A Sicily road trip with Targa Florio winner Gijs van Lennep
The legendary Porsche race driver leads a motorsport tour of the island
Silver Porsche 911 Targa 4S on road in Sicily
On the Porsche Travel Experience Sicily, the Dutch motor racing great revisits the scene of one of his greatest triumphs on a tour around a true jewel of the Mediterranean
Being stuck in traffic is frustrating enough for mere mortals. But when you have spent your life as a professional racing driver, where the open track and road is usually at your mercy, it can be unbearable. It’s more than an hour since former 24H of Le Mans winner and Formula One driver Gijs van Lennep, along with the Porsche Travel Experience tour group, left their hotel in Sicily’s capital, Palermo. However, progress has been walking pace at best due to the chaotic nature of the morning rush hour traffic here. As the winner of the last ever 1973 Targa Florio – the legendary motorsport rally that was held annually on this beautiful Mediterranean island – Sicily’s roads have always been synonymous with full throttle and driving on the edge (although never a single millimetre over), for Gijs. Half a century after his legendary victory in the silver Porsche 911 RSR sporting the famous Martini paint finish, Gijs is back for a Sicily road trip following the route of the original track.As well as Gijs, the drivers on Porsche Experience Sicily also have the benefit of the advice and guidance of Porsche Junior driver Ayhancan Güven, who is also on hand too. It’s fair to say that Gijs is taking things a little easier than would have been the case in 1973, when race speed was essential. But getting stuck in the Palermo morning rush hour wasn’t what anyone had in mind when we departed.
Two men standing next to silver Porsche 911 Targa
Gijs van Lennep (left) and Ayhancan Güven stand by the old pit wall of the Targa Florio in Cerda, Sicily
What was the route of the Targa Florio road race?Eventually, the city traffic begins to thin out and we all make it to what was the site of the pit lane in the town of Cerda, where the Targa Florio started. Ahead of us is 72km of driving pleasure, on a loop heading anticlockwise from here. The glassless window frames, peeling paint and faded billboards that surround us are a nostalgia hit for one of the all-time great road races. The Targa Florio was first run in 1906, and originally took in an entire lap of Sicily, the biggest island in the Mediterranean. The cutdown 72km circuit that Gijs negotiated in 1973 – known as the Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie – was lapped 11 times in total.
Two men study street sign showing map of Targa Florio
It's 50 years since he won the Targa Florio, but Gijs (pictured left, alongside Ayhancan) still remembers the route of the Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie extremely well
The roads that make up the first few kilometres after leaving Cerda are great fun, snaking up into the mountains above the town. Gijs, appropriately enough, is driving the current Porsche 911 Targa 4S (type 992). Such was the lofty status of the Targa Florio, it inspired Porsche to name its Targa models after the event. But as soon as we depart the first summit, where the mountain panorama makes us catch our breath, the road conditions begin to deteriorate. The surfaces here are in a patched-up state while the metre-long stretches of walls, which would have saved any skidding racing car from a plunge down the hillsides back in 1973, have completely disappeared. Instead, makeshift barriers are in their place. It’s inconceivable to drive at top speed along here today. A few kilometres further down, the track descends over a river and then back up to a ridge where we finally seize the opportunity to stop for a photo and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the route. Our road trip then comes to an abrupt halt a few bends later, below the mountain village of Caltavuturo. Here, several hundred metres of asphalt are permeated with deep cracks and, just a short distance beyond, the landscape has completely reclaimed the route. More barriers prevent us from driving any further. Discussions are had by the group as to why this historically significant route hasn’t been returned to its former glory.
Close-up of the rear of a Porsche 911 Targa 4S
The perfect choice for a Sicily road trip around the Targa Florio circuit: the Targa name was adopted by Porsche in 1965 to pay homage to the famous race
Driving the route of the Targa FlorioWe make our way towards the famed hairpin bend in Collesano, which thankfully has been preserved. It was here that the speeding race cars of the past would brake sharply, captured by the peering lenses of the corps of photographers who followed the event. Later, as we take a tour of the Museo Targa Florio and its many original exhibits, Gijs helps bring the old days to life for Ayhancan and the group. And then we are off again, this time through the final section of bends that lead us onto the stretch into the town of Buonfornello, right next to the Mediterranean. This part of the circuit is longer than the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, explains Gijs, who won the endurance classic at the Circuit de la Sarthe three years after his victory in Sicily. There are few who are more qualified to talk about what it’s like to compete in two of history’s great races than this silver-haired Dutchman.
Targa Florio motorsport memorabilia on display in museum display case
The history of one of motorsport’s great races is brought to life at the Museo Targa Florio in Sicily
After few long left-right sections and a left again just before the level crossing, Gijs is now all smiles as our lap of the Targa Florio route returns us back to the pit area at Cerda. A Porsche racing driver who made history, once again surrounded by it.
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