The one that got away: Targa by the tail

Stirling Moss 1961 Targa Florio

He reckoned he had the perfect car for the job. Which is why, he tells Adam Cooper, a last-minute failure was all the more galling

Stirling Moss competed in over 500 events before his Goodwood crash in 1962, and while he won a significant proportion of them, he also had more than his fair share of bad luck, especially in GPs. But ask him which retirement he regrets the most and the 1961 Targa Florio is his instant answer.

“It was an event I enjoyed circuit-wise, but I wouldn’t say I was the greatest fan of being in Sicily for two weeks!” says Moss. “But it was a lovely, wonderful circuit and a terrific event, and I won it in ’55 with the car I won the Mille Miglia and the TT.

“The thing about the Targa was that you could learn the circuit, or at least I reckoned I could. It was only about 44 miles round. I couldn’t learn the Mille Miglia, but the Targa I could. I went down there and drove round and round for two weeks before the actual race. Also I’d been down there before in a rental car. You could do a lap in say, an hour and a quarter, an hour and a half, and then you could gradually piece it together and learn it until, in the end, I did know it, which was a great help.”

In the years after Moss’s 1955 win in a Mercedes, Germany’s domination of the event had continued. Porsche established a superb record and regularly embarrassed Ferrari, winning in 1956, ’59 and ’60, and taking second in ’58 (the race wasn’t run in ’57). And Moss enjoyed a good relationship with Stuttgart’s ‘other’ manufacturer.

“I drove for Porsche quite a lot. Huschke [team boss, von Hanstein] would come along to me and say, ‘Do you want to drive our car?’ They were pretty good. I won’t say they were the same as Mercedes, because they didn’t have the money.”

Porsche entered three cars in the 1961 Targa: two works machines for Dan Gurney/Jo Bonnier and Edgar Barth/Hans Herrmann, and a third, ostensibly running under the Camoradi banner, for Moss and Graham Hill. However, the latter was to all intents and purposes a normal works entry.

“That RS60 was a particularly good car, and it was terribly well-suited to a unique circuit, being very agile. The Targa had that one long straight, but that Porsche was quite fast even on the straights, so it was really good for this race.”

Ferrari entered Tipo 246SPs for Phil Hill/Olivier Gendebien and Wolfgang von Trips/Richie Ginther, and a front-engined TR61 for Ricardo Rodriguez/ Willy Mairesse.

It was a 10-lap event and no driver could do more than seven consecutive laps. How teams split the chores between the two pilots was entirely up to them, but there was last-minute confusion at Ferrari when an irate Gendebien insisted that Hill should take the first stint. The flustered American would crash on the opening lap.

Moss himself had established the lap record on his last Targa appearance, with Aston Martin in 1958, and it was soon clear that it would be broken. He set off at 7.30am and his standing-start lap of 42min 18.6sec was just a second off the record. He docked 41min 36.0sec on lap two and slashed that down to 41min 09.8sec on the third. He was on brilliant form, right on the limit but in complete control.

“I remember with the Merc that I went off once, over a ditch, through a field and back out onto the road! I don’t remember going off with the Porsche. The thing about this race was that it was a lot safer than the Mille Miglia, especially when you caught people up. There were flag marshals and it was a lot more enclosed. On the Mille Miglia, you’d get long straights where you’d be up to 170mph; most of the time on the Targa you were running at 60-80mph.”

His fourth lap was a stunning 40min 58.4sec, despite slowing down to come into the pits to hand over to Hill, who was to do a two-lap middle stint.

Moss was happy with his team-mate, who’d had three years of F1 experience with Lotus and BRM: “I don’t think Graham was hard on the car; I think he was fairly mechanically sympathetic. I did a few races with him, and I knew he’d be quick enough and that he would look after it.”

The Porsche’s main pursuer was the von Trips Ferrari. Despite the earlier altercation, Gendebien was put into this car instead of Ginther, and he he immediately began lapping very quickly. Porsche’s pitstop had not been a good one and, including this delay, Hill’s standing start on lap five cost a lot of time. On lap six he recorded 42min 19.4sec as he slowed down to stop at the pits. Moss took over for the four remaining laps, the lead having passed to Gendebien.

Moss recorded a 41min 56.6sec on lap seven — and then it all went wrong for Ferrari. Gendebien made an unscheduled fuel stop in the service area halfway round the lap, losing a lot of time. The main pits didn’t know about this and signalled Olivier in at the end of lap. He followed the order and the mechanics were surprised to find a nearly full tank.

Von Trips jumped aboard for the run to the flag.

The German soon began to gain on Moss. But Stirling was still in control, recording 41min 02.6sec and 40min 41.8sec on laps eight and nine.

Denis Jenkinson’s Motor Sport report gives an indication of how hard Moss was trying: “There was no doubt that Moss was really at work, for his face was not the relaxed cool visage so often seen, but a grimy and hard-looking face of a man working like never before.”

At the midpoint of the final lap he was still 48sec clear of the flying von Trips — but he never made it to the finish. Just 4.5 miles from the end of the gruelling seven-hour event the Porsche ground to a halt. Moss was devastated.

“It was just absolute complete frustration. Terrible! I didn’t know what had happened until later. I just told them that the engine was all right but something else had seized up. A bolt had stretched a bit and let the oil out of the transmission, and that was it. It seized up.”

Von Trips did a great job, setting a new record, but it should have been Moss’s day. Second and third places were small consolation for Porsche.

At least Moss wasn’t to be disappointed for too long. Just two weeks later the Formula One World Championship kicked off with the Monaco GP, where his Lotus would head home a trio of works ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris.