Story and Images by David James
I’ve long been fascinated by old sports racing cars – the ones around in the 1940’s, ’50s, ’60s and early-1970s. Painted in national colours, raced by national heroes (even practicing Grand Prix drivers!) and actually available for anyone to buy from the factory… for me, they are real racing cars.
Recently finding myself waking up in Sicily, I ventured on a pilgrimage to see the hardest racecourse of the era, the piccolo circuito delle Madonie (small circuit of the Madonie), known more famously as the site of the Targa Florio. A mere pup of a circuit at 72km in length, it twists and turns over almost every terrain imaginable.
The Targa Florio, if you’ve never heard of it, was a race run as a time trial – cars leaving individually, at intervals – with the fastest total time over a distance of up to 14 laps judged victorious. It was a mountain course, with almost no Armco – just stone walls or worse, fresh air – to stop you if things went awry. Even today, Sicilians remember fondly the heroes of the Targa Florio.
The course starts at ‘Floriopolis’, a now-abandoned pit and grandstand complex, where the flaking paint reveals the faded sponsor logos of races long past. There’s a bust of race founder Vincenzo Florio hiding behind falling-apart structures that once buzzed to the sound of multi-carb Ferrari V12s and flat-eight Porsches on race day. At quiet times you can almost hear Carlo Chiti of Autodelta issuing instructions in the ghostly pit garages.
The course starts very benignly – nice fast straights, with lovely lefts and rights. It quickly lulls you into a sense of false rhythm. After about five kilometres, bang! An innocuous right hander, even at modest speed, has the Citroen C4 hire car’s dashboard lighting up with stability control quickly enough to induce a modest epileptic fit! The message, clearly, is that this course demands respect.
After an intense introduction, the course soon approaches the town of Cerda. It’s your average Sicilian town, all hung laundry and terracotta, and it’s nothing special. But in its day, the main street was a vital, vibrant part of the unique road race as fans lined up and signalling points were manned. This past is celebrated in the small museum in the centre of town, Museo Vincenzo Florio di Cerda (Via Roma 55, if you’re ever in Cerda). You must visit this museum to see wonderful relics, photographs and hear stories from a man that was there! Even better, the museum is in the actual garage used by Autodelta for preparation of their wonderful Alfa Romeo sports cars in period, and there’s a great café just above.
Anyway, exiting Cerda the road begins to climb left and right, quickly gaining height, and growing my respect for the testicular fortitude of the racers in the day. The surface today is much as it was in period; smooth hot-mix and excellent for racing. The straights are short, and the corners many and unpredictable. This is fun.
Soon though, the switch in surface as I head for Caltavuturo reveals that time and a lack of real maintenance haven’t been kind to many parts of the course. The road is undermined in many parts, and as confidence grows, the snaking, undulating, bucking tarmac is ready to catch you out very quickly and very surely. You also have to keep an eye out for landslide remnants, rickety bridges and sections where the road surface has sunk.
Look carefully on this Caltavuturo climb and you’ll see a small memorial to Count Giulio Masetti, a two-time Targa Florio winner (1921 in a Fiat S 57/14 and 1922 in a Mercedes 1914 Grand Prix car), who was killed when his Delage flipped on this stretch of road in 1926. It’s another reminder to practice respect.
Turning hard left against the jutting, rocky outcrops of Caltavuturo town, the course dives through switchbacks to the base of a valley. Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins had a corner named ‘Back to Britain in a Box’ – a reference to the obvious consequence of a failure to follow the course. A long, fast down-hill left sweeper, into a fast left onto a crest brings me there. After the crest, there’s about 75 metres remaining before a tight, slow hairpin right. Not what a fatigued driver wanted in a tired race car on drum brakes, cooked from the long blast downhill.
A sprint under the mighty span of autostrada above leads to a few fast climbing switchbacks near Scillato before turning hard left again to head north east towards Collesano. This stretch of tarmac was commissioned especially for the race when it was moved to the shorter piccolo layout, used for the first time in 1932. Before that, the 149km grande (large) or 108km medio (medium) Madonie circuits were employed. It is, again, fast and flowing, undulating and generally down-hill in to a valley. Again it makes you feel safe and sucks you in, then bites you hard if you let it! Short sharp changes of direction, and several dips and bumps shake you back to life (and test the Citroen’s fading dampers).
The run to Collesano then starts upwards, a faster stretch through small farm paddocks, cresting on a right hander with a stone shed on the left, which after more than 40 years, still carries the iconic graffiti, ‘NINO’; a reference to the Palermo schoolteacher Nino Vaccarella, multiple winner of the Targa Florio (1965 in a Ferrari 275 P2, 1971 in an Alfa 33/3 and 1977 in an Alfa 33TT12, when the Targa no longer formed part of the World Sportscar Championship).
Collesano is approached rapidly downhill by quick little lefts and rights that plunge into the town. Approaching the town there’s more dedications to ‘NINO’, before turning sharp left in its centre and tearing downhill through long rights and sharp lefts. Collesano looks quite neglected as you drive through the main street, but divert to its Targa Florio museum (sign posts are somewhere!) and the town comes alive. There are also many mosaic dedications to the heroes of the Targa Florio scattered throughout the town.
Exiting Collesano, you’re on to the fast downhill approach to the coastal town of Campofelice di Roccella. Again, this is a road that looks to have no tricks, until you relax and then it nibbles away at you, ready to punish any laziness Campofelice is a lively town on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Many evocative pictures of Ferraris and Porsches blasting through town in-period exist. The course passes through the town square, where locals today ‘park wild’, then drops quickly to the coast road. Long and fast, this almost-straight gave the drivers their only respite – as long as they didn’t hit the trees that line either side.
Turning inland and past the Cerda railway station the course heads flat left, and after a couple more kilometres the steel footbridge overpass marks the return to Floriopolis, and the completion of the Piccolo Madonie circuit.
In summary, it is a legendary course that until driven is impossible to appreciate.
If you can, include it in your travel plans, as you will not be disappointed!