60 Years of Mid-Engine Masterpieces

After visiting Sicily in an F8 Spider to pay homage to the first major victory for a mid-engine Ferrari, we explored the Italian island to see what other great roads it may have to offer…
Words – Ben Pulman
Photos – Giuliano Koren and Richard Pardon
Video – Max Morelli

Sicily is inextricably linked with the Targa Florio.

One of the oldest and most famous motorsport events in the world, the road race was started in 1906, and so predates the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Carrera Panamericana and Mille Miglia.
Created by Vincenzo Florio, the route has changed over the years, but most famously ran in ‘Grande’, ‘Medio’ and ‘Piccolo’ configurations of 148km, 108km and just 72km respectively. All of three iterations ran up through the Madonie mountains, the narrow roads offering up hundreds of corners that demanded thousands of gearchanges, and giving back little in the way of safety barriers, crowd control or marshal posts.

The only breather – if you can call it that – was when the competitors came back down to sea level and blasted along the 6km flat-out straight towards Buonfornello. Awaiting them here was the pit lane, and the start of another tortuous lap…
There is more to Sicily though, much more. It is an island of contrasts, and its capital Palermo is chaotic, almost unforgiving if you’re in a car. Yet away from it, this piece of land in the Mediterranean Sea, between Europe and Africa, offers much to the enthusiast. Sun-kissed coastal roads circumnavigate the hilly and then mountainous centre, and within a couple of hours you can move from the water’s edge, through lush forests, and onto a gigantic barren volcano.

Luckily, in the form of an F8 Spider resplendent in Giallo Modena, we have the perfect companion to explore…

THE VOLCANO


Mount Etna dominates the eastern end of Sicily, and if you’re making the short hop across the Strait of Messina from the Italian mainland, it looms large on the horizon. Its eruptions are documented back over 3,500 years (some of the longest on human record) and it’s still active now – there has been volcanic activity in 2021.

Located within a UNESCO World Heritage site, a basaltic composition covers much of the slopes. Patches of green foliage dot the sides of the volcano too; some are mature trees that have dodged and survived the devastation of a lava flow, whereas in other locations little shoots are the first signs of life starting to flourish again.
There’s a road up here on Etna too, a snake of tarmac strangely bright in contrast to the dark black of the landscape, that winds and wiggles its way up the tallest peak in Italy south of the Alps. Not right to the top of course (in winter you can see where the lava has cut a path through the snow near the 3326m summit) but the SP92 comes into the UNESCO site from the south or east and takes you as high as you’d want to. For the adventurous, local guides offer expeditions if you want to climb higher.

For our purposes, we have all we need: smooth tarmac, sweeping bends, a turbocharged engine that isn’t troubled by the change in altitude, and roof that opens to uncover a different atmosphere. En-route to the top we might have made our own evocative sound via the 720cv engine, but when we stop to take in the view back down to the island’s second city of Catania, the lack of life in such an inhospitable environment washes over us with its silence. The aura up here is different, otherworldly, and even the smell is peculiarly inorganic.

It doesn’t matter to the locals. Far below, life on Sicily continues unabated. Time to rejoin them…

THE COASTLINE

With over 1000km of coastline, in Sicily you’re never far from the sea. And the island is surrounded by three of them: the Mediterranean Sea; the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north between Sardinia and the Italian mainland; and the Ionian Sea, across which lies Greece.

Around much of the island, coastal roads take you close to the sparking blue waters, but even with the best will in the world, you'll struggle to drive the whole circumference. The best option is to dovetail your drive with a destination at the end of your journey. That might be the ancient Greco-Roman theatre that looks down upon Taormina, near to Mount Etna; the famous tongue of sand on the north coast close to Tindari; or the dramatic white cliffs on southern side of the island at Scala dei Turchi.
One of the best routes is from the north-west of the island, near to the Lo Zingaro nature reserve. You can visit this from the north at San Vito Lo Capo, or the south at Scopello, and from this peninsula take the coastal road to Trapani. A wrong turn inland won’t be the end of the world either: the vista down to the coastal town as you approach from historic Erice is enchanting. Either way, the views ahead are of tranquil blue sea.

If you’re so inclined, the nature reserves at Foce del Belice, near Porto Palo, or Venidcari (not far from the hilltop Baroque city of Ragusa) offer their own beautiful beaches too. Whichever you choose, with the ever-inviting sea to one side, these roads call for a different pace. The Retractable Hard Top should be stowed, letting the warmth of the sun contest with the breeze coming in over the water. Stop often, and above all, enjoy views that stretch to the horizon.

THE FOREST

In complete contrast to what you might expect of Sicily are the thick forests of the Nebrodi National Park. Offering a cool respite from the heat, it’s the island’s largest national park, and extends from the north-west corner of Mount Etna towards the Madonie mountains where the Targa Florio took place.

Vast swathes of forest cover mountains and valleys, and ancient villages and monasteries pepper the area. Walking and mountain-biking are popular pastimes for the tourists who come to this quieter area of Sicily, and they’ll likely spot indigenous species like San Fratello horses and Nebrodi black pigs (which you’ll find in local delicacies that use their meat for salamis and hams).

The horses come out of the forest when we stop, and the dappled light breaks through the canopy and plays upon the yellow paintwork of the F8 Spider. You can take two routes through the Nebrodi National Park, either the SS289 or SP168, and both offer deserted roads that allow us to delve into the F8 Spider’s performance.

Yet while Mount Etna, or the coastal roads, offer the constant view of nearby civilisation, the trees seem to crowd in upon us. There’s rarely a vista, rarely a chance to comprehend the area you’re in. This does focus the mind though, the only place to concentrate now the inky black ribbon twisting ahead between the green foliage.
The forest seems so out of place on Sicily but it’s the perfect reprieve from the rest of the island. The heat is kept at bay, and so it seems is everybody else. We’re almost alone out here, our only companion yellow and keen to perform.

And that it does: the intensity of the engine, when unleashed, is always shocking, the force relentless. The gearchanges instantaneous. The sound utterly enveloping, filling the open cabin. The immediacy of the steering means only the slightest of movement is needed from your wrists, while your right foot plays across the pedals, calling on that power – or pausing progress with the immense carbon-ceramic brakes.

It’s thrilling and beguiling, and on an island of contrasts, it’s the one constant.