Hidden Gems: Road Racing With A Truly Old School Approach In Tunisia
Photography by Rosario Liberti
The universe is not only pixelated by stars, and in the same way that all the little worlds you’ve never seen behind the light of brighter objects nonetheless contribute their piece to the night sky, the automotive isle of the universe is also constellated with curious little events passing under the radar.
While Italy was troubled by some of the worst rainstorms that we’ve had in many years, Rosario and I flew off to Tunisia to check out the Grand Prix Historique de Yasmin-Hammamet to explore one of these lesser-known events, in this case a historic revival of the Tunis Grand Prix.
The original race was a competition held between the end of the 1920s and the 1930s in Tunis, at that time the capital of the African colony that was under the French protectorate. It was a street circuit. The first competition took place on June 3, 1928, and by its end Algerian-based driver Marcel Lehoux had won the 200-mile-long race in his Bugatti T35C in a field mainly consisting of other Bugattis and some Amilcars.
One year later, Italian driver Gastone Brilli-Peri won in a works Alfa Romeo P2 after the early retirements of teammates Achille Varzi and Baconin Borzacchini. In 1931, after a year off, and until 1937, the event used a new route: a triangular highway circuit laid out between the then-separate cities of Tunis and Carthage. Achille Varzi won that version three times (with Bugatti and Auto Union), while Tazio Nuvolari (Scuderia Ferrari’s Alfa Romeo), Rudolf Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz), and Raymond Sommer (Talbot) finished first overall one time each.The event was then dormant for a time, returning in 1955 as a sports car race with a small 14-car entry in a public park, called the Circuit du Belvedere. The race saw a pair of Ferrari 750 Monzas take home the silverware with Luigi Piotti and Luigi Bordonaro driving with the rest of the pack filled with 2.0L cars.
There is now a revival event, made possible by a very close bunch of friends that took over the seaside of Hammamet for a weekend of races, conviviality, and relaxation. The roster of cars was pretty slim compared to some of the bigger historic gatherings, but we had the pleasure to see some curious and quite interesting specimens all the same. Amongst them I would underline the Scuderia del Portello’s Giulia Spider 1600 Carrera Panamericana, Giulia GTA 1300, and the Giulietta Sprint 1600. Gaby Von Oppenheim was driving a very rare prototype of the Giulia SS dressed by Carrozzeria Colli. Count Alessandro Federico—a man who participated in the Targa Florio, the real one—drove his 1935 Fiat Balilla 508S Coppa d’Oro from Sicily. Moreover, a black Porsche Speedster, a Triumph TR2, a red Marcos 1600 GT, a Mini Cooper, and a flaking red, unrestored, never-seen-before Ferrari. A very uncommon prancing horse with a particular story, entered by an Austrian gentleman driver.
I am talking about Egon Von Hofer’s Ferrari 212E Montagna, a two-seater barchetta-style vehicle featuring a Maranello-made V6. As the owner claimed, at the end of 1969, he bought an original 212E body from the Ferrari factory and asked Piero Drogo of Carrozzeria Sportscar to fix it onto his Dino 206S. Then, he lent the car to an unspecified person for a car show that occurred one year after the body swap was completed, and he never returned it. Several years later, the car had surfaced somewhere in Sweden.
The original 212E Montagna driven by Peter Schetty dominated the 1969 European Hill Climb Championship, placing first in every race it entered and setting as many course records. That car, s/n 0862, was also built on a Dino 206S chassis and used a very unique flat-12 engine: a development of the 1512 1.5L Formula 1 engine engineered by Mauro Forghieri, here reworked by Stefano Jacoponi in order to create a 2.0L version.
You should be aware of the fact that Tunisian road racing safety concerns are very vague, or we should say, very much like they were in the “good old days.” Needless to say it was a great time, and well worth the trip. Seeing such a beast as the 212 being unleashed on the seaside of Hammamet, surrounded by palm trees and almost empty big white resorts whose walls were echoing and amplifying the V6 sound was quite surreal. Almost no side barriers, a few policemen and fire marshals around, a white and red plastic band trying to alert a few tourist that some racing cars were using the road today. They still do it like they used to, at least in some places and to some degree, and we’ll take what we can get. In this case we returned home feeling like what got more than we’d asked for despite the count on the entry list.