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Sportscar Heroes: Vic Elford, Part 3, Targa Florio

By Malcolm Cracknell

We have joined the fundraising effort to help one of the all-time greats of our sport – Vic Elford in his time of need – to support that we’re re-running two multi-part interviews with Vic – first up a three parter from our very first year, 2002 with Malcolm Cracknell, our Founding Editor sitting down with one of his all-time heroes.

Vic Elford proved himself over many years of racing and rallying to be one of the greatest drivers of all time. We’ve covered Vic at Le Mans and the ‘Ring. Here he looks back to his races in the famous Targa Florio.

“My first Targa Florio was in 1967, in one of the tried and tested Porsche 910s. There were two of the quicker 907s entered too….

“Having been a rally driver, I was used to those sorts of roads. We used pace notes in the rallies, of course, but there were classic rally stages that we used time after time, so I almost knew them corner by corner. The notes were really a back up.

“I discovered then (rally driving) that I had a photographic memory for things like roads. I can project that memory beyond what I’m seeing at any given moment. Here’s an example….there was a classic Monte Carlo stage, from Grenoble to Chambéry. It was a long one, say 35 or so kilometres, and we virtually always drove it at night. There was one corner in particular – all you could see on the apex was the corner of a house. I always remembered it. David (Stone) would say “flat right” and I’d always think that he had to be joking. Then my memory would come into play, and I would remember what was on ‘the other side’.

“I taught Juan-Pablo Montoya 10 years ago: in fact, I’ve done a lot of coaching, at the Skip Barber School, for example. I’ve always taught students to talk themselves around a course. I tell Milka (Duno) the same thing – to talk herself around a new circuit, out loud.

“When I was learning the Targa course, I used to get up early, say 6 am, and do two or three laps in my road going 911. Then once the team arrived, we’d have a practice car, either a 906 or a 910, but we’d have to share it. I’d do a couple more laps in the afternoon in my 911, and because of traffic and so on, each lap used to take about an hour.

“I’d go back to the hotel after an early morning recce and think my way around the lap. When I went back out again in the afternoon, often with my wife, I’d talk my way around, out loud. Braking points, gear changes…I’d use rally pace note terminology for the corners.

“When teaching students, I’d try and get them to sit somewhere quiet, start a stopwatch, and talk themselves round a lap, at as close to the actual lap time as possible. When you get good at it, you can usually get within a couple of seconds on a 90 second lap. I’ve never known anyone else use this system.

“I can still do it around Le Mans, in an imaginary 917 on the 1970 track, but I’ve forgotten much of the Targa track. I was there last November for a mini-reunion, and we drove around the old circuit…but I’d forgotten lots of it. Anyway, they’ve widened a lot of it, virtually all the way round in fact, making it about 50% wider. Visually, it’s totally different.

“Although I hadn’t been back for 30 years, people were coming up to me in the street. For some reason, which I’ve never really understood, I’ve always been able to absorb languages very well: within a week, I can start to get by in a new language. That happened to me in Sicily, and the locals seemed to like me, and I liked them.

“Anyway, back to ’67. My first Targa Florio. Thanks to all the practice laps, I knew the track well, the 910 (with its six cylinder two litre) was competitive, but not as quick as the 907s (2.2 eight cylinders) – and this was my first race for Porsche!

“I’d been getting fed up with Ford in rallying for several reasons. Recce cars used to be poor, and on one occasion, I had to pick up a recce car from Gdansk and drive it to Geneva to start practising for the Geneva Rally. Anyway, I led the ’66 Alpine Rally all the way for Ford, until the heel of the distributor rotor arm broke on the last stage. I’d not only led all the Touring class cars, I’d led the GTs too.

“I decided I had to get Porsche into rallying, so I arranged to meet Huschke von Hanstein at Cannes. I told him that I thought the 911 would make a fabulous rally car, but of course he pointed out that Porsche didn’t even have a rally programme. So they lent me a 911 for Corsica, and I came third behind two of the Alpines.

I led all the way on the Monte (apart from the last stage – wrong tyres, finished third), won the Geneva Rally etc etc, but all the time I wanted to go racing with Porsche. Von Hanstein eventually asked me if I’d ever thought about racing! “We’ll start you off with the Targa.” That was perfect for me, especially in a 910. Neerpasch and I finished third, only beaten by the quicker 907s.

“1968 was my first chance to go for a win, with Umberto Maglioli. It’s quite a famous story….a rear wheel lug nut came undone on lap one, and the wheel slid off the splines. First of all I thought that the clutch must have gone, so I climbed out to investigate. All the spectators climbed down the bank and lifted the car for me, while I re-tightened the lug nut.

“I got to the pit area up in the mountains, and of course they didn’t have a spare nut, so they changed the wheel, and off I went again – literally. When the wheel loosened again, I left the road and punctured a front tyre. The spectators helped me out again, but this time I had to put the Goodyear spacesaver spare on the front, as well as re-tighten the rear – again. I got back to the pits, going as fast as I dared, not really knowing how the spare would stand up, and had a complete set of wheels, tyres and nuts fitted. Porsche eventually found out that they had a faulty bunch of nuts, which didn’t fit exactly.

“So I started the second lap 18 minutes behind the leader!

“The plan was for me to drive the first three laps, Umberto the next four, then me the last three. We changed that and I drove the first four. Laps two, three and four were all lap records, but it didn’t occur to me then that we could win.

“So Maglioli was down to drive the next four, leaving me two at the end. But after I’d stripped off and cooled down, and then looked at the times, I realized that maybe we could win. Maglioli would look after the car, I knew that. So I suggested to Bott that if I did the last three…..he realized that I was right. I took the lead on the penultimate lap, from Galli and Giunti in their Alfa, and that was my first Targa win. My only one too.

“In 1969 we had the 908s, but half way round the first lap, the alternator died. I just about got back to the pits on the battery, but Maglioli and I couldn’t quite catch up the lost time. Galli lost me some time, maybe related to the fact that I’d beaten him the year before. I’d been stuck behind him for five kilometers, and because the road was so narrow, you couldn’t normally pass someone unless they co-operated. So down a long, fast, downhill section into a hairpin, I got inside him. We were side by side, and made contact side by side. We both spun, but I recovered first.

“We lost 18 minutes or so with the alternator problem, and I was less than three minutes behind at the end.

“Galli’s partner Giunti was the perfect gentleman. I wasn’t far behind when he had his dreadful accident at Buenos Aires in ’71. Beltoise ran out of fuel in the Matra and was on the wrong side of the track to get into the pits. He stopped on the left, but he should have steered to the right, ready for the pit entrance. He decided to push his car across the track, and Giunti, in the little 312, came round the last corner right behind Mike Parkes in a 512. He couldn’t see a thing, pulled out of Parkes’ slipstream and ploughed into the Matra. I arrived maybe 20 seconds later. That could easily have been me.

“1970 was the first year of the 908 / 3, and I came across a rock in the road. I swerved to miss it, and broke the right front steering arm. The spectators pushed me up a little track, and no one could see the car up there. All sorts of stories went around…that people had seen smoke from a ravine, for example. I just had to sit there all day, I couldn’t move. I had lunch with the spectators, and just enjoyed the race.

“When it was over, two mechanics appeared and got the car fixed, while I had a lift back to the hotel. I took the broken steering arm with me, and eventually made it to the hotel at about eight in the evening. The entire team was at one long table, and Piech was presiding. I gave him the remains of the steering arm and with a hint of a smile in those steely blue eyes, he asked, “Is that all that’s broken, or all that’s left?”

“That was the year when I was asked to try a 917, just to prove that the 908 / 3 was the better bet. The roads were only a car width and a half wide most of the way round – and that was in a 908! I set the fastest time in practice in the 908 and the second fastest in the 917. But I was a mental and physical wreck after one lap in the 917. They had to lift me out of the car. Apart from the straight along the coast, where I got up to some ridiculous speed in fourth gear in the 917, I’d completed the whole lap in the lower three gears, bucking and bouncing all over the road.

“In ’71, there was a very special trophy on offer, presented by Ignazio Giunti’s mother. Giunti had been a friend and his mother gave the one time trophy for the fastest lap that year. I was determined to have it. It was a huge thing, and only ever presented once. It’s an eagle on a marble base, and she presented it to me. I’ve given away some of my smaller trophies, but the Giunti eagle is the only one of the large ones that I have noticeably on display in my home.

“I’d handed over to Gerard Larrousse with a good lead, but after a lap and a half, he had a puncture, and the spectators refused to help him, so that was that. He couldn’t get the wheel nut undone. Hezemans and Vaccarella won for Alfa Romeo, and I still see Toine Hezemans quite regularly at the races.

“’72 was my last Targa Florio, my only one for Alfa Romeo. Chiti was convinced we could win (Ferrari only entered one car), and he claimed to have built a very special engine, just for me. It really was as good as the Ferrari, that one. But driving through Campofelice, a perfect day, no clouds, where on the first lap I had already built up a twenty second lead, suddenly there was water on my visor. That special engine had blown up. We would have beaten that sole Ferrari.

“One of the oddest stories of my time in Sicily was hitting a truck one year while practising in my 911. It was only a slight glancing blow. The following year, I hit the same truck, on the same corner, driven by the first chap’s brother! It could only happen in Sicily!

All archive photos from the excellent www.vicelford.com

If you enjoyed this story please take a look at the Go Fund Me page established to help Vic with his current medical expenses