As the plane begins its descent into Palermo airport, on the northern coast of Sicily, Daniel Ricciardo explains what he’s ready to face in the day ahead. “I expect to learn how to manoeuvre a 300kph racing car in and out on public roads to avoid donkeys.”
Motorsport nerds will get the reference. Everyone else should know that the Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver is nodding at Speed Merchants, a documentary about the 1972 sportscar season, which features footage of donkeys being avoided during the Targa Florio, the legendary endurance sportscar race that was held on the roads of Sicily from 1906 to 1977.
The Ricciardo family has roots in Ficarra, a small village in the north of Sicily. They emigrated to Australia when his father was six, Ricciardo’s connection to this place is weak. As far as he can remember, he’s only been here once, as a child, on a family visit, he thinks.
He has led an Australian life in which different things have mattered, such as his desire to become a racing driver. In two years driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso, he learned some Italian – “some days I answered the mechanics in Italian when they spoke to me in English” – but basically the most Italian thing about him is his love of good food. “Top-quality food that’s been made well. I can always be won over with a good plate of pasta.
Were Targa heroes ever a topic of conversation at home? “No, Dad raved more about Formula One and Mario Andretti.”
By that time, the heyday of the Targa Florio – ‘Targa’ is Italian for number plate; ‘Florio’ is for Vincenzo Florio, the founder of the race – had long since passed. It began as a harmless three-way race between a horse, a bicycle and the first car in Sicily, which belonged, naturally, to Signor Florio. By the start of the 1970s, it was an unwieldy monster. Even though the course changed several times over the years, the goal remained pretty much to do 11 laps of approximately 70km each. Competitors would drive through villages and towns along regular roads, with their walls, sheer drops and potholes.
In the days leading up to the race, the authorities sent out messengers who asked residents, “to lock up children and animals”. Not everyone did. If anything, the opposite was the case. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets. The sea of people would part as the racing cars loomed into view and then come together again as they passed. Many Sicilians didn’t just want to see the cars, they wanted to touch them too, preferably when they were in full flight.
The Targa was part of the World Sportscar Championship, and the performance of its cars improved rapidly over time. The large manufacturers of the day set up factory teams, led by Porsche, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. In 1972, Ferrari, with one car driven by Arturo Merzario and Sandro Munari, was going for victory against no fewer than four Alfas. Back then, sportscar racing was held in the same regard as F1, and all good racing drivers, with the exception of Jackie Stewart, raced in both categories.
On the start line of the 1972 Targa were then-current F1 drivers Nino Vaccarella, Rolf Stommelen, Vic Elford and Helmut Marko. These men were the speed merchants for which the documentary was named.
Today, Marko says that he wasn’t that much of a fan of the Targa. “The first few laps were a shock. During practice, Toine Hezemans collided with a donkey, rider and all. He was catapulted over the rear spoiler. Nino Vaccarella and his car disappeared under a truck. Locals nailed their doors and windows shut to be on the safe side. One car got lost up in the mountains. It took half a day just to find it again. There were no crash barriers, just outsized bales of hay here and there.”
So how does a rational human being put his foot down in conditions like that? “As a racing driver, you forget all that when you have a sniff of victory,” says Marko. “That’s no different now. Today’s Formula One drivers are the most rational people on the planet in briefings, but when they put that visor down…”
Back in the 1970s, teams sought lodgings in villages along the route, preferably with a tavern close by. If an opponent recorded a fast time, the drivers got back in their cars. The better you knew the course, the better your lap times were. “We didn’t just have to learn by heart all the turns over the 72km course,” says Marko. “We also had to be aware of where the road surface changed and any crest of a hill where you lost traction.” Drivers practised in regular traffic, first using fast road cars, then racing cars. “Sometimes the Carabinieri would stop you, reach into the car and hand you a ticket they’d already filled out. We handed them in at the garage. There must have been hundreds of them. I’m guessing they were thrown away.”
For the race itself, Marko shared his car with Italy’s Nanni Galli, who, it transpired, was said to be somewhat distracted by a death in the family. At the final driver changeover, he missed the braking point, ran into the wall and had to be pulled back out. Marko, in an Alfa, and Arturo Merzario, in the Ferrari, were the only two who could still win, but Marko was more than two minutes behind. The Austrian then made the charge of his life, getting closer and closer to the Ferrari in what was an inferior car. But on the long straight in the final section of the course, Merzario displayed the superiority of his Ferrari’s 12-cylinder engine over the Alfa’s eight cylinders and won by a margin of 16 seconds.
But Marko has the quickest lap of the Targa Florio to his name: 33m 41s, with an average speed of 128.253kph.
Today, Daniel Ricciardo is driving Marko’s 1972 Alfa Romeo T33. The car took part in the biggest races of its day up until 1975, at which point it was sold to a collector in Greece and has since made its way to Scotland to its current owner, who bought it in 2012. The price has gone up with each sale.
Driver safety in this sportscar is as poor as it ever was. Ricciardo is hemmed in on both his left and right sides by two 60-litre petrol tanks. The front crash absorption structure is essentially a roughly hewn aluminium Alfa Romeo logo and the driver’s shins. The position of the seat is unusual, the right foot’s job hampered by part of the bodywork. Taller drivers need to make sure that they don’t accidentally flick a switchfor one of the fuel pumps with their left knee. Operating the clutch is like doing a very tough leg-press. The steering wheel is so tiny and flat that it’s like being in a bumper car. Changing gear is completely normal: clutch and an H-gate. “I’ve only ever used that type of gear shift in Formula Ford,” Ricciardo says, “and I wasn’t all that good at it.”
But when he’s not racing for hundredths of a second, Ricciardo can enjoy it. “It’s all handiwork,” he says. “It’s hard, but fun.” For Marko’s generation, it was the job of the drivers’ wives to patch up their husbands’ hands with gauze bandages as the vibrations were so bad on the poor roads in cars that could go up to 300kph. “Your whole body was battered and bruised after a sportscar race,” says Marko. “Driving these cars was extremely hard physically.”
Ricciardo expected the Alfa T33 to be a good mover. It weighs less than 700kg while generating more than 400bhp and has a chassis that was state-of-the-art in its day. “It does what you expect it to: it’s a proper racing car!”
Ricciardo stops in every village, is recognised every time and surrounded by fans within minutes. You’re one of us, they tell him. Do you want something to eat? And when are you going to drive for Ferrari? He always answers in the affirmative, saying: let’s wait and see. Italians’ love of motorsport is immense and can sometimes be exhausting. But thankfully there’s the car to retreat to as well as more of the historical course to see.
It is not wise to do a complete lap of the Targa Florio in this car. The roads are in a parlous state and would put a hire car at risk, never mind a 42-year-old racing car with tiny, 13in front wheels and which was designed to be as low and close to the road surface as possible. In theory, roads can be repaired, but in practice, Sicilian politics and a lack of willingness to take responsibility ensure the roads’ poor condition. When the side of the road has sagged by a couple of metres, somebody, you’d think, might, at least, mark the spot with cones.
Not here. But Ricciardo can still sample the best that the old course has to offer, with many good road surfaces and beautiful bends. The Alfa flies, though he is wary of a road that is always slippery with a touch of sand from the Sahara. The eight-cylinder engine roars. The rear of the car shakes. Ricciardo flashes a huge grin under his open helmet.
He seems thoughtful on the plane home that evening. “I must finally ask my dad why my grandparents left Sicily for Australia.”
He pauses to think.
“Maybe now I have a better understanding of what Helmut means when he talks about the past, even if I’ll never completely understand it. Even if there wasn’t a donkey on the course this time.”
“But I know one thing. Now I want a historic racing car.”