A Last Day in the Sun? – ’55 Targa Florio

A Last Day in the Sun? – ’55 Targa Florio - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

Sicily – 16th of October, 1955.

Snap!

The tail of the silver machine snaps-out from under him… just like at Padova.

No time to catch it at 100mph.

Spin! Crunch! Falling…

“Christ!”

The Mercedes hits the rock-strewn ground, fully ten feet below the road. A sickening belly-flop.

Landing with the full force of its 900 kilogrammes… and the weight of Daimler-Benz expectation.

…Neubauer looks at his stopwatch. No word over the radio from the Mercedes signalling station. All is lost…

Ferrari, 1955 World Sports Car Champions..?

______

Mercedes-Benz at the 1955 Targa Florio

It must have been quite the sight. The range, the depth, of man & materiel lined-up to be shipped. 5 racing cars, 12 road cars, 7 trucks, 45 mechanics… Everything that Mercedes-Benz could muster – everything that Alfred Neubauer & Rudi Uhlenhaut could imagine – was on the Naples dockside, bound for Sicily.

The assault on the Targa Florio was to be a final World Championship bid. A final race for Daimler-Benz in international Grand Prix & Sports Car racing. The final race of a Mercedes-Benz ‘Silver Arrows’ lineage that stretched back to 1934. This mattered, and Neubauer planned it like no other race in Mercedes’ history.

The Targa Florio was a daunting end to an exhausting, tragic 1955 season. Drafted in & almost doubled in length to meet the requirements of a decimated World Championship, the race would be contested over 13 laps of a 72 kilometre circuit.

72 kilometres of Sicilian mountain roads, through towns & villages, with only the 4 kilometre coastal straight for respite. Country roads that had compelled, challenged, broken man & machine since 1906… all for glory, and Vincenzo Florio’s trophy.

But Neubauer had exceptional men & machines at his disposal. Five Mercedes-Benz W196S 300SLRs, refreshed & prepared after their Tourist Trophy travails, were put at the disposal of six world-class drivers.

Nothing left to chance, Mercedes had employed two of the men who made them sweat at Dundrod. Ulster man Desmond Titterington – who impressed at the wheel of the Jaguar D-type – was partnered with John Fitch, winner at Dundrod alongside Stirling Moss. For them, W196S 0005/55 – the Fangio/Kling car that placed 2nd at Dundrod, a month prior.

Peter Collins – who had hunted-down the Mercedes squad with his Aston Martin at the TT – was to be partnered with Moss. Both young, fast, talented, and aboard Stirling’s fabled W196S 0004/55 – this entry, number ‘104’, was surely Mercedes’ best hope for overall victory and overturning Ferrari’s 8-point championship advantage.

But winning wasn’t enough. To secure the World Championship Mercedes-Benz needed to finish 1-2, and bringing two cars home at the Targa was a significant challenge. For that you needed experience & patience, as well as speed. Juan Manuel Fangio & Karl Kling, W196S 0003/55 – “Fangio’s car” – had that in spades.

There was no official practice at the Targa Florio. The roads just… ‘were there’. Drive! Avoid the locals, the animals, the mudslides… just, drive! And they did… Mercedes-Benz clocking 16,695km around the circuit as each driver completed three or four laps per day. Four laps doesn’t sound much, but here it meant 180 miles. For the race itself, drivers were forbidden to drive for more than five laps in-a-row. Other concessions to the unique challenge of the Targa was the prohibition of sports cars under 750cc and GTs under 1100cc. There was also a last minute change to the start time, moving it back to 7am – so that the race would finish in daylight.

Yes – they had planned to run the Targa Florio into dusk.

______

16th of October, 7am

As the first cars set off at thirty second intervals, Moss fires-up 0004 for its final challenge. Stirling has barely slept, feels awful, but the thrum of the straight-8 Mercedes-Benz seems to soothe. In a sea of be-suited officials and hangers-on the 300SLR sits waiting for the flag to drop.

The roar of the Mercedes rises above the crowd, as it bolts away from the line – off into the countryside.

Biotti, Ricci, Moss, Titterington, Shelby, Fangio, Castellotti, Musso, Maglioli… everyone is now on the road – the 10-hour battle has begun.

Neubauer’s team orders are, there are no orders. Everyone knows what’s required, what’s expected. The Mercedes drivers have “complete freedom” to give it hell… and Moss doesn’t need telling twice.

Stirling dances the 300SLR down the road – slices past the cars that started ahead of him… while Neubauer waits. Waits for word from his signalling station, waits for the silver cars to blast into the stadium section. Anytime soon… is that the distant sound of the ‘big’ cars turning off the coast road?

Yes!

The crowd rises as the favourites start to swing past the pits.

Incredible! Moss leads, and how!

A new lap record – 44min 04sec… from a standing-start.

The ‘104’ Mercedes is already 1 minute ahead of Castellotti’s Ferrari… Fangio stalking the pair of them.

A high-speed pursuit – through Cerda, Caltavuturo, Scillato, Collesano, Campofelice. Past thousands of spectators lining the roads. Laughing, cheering, eating, pressing forward… all of life.

The drivers – alone, focused. Chasing time, defying a landscape that seems designed to crush them. A thousand small moments of skill, bravery, luck that no-one ever sees – no camera captures.

Moss presses his advantage.

Lap 3 – another new record – 43min 7.4secs. A lead of three minutes over Castellotti, four minutes over Fangio and seven minutes ahead of Titterington. But Castellotti is holding that second place. Ferrari are doing enough to retain the World Championship.

Snap!

The tail of the silver machine snaps-out from under him… just like at Padova.

No time to catch it at 100mph.

Spin! Crunch! Falling…

“Christ!”

The Mercedes hits the rock-strewn ground, fully ten feet below the road. A sickening belly-flop.

Landing with the full force of its 900 kilogrammes… and the weight of Daimler-Benz expectation.

Disfigured, but intact… “C’mon, Old Girl!”.

Spectators are running down into the field. Shouting. Gesticulating. Pushing at the Mercedes-Benz. Heaving it off the rocks.

The 300SLR roars back to life… first gear. Where to go? How to get out?

Time & again the slope up the field is too much for the racing tyres. More spectators, more pushing, more shouting… finally, some traction!

Moss guns it back onto the road.

No standing eight count in this game… Stirling leans on 0004, it responds… they’re back in the fight.

______

At the pits, Neubauer looks at his stopwatch. No word over the radio from the Mercedes signalling station. All is lost…

Stirling is 12 minutes late.

Fangio, second on race time, just leads the Ferrari on the road… they’ll have to pit soon…. but here’s Moss!

Neubauer pointlessly waves his flag at the battered 300SLR roaring into the pitlane. Stirling knows where to stop. The Mercedes men in their race-day whites are drilled. Still, there’s a momentary hesitation at the sight of 0004… sills buckled. Then, frenzy! As Moss leaps out to explain the accident to Neubauer, the 300SLR gets tyres, fuel and Peter Collins.

“If you don’t like it, bring it back!”, shouts Moss to his teammate.

Moss pits the 300SLR after his accident – 1955 Targa Florio

Next, Fangio – just in the lead of the race as he hands over to Kling.

Mercedes-Benz – Ferrari – Maserati – Mercedes-Benz. Collins is in 4th place, 7 mins behind Kling… and the young Englishman is flying!

His first racing lap at the Targa Florio: 44min 21 sec.

Then: 43min 28sec.

Then… there’s a Ferrari all over the road! Collins swerves to avoid it. The 300SLR crunches against the rock face, slides, rides-up a low wall… and stops… front wheels in the air.

Scrabble for reverse. Lots of revs.

0004 scrapes back onto four wheels, and is on its way.

That lap? 44min 15sec!

The Maserati breaks, the Ferrari is dispatched… Collins is relentlessly reeling in Kling in the leading Mercedes, now only 36 seconds ahead.

Ferrari panics – they must have – there can be no other reason to pit Manzon after only two laps. Castellotti is faster, but have they counted the laps? They will have to change again.

Four laps completed, Peter Collins pits the bent, smashed Mercedes-Benz. He hands it back to Stirling Moss, along with a scarcely-believable lead of over one minute. Stirling just has to bring it home over these last five laps.

Final stop too for the Fangio/Kling car. They’re holding second place… but, wait! The fuel filler has jammed! Precious seconds pass – the Ferrari passes.

The Championship rests on Fangio’s shoulders now, and there has never been a better man for the job. The World Champion Driver chasing the Italian Hillclimb Champion – but Ferrari are already beaten. Beaten when they have no choice but pit again. Castellotti has reached his 5-lap limit. Manzon takes over the Ferrari 857S… and breaks a wheel on a rock.

Lap 13 – after 9 hours, 43 minutes and 14 seconds of racing, Stirling Moss & Peter Collins win the 1955 Targa Florio.

Peter Collins & Stirling Moss – Winners of the 1955 Targa Florio

Mercedes-Benz W196S 0004/55 has won the Mille Miglia, the International Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, and the Targa Florio in a single, remarkable season.

She is a wreck. A remarkable, faithful, unbeatable wreck.

When Fangio crosses the finish line 5 minutes later, Alfred Neubauer’s final goal is achieved: Mercedes-Benz – World Sports Car and World Drivers Champions for 1955.

With the championship won, Daimler-Benz made public their decision of 11th October. After much debate amongst the Board of Management, Mercedes-Benz was withdrawing from the World Sports Car Championship as well as Formula One. This decision was made in order to “devote the considerable engineering expertise of its motorsport department to the development of production vehicles.”.

The ‘Silver Arrows’ were now history – the W196R & W196S, particularly 0004/55, postwar motorsport icons. Examples of Mercedes-Benz excellence in design, manufacture and organisation, held high.

We would never see their like again.

Or so we thought…

“And if our hands should meet in another dream we shall build another tower in the sky.”

Gibran

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