Waiting in the Wings



Well, it had to happen. Sooner or later. A rather tragic side emerged to this year’s re-evocation of the world’s most prestigious classic car event. An unfortunate final balance of accidents, including the death of an American driver, marred the atmosphere of an event that most successfully brings the past to the present for so many people.

To cap it all, the race was finally abandoned after a terrific rain storm hit the Raticosa Pass, forcing many open cars to stop and closed ones to slow tremendously. Competitors in spiders are only too aware of the tradition that there is always a soaking to be had on the Mille Miglia, yet few cautionary measures proved effective. The ensuing slippery conditions provoked a further quota of incidents which had an understandable influence on the proceedings towards the end. In fact, the organisers intervened to request the police escort for once to slow the pace down and, as the crowds packed around the cars from Bologna on, it was decided to call a halt to the competitive element at Modena. The final stages thus became gentle transfer tracts, rather than the usual stomping finish.

Such a pity, too, as the Mille Miglia started in its usual carnival atmosphere of enthusiasm mixed with euphoria and awe as the cars rolled up, one by one, in the square at Brescia under a scorching sun. The history of world motoring is gathered here, in Piazza della Vittoria: despite being in its eighth revival year, nearly 700 enthusiasts heeded its irresistible call, while a record of 318 cars were eventually summoned unto the fold. Joining those figures was that of the media’s presence: 817 assorted journalists including no fewer than 30 cameramen from Japanese television.

Yet numbers alone cannot adequately project the impact that the Mille Miglia can have on one’s senses. There have been cries of overkill since the event became annual. Perhaps the fundamental determining factor of a road competition by enthusiasts, for enthusiasm, has been overridden by organisation on a massive commercial scale. But the formula and mix of an incredible number of the world’s most significant cars, all within touching distance, being used on the roads of Italy’s most classical counties is one that cannot be appreciated until experienced.

The reality of what you have witnessed only really starts to sink in a couple of days after the event. The significance of certain scenes emerges and rises above the initial enthusiasm they created: the sight of a pair of Mercedes SSKs in oversteering flight up the Futa Pass; the alternating sounds of thunder, then crackling, popping exhausts as noble and humble machinery alike tackle the incumbents of modern traffic in picturesque centres.

As always, there is a mind-boggling number of original, ex-Mille Miglia cars taking part, not to mention drivers who undertook the real thing. It is suffice to mention the Delahaye 135 LM that took third in the 1937 edition, the BMW 328 MM that won the race in 1940, the Mercedes SSKL that won in 1931, the Ferrari 195 Berlinetta that won in 1958 and the Ferrari 340A that Gigi Villoresi won the 1951 race with. Even the little ISO Isetta bubble car has a Mille Miglia history. An example took first in class in 1955 at an average speed of nearly 80 kph — 2kph faster than Minoia who won the first edition in an OM 665. And this year the little outsider actually managed to finish, unlike in previous attempts.

That there is a specific winner of the Mille Miglia doesn’t really matter particularly — numerous entrants were happy enough to celebrate being able to come, especially the Russians that had driven down one of the 1940 BMW team cars, a 328 MM, from Russia where it has resided since the Second World War. Perhaps more than any other event, participating is the finest contribution that can be made to the classic car movement as a whole. And this year there were a number of important anniversaries that were being celebrated, too. It’s Alfa’s 80th year and, once again, it was the most numerous marque present with 49 privately owned models joining eight superb museum cars, including the two Disco Volantes. For the first time in 50 years, BMW returned with an official team in celebration of 1940’s victory that saw a memorable finish with four BMWs in the first six places.

That same year saw the appearance of two significant cars — Auto Avio Costruzioni 815s, Enzo Ferrari’s first ever cars. The presence of no fewer than 44 Ferraris representing the last seven years of the race confirmed the importance that this marque had for the Mille Miglia and, consequently, that the race had on the development of world motor racing.

Taking its usual snaking route from Brescia to Rome and back, the Miglia’s start saw its traditional gathering of personalities, both participating and spectating. Manuel Fangio was present at the 9.15pm start to see the cars off; Andrea de Adamich, ex-Alfa and F1 driver, piloted the opening pace car, the new Alfa SZ; British celebrities included Nick Mason on his second Miglia and Victor Gauntlett. Old hands back for another fling featured Gino Munaron (team driver for both Maserati and Ferrari at the end of the Fifties, beginning of the Sixties), Olivier Gendebien, Gigi Villoresi and Umberto Maglioli.

Once more, the 1927 OM 665S led the merry convoy off on its first brief leg to Vicenza under the torrents of an inauspicious thunder storm. Early Friday morning, the cars were once more on the road for the gruelling marathon transfer to Rome via a bee-line through San Marino. This little republic is always a nice place to stop to watch the cavalcade’s progress. A bar’s strategically placed tables and chairs mean you can sip at something bubbly whilst having a close up view of big Bentleys and Mercs taking a couple of chops at getting around the steep, cobbled hairpins.

Dipping briefly back to the coast, it was soon time for the cars to climb inland towards Gola del Furlo, later passing through Assisi on their journey to Rome. The arrival at Rome has more importance than just marking the turning point for the return leg to Brescia. They say that he who leads at Rome will not go on to triumph at Brescia — it’s almost a curse that has persisted year after year.

This must have been on the minds of Agostini and Rossellini as they set off in their Alfa 1750 GS early Saturday morning, leaders of the interim classification. The competitors, now numbering 261 of the original 310, were to confront some of the most classic scenery with crowds growing every step of the way. Up through the Radiocofani pass, the beauties of the fascinating towns of Siena and Florence are all reserved for the passing of the Mille Miglia.

But at the Futa pass Fate, that had been waiting in the wings, stepped out and dealt its customary blow. A car cutting across in front of Agostini’s 1750 GS forced them off the road and, with both driver and co-driver safe, the Alfa was consumed by an inexplicable fire.

So once again, the Mille Miglia has confirmed its own peculiar tradition: adventure and glory for all and success and anguish for the few. 218 cars returned to Viale Venezia, arriving in groups rather than the traditional, individual launch at the finish line and the triumph went to the Brescian team of Agnelli-Cavallari in a 1950 Cisitalia 202 SC ahead of Valseriati-Saporetti, in a Lotus 11, and Braccaioli-Colli in a rare Alfa Maserati Prete Sport.

Perhaps it was a less triumphant finish than in previous years but the emotion, spectacle and incredible privilege of seeing motoring history on the road where it belongs makes this the most enrapturing, unmissable event in the world. JM