A brief history of the Autodromo di Pergusa

News | August 12, 2020

Dating back seven decades, one of Sicily’s oldest racing circuits has hosted Formula 1, Formula 2, the World Sports Car Championship, European Touring Cars, and boasts a winner’s list that’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who?’ of motorsport icons. But that’s only part of the story…

Announced last week as a replacement for the 2020 Hankook 12H IMOLA, the Autodromo di Pergusa will become the 19th different venue to host an official CREVENTIC event on 9-10-11 October. On top of that, the newly revived Coppa Florio will also mark the return of international motorsport to the Sicilian circuit since a one-off round of the now defunct International GTSprint Series in 2012.

 

But like so many of the circuits to have hosted the 24H SERIES in the past – all but four of which are past, current or future Formula 1 Grand Prix venues – that truly is just the tip of Enna-Pergusa’s quirky history.

 

Built in 1950, one of Sicily’s oldest race circuits was, in effect, a 4.8km high-speed blast on access roads around the Lago di Pergusa for which the track was named. And even by 1950s motorsport standards, the Autodromo was not for the faint-hearted: the inaugural GP Pergusa in August 1951 was won by Italy’s Franco Cortese, who went on to win his only Targa Florio one month later, at an average speed of just over 90kph. Two years later, Franco ‘Robur’ Bordoni and his Gordini T15S had already upped that to 98kph. All done without a seatbelt, with a helmet made of leather, and with the very real risk of landing in the lake had the Italian aviator got his braking point wrong. As so many of his contemporaries did.

A charming locale the water-adjacent circuit proved though, it being a stone’s throw from the beautiful mountain commune of Enna (the circuit’s other adoptive name), and, if said stone were hurled with the vim of an Olympic discus thrower, Mount Etna.

 

It’s surprising then that motor racing at Pergusa didn’t really get into its stride until the 1960s, during which the Mediterranean Grand Prix, first held in 1962, firmly established itself as the circuit’s definitive event.

 

Indeed, the inaugural round of the Mediterranean GP, run to Formula 1 non-championship regulations, did much to buoy the hometown fanbase. In what would be only the third GP win (all non-championship) in total for the Scuderia in an otherwise wretched 1962 season, Italians Lorenzo Bandini and Giancarlo Baghetti – the latter fresh from a win on his F1 debut at Reims – took a comfortable 1-2 finish in their works-entered Ferrari Dino 156s, one lap ahead of compatriot Carlo Abate’s Porsche 718. It was a win four-time 500cc motorcycle World Champion, and future F1 World Champion, John Surtees repeated one year later in 1963, again for the Scuderia, albeit this time ahead of Lotus’ Peter Arundell in 2nd. Bandini, now in a BRM, was once again on the podium in 3rd.

 

Ironically, it was only after two barn-storming finishes at the event in 1964 and 1965, with Jo Siffert beating two-time World Champion Jim Clark by mere tenths of a second on both occasions, that F1 departed Pergusa for good. Thereafter, Enna’s Mediterranean GP would be run as a Formula 2 event, doing so until 1985 when F1’s feeder series was officially re-branded as ‘Formula 3000’. Even then, it was another 13 years before the event was officially retired.

Admittedly, few could decry F1’s decision, given the Autodromo’s ‘relaxed’ safety record. In 1962, French-born Jean Lucienbonnet, while attempting to avoid a loose wheel on the track, was thrown from his Formula Junior single seater and killed instantly. In 1964, Mike Hailwood, arguably the greatest bike rider in history, ended his race in the lake in his Lotus 25, while Siffert’s race win that year was collected at an average speed of 187kph. A terrifying prospect, given that all that stood between the GP cars in top gear and the on-looking crowd on the bank were some rickety wire fences. Alterations to Enna-Pergusa were already in the works when future three-time World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart and F1’s only posthumous World Champion, Jochen Rindt, took their own respective wins at Pergusa in ’67 and ’68.

 

By 1970, the new ‘Proserpina’ chicane had been added on the back straight, tipping the circuit’s official length over three miles for the first-time in its then-19-year history. More significantly, the 180kph-plus speeds had also been capped, leading to the ‘Zagaria’ also being installed on the approach to the start-finish straight one year later. By 1976, Variantes ‘Vivaio’ and ‘Piscine’ complex had replaced the tight, right-handed turn one – a potential bottleneck on any opening lap – altogether, and the current 4.950km length was set.

 

Did the attempt to reign back the low downforce character quash the circuit’s lustre? Well, by then, the F2 winner’s list had grown to include Le Mans’ future most tenured starter Henri Pescarolo (‘72), two-time Le Mans winner Hans-Joachim Stuck (‘74), and future Grand Prix winner Jacques Laffite (’75). So…no, not really.

 

A more developed pitlane was a welcome addition in 1986. Nine years later, the circuit even paid tribute to a certain ‘M.Schumacher’ with the addition of a final chicane on the far side of the lake. One that, ironically, had already been renamed ‘Pineta’ by the time the record-setting seven-time F1 World Champion hung up his helmet for good in 2006. Hardly a fitting tribute to the circuit’s ‘Ferrari Festival’ headliner in 1997, but, still…

Though a definitive part of the circuit’s early heritage, motor racing was not single seater-exclusive at the Autodromo di Pergusa. Held intermittently from 1950 to 1961 as the ‘Gran Premio di Pergusa’, Enna’s non-championship sports car race was re-packaged for 1962 as the ‘Coppa Cittá di Enna’, and on all but two occasions until 1974 featured on either the FIA’s World Sports Car Championship or European 2-Litre Championship calendar. Appropriately, and like the Mediterranean GP before it, Italy swept the board at the Coppa Cittá di Enna as Abarth, Ferrari, Dino, and Alfa Romeo collectively winning eight of the event’s 12 editions in the GT ranks. Come 1975, the ‘Coppa Cittá di Enna’ name was also gone in favour of the revived ‘Coppa Florio’. And yes, we’ll be going through that history too at a later date.

 

Sadly, though the Autodromo di Pergusa remained a regular fixture on the World Sports Car Championship until 1981, the 4.950km Sicilian circuit just couldn’t cope with the turbocharged madness of the World Sports Car Championship, now on the cup of Group C immortality. Step forward the European Touring Car Championship, which held its first 500km Pergusa in 1977 and would continue to do so until 1984. Oddly, despite a strong win in 1977 for ’79 ETCC champions Martino Finotto and Carlo Facetti, it wasn’t until 1981 that the eventual European champion actually took victory at the 500km Pergusa, Umberto Grano and Helmut Kelleners taking the fourth, of an eventual five, wins in succession in ‘81 aboard the all-conquering BMW 635 CSi. Cue a repeat during the pair’s successful title defense in 1982.

 

 

 

 

An unbroken run for BMW at Pergusa though would be brought to a commanding close by the XJS of TWR Jaguar Racing, first with a win for team owner Tom Walkinshaw and teammate Chuck Nicholson in 1983, then by a TWR Jaguar Racing podium lockout in 1984. Hans Heyer and Walkinshaw, the latter en-route to the ’84 ETCC crown, finished 2nd to teammates Martin Brundle and Enzo Calderari, while Nicholson and Win Percy collected 3rd. All three XJS’ finished a full lap ahead of their nearest rivals in an utterly dominant display.

 

That would not be the end of European touring car action at Pergusa, however. 18 years later, the revived European Touring Car Championship returned to Sicily in 2002 and 2003, future ETCC and BTCC champion Fabrizio Giovanardi and future ETCC, WTCC and World Touring Car Cup champion Gabriele Tarquini taking three of the four race wins. All for Alfa Romeo. It proved another fitting send-off for Pergusa, which wouldn’t see touring car action again until the European Touring Car Cup’s arrival in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

With tin tops gone, Formula 2’s / F3000’s monopoly of Pergusa thus continued, albeit under a semi-regular cloud of controversy surrounding the Autodromo’s then-‘relaxed’ – and sometimes just downright baffling – safety standards.

 

In 1992 for example, future 13-time Grand Prix winner Rubens Barrichello suffered a huge shunt during that year’s Formula 3000 Mediterranean GP when his Reynard 92D struck a recovery vehicle on-track. While reports suggesting the impact was enough to crack Barrichello’s helmet in two are wide of the mark, what’s not is the Brazilian’s check-up with the local medical facility, which just so happened to be at the local prison. Unsurprisingly, the future F1 Ferrari star was reticent about staying the night….

 

Not unusual enough? In 1996, practice for that year’s F3000 race – eventually won by Marc Goosens – was delayed by a plague of baby frogs from the lake, many of the unfortunate wretches ending their weekend either crushed against the kerbs or embedded in many of the F3000 radiators. Small wonder that an environmental protest very nearly caused the cancellation of the ’98 race altogether, one eventually won by future two-time Indy 500 winner, and seven-time F1 Grand Prix winner, Juan Pablo Montoya.

 

Event organisers couldn’t save the ’99 race though, and the Mediterranean GP was struck from the list for 1999. Two rounds of the FIA GT Championship followed in 2002 and 2003 – one of which was won by 24H SERIES favourite, Jamie Campbell-Walter – before the FIA, seemingly exhausted by the circuit’s ‘characterful’ problems, revoked the Autodromo’s licence.  

 

 

 

 

Were it not for the fact that Pergusa has habit of reviving itself, that could well have been the end of the story for arguably Sicily’s most idiosyncratic race course. Instead, in 2010, and after FIA-proposed modifications had been completed the previous summer, the Autodromo di Pergusa was granted a Grade 3 licence, opening the door for Italian GT racing to return to Enna shortly afterwards. Even the Euro Formula Open is looking to revive the Mediterranean Grand Prix after a 22-year absence, following a two-day test for junior single seater lynchpin Carlin Motorsport at the Sicilian circuit late last year

 

Development has not stopped there though. Heading into this year’s 24H SERIES event, ‘Enna’ has already received significant upgrades to its pit and paddock complex, as well as myriad updates to the track itself, a necessity if the Autodromo di Pergusa hopes to rewrite motorsport history once again this coming October. After all, given it ‘colourful’ seven-decades heritage, it would hardly be the first time.  

*Images courtesy of the Autodromo di Pergusa.

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