Sicily's answer to the Mulsanne

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We all know about Le Mans’ flat-out blast and Spa’s Masta Strdght, but few recall the Targa Florio equivalent

Readers of a certain age may recall the celebrated TV double-act by Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill, in which one concluded that the other was “particularly good along the straights”.

In tiny part this may have been a reference to a 1965 test session at Snetterton in which, to Graham’s intense disgust, it became apparent that Jackie’s smaller size, which enabled his tailored BRM P261 windscreen to be smaller than lanky Graham’s, consistently gave him an extra couple of hundred rpm down the Norwich Straight. Interestingly, their lap times remained virtually identical, despite the wee Scot’s straightline advantage, but Graham reckoned he was having to sweat blood round the twisty bits. He demanded to know what chief engineer Tony Rudd was “going to do about it?” and remained unimpressed when, after careful thought, Tony suggested “Amputation?”.

By the end of the duo’s frontline racing careers in 1973, mention of Jackie having a straightline advantage would have been more justified. By then, his works Tyrrell had full benefit of Cosworth’s most muscular ‘development engines’, while Graham with his private Embassy-backed Shadow would really have been hurting for horsepower, torque, reliability… and hope.

Straightline performance is always a vital consideration. During their Hesketh March programme in 1973, James Hunt urged team engineer ‘Doc’ Postlethwaite simply to make their car the fastest down the straight “and I’ll block ’em all off round the corners” – public school sportsmanship prevailing…

Such ponderings rewind to one year at Spa for the 1000Kms sports car classic, when Jenks led photographer Geoff Goddard and myself up a country lane from Burnenville onto a high knoll about a kilometre or so infield from Masta hamlet and its notorious kink on the old main straight.

Standing up there, peeking over a hedge, we could see almost the entire length of the Masta Straight, all the way from the exit of Malmedy Corner to our left, along through Masta itself, and then stretching away to our right, through the lick at Hollowell, and on into what was described in the late 1950s as ‘the super-elevated sweep of Stavelot Corner’.

Standing out there, watching the Porsche 917s, Ferrari 512s and those wailing Matra V12s hurtling left to right through almost an entire 180-degree ield of vision, absolutely seared a visual memory into each of us. But beyond the sight, what was even more memorable was the sound… straining engines bawling flat out for half a minute or more, then backing off, balancing for Masta, and waaaaaahhh! – away again, flat-strap, to the braking point for Stavelot.

Of course the Masta Straight in those days ranked close to ‘The Muldoon’ at Le Mans, while for Formula 1 fans there was no substitute for driving through the paddock access tunnel at Monza as Italian Grand Prix practice was in progress, and hearing eights, later 10s and certainly 12-cylinder engines bursting a blood vessel all the way from the Parabolica to your right, then overhead as you dived into the tunnel before the Doppler effect died away, still flat out, on and on and away to the Curva Grande on your left. Sheer magic.

But there was another gigantic motor racing straight which received minimal publicity at the time and which few even recall these days. The popular image of the Sicilian Targa Florio is that it was all point and squirt rally-style roads, snaking around the Madonie mountains. Yes, well, so it was, until the Madonie course plunged back down through Campofelice towards the Tyrrhenian Sea coastline, whereupon it headed west towards the start/inish line and pits near Cerda. And the route it took along that coastal plain – with a railway mainline between it and the startlingly blue-green sea to the drivers’ right – was the Buonfornello Straight.

This now largely forgotten Targa Florio feature always posed an additional preparation problem for competing cars. While they would need closely-spaced gear ratios for the Madonie’s 40-odd-mile hustle around the ‘twisty bits’, they would also need an extra-long top gear to take best advantage of this near-three-mile Buonfornello.

While maybe 140mph would provide quite sufficient excitement up in the hills, the Buonfornello was of almost Mulsanne Straight proportions, and so was a very important factor in saving seconds on lap time. It was easily 170-190mph along there, but few today recall the Targa Florio’s fastest section – the mental picture of Sicily’s great race being instead all spiky agaves, olive groves, tumbling mountainsides, stone-walled villages and acute and cambered corners.

The Buonfornello was certainly very fast, and it could be quite dicey with crosswinds off the sea. But my memories of the place are somewhat coloured by Geoff Goddard’s prediction: “Drive along that straight and you’ll see stalls set up along the verge,” he told me darkly, “with blokes ’olding up what look like ’orse’s balls…” Blanching at the thought, I paused before saying, “Yeeesss, well go on then, what are they?” And then he’d laugh and explain that what really did look like equine under-swingings were actually newly caught octopus, “Buy ’em while they’re fresh.” Hmm – I wasn’t any more attracted… But don’t forget the Targa’s long Buonfornello Straight.

Doug Nye

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