What does one do as a member of the Sicilian aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century when one owns one of the most beautiful mountain roads on the island? Quite simply: one creates one of the most demanding long-distance races for motor cars – and attracts the world’s best racing drivers to Sicily to take part in what becomes known as the Targa Florio and to roar around the circuit with tyres smoking for the next 70 years.
When the Sicilian wine merchant and enthusiastic motorcar driver Vincenzo Florio launches the "Targa Florio" in spring 1906, motorsport events in Europe are still in their infancy. The little French town of Le Mans is known primarily for its Gothic cathedral, and nothing will be heard of a "Mille Muglia" for the next 20 years. And even the young Enzo Ferrari is still going to school. Florio, however, is a veritable automobile pioneer and hopelessly addicted to speed; back in 1900, he had already launched Italy’s first car race – the Coppa Brescia, which is later held under the name of its backer and is known as the Coppa Florio. The locals in the small mountain village of Cerda, east of Palermo, can hardly believe their eyes when, in the early morning of the 6 May 1906, ten motor cars, belching smoke and with engines roaring, arrive to compete in a 148-kilometer long closed circuit race. The racing cars leave at 10-minute intervals; after 9 hours and 32 minutes, Alessandro Cagno, driving his Itala, has completed three laps and a total of 148 kilometres as the fastest driver – and secured the title for the first Targa Florio. It is the first of numerous victories that will ultimately go down in the history of motorsports.
Beginning in 1912, the Targa Florio is extended – the circuit now covers almost the entire island and the drivers have to complete 975 kilometres. However, the circuit changes again and again, occasionally it is 100 kilometres, and then only 72 kilometres. And the “Targa“ is demanding, if not downright dangerous: winding its way through hair-raising curves and corners, the race runs through the rugged mountains of Sicily, with hairpin bends and sharp turns challenging drivers and motor cars alike to the utmost. But not only is agility required, but also speed: on the over 6 kilometre Buonfornello straight along the coast, the drivers had to push the accelerator hard down if they did not want to ruin their chance of winning. For the engineers of the sports car marques, therefore, the Targa Florio is the ideal stress test for their latest developments. In the 1920s, it is Ettore Bugatti‘s brilliant Type 3 Grand Prix racing cars that dominate the race and win the Targa Florio five times in succession. From the 1930s, the superb Italian motor sports catapults, such as the Alfa Romeo 8C from Scuderia Ferrari – initially with the legendary Tazio Nuvolari behind the wheel – and the Maserati 6CM factory racing car, which is unbeatable in the Sicilian mountains. Even in the post-war period, the Targa Florio loses none of its appeal. The first two races following the forced break are won by two racing cars that now bear the name of the designer: Enzo Ferrari. These are not to remain the last Sicilian victories of the thoroughbreds from Maranello. In the 1950s, German racing teams begin to participate in the Targa Florio. The victory achieved by Stirling Moss and Peter Collins driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR factory sports car in 1955, which gives Mercedes the world championship title remains unforgotten, and the triumph achieved by Huschke von Hanstein and Umberto Maglioli in their Porsche 550 RS 1500 the following year. For Porsche, the Targa Florio is inseparably linked to the success of the mid-engined racing cars – with 11 victories, the racing team from Stuttgart are even ahead of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari in the eternal ranking of the best. And of course the Porsche 911 Targa is a constant reminder even today of how important the Sicilian race has been for Porsche’s success story.
In the 1960s, the trophy ultimately goes back and forth between Porsche and Ferrari. The lists of winners reads like a who‘s who of motorsport legends: drivers such as Wolfgang von Trips, Jo Bonnier, Hans Herrmann, Graham Hill and Vic Elford show off their entire range of skills on the narrow mountain roads, while winning sports cars such as the Ferrari Dino 246 SP and the triumphant Porsches, the 904 GTS, Carrera 6 and 910, remain some of the most sought-after motorsport classics today. The winning cars from those early days have long disappeared into collections and have become priceless. From the late 1960s and early 1970s, the tough competition between the marques results in increasingly more powerful and brute force prototype racing cars arriving to take part in the Targa Florio: when drivers like Nino Vaccarella race through the narrow streets of the mountain villages in his 600 hp Ferrari 512s with spectators sitting in front of their houses just centimetres away, lap record holder Helmut Marko can only agree with those taking part when he shakes his head in despair and says: ”The Targa Florio has gone completely mad!“ The lap record by the way has been held since 1970 by Leo Kinnunen, who completed the Targa in his Porsche 908/3 Spyder at an insane average speed of just under 129 km/h. But the frenzy takes its toll: the safety precautions are virtually non-existent. And accidents occur frequently, and end up killing not only racing drivers but also spectators. After the completion of the race in 1973, the Targa Florio is deleted from the world championship calendar. And ultimately, the final race in 1977 is prematurely cancelled by the police. It is the end of an era. The legends associated with what was perhaps the world‘s toughest road race, however, remain unforgotten.
(c) Text: Jan Baedeker • Bilder: Stefan Bogner