The incredible journey

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Last month Motor Sport celebrated the 60th anniversary of the famous Moss/Jenks Mille Miglia victory. In the slipstream of those celebrations, two of our contributors followed a similar route
Writers Andrew Frankel & Ed Foster

We had been so full of hope. Ed Foster and I had flown to Italy to take part in the Mille Miglia retrospective, aboard a Mercedes-Benz 300SL owned by Mercedes in the UK and usually stationed at its Brooklands test track. Certainly we were there to have fun, but also to pay our tribute not only to Sir Stirling Moss on the 60th anniversary of his historic Mille Miglia victory aboard a 300SLR, but also to his diminutive, bearded, bespectacled navigator too, Motor Sport’s own Denis Jenkinson. I was to be in the Stirling role behind the wheel and, if you think that a sizeable slice of miscasting, spare a moment for my ‘Jenks’, the clean-shaven 6ft 7in Ed.

No one was or remains more painfully aware that what we were about to do over four days compares in no way whatsoever to what Stirling and Jenks did in little more than 10 hours, but it still seemed right that Motor Sport should be there, not just to report on the action such as it was, but to be in the thick of it. We remembered John Fitch, too, and his oft-overlooked drive to fifth overall and class victory in a near-standard SL, just like ours.

Day one

Andrew Frankel So much for grand ideas made in offices a thousand miles away. The truth of our situation was that very shortly after we’d snapped shut our gullwing doors and eased off that famous ramp in Brescia, at just after 4.00pm on the Thursday, it all went wrong. As Ed started calling out the navigation instructions, certain things became apparent: the SL’s engine had neither power nor interest in revving beyond 4000rpm, the brakes were far better at making the car turn left than slow down and in city traffic the water temperature was already heading towards three figures. The engine fan, designed to cope with conditions no more hostile than the queue for the valet parking on the Promenade des Anglais 60 years ago, was not up to this.

We stumbled across to Verona where the temperature hit 105deg C. Ed looked across and said, “You’re going to have to park it.” Fewer than 50 miles into an 1100-mile event we were stranded, bonnet up by the side of the road. In that moment I knew that if our fortunes did not change – and quite radically – we weren’t even going to finish the first day, let alone the whole course.

Ed Foster As I dug out mobile numbers for Mercedes-Benz Classic’s mechanics, I looked up to see a local, stuck in the aforementioned traffic, laughing hysterically at us from his white van. This was not how I imagined the Mille Miglia to be.

Twenty minutes later, though, sufficient heat had left the 3-litre 220bhp straight six and we were back on the road. The traffic had eased and we were soon facing our first time trial. These punctuated the whole event and, having absolutely no experience of them, Andrew and I lamely agreed that we would “give them our best shot”. With regards to preparation, Moss and Jenks we were not.

Mercedes-Benz did provide an iPad and app that would count down the time on each section – which ranged from 20 seconds to 15 minutes – and armed with this I clicked ‘go’ as we took the start. I gave Andrew our average speed and with a 60-year-old rev counter and speedo he set about sticking to it. I also downloaded a ‘speed checker’ app on my iPhone (all allowed under the regulations) and used that to double check our progress. Interestingly, when you went around a tight corner it decided that you must have come to a standstill. It was next to useless.

We pressed on through the timed sections and, with no means of measuring, finished with absolutely no idea whether we had done a good or a bad job. The sight of professional trip meters in all other cars didn’t fill us with a lot of confidence.

AF It was only after dark and the timed sections that the traffic subsided sufficiently to stretch the SL’s legs even a little. But even a gentle run brought dividends, the engine sounding smoother and pulling more strongly by the hour. Were it not for the desperate headlights we might even have made decent progress down the Adriatic coast to Rimini. But we’d already been on the road for eight hours, the brakes still needed management, I was exhausted and we’d barely completed half a day’s running.

Under the circumstances you’d think we’d just fall into our rooms. But we didn’t: we were on the Mille Miglia and drunk on the sights it provided, from preposterously fast Ferraris and Jaguars to tiny Fiats that would struggle to do 50mph. We retired to the bar to consider further what we’d seen. If greater diversity than this exists in a constantly moving road show, I don’t know where to find it. It’s a shame that we started in date order: however many cars you overtook, you could never get past enough to run with the pre-war boys in their Bugattis, Bentleys, Alfas and vast SSK Mercedes before reaching a check point and being returned to your rightful place.

EF “Being returned to your rightful place…” Yes, no matter how fast you went between checkpoints, the entire 450-car field was then reordered. Not the work of a moment. Add to the chaos the fact that old cars don’t like idling, and that it was all done on narrow streets with tempers fraying, and you’ll get an idea of what faced us every few hours. Initially we got as cross as everyone else with people pushing through, blocking us in and generally shouting (the camaraderie on many events was far from everyone’s minds at check points). However, we soon learnt that the best option was to arrive, park the car up and go and have a coffee while we waited for similarly numbered cars to start moving again.

Day two

AF On the second day we ran through San Marino and all the way down to Rome. But we were barely out of Rimini before it was clear that the car felt very different. The Mercedes team had done its best with the brakes overnight, but they remained a constant menace for the duration of the event. What had changed was the engine.

Now we had both space and visibility to stretch its legs properly, it came alive. A day after being reluctant to do 4000rpm, it would howl up to my self-imposed 5500rpm limit. It sounded completely different and a car entirely unable to stay with other SLs yesterday was now among the quicker ones and therefore one of the fastest cars in the event, giving best only to highly tuned prototypes, as had Fitch 60 years ago.

EF A weight had been lifted from the SL’s cockpit and, desperate not to be the one to ruin the new mood, I concentrated on the directions. Each day dawned with a new map book that included step-by-step instructions. Over the event’s 1700km, the longest period without a direction was roughly 15km – and usually you were looking at 1-5km gaps. If you missed a couple it was sometimes impossible to find your place again. “Have you used a road book like this before?” Andrew asked before we set off. Um… no.

AF Despite being in an SL we were continually overtaken by far slower cars. I’m not prepared to place my life and that of my passenger in the hands of someone I have never met, but if you are it’s amazing what progress can be made. All the way through Italy we saw competitors playing chicken with the oncoming traffic – simply presuming road users would choose to slam on their brakes or swerve out of the way rather than risk a head-on collision and its potentially calamitous consequences. Most of the driving was high spirited and, in any other country and on any other day, might be thought inconsiderate at best, but some was just plain dangerous. The police were everywhere, but there to facilitate rather than mitigate such behaviour.

By the time we reached Rome after perhaps 14 hours on the road, even the splendidly calm, reserved former F1 driver Karl Wendlinger, who was in the Gullwing immediately ahead of us, said he was having constantly to question his own driving to ensure he was not sucked into similar behaviour.

Day three

AF Everyone had said day three was the one, and they were right. Even though the organisers had decided not to route us over the classic Futa and Raticosa passes (which given some of the driving was a sad but probably sensible move), the roads were clear, open and fast, terrain for which the SL was born.

I cannot imagine how this car must have felt in 1955. With just three litres it was fast enough to do a genuine 135mph, its shape so slippery we could hold a steady 100mph cruise with the windows removed (the only way to prevent intolerable cockpit temperatures). There was so little wind disturbance we didn’t even need to raise voices to be heard.

By now the Gullwing’s transformation was complete, engine snarling under power, and fizzing and popping like a thoroughbred race motor on the overrun. It even handled well. Once or twice we needed to slow and turn at the same time and could immediately feel that lurch as the swing axles reduced the rear track and imposed positive camber on the tyres. But as long as you drove like it was an early 911 – slow in, fast out, foot down – it was a delight.

EF As the miles ticked by I could sense that Andrew was getting more comfortable with the car and, fuelled by an astonishing amount of Haribo sweets, he never once asked to have a break. As we were tired at the end of each day, I dread to think what the event must have been like in a pre-war car.

Having found out that we were 126th overall and 3rd of the Mercedes-Benz works cars, we also fretted more and more about the timed sections. We still didn’t really know how to cope with the 15-minute stages and on several occasions we arrived at the finish 20 seconds too late with Andrew hard on the accelerator. Maths was never my strong point and that was increasingly apparent on every timed section.

Day four

AF The third day was incredibly long, with another 14-15 hours on the road to Parma. If we could have stopped there it would have been perfect. But there was still the last leg back to Brescia via, curiously enough, Monza. And while the car was better than ever, Ed and I were feeling the strain. After more than 40 hours in the passenger seat, Ed’s nerves started to fray (about 39 hours after mine would have done in the same circumstances). He asked me to slow, kind enough to say it wasn’t me but that his brain had convinced him that every child in the crowds of thousands that lined the roads was about to leap out in front of the Mercedes.

And so slowly we went, watching as other competitors streamed past, a gaily coloured, screaming and shrieking multi-million pound caravan of ageing exotica. But we couldn’t even go slowly. Ed and I were amazingly still in the top 140 in the regularity tests and were still third among the Mercedes works team, behind an SSK benefiting from handicapping rules that ensure a pre-war car always wins the event, and another SL equipped with a black box that gave its average speed from stage to stage. And at this rate we were going to be late for the final check. So we asked one last favour of the Gullwing and it rose to the challenge.

In the end we were five minutes late onto the ramp, but so was everyone else. There to greet us? Sir Stirling Moss. I thought he’d been there to flag home all the finishers but later he told me he had not. “We were waiting for you, for Motor Sport, to finish.”

EF It was just before the finish that I made my biggest navigational mistake, when I decided to follow other cars rather than stick to the road book… It only made the conclusion that bit sweeter. Whatever anyone tells you, the modern Mille Miglia, while nothing like the original, is still very much a challenge. Sadly, our final finishing position of 136th was 135 places behind what Moss and Jenks managed…

AF We finished exhausted, relieved, happy not to be scared any more, but above all elated to have got around in one piece, and at least not made fools of ourselves in our attempt to pay our respects to Moss, Jenks and all they achieved in that incredible race 60 years ago.

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