A century of history. So much has happened since Count Vincenzo Florio was inspired to change the history of Italian motoring forever. The nobleman, who grew up in one of the richest families in Sicily, was attracted from a very early age to the motorcars that were becoming an increasingly frequent sight across the country, even in his local region.
Born in 1883, Florio had just finished his studies and had begun to work in one of the numerous branches of the family business, in the production of fine wines. His work brought him into contact with French aristocrats and wealthy industrialists from Northern Italy who shared his passion for cars.
In 1905, the Count rehearsed for his own race, competing in the Florio Cup in Brescia, won by Giovanni Battista Raggio in the Itala. However, the following year the nobleman decided to unite his passion for cars with his love for his country. He got in touch with Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto magazine and ingenious creator of cycling’s Tour de France, which was held for the first time in 1903.
He took a trip with Desgrange into the Sicilian countryside and found a route spanning 150km between the mountains of the Madonie, passing through the towns of Buonfornello, Cerda, Caltavuturo, Castellana, Petralia Sottana, Petralia Soprana, Geraci, Castelbuono, Isnello, Collesano and Campofelice di Roccella, before returning to the starting point.
The first editions of the Targa Florio were run on this route, but over the years, Panormium, the organising committee, also opened the medium and short-distance Circuito delle Madonie – only 72km in length, but with a whopping 900 bends. The prize was initially set at 50,000 lire, as well as an art nouveau-style number plate designed by René Lalique.
On 6 May 1906, at dawn, competitors in the first ever race departed, with Itala’s victorious Alessandro Cagno proving the most adept at navigating the tangle of small roads and trails but also the luckiest, having succeeded in narrowly avoiding a donkey that had strayed out on to the circuit. Huge crowds, some of whom had never seen a motor vehicle before, lined the route and the race was a huge success – so much so that the day after the finish work immediately began on organising a second race.
The Targa Florio quickly became Italy's most famous car race and, thanks to the influence of Desgrange, also shot to fame in France. The race's English timekeeper Gilbert Morley spread the word across the Channel too, writing a number of magazine articles and telling British radio listeners that, 'If you saw the Targa Florio, you wouldn’t be able to resist getting involved. It's a difficult race, but it’s like racing inside the most beautiful work of art.'
The popularity of the race continued to grow and, on November 23, 1919, the name Enzo Ferrari could be found on the list of competitors, coming in ninth overall at the wheel of a CMN (Costruzioni Meccaniche Nazionali), a car produced by a Milan-based manufacturer. The following year, Enzo lined up at the start in an Alfa Romeo and came second overall behind Guido Meregalli, celebrating success in their class. He also took part in the three subsequent editions of the Sicilian race, each time in an Alfa Romeo, retiring one year, but also taking home fifth place (second in category) and 16th (third in category).
However, the name Ferrari would return to the Targa Florio’s golden book in 1948, the first edition of the post-war period, dominated by Clemente Biondetti and Frenchman Igor Troubetzkoy in the Scuderia Inter's 166 S Spider Allemanno. It was the first of seven victories for the Prancing Horsei in the Targa Florio, as well as 23 category successes.
The race took on even more in importance in the 1950s, when it was included in the Campionato Mondiale Marche calendar, the equivalent of today's World Endurance Championship. From this point, some of the world’s leading drivers headed to Sicily to test themselves on the climbs of the Madonie peaks.
In 1958 Ferrari triumphed with a 250 TR 58 driven by Luigi Musso and Olivier Gendebien, while in 1960 it was the turn of Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Trips with their Dino 246 S. The German also enjoyed success the following year, before tragically losing his life in the Formula One Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
In 1962, it was the turn of Willy Mairesse and a young Ricardo Rodriguez to bring glory to the Scuderia, while the last win was in 1972, with Arturo Merzario and Sandro Munari, one a track and the other a rally racer, confirming the unique nature of this race.
Nino Vaccarella and Gaetano Starrabba di Giardinelli deserve a chapter all to themselves. Both were winners for Ferrari and were Sicilian. Starrabba di Giardinelli, a winner in 1961 at Monza, won his category in a privately owned 500 TRC together with the expert Franco Cortese, the first driver to race a Ferrari at the Terme di Caracalla circuit in 1947.
Vaccarella, born in Collesano in 1933, boasted four F1 grand prix appearances, and won the Targa Florio an amazing three times: in 1965 behind the wheel of a 275 P2 with Lorenzo Bandini and then in 1971 and in 1975 with Alfa Romeo. The last competitive race was held in 1977 and was won by Raffaele Restivo and Alfonso Merendino in a Chevron, but was sadly marred by Gabriel Ciuti’s accident – he veered off the track in his Osella, mowing down and killing a number of spectators.
With GT races outlawed, the Targa Florio was then transformed into a rally and, over the years, it became one of the most prestigious events of its kind around the world.
However, a regular race was held for years on the small circuit, in memory of the original Targa Florio. At this event, Ferrari presents its tribute to the Targa Florio, which allows clients to follow the race cars across the competition circuit, taking in some spectacular views and panoramas of rare beauty. In May 2016, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the race in style, the historical re-enactment and rally will be held together.