche 908 on 1971 Targa Florio

Elford/Larrouse Porsche 908 set fastest lap at the 1971 Targa Florio but crashed out

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

As we climb away from Cerda, all signs of traffic melt away. The Ferrari is in ‘sport’ mode now and we begin to press on. But there is never a moment’s peace. The stunning, rugged scenery is wasted on us because there is too much to do: second-gear right-hander, accelerate up to third with a tug of the right paddle, flick the left for a satisfying blip down to second (this car makes me sound so much better than I am!) and turn in. And so it goes on. How could anyone remember this?

As the road plunges down into a valley and begins to climb towards Caltavuturo, Vic’s words echo: “I had a photographic memory. Having come from rallying, when I learned the Targa I realised I was writing imaginary pace notes in my head. It was the same as the Nürburgring – I knew every inch.”

On the Targa, drivers could practice weeks in advance on the open roads, but still Redman’s words strike a chord: “I never knew any of it. How do you remember 950-odd corners?”

There was also the road surface to contend with. It’s not very good now, and although period reports explain attempts to resurface sections, it couldn’t have been much better then. Earthquakes, landslips, floods – they’ve all left their mark. Round a blind bend in the low-slung Ferrari and you’re likely to find a cracked step in the surface – perhaps there’ll be a temporary road sign, perhaps there won’t.

Back to Vic’s notes: “Just before Caltavuturo turn left and go downhill. Pass under the autostrada and climb up to Scillato (don’t go into the town, it should be on your left).” Now we slow down for the next town and look for more famous landmarks: Collesano.

From the archive

This is the birthplace of one Nino Vaccarella, the revered local hero who triumphed for Ferrari in 1965 and for Alfa in ’71 and ’75. Here, we find the hairpin so often photographed from a bank looking down on the street. This is Vaccarella’s corner, where he crashed out in front of his faithful in ’66, where they’d daubed ‘VV – Viva Vaccarella’ on the sides of houses.

From the turn, the road plunges into a walled right-hander, again popular with the photographers. But where’s the graffiti now? Much of it has been scrubbed clean or lost to newly built walls, but if you look hard enough not all of it is gone.

We take a break. We’re only 48 of the 72km in, and we feel like we’ve been driving for hours. In 1970 Leo Kinnunen smashed the lap record in 33min 36sec, at an average of a shade under 80mph. I’m getting some perspective now.

The official Targa Florio museum is easy to find in Collesano (there are also two private collections open to the public in Cerda and Campofelice), and is signposted 200 yards off the main street. They don’t speak much English here, but it doesn’t matter. The collection of photographs, the drivers’ overalls and helmets on display – they speak for themselves.

We’ve arranged to meet a friend of Vic’s here at the museum. Giuseppe Valenza is a local with the Targa in his blood – and he speaks good English, which is useful. He has big news: we are to meet the man himself. Nino will see us this afternoon, but not here – in his apartment, of all places, in the city of Palermo.

Signs around the island herald a much-anticipated visit from the Pope, but we’re not interested in the Pontiff. On Sicily, the nearest thing to God begins with a V…

The Targa Florio; Sicily, May 14, 1967. Henry Greder's Ford GT40 which he shared with Jean-Michel Giorgi, entered by Ford France, stayed together to finish fifth. (Photo by Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images)

GT40 pases Bandin graffiti…

Getty Images

Our new best friend leads us out of Collesano to complete the ‘Piccolo’ lap and the last leg down to Campofelice. As Vic said, it’s “pretty fast and downhill”, but also busy with traffic. For now, my mind is on other things besides the Ferrari and the winding roads.

Palermo is a shock to the system after the Madonie. The bright yellow Ferrari sticks out somewhat as we nudge carefully through the congested streets. Young Sicilian boys and girls, bare-headed, in T-shirts and shorts, stare as they cut us up on scooters, and we quickly cotton on to why so many of the cars bear the scars of city life. Traffic lights mean little, roundabouts – well, you just plunge in and hope. That £15k paint job is at more risk here than in the mountains.

We cling to the brake lights of Giuseppe’s Alfa and ride the Ferrari’s horn until we finally pull up by one of the many towering apartment blocks. I’m sweating despite the air-con.

The old-fashioned elevator is only big enough for two and we push open its door to emerge into a dim hallway on the fourth floor. This is the no-frills home of the racing teacher, the hero of all Sicily.

The Man opens the door to us. Receding grey hair slicked back into a flick at the neck, cream slacks, beige loafers (no socks), shirt open almost to the navel and a giant gold medallion nestling against his abdomen – complete with Prancing Horse insignia. Then there are those heavy-lid eyes, staring into us with more than a glint of old warrior pride. He smiles and then Nino Vaccarella welcomes us into his home.

The neat but small apartment is a shrine to motor racing, and notably it is Ferrari that dominates, on his bookshelves and in the pictures on his walls. Giuseppe is here to help with translation, but ‘Ninni’ is irrepressible and spouts forth a glorious torrent of broken English.

“In my time, it was possible to die. Big drivers – Musso, Castelotti, Clark, von Trips… Now, very difficult – many regulements [sic]. No overcross [sic!]. When I see F1 I sleep [he mimes, head resting on hands]. FIA is no good, Max Mosley – no good. Todt – exact man. He is experienced. He will change the sport for the good. Ecclestone – very intelligent. A fox. Money, money, money.”

The modern sport leaves him cold, although his animated speech and open humour warms the soul. “Singapore – fantastic. Big buildings, the lights. But it is not possible to pass. Just see Hamilton and Webber. It is not a good circuit like Spa, Monza, Silverstone. In my time there was Targa, Nürburgring, Le Mans, Reims… they were roads. My opinion, OK?”

No arguments there, Signor Nino.

He opens his photo albums, full of faces and memories. “See here? Who is this? Chiti, Scarfiotti, Bandini, Dragoni, Parkes…” There’s Sebring – “stupid. An airfield.” And here’s Graham Hill – “an English Sicilian. When Graham Hill wins the English crowd… [mimes polite, reserved applause with a po-face]. It is different in Sicily,” and he tells us of his reception in ’65, when he was carried victorious from his 275P2 and lofted high in adulation by his people. Viva Vaccarella…

It’s been a special visit, an honour to be welcomed into his home. He looks fit and well, and remains busy – two phone calls interrupt the stream of memories. He has an appointment, but there’s time for more reminiscing and he hands round sweets. “Ferrari in my heart,” he tells us, and we do not doubt him.

Back on the bustling street, we blink and try to take in our meeting with the Master of the Madonie. At the Targa, on home turf, he knew every turn and was tough to beat. He “was not afraid of anybody”. Redman told me that he remembers catching Nino and trying to pass three times, only to be vigorously rebuffed on each occasion. Sensibly, he waited and followed for 100 miles to jump him at the pitstops.

The Targa Florio; Sicily, May 4, 1969. The winning Porsche 908/2 which was driven by Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schuetz works its way through a Sicilian village. (Photo by Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images)

…and Porsche 908 passes Vaccarella daubing

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Once again, I take a leaf out of Brian’s book as we head back into the Palermo throng. No heroics in this crazy city.

Vincenzo Florio was just 23 when he founded the race that would stamp his name on the pioneering world of motor sport. He was already well travelled and had the benefit of a European education via both Paris and Eton. Indeed, he was a cultured 18-year-old when in 1901 he first toured the Madonie area, described as practically unexplored, a virgin land. He borrowed a Renault with a De Dion-Bouton engine from his brother-in-law, Prince Pietro Lanza of Trabia, to blaze a trail over the rocky paths that would one day become the roads of Targa legend. After four days which took him to Collesano and Isnello, he returned to Palermo fired up by the artistic, cultural and geographical attractions of the villages and landscapes he had seen.

He had also become fascinated by the new sport of motor racing and in early 1902 he took part – and won – the Targa Rignano Bovolenta-Padova race on a Panhard-Levassor. His imagination gave him a new ambition: to promote the Madonie region with a race across its winding tracks.

Florio’s career as a race promoter began in Brescia, where he created the Coppa Florio, then closer to home with the Palermo-Monreale rally in 1904. The success of that event hardened his determination.

The following year he took his friend and racing aficionado Marquis Della Motta for a drive on a FIAT in an attempt to survey a route, taking in the towns of Geraci and Castelbuono. His friend offered encouragement.

In 1905 Florio founded the Permanent Society for Economic Development, Festivals and Sporting Events and after months of lobbying in Paris, the Targa Florio was established, to take place over a 148km mountain circuit – the Grande Circuito delle Madonie. Competitors would be challenged to complete three laps.

On May 6 1906 just 10 cars took the start of the first Targa Florio, including a FIAT for Vincenzo Lancia. The start/finish would be located on the Buonfornello straight, where Sicilian high society gathered with a crowd of thousands to witness Turin’s Alessandro Cagno become the race’s first victor, on an Itala in a time of 9hr 32min 22sec and at an average speed of 46.8kph (29mph).

From then until the start of WWI, the Targa Florio endured fortunes as rocky as the roads on which it was run. Between 1912 and ’14, Florio abandoned the Madonie in favour of a single lap around the perimeter of the island. But Vincenzo Florio’s hard work was to be rewarded. After ‘the war to end all wars’ the race bearing his name would become a peak any marque with pretensions to greatness had to scale, and feats on the Madonie turned to legend. Florio’s legacy for all Sicily would be assured.

Day two in the Ferrari. We decide to trace the Grande Circuito, in the wheel tracks of Vincenzo Florio. A third circuit, the Mezzo, was used between 1919-30 and turned left at Castellana Sicula to wind back towards Collesano. Time will beat us on this one and it’s a road we’ll have to miss on this trip.

Paul Rablot in a Berliet 24/40 HP, the first Targa Florio car race on the Madonie circuit, May 6, 1906, Italy, photograph by Charles Abeniacar, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, Year XXXIII, No 20, May 20, 1906.

Paul Rablot in a Berliet 24/40 HP at firs ever Targa in 1906

Getty Images

Through Cerda and up to Caltavuturo, our route is as the day before. But instead of plunging left towards Scillato and Collesano, we keep climbing straight on. The roads become smoother and faster as we head deep into the Madonie national park. The Ferrari’s in ‘race’ mode now (see Andrew Frankel’s road test on p110) and revels in the fast sweeps that lead us first to Castellana Sicula and then on to the stunning twin mountain towns of Petralia Sottana and Petralia Soprana. They have clearly changed little in centuries.

Next, it’s a climb into the clouds to Geraci Siculo on fresh, smooth Tarmac – we feel spoilt here after some of the roads we’ve faced – but Madonie has saved the best till last. It’s mostly downhill to Castelbuono, but I rarely get out of third gear as the 4.5-litre V8 rasps and barks behind my shoulders. It’s the best road I’ve ever driven.

Our journey is nearly over as we pass through Isnello and back to more familiar territory in Collesano, picking up the final leg of the ‘Piccolo’ course as we had done the day before.

As we cruise back to base in Cefalù I can’t help but marvel at Vincenzo Florio’s vision, and the bravery of the men who accepted his challenge.

It couldn’t go on, of course. The modern world was always bound to impose its restrictions even on this beautiful, desolate land. Even so, one can still pass through miles of Madonie without seeing a soul. Here, the spirit of the Targa Florio lives on. As each year passes, the great race gets further away. But the locals haven’t forgotten – and neither will we.

Our thanks to Ferrari, Giuseppe Valenza, Vic Elford, Nino Vaccarella and Brian Redman for their help with this feature