1958 Targa Florio: Musso Commands the Heights

October 13, 2014 by Jeremy McMullen

During the invasion of Sicily during the Second World War it would be the mountainous roads around the island that would pose the greatest hindrance to the advance of the British and American forces trying to breakthrough on their way, ultimately, to Italy. A little more than a decade later, these difficult mountainous roads were taking their toll. But, there would be one Italian right at home among the rocky outcroppings.

The 42nd Targa Florio would go ahead as planned despite the growing chorus denouncing the dangers of racing on public roads. Following the accident and resulting deaths from Alfonso de Portago's Ferrari 335 S leaving the circuit during the Mille Milgia, the popular thousand mile event would be banned and brought to an end.

But such outcry would not deter Vicenzo Florio from holding his event on the Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie, the traditional 45 mile mountainous circuit located on the north side of the island about 40 miles from the city of Palermo.

During the Second World War, in a race to Messina, General Patton would make Palermo his target of advance. Despite the difficult conditions of the terrain, the coastal path provided the American forces a quicker means of reaching Palermo. However, as the forces turned east to make its way toward the prize, which was Messina, the forces would quickly find out just how difficult the rugged mountains of Sicily could be. The doorway leading to those mountainous roads would be the small village of Cerda, the start and finish line of the Targa Florio.

The mountainous roads of Sicily providing the ultimate backdrop, the Targa Florio would be the ultimate in Grand Epreuve. With each lap measuring some 45 miles and the race covering a total of 14 laps, or 630 miles, the Targa Florio was not like most other sportscar races. Littered with switchback turns, tons of blind corners and a straight nearly 4 miles longer than the Circuit de la Sarthe's Mulsanne, the Targa Florio was a fearsome thing to behold.

The fearsome nature of the circuit, combined with the fact the date of the race would be moved up about a month meant drivers and teams had little time to get comfortable with the mountainous circuit. In spite of the short notice, the factory efforts would all be present for the race on the 11th of May. Scuderia Ferrari would be there along with Porsche, Aston Martin and a whole fleet of privateer drivers behind the wheel of Alfa Romeos, OSCAs and other mainline sportscars.

The early date of the race, and the nature of the circuit, was obviously causing problems. Although the weather would be absolutely beautiful, drivers would find things terribly difficult and would struggle to complete laps of the circuit near the pace. Each lap taking about an hour to complete, it would be easy for drivers to lose their concentration and just exactly where they were over the course of a single lap. This made things terribly difficult. To be fast around the Targa Florio meant a commitment and a focus that never dwindled with even one of the numerous switchback hairpins.

The 42nd edition of the Targa Florio would see a change in the nature of the race. In years past, the rules left it open to a single driver completing the entire race distance. This would change in '58. Two drivers would be permitted now and the limit would be no more than 7 laps out of the total race distance of 14. So, it was entirely possible for a driver to compete the whole distance, or not more than half of it.

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    The Scuderia Ferrari team would be strong coming into the event. Mike Hawthorn and Wolfgang von Trips would be partnered together. Peter Collins and Phil Hill would form another formidable pairing while Munaron and Seidel offered experience. Then there was the partnership of Luigi Musso and Olivier Gendebien. This partnership of Italian and Belgian had already proven to be a strong contingent. At the end of March they drove to a 2nd place result in the Sebring 12 Hours and likely could have won it had it not been for a damaged left-front to their 250 TR.

    Musso and Gendebien would have the very same 250 TR, chassis 0726TR, as what they had in Florida. However, there would be some changes to the car from what it looked like when it competed in Sebring, Florida.

    In Sebring, Gendebien had climbed all over the back of Archie Scott Brown's Lister and the result was that the Ferrari was parked with its left-front high in the air and thoroughly tangled with the Lister. It would take some time for the two cars to be separated. The Lister would be out and the Ferrari would suffer enough damage to it to prevent it from challenging for victory. Following Ferrari's tradition of beating out old damaged cars and returning them to the track, 0726 TR would be repaired following its damage in Sebring. However, there would be an interesting change. Instead of the pontoon-like fenders, the car would be rebuilt with a smooth nose and cowling. Meanwhile, the other sister-cars would all have the pontoon fenders.

    The start of the arduous trial would begin at 6:30 in the morning with the first car rolling away. It wouldn't take very long to realize that though the Targa Florio was well-known and that many of the drivers had contested the race before, the line between success and danger were never far away. One-by-one, at 40 second intervals, the cars rolled off, but it was clear from the very start that something was amiss for most of the competitors. More than a few would be off the pace. Others would be off in the verge trying desperately to repair their cars and get back into the race.

    It was remarkable. Behra would spin in his Porsche RSK. Moss would go off the road and would damage a wheel. Wolfgang von Trips would damage the front end of his Ferrari heavily would be left completing the rest of the lap with bits of his car dragging along the ground. It seemed that everyone was struggling over the mountain roads… well all but one.

    Gendebien would go on to sportscar fame over the next few years. He would be considered by many, until Jacky Ickx came along, that he was the greatest sportscar driver ever. But on this day, it would be Musso that would be the class of the field.

    While all of the other top drivers were struggling just to keep their cars on the course, Musso would be struggling not to break the lap record. He was incredible. He was incredibly precise. And he was fast. Musso was the last of the big factory cars to roll off to start the race, but at the end of the first lap, he would be first.

    Musso had done his job early. Being in the lead of the event, the Italian would set about performing an error-free drive. Meanwhile, Moss would be on the hunt. Driving the Aston Martin, the Brit would be ever-impressive sliding around the corners with seeming ease, kicking up gravel everywhere and carrying-on without any trouble whatsoever. This would lead to Moss breaking the lap record and lapping the circuit more than a minute quicker than Musso. But, Luigi had already done all of his hard work. He was in the lead and holding steady. It was now time for him to hand over the reigns to Gendebien.

    Musso handing the car over to Gendebien seemed to open the door, at least in Moss' estimation. He would take the Aston even faster. Another lap record would be in the offing, but it came at a price. After five laps, the gearbox in the Aston would give up and Moss would be out of the race never even having given Brooks a chance to take to the wheel.

    Despite the fact Moss was out of the race, the circuit maintained the pressure on all of the factory efforts. Phil Hill would make a mistake and would end up in a ditch, losing valuable time until he could get out and back on his way.

    Gendebien would take over a car that was already in the lead. Driving smartly, the Belgian would keep the car on the road, and in the lead. He would complete just a few laps before he would come back into the pits to turn the car back over to Musso. Of all the Ferraris, it was the only one truly seemingly under no pressure, entirely carefree. The other Ferraris would be under heavy pressure from Behra in the Porsche. The nimble RSK was proving itself around the winding mountain roads and this was keeping the battle well-joined for a spot within the top three. It would be remarkable watching the 1.5-liter Porsche carry on its way while the 3.0-liter Ferraris were on the limit and working hard to fend-off the German intruder.

    Musso would be back behind the wheel holding onto a commanding victory. He held onto the heights despite the advances of Behra in the Porsche. But not even Musso was immune to trouble, at least not this day.

    Only about 3 laps from the checkered flag, there was trouble. The usual lap time came and went, and, still, no Musso. Seconds turned to minutes, and still, the Ferrari did not appear. Finally, Luigi appeared coming up the rise and around the corner into the pits. He was off the pace and certainly in trouble. Four minutes overdue, he would be happy to have made it at all given the fact the brake fluid had leaked out of the reservoir. He had no brakes. He had completed the descent out of the mountains by staying in low gear. It was remarkable he had made it back at all.

    In any other race, such an event would have spelled the end. However, Musso and Gendebien had controlled the race from the very beginning and they were still in the lead, such was their performance during the first half of the race. In the first half they had done all of the hard work and had kept the car out of trouble. This would pay-off, for as the car pulled into the pits with trouble, it had more than enough in hand to remain in the lead.

    Gendebien would be given the drive for the remaining couple of laps. The leak would be found and the Ferrari would be sent back on its way. And what was their lead? As Gendebien pulled out of the pits and carried on, the Ferrari was still in the lead, and with three minutes still in hand!

    Gendebien and Musso were not in trouble, but the same couldn't be said of their Ferrari teammates von Trips and Hawthorn. At the time Musso brought the weak-booted 250TR into the pits von Trips and Hawthorn were in 2nd place. However, Behra would be back behind the wheel of the Porsche RSK and absolutely flying. Following a pitstop by the Ferrari, the margin between the second Ferrari and Porsche would be practically nothing. Behra wasn't going to be stopped. He continued to up his pace and Hawthorn couldn't do anything to cover it. Heading into the last lap of the race, Behra's pace had meant he was now in 2nd place. Hawthorn would be urged to pick up the pace, but this was certainly disconcerting around a circuit that punished heavily any misstep.

    It is true that in order to finish first, first one had to finish. But, it certainly seemed true this day in 1958 that Musso and Gendebien were well on their way to finishing first after having finished the first half in such a strong position. There may have been half a race still to go, but Musso had done all of the hard work in the first part of the race that all that was left for the two men to do would be to hang on, stay on the course and stay out of trouble. They had done the first two and this enabled them to overcome the last. The result would be a brilliant drive to victory.

    Though Moss had set a new lap record in the Aston Martin, the race had been commanded from the very beginning by Musso in the Ferrari. It was a dominant performance by the Roman and suggested a sure-footedness all the others could only have hoped for. Averaging nearly 59mph over the course of nearly 10 hours and 38 minutes, Musso and Gendebien would power there way to a convincing and dominant victory crossing the line with five minutes and 40 seconds in hand over the Porsche RSK of Jean Behra and Giorgio Scarlatti.

    Throughout his career, Luigi Musso had proven himself a strong competitor in some of the biggest races in the world. He had earned numerous victories and podium finishes, from Sebring, to the Tourist Trophy and the Mille Miglia. However, at the 1958 Targa Florio, he would prove just how talented and competitive he truly was. The commanding victory among the Sicilian heights made other drivers, including Stirling Moss, appear as mere brigands whose battle plans were not merely foolhardy, but absolutely destined to fail against such might.

    'Complete Archive of Luigi Musso', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Luigi-Musso-I.html?page=2). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Luigi-Musso-I.html?page=2. Retrieved 16 July 2014.

    'Drivers: Luigi Musso', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-muslui.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-muslui.html. Retrieved 16 July 2014.

    McDonough, Ed. '1958 12 Hours of Sebring—Anglo-Americans and the Redhead', (http://www.sportscardigest.com/1958-12-hours-sebring-anglo-americans-redhead/). Sports Car Digest: The Sports, Racing and Vintage Car Journal. http://www.sportscardigest.com/1958-12-hours-sebring-anglo-americans-redhead/. Retrieved 16 July 2014.

    '42nd Targa Florio', (http://archive.motorsportmagazine.com/article/june-1958/21/bfd568b7-05d5-4772-8263-f319e9236d57/42nd-targa-florio). MotorSport. http://archive.motorsportmagazine.com/article/june-1958/21/bfd568b7-05d5-4772-8263-f319e9236d57/42nd-targa-florio. Retrieved 16 July 2014.

    'Races: 1958 Targa Florio', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Targa_Florio-1958-05-11.html). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Targa_Florio-1958-05-11.html. Retrieved 16 July 2014.

    Garrett, Jerry. 'Driving the Remains of Sicily's Targa Florio Circuit', (http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/driving-the-remains-of-sicilys-targa-florio-circuit/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1). The New York Times. http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/driving-the-remains-of-sicilys-targa-florio-circuit/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
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