Races

60 Years of Mid-Engine Masterpieces
Words – Ben Pulman

In the first of a new series celebrating 60 years of mid-engined Ferraris, we recount a famous Targa Florio win from 1961

It was the first major victory for a mid-engined Ferrari, the groundbreaking 246 SP sports car…
The Targa Florio was a fearsome race. First held in 1906, the infamous endurance event saw competitors circumnavigate much of the Italian island of Sicily, all on the public road. Even in its later years, when the race used the ‘short’ Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie, each lap was a torturous 72km that wound through the Madonie mountains, with guard rails, hay bales and marshals only sporadically posted along the road course.

With an endless array of corners, almost impossible to memorise, the race gave the drivers no respite and tested cars to the limit. Enzo Ferrari himself raced there, but Ferrari as a manufacturer first won the event in 1948, just a year after it built its first car.
At the 45th running, Ferrari entered two revolutionary 246 SP sports cars in what was the second round of the 1961 World Sports Car Championship. Having set a new lap record but retired at the season opener in Sebring, the 246 SP seemed the perfect car for the Targa Florio…

Sporting a new mid-engined layout – which was also adopted by the Scuderia’s Formula 1 car that year after exclusively front-engine designs – the 246 SP was inherently well balanced. It was light, too, at less than 600kg, with the featherweight aluminium body also ushering in aerodynamic innovations like a rear spoiler.

Paired with Maranello’s powerful 2.4-litre V6 (hence the 246 name) it was a compact, quick and agile race car – and one that would leave a lasting influence on Ferraris, for both the track and road, for decades.
Ferrari archive, copyright unknown

Targa Florio pits 1961

Ferrari drivers in the Targa Florio pits
From left to right: Olivier Gendebien (in helmet and goggles), Ricardo Rodríguez (dark jumper, and racing a 250 Testa Rossa), Phil Hill and Richie Ginther

One Ferrari was piloted by Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther, while a second was driven by Phil Hill (who would win the F1 championship for Ferrari that year) and Olivier Gendebien. They were up against a series of Porsches, and the likes of Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney and future two-time F1 champion Graham Hill.

Set off in 30-second intervals, the Ferraris started last as race favourites. Phil Hill’s Ferrari never completed the first lap but von Trips calmly established himself in third, behind Moss and Jo Bonnier in their Porsches. All three broke the course record on the second lap, despite negotiating the 50-plus cars that were circling the track.
From Ferrari archive, copyright unknown

Targa Florio 1961

Wolfgang von Trips lines up at the start of the 1961 Targa Florio in the mid-engined Ferrari 246 SP

Wolfgang von Trips lines up at the start of the 1961 Targa Florio in the mid-engined Ferrari 246 SP

At the pits stops and changeover, Gendebien (his car now retired by Phil Hill) was switched into von Trips’s car in place of Ginther, and the Belgian driver built a lead of over 30 seconds on Graham Hill.

When Moss returned to his car he set a searing pace, but Gendebien kept up, behind on the road but ahead on time, before pitting to hand back to von Trips. Moss now had the lead, and both drivers lapped quicker than the old course record, with von Trips catching Moss by 17 seconds in the first half of the last lap.

Ultimately the pace proved too much for Moss’s machine, its transmission failing with 7km to go, while von Trips dutifully set another lap record as he took the chequered flag. After seven hours of racing the nearest opposition eventually finished over four minutes behind. The 246 SP had been tested at the Targa, and more than proven itself.
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 smiles for the camera after congratulating teammate Wolfgang von Trips following the pair’s 1961 Targa Florio victory

After the Targa triumph came three more rounds of the World Sports Car Championship. The 246 SP set the lap record at the 1000km of the Nürburgring and finished third. At Le Mans, better suited to Ferrari’s V12s, the 246 SP led on multiple occasions, retiring from second only when a fuel miscalculation stranded it on track in the 17th hour. At the Four Hours of Pescara, the 246 SP set the lap record and was leading when forced to retire.

In the 1962 season, the 246 SP came second at the very first Daytona endurance race, and followed this up with another Targa Florio win, with a new, smaller-engined 196 SP finishing second (and first in its 2.0-litre class). There was victory at the 1000km of the Nürburgring too, while a 196 SP in the hands of Ludovico Scarfiotti dominated the 1962 European Hill Climb Championship.

A new era had well and truly started in Maranello.