Sunday, 4 December 2011

On An Island - The Ultimate Motorsports Legend Fights Its Way Back To Worldwide Establishment

A blowhorn from the past. A travel through ages, sanctioning bodies and generations. The nostalgic and cathartic remembrance of heroic figures in the midnight hour illuminated by fireworks of celebration.

In brief, the Targa Florio is back as a world championship event... in WRC IRC.

Yes, it's not really THAT Targa Florio what you might think of when searching for images on Google for potential wallpapers, but in spirit it still is. Somewhat adjusted to present ages. Evolution for survival. For an explanation, let's turn back the clock several decades and sit back letting the arid breeze of history curl through our minds.

The Targa Florio endurance race has probably been the among the most important races in European motorsports history including the very first French Grand Prix in 1906 (which later spawned many other Grand Prix races throughout Europe and the world only to be concluded in the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950). As a matter of fact, the Targa Florio set off a month before the first proto-F1 race and five years before the first Monte Carlo Rally.

The circuit - appearing in different configurations of open, Sicilian public roads linked together - has been one of the most brutal challenges for driver and car endurance alike. Conceived by Vicenzo Florio, it was intended to be the Southern Italian editon of his already established, but later defunct Coppa Florio (the spiritual ancestor of the Mille Miglia).

Tight, curvy mountain passages are the Targa's key challenges that made the Monte, the Sanremo and many other rally events famous to this day. To describe the event, imagine the above mentioned French GP run at Monte with added extreme heat and you get close to the challenge the Targa had to offer.

Of course, this was largely depending on the actual layout of the course. Over the decades, the Targa has emerged in various shapes and forms. In some occasions in the late '30s it was nothing more than a sprint race for Grand Prix cars on a barely 6km-long closed circuit. On the other end of the scale, the late '40s saw a 1080km-long course stretching over the whole island. Among the many versions, probably the most well-known variant is the 72km-long "Piccolo Circuit" that had become the "classic" targa for many racefans.

While the race produced many local heroes and emerged many Italian car manufacturers to the top of the racing scene, all fame went to Bugatti and its "35" model, winning the Targa in five consecutive years in the '20s that was somewhat imitated by the just-not-yet purpose-built Grand Prix car Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza and the Maserati 6CM with three wins mutually through the '30s.

Unfortunately, as with every race in Europe, WWII put a temporary end to racing. By 1948 when racing resumed, the dividing line between racing car types had already become quite clear as opposed to the practice of earlier decades where the difference between a sportscar and a Grand Prix car would be virtually the fenders being attached or not. Now the Targa was an all-sportscar event and was heading into new heights.

In 1955 the race was incorporated to the World Sportscar Championship, being the second Italian event on calendar after the Mille Miglia and among the many others to follow in later years.

Let's make a small experiment here: close your eyes and think of the Le Mans movie with Steve McQueen. Think of the Gulf Porsche and the archrival Ferrari. Think of the rain drooling down the Mulsanne straight. Now, think of the cars screaming down the infinite stretch through curtains of water. Your guts are trembling from the sheer volume and presence. Now, open a new chapter and think of the same cars again. Think of sunshine. Think of shadows thrown on the road by flat rooftops. Think of the cars screaming through a village street with the terrifying noise bouncing back from housewalls. Think of grandparents watching the car flying by just a metre away from the doorstep they are standing on. And of course, think of the serpentine-like roads with a chasm on one side and a wall on the other. That's the Targa Florio during its most glorious days.

As sportscars took a giant leap and entered their immense power-chasing period, racetracks around the world were packed with spectators and such endurance events saw many vicious fights all over these venues. But public roads seemed narrower every year and demanded increasing focus. Inevitably, fatal accidents to competitors and spectators put an end to an era in the same manner Mille Miglia was discontinued in its traditional form 16 years earlier in 1953.

The last "real" Targa Florio was run in 1973 as a World Sportscar Championship event (or World Championship for Makes as it was called then), but was continued as a domestic event until 1977 when open road racing was dropped completely and converted into a rallying event for the Italian championship on the same roads.

Now, Wikipedia might tell you that the Targa Florio Rally is not to be confused with Targa Florio "plain", but in truth is that apart from chopping up the historic course(s) to special stages not much difference happened. On the contrary, the cars have become more appaling by the end of Group 4 and the dawn of Group B. Winners of the Targa Florio were now all Italian asphalt-grinders: Lancia Stratos, 037, Delta S4, Ferrari 308GTB, Fiat 131 Abarth. The Targa was now more exciting than ever with all these fire-breathing monsters competing on sprint segments.

Coinciding with the ban of Group B cars on FIA sanctioned events, the Targa Florio has been incorporated to the European Rally Championship and has been part of it since. Until now.

The 18th of October 14th of June, 2012 will mark the kickoff of the first Targa Florio as a World Championship race (sort of) since 1973 after a staggering 39 years of hiatus, but at the same time it will be the 96th Targa and the 106th anniversary run. The Indianapolis 500, the Monte Carlo Rally and the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb are those truly great events that can live up to such tradition as the Targa Florio.

In an age, when auto racing is flourishing but compromised by political correctness, the sheer fact that a race with such a long history exists and survived the maladies of decades but turned up on international scene once again, evolved, is a story of an epic win.

I wish there were more events like that raising the history and tradition of automoblie racing.

I'm looking at you, Mille Miglia...

*NOTE: The author wished to bespoke on competitive events. Yet historic racing is very much present at both Targa Florio and Mille Miglia, they are friendly, but very respectable tourings rather than challenges.*

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