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LiegeTarga Liege 1999 Report By Gari Jones

2005 The Guild of Motor Endurance

1999 7000km LIEGE-TARGA-LIEGE by Gari Jones / Liege
At £750 per person including hotels this year's 13 day 7,000 kilometer Liege-Targa-Liege event wasn't to be missed. Saving our pennies we did without a holiday last year and looked forward to the highlights of this year's event - the Alpine roads used on the Monte and the other classic rallies, the 45 mile Targa Florio circuito Delle Madone, part of the 1938 Mille Miglia route, the old Pegusa GP circuit, the Coppa Bruno hillclimb, the Schlumpf museum, the Monaco GP circuit, Pisa, Venice, Mount Etna and so on. Just as you do on holiday. Last minute preparation does add more flavour to the endurance theme and after two sleepless nights we eventually arrived at Liege in Belgium late Friday afternoon, just in time for scrutineering. A good late night at the bar ensured we were totally knackered before the event had even started. It was quite a struggle to make the 8am start on Saturday morning.

The first three days of the event passed in a blurr of exhaustion. Countries flashed in front of the windscreen and were gone (Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, France, Switzerland, back into France, Monaco and then through into Italy); mountain pass after pass as high, narrow steep and with drops sheer as you like; the constant checking of speeds and times and route book instructions and making for controls (start at 8am each day, two morning passage controls, midday control, two afternoon passage controls and the final evening control). Always another gigantic mountain range ahead, thinking there's no way over that but then the twisty climb and the incredible views from the top. And oh yes, getting lost round the Monaco GP circuit (!) and of still being up in the mountains as it went dark which was bad news but best of all, climbing between the sheets at the end of the day and happily foregoing the call of the bar to grab some sleep before the alarm went off again at 6am. By the third day we were somehow still on for a gold award having cleaned all the controls as far as we knew. Then that evening one of the organisers came over. We'd missed a control. We couldn't have. Yes we had. Passage controls were a nightmare, being anywhere along the route the organisers chose and open for just one hour. If you ran to speed they were no problem but if you were early or late and outside the one hour window then the control wasn't there and you didn't know you'd missed it. We'd been running late that afternoon but still within the hour so as far as we knew the controls must have been open at the time we went through. Maybe we'd miscalculated. Bewildered and bitterly disappointed we got to bed early and crashed out. Next day we woke feeling better and decided to put everything into going for a silver award - or bust. From then on we just thrashed the engine for all it was worth - and the more we thrashed it the better it went.

There are wonderful roads in the Italian mountains. The Italians seem to be enthusiasts to a man and given half a chance they'll race you with whatever they're in. We had to push hard to overtake one particular artic up a mountain pass - the youthful Gianni was having the time of his life. So were we. Another time up in the mountains in the dark with mist swirling, ice and bits of snow towards the top we were struggling to even see where the road finished and the unguarded drop started. Down to about 20 mph, probably less if I'm honest, a couple of head lamps were closing fast in the mirror. Easing up even more to wait so we could follow him down, a white Renault Traffic van shot past. But no chance. After three corners I was history and we were back on our own again as we watched his tail lights disappear into the mist. If the mountain roads are good, so are the people. Charging on through villages in the middle of nowhere, they'd come out to watch and wave the cars on! Imagine that over here? In one place up in the mountains they had a brass band out playing and crowds everywhere. Really impressed with this we pushed on feeling pretty cool - until we met a big cycle race coming towards us just down the road.

Italian drivers are wonderful too but you have to understand their highway code. It's different. You tailgate the car in front or the one behind overtakes and you move slowly backwards through the queue. You ignore red lights or get rear-ended. You hoot a lot, especially at the zillions of beautiful women who flash such enticing smiles back that you must just keep on hooting. Their whole way of life suggests we're missing something. They seem to have time to enjoy, time for siestas, no need to rush. But it's not a good thing to want fuel after midday, everything's closed. And watch those lay-bys. Here we have tea vans. There they have scantily clad hookers. . . . . . And so we charged on down through Italy, playing up in the mountains during the day and dropping down to the coast at night to stay in comfortable seaside hotels. A short ferry to Sicily and even more fun as we played on some slippery cobbled hairpins. Reaching our hotel at the half way point in Cefalu we swapped stories in the bar about breakdowns and accidents, of the streams of gleaming white but unmarked "Mafia" artics constantly moving loads (of what?) in and out of Sicily, and of unbelievable Italian enthusiasm for broken down crews whose cars were hastily despatched after being repaired and payment often refused. For us, the car was going like a dream and the engine seemed to revel in being screamed for hours on end. What more could we want? A reliable car, a luxury hotel, Italian food and good company. Ah yes, tomorrow at 11, the Targa Florio. We slept well that night.

The old pits and grandstand are still there. Before coming we'd watched a video of the 1965 Targa Florio and as we waited to set off at one minute intervals, we could see again the crowds and the cars, hear the noise and sense the danger of the great races there. The place is steeped in atmosphere and as we drove through the same villages we'd seen in the video we could see again the people standing or sitting on chairs outside their front doors as the cars screamed past inches from their toes. Up in the mountains we drove those same corners for all we were worth, imagining again the Ferraris and Porsches on this or that very bit of road in the video. One lap took the best part of an hour and as the pits and grandstand hove into view again we pulled in for a driver change. The crowds weren't there now but we felt like the winners as the first car round on that first lap, helped more than a little by starting at number 9. Do (rhymes with go) now took the driver's seat and off we set again. Tentatively at first because this was the first time I'd let her drive since leaving home (pure selfishness) she soon got into the rhythm of the mountain roads. Then she was going for it, tyres squealing and drifting through the bends. It just gets to you. It even got to Do who until that point would far rather have been knitting by the fire with the cat on her lap. Absolutely wonderful!

Next day we were at Pergusa, the old GP circuit now looking a bit sad but again full of atmosphere. The track condition was good and when it came to Do's turn to drive she was off like a scalded cat and so thoroughly enjoyed circuit driving that I now have problems about ownership of my Liege. Thinking that the rest of the event must now be an anti-climax we crossed back into Italy. How wrong we were. Up the Amalfi coast (remember the Italian Job?) we made such a pigs ear of the route book that we had to drive some of it twice. We couldn't have chosen anywhere better to get lost. Playing up in the mountains by day again we drove back up Italy, following the 1938 Mille Miglia route down to the Adriatic coast and after Venice we pushed on for Cortina some 9000 feet up amongst the most spectacular jagged mountain peaks imaginable. Then it was across yet more mountain ranges in Northern Italy, up the tight hairpins of the Stelvio pass and through snow and ice over the top before driving down the other side into Switzerland, then France to Mulhouse where we had a fascinating private viewing of the Schlumpf collection. Next day we got back to the finish and that was it really. Well, I suppose we have to cough to getting hopelessly lost about 10 miles from the finish and taking the best part of 50 minutes to get ourselves back on route. 13 days, 7000 kilometres and we nearly blew it all within sight of the finish.

That evening at the presentation dinner we were called out for a Gold Award. Unsure if this was a particularly cruel trick of the red wine over there we stumbled forward. But it was true! It turned out that most of the field had missed the same control as us for the simple reason that a helpful Italian policeman diverted competitors in the village, missing the control. Force majeure was called in to play and that was that. As for the Liege, it couldn't have done more. Once we'd decided to throw caution to the winds the car seemed a match for almost anything coming downhill (white Renault vans excluded) and on many an occasion going up as well. Now if only we'd had the supercharger . . .

Next day we were back in England. On a quick reckoning we'd spent around £350 on petrol and another £300 or so on food and beer. As I write this a thousand vivid memories come flooding back of the never ending twists and turns of the mountain roads, of Monaco, the Targa Florio, Pergusa, Mount Etna, Pisa, Monte Casino, civic receptions and cavalcades, the 15km Coppa Bruno Carotti hill climb course, and the characters and the cameraderie. And the cars of course, V8 Cobras to Caterhams, D-types to Lomaxes, Marlins to Ginettas, some amazing home-builts. And oh yes, Cornelius from Germany whose Buckland let go on the first day. Back home he went, picked up his 750 Honda and did the entire event solo on two wheels. All sorts of everything and everybody all having exactly the same fun and all far too much to write about. You have to be there. Next time?