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A Sicilian Adventure: From the Cockpit on the 2012 Targa Florio Classic

by Massimo Delbò        

Without doubt one of the most iconic events in the motor racing community has always been the Targa Florio. Since 1906, when the very first edition was organized by Count Florio on the mountain roads winding through the Madonie hills near Palermo on the island of Sicily, the 'Targa' has been regarded as one of the most difficult and challenging races in the world. That's why when the organizers, Mac Group, issued a friendly invitation "that can't be refused" to join them on the Targa Florio Classic, from 11th to 14th October, almost 200 cars found their way to Sicily.

Some were from the earliest days of motoring but best represented was a more recent past, the most incredible and documented period of the Targa, the one from the '50s to the '70s. The selection was wide, from diminutive early barchettas, usually with tiny Fiat engines like the 1951 Ermini, to the latest sports-prototypes from the '70s such as the shrieking Alfa Romeo 33 powered by a 450bhp flat 12. In between these extremes was a kaleidoscope of sports cars from the golden era.

Maserati's finest tackle the old Targa course
Author Delbo prepares for high altitude climb of Mount Etna

Then, of course, you have the road, because cars, especially these cars, need a suitable playground. The roads are the magic part of the Targa Florio: tricky, slippery, with hundreds corners for every single kilometre covered in a patchwork of bumps and potholes, all playing their part in the myth of the Targa Florio. This year's roadbook guided crews along 900 kilometres (a little more than 550 miles), re-living the 72km Circuito delle Madonie before snaking around the most beautiful cities and landmarks on the eastern part of the island.

The 2012 edition is run as a regularity trial where outright speed is not the objective, but entrants soon realized how difficult it can be to drive in Sicily. That's why the special guests, drivers of the calibre of Nino Vaccarella, Arturo Merzario, Nanni Galli, Gijs van Lennep and Vic Elford, each with at least one victory in the original Targa to their credit, were all asked the same question: "How did you manage?" Because when you look back and see that they were driving all day at average speeds of over 120 Km/h (about 75 mph) on these twisting, pock marked roads, you can't fail to wonder how on earth they did it. We mortals, driving at a much slower pace, are continuously touching the ground with the bottom of our cars, bouncing over bumps and potholes, correcting tail slides and fighting with all our energy just to stay on the road.

Alfa 33 spyder was a multiple Targa veteran
Team Kidston in their red bus, back here 45 years after its last Targa outing

The best answer was Merzario's, complicitly smiling as described the routine: "First, we prepared the car in the right way: on the Alfa 33 we increased the ground clearance from 5 to 8 centimetres. That, of course, did not prevent you from scratching the bottom of your car, but gave you a little more chance not to be airborne when you had to steer. The most important point was to lap the Madonie track so many times that you start to remember the trickiest corners but, more than everything else, to discover the worst jumps and to anticipate the corner to be able to, well...to corner. Most of time today, when you look at the pictures from the past of a crashed car, usually with the front hitting a wall, you wonder how it could have happened. You look at the corner and it doesn't seem very tricky, and you assume that the driver made a simple mistake. You're wrong: he simply arrived a little too long, and was airborne when he had to steer to make the corner."

The old Cerda pits returned to life again with some 200 cars
A novel way of interviewing potential husbands?

"We drivers guessed the length of the 'flight' after a certain bump and, sometimes, we overestimated our flight control!" In the 2012 edition, after a warm and sunny start in front of the historic grandstands of Cerda, a remaining symbol from the past, the sky turned black and rain began to fall. Nothing to worry the Scottish, but if the roads between Edinburgh and Glasgow are made to cope with the rain, you can't say the same about the Sicilian tarmac. Old, cooked by the sun, worn out by time and the millions of tyres that have run on it, as soon as the rain makes it wet it becomes as slippery as ice. The result is a lot of fun for the driver, a lot of fear for the co-driver and a lot of happiness for the body shops. Many of the cars at the end of the rally displayed on their panels, usually a corner one, the results of this cocktail.

Merzario, looking at a well battered Alfa Romeo GT, continued: "That's nothing, you should have seen my Abarth Zagato after the accident I had during a private practice session before a race. Just after a fast corner there was, in the middle of the road, a herd of goats. I won't tell you what the results were of the coming together, but, while I was trying to get out of the car to get my bearings, the shepherd arrived. I'm Italian, but I couldn't understand a single word of what he said, although the tone was clear enough. He started to beat my car with his stick, and, before I could get away, my car, made of a thin leaf of alloy, was a total mess. I still remember the face of Carlo Abarth when I came back to the pits..."

Nothing is rushed here, including lunch stops
Public notices exalted: 'Lock up your animals! Keep your dogs on a leash!'

Sicily is not only roads and cars, but a wonderful place to discover, dotted with cities full of history and incredible scenery. Imagine driving through Siracusa, past the ancient Greek theatre, with acoustics so perfect that still today you can whisper on the stage and be heard from the last row of seats. Think about the stairs in Caltagirone, with every single one made 'different' by the style and imagination of the artisan who sculpted it centuries ago. Taormina stole our hearts with its fantastic views over the gulf and the Isola Bella. The hillclimb to the summit of Mount Etna, the active volcano above Catania, gave crews the dramatic sensation of driving against the flow of lava.

The Targa Florio Classic was a great opportunity to see wonderful, iconic cars driven, hard, on the road, including three Alfa Romeo 33s, a 1968 Tipo 33/2 Spider, a 1971 TT3 and a 1968 Tipo 33/2 Daytona, driven by Nino Vaccarella, Arturo Merzario and Nanni Galli.  A thunderous 1973 Ferrari Daytona racer provided a younger foil to the 250GT SWB which had won the 1960 Tour de France driven by (later) Targa winner 'Wild' Willy Mairesse. In their element, an original Group 4 Lancia Stratos was chased by a pair of Lancia Fulvia HFs, a low flying Porsche 356 Speedster with Vic Elford at the wheel and a trio of agile Porsche 550 Spyders, the lead car piloted by the winner of the last ever 'real' Targa in '73, Gijs van Lennep.

Welcoming crowds everywhere who seemingly never slept
Not a fashion shoot, just your average Italian driver

Given a friendly welcome by older locals who remembered it competing here back in period was the ex-Timo Makinen/ Paul Hawkins Works 'Big Healey' which led its class on the '65 Targa until a minor electrical fault relegated it to second in class...behind a '64 Ferrari GTO, but not before immortality in Castrol's 'Mountain Legend' film. Best couple went to Andrea Zagato and his wife Marella Rivolta Zagato, sharing the steering wheel of a stylish Alfa 1900 Zagato, while the most elegant team was Italian fashion stylist Stefano Ricci with his son Niccolò in a Lancia Aurelia B20 Coupe. At the very end the greatest applause went to the Police motorcycle outriders who escorted, assisted and chased us for the whole event, being 'blind' when needed and forgiving the occasional motoring exuberance. Sicily and the Targa Florio: nothing else is quite the same.  

Images courtesy of Renè Photocollection Italy, Massimo Delbò  

Ready to emerge into the Sicilian sunlight for the first time since 1967
Ex-Mairesse Ferrari SWB, winner of the 1960 Tour de France
Unspoilt landmarks were perfect backdrop for historic cars
Old rally warhorses at rest atop Mount Etna