Motorsport: 80 Years Ago, Maserati Took Its Last Win On The Targa Florio

80 Years Ago, Maserati Took Its Last Win On The Targa Florio

James Gent By James Gent
May 22, 2020
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In its latest tease of the new MC20 supercar, Maserati is celebrating its victory at the 1940 Targa Florio with a succession of flybys on the same roads used for the infamous Sicilian road rally. An event that, in many ways, was the making of the Tridant.

Conceived in Sicily in 1906 by Italian ‘gentleman driver’ – and youngest son of Marsala Winery magnate, Ignatius Sr – Vincenzo Florio, the Targa Florio quickly established itself as one of motorsport’s most daunting, yet respected, road rallies. A gruelling endeavour, Sicily’s infamous motor race took in mountain ‘roads’ (a generous description), severe elevation changes that ranged from 10m to 1,010m above sea level, myriad and mostly blind hairpin turns, and the occasional bandit attack. Even then, heavy rain and/or landslides threatened to wash part of the course away altogether. Still, complete the full 148km ‘Grande Circuit’ loop from the railway station in Cerda (pronounced ‘th’ with a rolled ‘r’) via the picturesque Campofelice di Roccella, Castelbuono, and Castellana Sicula in 1st place, and you’d receive 30,000 lire in prize money as well as a commemorative plaque – or ‘targa’ – commissioned by Florio himself. A tantalising incentive, given that the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia were still 17 and 21 years from fruition respectively.

Increased interest of course meant the Italian ‘ordeal’ only ended up getting bigger. And faster. From 1912 to 1914, competitors were doing the full 979km perimeter tour of Sicily itself, a loop that was re-introduced and lengthened to 1,080km from 1948 to 1950. In 1912, it took winner Cyril Snipe more than a full day to complete the 979km race at an average speed of 41.44kph. Italian contemporaries Clemente Biondetti and Igor Troubetzkpy meanwhile completed their 1,080km in less than half that time in 1938, having doubled their average speed to 88.866km aboard their Ferrari 166S.

By 1955, now hosted at the 72km, 800+ corner Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie, the Targa Florio had become a focal point of the relatively new FIA World Sports Car Championship, doing so until 1973, and by which point, 600hp sports cars were fast becoming the norm. In ’55, Peter Collins and the late Sir Stirling Moss set an utterly bonkers 96.290kph average speed with the Mercedes 300 SLR (Carlo Manzini and Francesco Giardini took another class win for Maserati that year, just FYI). Six years later, Wolfgang von Trips and Olivier Gendebien had smashed through the 103kph barrier with their Ferrari 246 SP, and on only two occasions after that – 1966 and 1976 – did the average speed vault below the 100kph bar. The plug was finally pulled completely, after just four laps, in 1977 following the death of two spectators and the serious injury of five others as well as three drivers in separate accidents.

Formidable, yes, and all-too often deadly, the Targa Florio was, and remains, a notable accolade of any carmaker’s career, and Maserati’s in particular. In 1926 after all, 12 years after his workshop had officially been re-named ‘Officine Alfieri Maserati SA’ in Bologna, company founder Alfieri took a class win on the Targa Florio with the first car to ever bear his name, the Maserati Tipo 26. Just over a decade later, albeit five years after Alfieri’s demise, Maserati had honoured its founder with an outright win on the same event in 1937 with its innovative Tipo 6CM, Giovanni Rocco (1938) and Luigi Villoresi (1939) emulating Francesco Severi’s 1937 achievement with the same car in 1938 and 1939 respectively. Unsurprisingly, as the defending champion and with Italian national pride weighing heavily on its shoulders – this was the late 1930s, remember – Maserati was intent on making it four in a row on the Targa Florio in 1940.

That Luigi ‘Gigi’ Villoresi had the competitive chops to get the job done was beyond question. Not only was he the previous year’s Targa Florio winner, Villoresi is also one of the few men to have raced across four different eras of Grand Prix motorsport’s formative years and lived to tell the tale. Raced ‘successfully’, we should add. Though he never won a Formula 1 World Championship race, the Italian was a prolific podium finisher during his F1 tenure with Ferrari: between 1951 to 1953, he finished eight of his 17 starts in either 2nd or 3rd and finished 5th in the standings in both ’51 and ’53. No mean feat, given that his Scuderia teammates at the time included former and/or future World Champions Alberto Ascari, Giuseppe Farina, and Mike Hawthorn.

Still, Formula 1’s ‘elder statesman’, as he has since been sentimentally dubbed (when F1 officially arrived in 1950, Villoresi was already 19 years into his motor racing career), boasted significant wins on his resume. Alongside his ’39 and ’40 Targa Florio wins, he took victory at non-championship Grand Prix six times with Ferrari in 1951 and 1952 alone. In 1951, ‘Gigi’ rubber-stamped his name permanently into the record books with a win on the 1951 Mille Miglia, giving Maranello’s then new 340 America its first major win in the process. That he and teammate Pasquale Cassani only did so following the late-race retirement of long-time leader Giannino Marzotto, and with a crumpled front end after a high-speed off in appalling conditions, was neither here nor there.

Dispirited by the death of his mentee, Alberto Ascari, and three largely fruitless years with Maserati (1954), Lancia (’54 and ’55) and Maserati again (’56), Villoresi ultimately walked away from Grand Prix racing in 1957, though still had enough entusiasmo to take on the opening leg of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1958, and even win that year’s Acropolis Rally with Lancia before hanging up the helmet for good.

Added to that, at the Targa Florio in 1940, Villoresi had the necessary equipment to get the job done. Well, in lieu of an all-conquering Silver Arrows anyway, none of which were entered for the event.

Designed and created in 1939 by Ernesto Maserati, youngest of the founding brothers, the new 4CL was built atop essentially the same innovative steel ladder frame chassis as the 6CM it replaced (pictured below), complete with fully adjustable torsion bar springs in the suspension. The big difference though was the 4CL’s new, 1,491cc turbocharged four-cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder, a first in Maserati’s history and a unit capable of 220hp at 8,000rpm. With a more compact engine than its six-cylinder predecessor, and combined with its aluminium bodywork, the 4CL also undercut the 650kg 6CM by 20kg, and could hit 250kph at full chat. All this during an era when the height of driver ‘safety’ was a helmet made of leather and no seatbelts.

Still, despite sizable opposition from Mercedes’ new W165, Maserati’s new 4CL proved competitive straight out the blocks: on the car’s debut, Villoresi took pole position at the 1939 Libyan Grand Prix in Tripli, though engine problems would deny Maserati victory (chalk up another win for the Silver Arrows). Success wasn’t too far away though, as Britain’s John Peter Wakefield – a privateer, no less! – took the 4CL to victory lane at the Naples Grand Prix two races later, doing so again at the Picardie and Albi GPs.

Come May the following year, all eyes at the House of Trident were on the 31st running of the Targa Florio.

Admittedly, much of the event’s façade had slipped since its inaugural outing 34 years earlier. Alfa Romeo’s dominance from 1930 to 1935 had depleted most of the Italian’s marque’s competition at the Targa Florio, with even the cloverleaf taking its leave ahead of the 1936 event. A sober 27th edition was thus won by Constantino Magistri in a privately-entered Lancia Augusta after just two laps, and only after organisers had saved the event from cancellation at the 11th hour. From 1937 onwards, and now dedicated to 1.5-litre ‘voiturette’ single seaters, the Targa Florio was moved to the more underwhelming 5.26km Favorita Park in Palermo in the hopes of resuscitating its audience.

Not that this concerned Maserati much: Francesco Severi completed 60 laps at a new event record speed of 107.704kph to collect the Trident’s first overall win on the Targa Florio in 1937, Severi leading home teammates Giovanni Lurani and Ettore Bianco to secure a podium lockout. One year later, and as both Europe and a nationalized Italy strode towards worldwide conflict, all but one entrant – Luigi Platé in a Talbot – raced a Maserati, Giovanni Rocco collecting the 6CM’s second win at the event after Count Giovanni Lurani and Ettore Bianco collided whilst battling for the lead. In the all-Maserati 30th edition, Villoresi secured the Maserati 6CM’s hat trick with ease.

Some big tyre tracks to fill then for the new 4CL in 1940, at what would be the 31st, and last, edition of the Targa Florio until 1948. Indeed, given its event record, all but four of the 16 entrants – yikes! – lined up a 6CM on the grid. One of whom, interestingly, was a young Alberto Ascari in his first year of motor racing (engine failure unfortunately eliminated him after just 12 laps).

The lighter, more nimble 4CL though would prove itself to be the class of the field. Having locked out the front two rows, the four-cylinder voiturette went on to finish in commanding 1-2-3-4 formation, Villoresi collecting his second win in succession ahead of Franco Cortese, Giovanni Rocco and White Hector. ‘Gigi’ even completed his 60 laps four minutes quicker than he’d managed in 1939 and more than 6kph faster at 142.288kph.

The win was the fourth and final win for Maserati on the Targa Florio, but, ‘competition’ not withstanding, still cemented the Trident into the record books as only the third manufacturer in the event’s history to win more than three in a row. An achievement (again, pinches of salt are required) bested only by Bugatti’s five wins from 1925 to 1929, and Alfa Romeo’s six from 1930 to 1935. Indeed, it would be another 29 years before another carmaker accomplished the same feat, Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schütz taking the fourth win on the bounce for a Porsche in 1969. Jo Siffert and Brian Redman would make it five one year later aboard a Porsche 908/3.

This was also the first major, and ironically last, accomplishment for the 4CL. By the time the voiturette machine made its return at the 1948 Sanremo Grand Prix, the heavily revised 4CLT now boasted a more rigid tubular chassis, a twin-supercharged inline four-cylinder pushing approximately 260hp, and almost unrecognisable suspension geometry. Success, again, was rapid, as future two-time Formula 1 World Champion Ascari collected the chequered flag on the 4CLT’s maiden outing. Maserati’s time on the Targa Florio top step though had come and gone.

Tease though it may be, a huge amount of history dedicated to the House of Trident will have rolled beneath the MC20’s wheels during its recent pilgrimage to Sicily.

*Images courtesy of Maserati, Silverstone Classic, Ferrari, Daimler, Abarth, Porsche, TargaFlorio.info, and Grand Prix History

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