Following in the wheel tracks of Franco Cortese, Motor Sport tackled the 2006 Mille Miglia in a C-type
Words: Tim Watson. Photography: Tom Horsfall
It’s a warm spring evening in Northern Italy. Through the tiny bug-splattered Perspex windscreen of the Jaguar C-type I can just see the road ahead as it unfurls in an arrow-straight line flanked by tall poplars.
We’re travelling at more than 100mph in a 53-year-old racing car heading toward Modena, the very heartland of Ferrari and Maserati, in the greatest roller-coaster ride of my life — the 2006 Mille Miglia.
After two days strapped into the minuscule cockpit of the Jaguar I have no feeling in my lower body. My right foot is bent at right angles as I stab the throttle, while my left foot hovers nervously over the clutch as I try and make every shift as smooth as possible.
We’ve covered nearly 800 miles and I’ve almost mastered it, which is good as I simply don’t have the energy to stand on the brake pedal any more. I’m just hanging onto the wood-rim wheel whilst constantly checking the tiny vibrating rear view mirror for the lights of a Ferrari 500 Mondial driven by two very excited Italians. They keep catching me, then disappearing again as the traffic behind me slows for the villages and towns we pass through. This has become personal. I have to stay ahead of them, and I have to reach Modena.
I’m also deaf in my left car as for the past 48 hours the C-type’s straight-through exhaust has barked and snarled around the sinuous road course through the Italian countryside, causing old ladies to stare open-mouthed, priests to cross themselves and children to run to the side of the road laughing, waving and pointing as the Jaguar bellows into town with a terrified Englishman at the wheel.
I’m two-thirds of the way around the 1000-mile course and have one objective in mind. I have to reach Modena. If I can, I can make it to the finish in Brescia where this madness started. Having worked for Ferrari I know the roads and the town well, and it will give me a real advantage in the timing sheets if we can make up much of the time I have lost since the start.
The Jaguar’s speedo tells me I’m now travelling at 120mph — I don’t believe it. It feels more like 210mph as my head is being forced backwards and my eyes hurt with the concentration of scanning the road ahead for the Italian traffic that likes to join in the race. And a race it is — what started out in 1977 as a time-trial tribute to the great Mille Miglia which ran around Italy from 1927 to 1957 has come full circle. This has become a full-on competitive event with us travelling at ridiculous speeds and doing manoeuvres I’ve only ever dreamed about or tried in video games.
It’s also a special Mille Miglia this year as it’s the 24th running of the retrospective event — the same number as the original Mille Miglia events, stopped in 1957 after Alfonso de Portago’s Ferrari veered off the road killing himself, his co-driver Ed Nelson and nine spectators. He was just 20 miles from the finish. So it’s a little unnerving that in two hours I’ll be travelling on the same stretch of road. Not quite at the same 170mph speed, but with a fast group of cars around me and spectators lining the road.
This Mille Miglia is, as always, by invitation only, and just 373 lucky entrants get to start. Some 30 nations are represented, the greatest percentage being Italian, followed by German. But the entry list is made up of more than 50 marques of some of the world’s rarest and most desirable racing cars. Their value is mind-boggling.
Maybe I’m over-tired but at times I’m sure I can feel a certain spirit of the ‘old’ race — particularly as I charge through the night relying on two thin beams of light from the C-type’s headlights to show me the way. I find myself imagining I’m Tazio Nuvolari — cap on back to front, face blackened with road dirt, leading the pack…
Then a dose of reality as I fumble to downshift for a very tight hairpin.
I’m ignoring the struggles of my valiant American co-driver as he battles with the inexplicable road book that shows time trials, route distances and little else. We decided at the outset to ignore the trials as we simply did not understand them, but would focus on making sure we met every control point at the correct time to collect that so important stamp in our time sheet. So far we have managed it by just a few minutes at every stage.
It’s been a whirlwind tour through the centres of Italy’s greatest historic towns. Tiny, twisty streets that open into expansive piazzas with shops carrying on everyday business. Ferrara, San Marino, Urbino, Roma and Pienza pass by in a flash of faces, cheering and clapping to a backdrop of historic architecture. The cobbled streets don’t improve the C-type’s handling, and with a full fuel load of 45 gallons sitting behind us it squirms and slides through the packed streets, the exhaust note ricocheting off the buildings and blending with the ringing church bells.
But all I know at this point is that I have to get car number 343 to Modena. Then along the fastest, dead straight, sections of the route to Cremona and home to Brescia. My co-driver looks across at me and shouts through the Jaguar’s exhaust note: “I told you — every mile is a memory…”
He’s right. I have seen things and done things in two days that I never imagined. We have seen accidents involving competitors, visited some of Italy’s greatest historic towns and received a welcome fit for kings at every stop. In Rome I was astounded to find the Jaguar outside the doors of the Vatican — albeit for only a few seconds. If the Pope had been standing there to greet us I wouldn’t have been surprised.
All along the route we’ve been given sweets, strawberries and bottles of water — and been presented for some inexplicable reason with a beautifully wrapped shower head. We’ve shaken hands with town mayors and civic dignitaries and been warmly congratulated by total strangers.
But for me the highlight has been the enthusiasm of the spectators — particularly the children who stand at the side of the road for hours to wave and encourage us on our way.
As we cover the remaining miles my mind flashes back to the start at Brescia where an old man was taking his grandson by the hand to the front of each car. I watched as the small boy touched the badge of each car and mouthed the name. Like me, he’ll remember this for the rest of his life.
I’m now exhausted, elated and terrified. We feel like heroes, and this constant mixture of emotions has been the driving force pushing us on to the finish. This is not a race, this is a test of human endurance. Other competitors are almost incidental — unless they get in your way or pass you at an even crazier speed than you are doing.
This is my first ever Mille Miglia, but Jaguar is no stranger to the event. Stirling Moss began it all when he drove an XK120 in 1951 and Ron Flockhart in an Ecurie Ecosse D-type was the last in the ill-fated 1957 race. This time there are three entries from the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust — a small green island in a sea of red Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos. I’m lucky enough to have the 1953 C-type that was specially built for Franco Cortese, who drove it in 1954’s event. My colleagues are in the ex-Duncan Hamilton D-type and the Alpine Rally-winning XK120, NUB120.
But I’d not covered myself in glory to start with: I broke the clutch on the run into Brescia for the start. My support crew Richard Mason and John Sawyer had shaken their heads in disbelief.
They’d got the idiot in the group to look after. They handed me a ‘phone and told me to use my Italian to find a replacement. I spoke to eight different parts shops in the Brescia area and on the final call found a replacement.
Imagine that. Just seven miles away I’d found the only C-type clutch in Italy. Two hours later John and Richard had the gearbox out, the clutch replaced and we were ready to go.
On our first run into the night my colleague was at the wheel. We were making great strides as we settled into the frenzied pace of the opening leg to Ferrara when suddenly he announced that his right leg had seized up due to the Jaguar’s tiny cockpit.
As we swerved to a stop in a lay-by, our headlights revealed a very tall ‘lady of the night’ with — how shall I put this? — all her goods on display. I’m not sure who was more dumbfounded: us or her, as my colleague frantically unbuckled his belts and fell out of the car. She must have thought this was one customer in one hell of a hurry!
And then in the distance I see the familiar town sign for Modena. We’re nearly home. Through the streets and into the Piazza San Francesco I know so well. A welcome from the mayor, a wave to the crowd and we charge out of the town, somehow finding our second wind. We’re on the home stretch.
Ahead lie the Roman roads to Cremona where we can drive at over 100mph following the blue flashing lights of the Italian police motorcycle outriders. Through the small villages late into the night there are still people waiting for us. I look over at my co-driver and he’s smiling. We’re going to do it. We’re going to finish.
The Jaguar has not missed a beat, although at times I feel it has led me around the Mille Miglia rather than me driving it. The final two hours pass in another blur of faces, applause and flashing camera lights. The heat of the cockpit no longer worries me. The exhaustion has gone and I’m riding on a wave of pure adrenalin.
And then, suddenly, it’s all over. We arrive at the finish in Brescia to a rapturous welcome from the waiting crowds and our fellow competitors. I shake hands with my co-driver and we grin stupidly at each other.
I stand up and get out of the car and as soon as I put my feet down I collapse in the road. I lie on the cold tarmac road staring at the night sky of Brescia. We’ve done it. We have just completed the greatest road race in the world — the Mille Miglia.