Track test - Mugello

Sicily’s Targa Florio had a considerably faster, more mountainous cousin over on the mainland. Paul Fearnley scales the Futa Pass – and much more

Photography by Malcolm Griffiths/LAT

Tazio Nuvolari competed here just once. He didn’t know the circuit and had little time in which to practise. His car was not the fastest in the race...

Stop. I know what you're thinking — but this time there was no miracle drive: the Flying Mantuan was out of sorts and off the pace. His Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 finished ninth overall and sixth, repeat, sixth in class. And he wasn't the only one: the brilliant Achille Varzi was cast in the unfamiliar role of also-ran, too. Neither genius was a match for the (admittedly faster) 1.5-litre GP Talbot of Count Gastone Brilli-Peri that June day in 1929. The Florentine aristo had made his four-wheel debut at Mugello in '20, and had won the race three years later at the wheel of a Steyr. Local knowledge was a big help here: Emilio Materassi was born in nearby Borgo San Lorenzo and scored a hat-trick of wins in 1925-28 (there was no race in '27).

Spool forward 40 years. Nino Vaccarella was the king of the Targa Florio. And he considered Mugello to be even more demanding than the Piccolo Madonie he knew so well. Mugello's descent of the famous Futa Pass, he said, was the most difficult stretch of road he'd ever had occasion to aim a full-shot sports-racer along. Bear that in mind for what happens next. Please.

Snapper Griffiths and I had arrived at almost the track's highest point – 2962ft at the Futa's summit to discover swirling fog and clinging rain. These were hardly the conditions in which to learn the limits of our Yellow Fly supercar and so I trundled along, trying desperately to remember if Ferrari's PR man had explained that, yes, it is fitted with ABS. Our fat low-profiles seemed to sit atop the standing water rather than cut through it, while all the time darting about on a road surface in urgent need of repair. It was then that I noticed it through the narrow, misting-up slot behind my head.

It can't be. It is! An MG Metro. And it's not even a Turbo! At its wheel is Andrea Monstermini: one hand on wheel, one elbow on ledge, one cigarette in mouth. I speed up, but he sticks resolutely to my rear bumper, not that our glorious, magnificent, visceral 360 Modena Stradale has got one. Andrea is determined: he clearly knows where he's going; I do not It's time to swallow my pride. I back off and ease over; he changes down and is gone. The shame.

The next day dawned sunny, and as we blared and blatted along in the most exciting road car I have ever driven (by some distance), I kept an eagle eye out for Mr Safety Fast. To no avail. Next time, my friend, next time.

And there will be a next time, for the beauty of Tuscany's Chianti hills is truly intoxicating. While the bulk of mid-1960s British motorsport was cramming into a featureless, disused VVVVII airfield for its biggest race of the year, those truly in the know were wending their way here, for eight laps of 41 incredible miles, superb food, fantastic wine and an uplifting atmosphere. For somehow the Circuit of Mugello had received sportscar world championship status (from 1965-67). It was clear, however, that this dinosaur was close to extinction, and that if you missed this one, you might not get another. It was time to make hay...

And how the Tuscan sun shone. A high summer date was essential for a venue with such a vertiginous elevation change a whisker over 2000ft because it was the only way to (almost) guarantee stable conditions (and melting roads) along the track's tortuous length. The organisation was not the best, but that was part of the charm. And in any case, once you had accelerated out of Scarperia along the N503 and began the ascent of the Giogo Pass, that runs west of and parallel to the Futa, everything else – even the next bend on occasion! – was forgotten.

Older and narrower than the Futa, which was opened in the 1750s, the hairpin-strewn Giogo rises to 2893ft and accounts for the first 10 miles or so, its path unwinding and straightening as it drops down into the River Santemo's plain and heads for Firenzuola (Little Florence). Built in the early 14th century by the Florentines to secure this important trading road to and from Bologna, this fortified town was no match for the heavy artillery of over 600 years later, and was badly damaged as the Allies sought to breach the Axis powers' Gothic Line, a sequence of mountain-top defences.

Firenzuola has since been rebuilt and boasts a one-car-wide, colonnaded main street which features a stone arch at either end. The earliest races — the first of which was a regularity trial in 1914 — used to barrel through here, but by the time Jo Schlesser was wrestling Ford France's 7-litre MU around in 1967, the track had thankfully taken a right-left-left diversion over the river.

The latter 90 left puts you on a heading for the Futa, which is joined at la Casetta. You're still on the N503, but this section is in far better condition — and passes through photographer heaven: flaking paint, autumnal umbers, ochres and sepias, rolling vistas and cyan skies. It's quiet, too. It's as if the road has been closed... Our barking V8 is gunned, the six-speed paddle shift is flicked-andflacked. Had the race not been canned for good after a second consecutive win for Arturo Merzario and Abarth in 1970 — the new, Schumacher-friendly Mugello was opened four years later — the bulk of the entry today would surely comprise rich young bucks aboard their Modena Stradales. It's in its element. As the revs rise, your imagination begins to wander: now you are trying to keep it neat and tidy, trying to do just enough to stave off the charging Porsche 910 ofJo Siffert, trying to give (ahem) Alfa Romeo its first win here for more than 40 years...

The race had lost its championship status by 1968, but it still meant a lot to the Milanese firm. For it was here in '20 — the first running after WWI — that Giuseppe Campari scored the marque's maiden circuit victory. The opera-singing racer repeated this result in '21, but Alfa Romeo drew a blank thereafter during the circuit's first era, i.e. up to '29— Isotta, OM and hala taking the spoils instead.

Upstart Ferrari conquered, courtesy of Umberto Maglioli's 750 Monza, when the race was revived in 1955, but there followed a nine-year gap before the event got its second wind.

And still Alfa struggled, Autodelta's shambolic efforts put into context by the calm efficiency of Porsche: Giarun Bulgari's 904 won in '64; Gerhard Koch and Jochen Neerpasch's 906 Carrera 6 took the spoils in '66; and the 910 of Udo Schutz/Gerhard Mitter led home a Stuttgart 1-2-3 in '67. The only glitch was a Mario Casoni-led 1-2-3 for Ferrari's 250LM in '65.

Autodelta was determined to win in 1968 and sent four of its two-litre T33s. And yet they all had to give best initially to an inspired Siffert in a privateer Porsche 910. Had the Swiss star's co-driver Rico Steinemann been more comfortable with the car, and had `Seppi' not been asleep, shoes and socks off in the back of a car, when Rico came in unexpectedly after a single, spin-filled lap, Porsche might have prevailed again. Instead Narun Galli, who had taken over the remaining Alfa from an unwell Vaccarella, did enough to hang on and score that long-awaited victory.

* * *

We’re up on the Futa again, about half-distance, running North-South; the Mille Miglia tended to tackle its most well-known section in the opposite direction. This stretch used to be in better condition than the narrower Giogo — even when the roads were unmade — but now the boot is on the other foot There is a large quarry along here and its lorries pound the surface day in, day out. Roadworks dot the place, but the battle being fought is a losing one. Even so, the Futa is wider and faster than you might imagine. Once through the health resort of Covigliaio, where Czar Nicholas I and King Farouk once stayed, and Traversa, where opposing WWII generals Kesselring and Clark were billeted in turn, the summit is soon reached. Its longer descent begins between the huge German war cemetery (32,000 dead) and the memorial to four-time Mille Miglia winner Clemente Biondetti, a dozen or so hairpins to be negotiated before you drop into Santa Lucia.

The Futa is not a disappointment — it's most certainly a challenge — but hemmed in as it is by greenery and the weather (its descent was tackled on day one, remember) it's not quite the vista fiesta I had anticipated. It's over quickly, too — even faster for our MG friend — as the road levels out on the run into the Sieve Valley. This is the fastest part of the track, its rippling surface having caused innumerable heart-stopping moments over the years.

"The big difference between Mugello and the Targa," explains road racing legend Vic Elford, "was that Mugello was much quicker. It was wider and you had room to make a small mistake, unlike on the Targa, but it's extra speed was what made it difficult" Elford and Maglioli averaged 69.04mph to secure the epic Targa of 1968 in a Porsche 907; the winning Alfa of that year's Mugello averaged 75.16mph, admittedly over two hours and 120 miles less.

"I thought Mugello was easier to learn than Targa," Elford continues, "because there were more landmarks. And it was easier to overtake, too: on the Targa you could get stuck behind someone for miles; that didn't happen at Mugello."

It was along this balls-out stretch that ‘Little Art’ carved out the race's most exciting — and last — victory in 1970. Merzario had made his name with a fine win the year before. Driving solo, he had made light work of oppressive heat and an impressive field to lead home an Abarth 1-2. Ferrari sat up, took notice and signed him for 70, but happily released him back to Abarth for Mugello.

The race was now a round of the European Two-Litre Championship and had been reduced from eight to five laps. During practice Merzario had become the first man to break 30min; the race, though, would be no cakewalk. Abarth had entered four cars, and into one of them it had slotted Leo Kinnunen. Just two months before, the Finnish all-rounder had set the Targa Florio's fastest lap, despite it being his first visit to the island. His ability to memorise roads was clearly on a par with that of Elford's. Merzario had his hands full, and although he led early on, Kinnunen gradually upped his pace so that, by the time of Merzario's fuel stop at the end of lap three, he had moved into the lead. Leo pitted on the following lap, and slick work allowed him to re-emerge in the lead. Could he hang on?

Approaching Firenzuola on the last lap, Merzario got the 'Faster!' signal. He was 6sec in arrears. Kinnunen, though, was in brilliant form and crossed the line convinced that he'd won. But he must have soon guessed from the hubbub that filled the start-finish area that something was afoot Merzario was coming. Faster. Faster. Faster. Through the tree-lined sweeps of St Piero a Sieve, scene of the early races' starts. Up the steady drag from the valley floor. Louder. Louder. Louder. A flash of red, he burst into sight through the final fast lefthander and the place went wild. Can he? Will he? Yes! By just over 3sec.

It wasn't meant to be a send-off; the Automobile Club of Florence was hoping to stave off the inevitable for another year but, as it turned out, this remarkable circuit had just enjoyed an ending that befitted its stature.

The new Mugello, widely regarded as one of the better modern facilities, is a few kilometres down the road, east of Scarperia. It is, though, a million miles away in spirit.

The craziest F3 race ever

Even in a rough-tough sportscar, Mugello was considered to be an attritional race. Imagine, then, hustling a spindly F3 screamer around here...

Nah, it could never happen.

Er... not so. In order to bolster the spectacle of 1966, the organisers decided to stick just such a race onto the front of the main event.

"It seemed a mad idea even then," says Vic Elford. "They sent all the F3 cars out for one lap of practice and only a handful of them came back!"

In the race the cars were released in pairs, 20sec between each all 5min before the big bangers got under way. It was a two-lap affair, and once these had been completed, the F3 competitors were free to take up their secondary positions as co-drivers in the sportscar race!

The battle for the lead – after 'Geki' had launched his Wainer into infinity and beyond somewhere along the Giogo – was between Iwo Brits: Jonathan Williams and Boley Pittard. The latter's BWA was leading on the road and on time until it spun on the second run over the Giogo. He crossed the line still in the 'lead', but Williams' de Sanctis was close enough behind to take the victory on corrected time.