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  • Writer's pictureAdéla Pavlovská

More than just a beverage: The history of Targa Florio

The fascinating story of the oldest sports car racing event in the world deserves to be told as many different prototypes and names were seen on the grid throughout its rich history.


Under the name Targa Florio, many may envision the famous lemonade made of the best Sicilian lemons. However, this is not the tale I am here to narrate. In the Madonie mountains of Sicily, not far away from Palermo, the first ever Targa Florio race saw the light of day on May 5, 1906. The name comes from its founder, a wealthy entrepreneur, automobile enthusiast, and a racing driver from a prominent Florio dynasty, Vincenzo Florio. Only ten cars lined up on the grid, yet it was enough to draw the attention of various racers all over the world, every one of them desiring to participate at least once in their careers. The first-ever winner of a three-lap and 446km long race was Alessandro Cagna. Ten years later, Targa Florio has become a prestigious event, also thanks to famous brands taking part, such as Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ferrari, and Mercedes. The record for most wins is held by Porsche - the German manufacturer was victorious eleven times.

The first woman racing in Targa Florio was, coincidentally, Eliška Junková. The legend of Czech motorsport and pioneer among female racers appeared on the grid for the first time in 1927. As she didn't finish due to an accident, Junková tried her luck again the following year behind the wheel of a Bugatti 35B. If it wasn't for a tyre defect in the last lap, she would surely won this famous event. Nevertheless, a fifth place overall is an amazing achievement, forever inscribed in the history books. Other notable names to drive here include Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jacky Ickx, and many more.

Considered one of the toughest endurance races, the track layout has gone through several changes. In the early stages of its existence, the track length was diminished to 72km, creating the new Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie, used since 1932. The number of laps increased to eleven. The start and finish line was in the town of Cerda. Drivers had to put up with treacherous superelevations - including the sudden climate changes - numerous hairpin turns, as well as dusty public roads with no safety walls around. Animals were seen running around, spectators were sitting too close to the road. The track can be compared to the likes of Le Mans, Nürburgring, or the Isle of Man in terms of peril, brutal race pace, extreme difficulty, and immortality for those who conquer. The high demands of this race called for a reliable car, proposing a great challenge to the constructors. Due to the tight Italian roads, the race cars started one by one every fifteen seconds, just like during rally events.

In 1955, Targa Florio became a part of the World Sportscar Championship by FIA, reaching its peak. Due to safety reasons, the race was crossed off the calendar in 1973. One of the drivers vocal about their concerns was none other than Helmut Marko, who set a lap record here a year before in Alfa Romeo. From that moment, a slow demise was set in motion. Not only did cars become quicker, but the organisers failed to provide needed safety requirements, lacked marshalls, and dealt with financial issues. The year 1977 was the last nail in the coffin for Targa Florio. During its sixty-first running, a tragic incident occurred. Gabriele Ciuti went off the road, killing two people and injuring five more, including himself. As a response, the event transitioned from sports cars to rally. It is surprising that over the course of seventy-one years with practically no safety features "only" nine people lost their lives - compared to other road races, it's a small number. It may be due to the slow mountain roads - the average speed didn't go over 130 km/h. The only place where the drivers could push the pedal to the floor was the six-kilometer-long Buonfornello straight.

Targa Florio Rally is considered to be its official continuation. The layout of the Circuito delle Madonie is used in a different version. From 1984 to 2011, it was a part of the European Rally Championship. Since 2012, it has had its place in the Italian Rally Championship. In the same year, the Czech driver Jan Kopecký won in Škoda Fabia S2000. Targa Florio was an inspiration to modern recreations in different parts of the world, most notably in Australia and New Zealand.

A very vivid and picturesque description of Targa Florio can be found in Remarque's brilliant novel Heaven Has No Favourites. I recommend this book not only because it visualises the frenetic yet fascinating race but also for its wonderful yet painful storyline. No matter who we are or what we do, we can't escape our own fate.

"The car roared off. Careful, Clerfayt thought, don’t strain the motor! The stands were flashes of color and whiteness and light; then there was only the road, the blazing blue sky, and the sot on the horizon that must be dust and Duval with his car. The stretch climbed for four hundred yards. The mountain range of the Madonie, citrus orchards, the flickering silver of olive groves, curves, serpentines, hairpin turns, flying road gravel, the hot breath of the motor, burning feet, an insect that slammed like a bullet into his glasses, cactus hedges, rising and descending curves, cliffs, rubble, mile after mile; then, gray and brown, the old fortress city of Caltavuturo, dust, more dust, and suddenly a spiderlike insect: a car." - Heaven Has No Favourites, chapter 13


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