60 Years of Mid-Engine Masterpieces

Sixty years ago a Ferrari 246 SP recorded the first major victory for a mid-engined Prancing House. Now, we return to the location of that win – the tortuous Targa Florio road race in Sicily – in a contemporary mid-engine Ferrari, the F8 Spider
Words – Ben Pulman
Photos – Giuliano Koren
Video – Max Morelli

The F8 Spider delivers a sensory overload as we leave behind the former grandstands and pit lane of the Targa Florio.

With a route winding through Sicilian countryside ahead, the bright yellow convertible surges forward with shocking intensity, the instantaneous gearchanges ensuring an uninterrupted punch and the intense howl of the V8 cascading over the historic buildings we swiftly leave behind.
Every touchpoint amplifies the sensations. The response of the throttle, the reaction of a gearshift paddle as each change is called upon, and the immediacy of the steering that dives the nose into every corner. And with the Retractable Hard Top stowed neatly beneath the rear deck – a packaging marvel made possible by the low-slung position of the eight-cylinder engine – the intake and exhaust sound washes into the cabin to envelop us.

Yet while any moment in the F8 Spider can deliver just such a hit of adrenalin, today’s drive adds an extra emotive connection. We’re on the Italian island of Sicily, on the tarmac that once made up a tortuous lap of the Targa Florio road race, and retracing the steps of a famous Ferrari victory 60 years ago.

Unleashed on the same roads where the first mid-engined Ferrari sports car raced – and won – the F8 Spider is a phenomenal companion in which to retrace a crucial chapter of the company's history

It was here, on 30 April 1961, that Ferrari entered two versions of its new sports car, the 246 SP. Developed alongside the Scuderia’s new F1 car for that season, the engine was sited behind the driver for the first time – a significant departure for Ferrari, and Enzo himself, who had traditionally engineered the horse ahead of the cart.

But the change yielded instant results. That year the new 156 dominated the Formula 1 championship, the Scuderia’s drivers finishing 1-2 in the championship, with the team topping the manufacturers’ table too – and in Sicily the new sports car excelled.

Inherently well balanced, it was light, with an aluminium body helping it tip the scales at less than 600kg. Combined with a powerful V6 and aerodynamic innovations like the ‘shark nose’ (also seen on the F1 car) and a rear spoiler, it was a compact, quick and agile race car.
One of the two 246 SPs didn’t see the end of the first lap after an accident, but the other – in the hands of Wolfgang von Trips and Olivier Gendebien – fought a race-long battle with Porsche and drivers like Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney and future two-time F1 champion Graham Hill.

During seven hours of racing teammates Moss and Hill would prove the toughest opposition, but as von Trips and Moss traded fastest laps, the latter’s machine would break, its transmission failing with 7km to go. With victory in sight, von Trips didn’t let up and set another lap record as he took the flag. The nearest opposition eventually finished over four minutes back.

The 246 SP’s immediate success would influence Ferrari, on both the track and the road, for decades to come. More models and more wins followed in competition, while the company launched its first mid-engine road car, the Dino 206 GT, in 1967, with the 12-cylinder 365 GT4 BB following in 1969. But it was with the 308 GTB of ’75 that Ferrari established an uninterrupted lineage of V8-powered mid-engined sports cars that continues to the F8 of today.
From the Ferrari archive, copyright unknown

1961 Targa Florio

Olivier Gendebien smiles for the camera after congratulating teammate Wolfgang von Trips following the pair’s 1961 Targa Florio victory

Olivier Gendebien (in the white race overalls) rides onboard the Ferrari 246 SP after congratulating teammate Wolfgang von Trips (seated) on the pair's victory at the 1961 Targa Florio road race

The Targa Florio route raced in ’61 is an endless array of corners, and the roads have barely changed in six decades: they’re narrow, poorly surfaced, constantly twisting and turning, undulating over hills before climbing up into the Madonie mountain range. Yet our Ferrari handles it with ease.

On the broken surface, the rigidity of the chassis and composure of the suspension delivers comfort and control. Direction changes are deft and urgent, the balance impeccable with the moving metal parts that generate 720cv concentrated between the axles and behind the driver. And the constant corners instigate a back-and-forth dance between the immediacy of the brakes and the instantaneous power of an engine with zero turbo lag. An engine that, when unleashed, pushes you on and on with a seemingly never-ending thrust.

Today our pace is a little less than that of von Trips and Gendebien. The German and Belgian pairing might have completed the 72km loop ten times, but the lap record was dropping constantly. They would have been focused on the road alone, looking for apexes to cut and meandering curves to straight line, but we’re taking our time and taking it all in.

The wide windscreen lets you place the F8 Spider in corners with confidence, the open roof floods the cabin with the warmth of the sun and the aroma of rolling hills, and our pace switches between sedate and serious. Sometimes we trundle smoothly through ancient hilltop towns, the sight of a yellow Ferrari causing heads to swivel. At other times our speed quickens, and we exploit the power and poise of the F8 Spider as the roads wiggle and meander back and forth across the beautiful, lush landscape.

A never-ending array of corners that wound their way through the Madonie mountains in Sicily made up each 72km lap of the 1961 Targa Florio course. Today the roads are little different, and no less enjoyable

Ferrari’s drivers would have performed thousands of gearchanges on that last April day of 1961, constantly negotiating a field of over 50 slower cars, and only been able to finally breathe a sigh of relief when von Trips pulled into the pit lane and Gendebien jumped aboard to congratulate him.

With cutting-edge vehicles dynamics controls seamlessly integrating engine, chassis and aerodynamic performance, our time behind the wheel is far less arduous. But here on these roads, with their history, and at the wheel of an open-topped, mid-engined Ferrari, it remains a truly special experience.

What started here 60 years ago, continues…