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Targa Florio

Stirling Moss - Mission Impossible 1 by Philip Porter

The first in a series featuring incredible feats of driving against the odds.

1955 Targa Florio in Mercedes-Benz 300SLR with Peter Collins

Having taken the first three places in the Tourist Trophy, Mercedes-Benz had a mathematical chance of wresting the 1955 World Sports Car Championship from Ferrari at the last event of the season, the unique Targa Florio. They needed to finish first and second; nothing less would do. The redoubtable Herr Neubauer persuaded his directors to enter the team and the mighty Mercedes machine headed for Sicily.

Targa May 1961

With so much at stake for Mercedes, they needed a strong line-up of drivers. Rather curiously, Neubauer asked Stirling to decide with whom he would like to share a 300 SLR and also for him and Ken Gregory to suggest another driver. Stirling had no hesitation about choosing Peter Collins, provided he could be released by Aston Martin to whom he was contracted but who were not entering this event. Collins, though something of a playboy off the track, was a deadly serious competitor once behind the wheel. He had shined in the little 500s and sports cars but had not yet made his mark in Formula One so it was quite a bold suggestion. As to the other driver, Stirling and Ken came up with a driver who had impressed them at Dundrod where he had been sharing a D-type with Mike Hawthorn. Desmond Titterington, a native of Belfast, had shown great skill and determination, and was to prove another sound choice. Together with Fangio from the Argentine, genial American John Fitch and just one German, Karl Kling, it was certainly a very international line-up.  

Once the decision had been made, the whole force of the Mercedes over-organisation swung into operation. They invaded Sicily three weeks in advance with eight cars for practice, eight trucks, 45 mechanics and a positive fleet of touring cars. In contrast, Ferrari turned up with three cars and eight mechanics. 

Racing at Targa

To enable the Targa Florio to qualify for the World Sports Car Championship, the distance had been extended from the usual eight laps to 13 circuits, over 500 gruelling miles (over 800 kilometres) and some 10,000 bends. The first driver was not allowed to do more than five consecutive laps and the second driver had to do a minimum of three laps. Ferrari planned to make four pit stops to change drivers, due to the extreme physical challenge of the course to the drivers. Neubauer decided his drivers had to manage with two stops. Fangio thought four laps was the most any driver could manage but Neubauer was adamant they must try and do more.

Targa Florio

The smaller cars started first with competitors being flagged away at 30-second intervals. On his first lap Stirling set a new lap record of 44 minutes and passed 16 cars. Castellotti in the leading Ferrari clocked 45 minutes 15 seconds. Stirling's next lap took 43 minutes seven seconds, the first ever 100 km/h lap. However, half way round the circuit, mud from the recent rainstorms was making the circuit very difficult. Stirling was now two minutes ahead of Castellotti and three minutes ahead of Fangio. 

Off road

Then – disaster. Stirling lost control on the mud, smote a bank and went over the edge. Thankfully, it was not quite the precipice he first feared. However, he landed in a field, strewn with boulders, nine feet (3 metres) below the road. The car was relatively unscathed but he could not get any grip. Photographers and others miraculously appeared from nowhere to help and, after several attempts, he managed to regain the track and retrieved his crash hat which blew off as he accelerated away. Most of the water in the cooling system had boiled away, he had lost eight minutes and was now down in fourth place.

Stirling off road

Pushing Stirling's car at Targa Florio

He made it back to the pits where Collins took over the battered machine. Pete then proved his worth. He completed his first flying lap in 43 minutes 28 seconds! After five laps, they were back up to third, with Castellotti leading Fangio. Collins then smote a wall but got away with it.

After seven laps, Fangio’s co-driver Kling led Castellotti’s co-driver Manzon by eight seconds with Collins now just 36 seconds in arrears. Stirling took over again and even including the pit stop did an amazing 43 minute 41 second lap to regain the lead, just over a minute ahead of Fangio. Stirling then just went quicker and quicker to win an amazing race by more than four minutes. Fangio finished second as a result of Castellotti making an extra pit-stop.

On this occasion,  the handicap was driver error but, aided by the brilliant Peter Collins, Stirling more than made up for the rare mistake. It had all paid off and Mercedes-Benz triumphed in the Championship. 

By Philip Porter

Click on the following link to read 'Mission Impossible 2, by Philip Porter'

Click on the following link to view the Stirling Moss book collection.

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