In its heyday, the Targa Florio was the most revered and dangerous road race in the world. Its torturous 72km mountain road circuit made the confines of Le Mans seem positively clinical. To win here, among the stone walls and sheer cliff drops, you needed bravery and skill in equal parts, backed up by a deft touch of throttle and brake.
This is where Francesco 'Ciccio' Liberto comes in, the local shoemaker who has been creating race boots for visiting drivers for more than 50 years. The artisan cobbler has a reputation that reaches around the world for hand-crafting the finest traditional leather boots, slim and supple for ultimate pedal feel, yet strong and hard-wearing for the gruelling demands of endurance racing.
One his most loyal customers is Gijs van Lennep, winner of the last full-blown Targa back in 1973. Almost half a century on from that historic victory, Gijs is making the pilgrimage to Sicily and, of course, to his old friend Francesco.
Aboard a 718 Cayman, the 76-year-old Dutchman seems to recall every last inch of Sicilian asphalt with perfect clarity. On the road to Cerda, about an hour southeast of Palermo, his speed begins to build, soft hands working the Alcantara wheel, face a picture of calm concentration. “In many places they didn’t even have guardrails,” he remarks with a nod towards another precipitous drop as he leans the Cayman into the tight, blind bend.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators used to line the course of the Targa, and Van Lennep’s memories of the rows of fans he raced within inches of are still as fresh as ever. His win here was a monumental effort, driving a 911 Carrera RSR in the prototype class with Herbert Müller. Eleven laps each of the 72km circuit. Approximately 900 curves in six hours and 54 minutes. The art of winning the Targa Florio was as simple as it was occasionally deadly. “You had to drive as long and as fast as you could between all the curves,” van Lennep says with a pragmatic shrug.
Today there is a little less pressure on our driver. His destination is a small shop on the edge of the historic town of Cefalù where Ciccio Liberto is waiting, running his fingers along curved lines on a yellowed piece of paper. These lines form the outline of van Lennep’s right foot, which Ciccio first sketched all those years ago.
Around him are so many shoeboxes and racing mementos that the shop might as well be a museum. The walls are lined with photos featuring handwritten dedications and thank-you notes. He turns his gaze to pictures of Ignazio Giunti, Nanni Galli, and Vic Elford. It all started with them, he explains.
Giunti and Galli, who drove for Alfa Romeo, met Ciccio in a restaurant in Cefalù in 1964. Over pizza, he described his craft to the two drivers and ended up with a commission to make their special new racing shoes. They had to be soft and have a thin sole, like ballet pumps. “Race-car drivers wore awful shoes back then,” he recalls.
The first pair that he made for Giunti is now in the German Leather Museum in Offenbach, donated by the driver himself. In 1968, Vic Elford won the Targa Florio in Ciccio’s shoes—and proceeded to order a new pair every year. “Race-car drivers are superstitious,” remarks Ciccio with a smile. “From then on they all wanted to have my shoes.”
Ciccio listens intently to the sounds from the street. “I like Alfas and Ferraris. But Porsches have always quickened my heart.” Van Lennep pulls up and is greeted with a warm embrace. “I’ve just come from the Mille Miglia,” he says. “And guess which shoes I wore?” Ciccio laughs.
Van Lennep once ordered three custom-made pairs, with orange stripes and the Dutch flag on the side. “I used to order the shoes at the start of the practice week and pick them up seven days later,” he explains. “And I had to work day and night during that week,” adds Ciccio. “That was my race before the race.”
Asked if he is still making shoes, his reply is instant and assertive: “You bet. The day I stop is the day I die.” A few years ago, UNESCO recognised Ciccio’s work as part of the world’s cultural heritage. The day he stops, we all lose a little something.
718 Cayman: Fuel consumption combined 7.9 – 7.4 l/100 km; CO2 emissions 180 – 168 g/km