The Giro di Sicilia is Sicily’s best-known motoring event after the Targa Florio. Johnny Tipler reports on the 2016 edition of the regularity rally.
What better way of seeing Sicily than a leisurely tour of the island in a classic car? Well, how about a little competitive edge – taking part in the Giro, the annual tour that performs almost a complete circuit of the island?
Founded by Vincenzo Florio, he of Targa fame, in 1912, with a view to expanding the eponymous event, the Giro - or Tour - of Sicily was held 18 times up to 1958 in years when they didn't run the Targa Florio. While the Targa remained moribund after 1977, the Giro was revived in 1988 as a classic car rally, along the lines of the Mille Miglia and Tour Auto. Post-war front-runners in the Giro included aces of the day like Bonetto, Taruffi, Maglioli, Castellotti, Fagioli, Villoresi, Bracco and Musso, aboard an assortment of Ferraris, Alfas, Lancias and Maseratis, trailing innumerable Fiats in their wake. Unlike the Targa Florio, there was a dearth of northern European names in the Giro entry – till Peter Collins’ victory in a Ferrari 857 in 1956. Gendebien took the honours in a Ferrari 250 GT in 1957, but that was it in terms of international status; the final Giro in the original ‘series’ was 1958, and three decades elapsed before it re-emerged as a historic event.
Keen to see more of Sicily than the Piccolo Madonie circuit, I’d asked for accreditation to cover the Giro, but press officer Rosario Minasola made me an offer I couldn't refuse: ‘you can be a competitor too,’ he said. So my driver James and I joined a small posse driving from the UK via the Genoa-Palermo ferry with his 911, along with half-a-dozen other classic rally cars for the 21-hour voyage to Sicily, greeted by the amazing Sicilian coastline as the ship approached Palermo docks.
For the first night in Sicily we stayed at the rustic AgriTurismo guesthouse near Campofelice run by Donatella Pucci, niece of Count Antonio Pucci who won the Targa Florio with Colin Davis in a Porsche 904 in 1964. Next day we motored back into Palermo to sign on in the city centre hotel. Staged by the Palermo-based Veteran Car Club Panormus, one of the organisers, Eliana Lo Faso, pliedus with souvenir shirt, hat and roadbook – plus a local delicacy, arancina risotto balls. Once registered, cars were lined up in echelon along the central plane-tree lined avenue, in date order according to when each one was built, and as dusk fell the place filled up with the promenading Palermo populace, keen to get photographed with every car as if it were their own.
The 1920s and ’30s racing cars – Amilcar, Diatto, Alfa and Maserati - rolled out under the inflatable archway start at 8.00pm, and we followed half-an-hour later, barely managing to squeeze through the crowded throng lining the route. Police waved us magnificently through blocked-off crossroads, and soon enough we were scanning the darker suburb street corners for the red, white and orange Giro signs, not always successfully. A red Corvette stormed past the line of traffic we were held up in, followed by a VW camper that also bore Giro stickers. The penny dropped, and we sped after them. Winding our way out of Palermo up a succession of hairpins and tight turns, we were sandwiched between an E-type and a Fulvia, while behind us was an Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider that everybody overtook on the basis that he couldn’t see where he was going, probably because he was dazzled by the bright lights of his co-driver’s navigation equipment. Once out of the mountains we made a couple of good calls on the routes while other contestants floundered, so we were able to really crack on, and there were maybe only a dozen cars ahead of us. Taking a leaf out of the no-holds-barred Palermo traffic, we stormed past almost the entire field as we passed between Partinico, Trapani and Marsala, and the earliness of our arrival at the Baglio Basile hotel, 144km later, was fortunately masked by darkness. Along the way we’d been obliged to call at two checkpoints to get our card stamped, plus a couple of ‘regularities’ in the centre of small provincial towns. One such was paved with marble slabs, marvellous for sliding the tail out. This was doubtless contrary to the rules, since we later discovered the idea was to pass as slowly as possible over designated sections of the town’s road system. No wonder the crowds cheered us on – the spectacle of rally cars going at snail’s pace was indeed a dreary prospect.
The next full-on day took us along the island’s southern coast, mostly quite fast A-road, which was very badly surfaced in small towns and bumpy on elevated bridge sections. First thing to say about Sicily is the staggeringly beautiful diversity of plants: I noticed it straight away - the air is full of the scent of flowers. Roadsides and autostrada are lined with endless red, cream and pink azaleas, bougainvilleas brighter than you’ve ever seen them, huge aloes, yuccas, agaves and prickly pears, interspersed with spindly Cyprus and topped with umbrella pines and upside-down monkey puzzle trees. Now we were on a flat coastal plain leading towards Montallegri, where the agriculture was predominantly vineyards and olive groves attended by the appropriate distilleries and presses. While some towns were in full-on Giro mode and at check points we were enthusiastically handed items of local produce– the Marsala was especially welcome - others simply hadn’t a clue, no one batting an eyelid, while occasionally the retinue was hooted at by irate motorists who’d not been warned their town was hosting a parade of classic cars. With cars spread out over many kilometres, the lunchtime halt was a straggling affair. We parked adjacent to a hilltop Baroque church and were joined by five modern Ferraris who appeared to be following an alternative route, leapfrogging the old bangers. We were presented with bowls of squid risotto in the town hall, which also afforded a dramatic aerial view from a second floor balcony of Giro cars approaching the main square.
The route swung north to the Autodromo Valle dei Templi, which, as the name implied, was a region rich in Roman temple architectural remains. The race circuit looked relatively unchallenging, but even so, the requirement to drive between coned and timed regularity sections at between 10mph and 30mph was achingly frustrating; the irony of driving as slowly as possible on a racetrack unbearable, and we threw caution to the wind for a half-lap blast. We went right instead of left out of the circuit, having gone up the entrance road rather than the exit specified on the roadbook’s tulips, and became distinctly lost. To get back on track we called upon TomTom, who pitched us up at our second hotel, the Federico II at Pergusa. During hors d’oeuvres we were treated to a baroque dancing demonstration beside the swimming pool, a nice touch. I was also intrigued by the imposing presence of an Alfa Romeo 6C Villa D’Este, the very car driven to 8th place in the 1950 Carrera Panamericana by Felice Bonetto, restored precisely as it was in period by owner Corrado Lopresto. Jaw-dropping… Over dinner he told me a little bit about the car. ‘It’s the sister car to the one that Piero Taruffi brought home in 4th place in the 1950 Carrera Panamericana. I found this car in London, I bought it and shipped it to Italy where I had a full restoration done.’ Corrado is a Milanese architect, so no expense was spared. The signwriting and the interior, especially the dashboard, are superb. ‘The interior is original,’ he said, ‘and on the exterior I had them paint the numbers and graphics just as they were for the Panamericana race. My Mexican friend who is the son of one of the drivers in the 1954 Carrera found a photograph that shows the top of the car so you can see the number on the roof. This is because during the race they tracked the cars by aeroplane, and the spotters could see the number on the roof to identify the car, in this case 103, and this feature was very important for the restoration. I showed the car to the son of Bonetto and he remembered the story. His father was killed in 1952 in another Carrera Panamericana, but the mechanic Bonenni told Bonetto’s son that in the back of the car there was another tank for extra petrol, so that’s another aspect of the race and of the car that’s not so well known.’ Fascinating stuff, and for me, this car was the star of the show.
Day three – Saturday - kicked off with a visit to the local Pergusa race circuit. Set around the perimeter of a notoriously snake-infested lake – and hence I stepped out cautiously when answering the call of nature - it was on the international Formula 1,Formula 2 and F3000 trail between 1962 and 1998, and its main event was billed as the Mediterranean Grand Prix, where contemporary greats like Ronnie Peterson, Hans Stuck and Clay Regazzoni did battle, and where Arturo Merzario and Jochen Mass won the 1975 Coppa Florio in the Alfa Romeo TT-12 - Merzario taking the honours again for Alfa in ’77. Again, the travesty of driving a slowcoach regularity at 20mph on a place like this besmirches the memory of the aces who wrung the guts out of their cars flat-out on this very tarmac. Fresh upgrades have enabled it to host the ETCC in recent years, so its glory days live on. With that in mind, we did give it a go between un-coned sections, even overshooting a chicane to the dismay of a prone snapper.
We headed south towards the coast again. Not so many vineyards and olive groves here, more arable farming. We passed a police car at the roadside, which could have been a speed trap, but as we slowed, one cop filmed us with his mobile phone rather than a speed camera, and the other waved like a tifosi, so we enjoyed the irony there too. The routebook decreed we crossed a broad agricultural plain to access a set of hairpins that wound up to Modica. The entourage paused in dribs and drabs for restaurant lunch in this impressively grand town, the cars lined up in echelon all the way down the broad main street for inspection by the curious populace. After that, we motored up into more arid, rocky moorland. Day three ended in the hill top town of Enna in the shadow of a vast Baroque cathedral, an indication that, during the 16th century, these towns were extremely wealthy.
On the fourth day of the Giro, we were driving through the rat-runs of the back streets of Enna, having got totally lost and being led a dance by the head of the Tunisian motor club in the VW bay-window camper. It transpired that the organisers had cancelled the city centre checkpoint, but the information failed to get through to a lot of competitors. Once again we despaired of the tulips and called upon TomTom to re-route us, and so we sampled the florid window boxes and drying laundry on balconies as we proceeded down the narrow back streets of Leonforte. We were scheduled to do a regularity - or perhaps a more appropriate word is hilarity - down the high street in front of some mildly inquisitive locals and a languid commentator who introduced us over the tannoy. I counted off the seconds between the cables stretched across the road: one-and-two-and-three, etc, and we were done.
We headed north, winding our way up the hillside from hairpin to hairpin, glancing at colourful roadside flowers and grasses, and watching out for potholes and misshaped asphalt as the road was very deformed. It wasn’t so much that the surface was broken up, it was that they’d mended it so badly. Ubiquitous windmills topped the ridge. At Sperlinga we were handed a box of special chocolates to add to the pots of avocado paste, cans of tomato puree and assorted bottles of local wine already accumulated. Blatting along open arable country B-roads, we came upon the Villa D’Este, and they were really going for it. We were in the heart of the island where it was quite mountainous, and the road wound down very fast from our last check point, with not a single straight, through yellow gorse and back into olive groves again.There was quite a retinue following us down the hill; it went like that - sometimes we were out on our own for long periods, and sometimes we were with one or two other cars, and sometimes there was quite a cavalcade.
Soon we were back in the land of the umbrella pines, cypress trees and azaleas, huge yuccas, agaves and prickly pears, and we eased into seaside Cefalù with its lofty Norman cathedral. They ruled here from 1100AD to about 1900AD, apparently, and it was the cultural hub of the Med. The Giro’s last gasp was a visit to the Tribunes and pits at Cerda where the Targa Florio started, followed by the final lunch and presentations at a hotel on the old Bonfornello straight.
In the final reckoning, a 1958 Lancia Aurelia B20 V6 takes 1st place, with the 1969 Porsche 911E of Stefano Ceraulo and Streci in 2nd, and a 1971 Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 coming 3rd. Yours truly, with very little idea about the Giro’s rules and objectives, were awarded 90th place out of 122 finishers, a situation as bewildering as the trophy we were presented with by Eliana after the lunch. We repaired to Signora Pucci’s AgriTurismo guesthouse for the night, before catching the Genoa ferry for the return leg to Blighty.
After leaving Genoa we drove through a violent thunderstorm north of Turin. We cruised the 11km-long Mont Blanc tunnel at the mandatory 50kph, spending the night in the shadow of Mont Blanc itself, and eventually I was home in the small hours next day. It would be great to do the Giro again, but if they get funding to repair the Piccolo Madonie circuit where the road has disappeared there’s talk of another Targa retrospective next year. Put me down for that one too.