The rise of the mountain king

It may have been too late to clinch victory on the Targa Florio, but that didn't slow one Finnish pilot

Targa Florio Pedro Rodriguez

Eighty miles an hour, all but. That will now stand forever as the lap record for the Targa Florio, last run in 1977 – too narrow, too rough, too risky. If that 80mph seems nothing, transport yourself to the lemon-scented Madonie mountains of Sicily, to a writhing ribbon of tar, round headlands, valleys and tight bridges, thigh-straining braking from 180mph peaks to hairpins at 35 while fans try to slap your car. One 44-mile lap is a marathon. They did it 11 times in succession.

From 1907, via several routes up to 92 miles long, the Targa Florio built its reputation, until by the Sixties and Seventies it sat with the Nürburgring and Le Mans as one of sports car racing’s classics. When little-known Finn Leo Kinnunen signed for Porsche for the 1970 season he knew he was number two to Pedro Rodríguez, but Targa Florio upturned that: shouldering most of the drive he earned himself a lasting honour. He did not win, but he stunned onlookers with a drive that can never be beaten.

On these two-lane roads the Targa ran as a time trial, cars starting at intervals, team crews holding up position boards by the Cerda pits. For half an hour – 492 relentless miles – the driver didn’t know his placing. Although works teams had fuelling and signalling depots in the hills, help was usually a long way off, though spectators loved to heave an errant car back on the road. With 12 classes down to 1300cc GTs there was little room for strategy; traffic luck played a bigger part, and overtaking was a breath-holding gamble.

With four Targa victories already, Porsche arrived in confident form, rolling four flyweight cars out of the transporters, brand new and conceived just for this event. With its 2000ft climb to Bivio Polizzi, the Targa was effectively a hillclimb up and down – from Palermo the seaside road ran straight, but it was those bends that counted. So Stuttgart slid 350bhp of flat-eight into four fresh chassis based on the Bergspyder that had taken the European Mountain Hillclimb Championship. Short, squat and simply bodied, free of aero addenda, the little 908/3s were technically not a works team: John Wyer’s JWA would run three, Porsche Salzburg the fourth, and so they could be easily identified they arrived in some of the most memorable liveries to hit the track – the JW cars in pale Gulf blue differently slashed by orange arrowheads so the changeover driver knew which car was coming in, the ‘dealer’ car splashed with red across its nose.

They’d leave the 5-litre class to Ferrari. Sure enough Porsche drivers Jo Siffert/Brian Redman went fastest in practice, Vic Elford/Hans Herrmann second in the Salzburg 908/3 over the sole works Ferrari 512S of Nino Vaccarella/Ignazio Giunti. And an Alfa Romeo T33/3 fourth. This was the Targa’s golden time; every maker aiming for glory in the World Sportscar Championship had to be here – and so many privateers that for 1971 the event would require knock-out heats.

As huge crowds gathered, traffic jams around Palermo snared officials and competitors, so the Filipinetti 512 and the Maranello sister didn’t set off until an anxious hour late, with following 3-litre machines flagged away only 15sec apart. Soon Targa expert Elford was out, the victim of a rock on the track. If Vacarella’s big Ferrari withstood the pounding it might upset the Stuttgart applecart, and the 3-litre V8 Alfas too had a serious chance.

Siffert had squeezed past the Ferraris but as stopwatches clicked for the first time it was the 908 of Gérard Larrousse leading the Swiss and a charging Kinnunen. Fuel stops mixed positions, Vacarella and Giunti fuelling and swapping every two laps while the Porsche crews drove four laps with a fill in the mountains.

For the crowd on the hillsides, the order was opaque, but the spectacle stupendous. And Kinnunen was proving a revelation, breaking the lap record on lap four at 34min 57.5sec to take the lead from Siffert/Redman and the 512s. Until Rodríguez took over. Unwell, he soon dropped to fourth, pulling in after three laps instead of four while Redman and Giunti sparred for two wonderful rounds, the Porsche unable to pass the big Ferrari until a tandem stop gave Porsche the deciding edge, sealed by Vacarella’s last stop after the Larrousse/Linz Porsche snapped a half-shaft and the last of the Alfas crashed.

But Kinnunen was flying, his rally skills helping him fling the Porsche through over 800 bends every lap as he made up in spades what Rodríguez had dropped, clearing walls by inches to end lap 10 almost 7sec faster than Siffert. He couldn’t win, but his blood was up and his last lap was an electrifying 33min 36.0sec – so fast some thought a minute had gone adrift. He and Rodríguez snatched second place, but the Finn had set a mark never to be topped. The Targa would run as a major international for three more years, but no-one would match Kinnunen before safety, poor facilities and those unruly spectators ended its days as the last great road race.