Return of the pass master

Sixty years after taming the wild Mille Miglia, Sir Stirling Moss revisited its familiar roads in his faithful Mercedes 300SLR ‘722’. Motor Sport was there too, in honour of Moss and his late navigator – our own Denis Jenkinson
Writer Ed Foster

April 26, 1955. Hockenheim, Germany
Mille Miglia practice

Denis Jenkinson straps the spare wheels back into the boot of the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR and, as 25-year-old Stirling Moss finishes tightening the hub of the replacement, he places a foot on the right-rear wing and jumps into the passenger seat. It’s all done in one fluid motion, his face marked by absolute concentration as the Mille Miglia draws ever nearer.

The pair are testing the 300SLR for the first time on Hockenheim’s long straights, where they can get a feel for the car at Mille Miglia speeds. Moss didn’t like it at first sight and thought it looked too big and heavy for a 3-litre sports car. It’s different today, though, having driven it.

He’s nervous. Not because of the car or the roads – he’s done the event three times already – but because of the speeds he knows he needs to reach to be in with a chance of winning.

April 23, 2015. Passo della Futa, Italy
Celebration of the 60th anniversary of Moss and Jenks’ Mille Miglia win

There’s a moment of panic when I realise that I might not be able to fit. The 300SLR’s passenger footwell is short and shallow and the dashboard comes back so far that my six-foot-seven-inch frame is momentarily stuck half in, half out. Jenks never had such worries with his five foot two and a half inches.

After we’ve removed the back of the seat I can finally lower myself uncomfortably in – without putting a Jenks-like foot on the pristine bodywork – and look out over the inch-thick windscreen.

The eight-cylinder, 3-litre engine barks into life and, after an evening listening to Moss describe how refined the car was to drive, the noise comes as a shock. The twin exhausts are a matter of inches from my right leg and the engine’s vibrations run through the seat and into my spine. The driver, DTM racer Christian Vietoris, is given the nod by the chaps from Mercedes-Benz Classic and, with a blip of the throttle, we pull out onto the 1955 Mille Miglia route.

The sense of history is overwhelming and the echo from the twin exhausts loud enough to make you wonder how Jenks had any hearing left from that day on. Despite having never driven a classic car before, let alone a 300SLR, Vietoris is changing up through the gears with decisive movements and smiling as the revs climb.

The Futa Pass is a series of sharp blind bends one after the other, flanked by trees and occasional bits of Armco. Villages flash past and while there aren’t quite the estimated six million spectators there were on April 30-May 1 1955, the locals give us a smile and wave as we head on towards the Raticosa Pass, the gearbox whine accompanying the crisp exhaust note.

The road opens up for a short period and we’re up into third, fourth and approaching a blind crest. The heat is already seeping through the footwell and it’s hard not to ponder what it must have been like after 10 hours in that seat. Even covered in brake dust and oil, ears ringing and eyes stinging, Jenks would have known exactly what was behind the blind crest ahead. He would already have warned Moss whether it was flat or not, which way the road went the other side. All I can do is unknowingly brace myself against the car’s side.

Having spent some time in a relatively gently driven SLR on the Mille Miglia roads, I can safely say that what Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson achieved that day 60 years ago is, quite simply, astonishing. It’s actually hard to comprehend just how they did it.

“It’s the only race that frightened the shit out of me,” admits Moss, deadpan. “The thought of the Mille Miglia even 10 months before it started made me seriously worried. I realised the enormous danger and all the time was nervous about doing it. It wasn’t the road that made me frightened; it was the principle of what we had to do to be competitive… We had to be up at 180mph for reasonable lengths of time.

“Then again, the easiest way to concentrate for 10 hours was to realise that if you made a mistake you could die. That gets your attention, if you know what I mean. Once we got going, though, you’d see a car in front, forget the nerves and think, ‘Right, I’d better pass you!’”

Moss also accepted a ‘Dynavis’ pill from team-mate Fangio before the race, which was supposed to help with chronic thirst. It also helpfully kept him alert. So alert, in fact, that having won the Mille Miglia he drove to Munich for breakfast and then went to lunch in Stuttgart.

Moss and Jenks had set off at 7.22am on Sunday May 1 and, having taken notes on the 1000-mile course over six practice laps, they thought a podium was possible. Over the next 1000 miles from Brescia to Padova, Ravenna, Pescara, Rome, Florence, Bologna, Piacenza and back to Brescia, they passed car after car, Jenks reading their carefully prepared notes from his roller map, and slowly they pulled into the lead. By the time they crossed the line at 5.29pm that same day, they were more than 30 minutes ahead of second-placed Juan Manuel Fangio. They had averaged 97.9mph, which meant that they’d beaten the previous year’s winning time by nearly an hour and 20 minutes.

Ecstatic but tired, Jenks retired to his hotel room to write the report. “I knew,” he wrote of the section of road that I am on 60 years later, “that one of Moss’s greatest ambitions was to do the section Florence-Bologna in under one hour. This road crosses the heart of the Apennines, by way of the Futa Pass and the Raticosa Pass, and though it was only just over 60 miles in length it is like Prescott Hillclimb all the way.”

Jenks had spotted Moss check his watch as they left Florence and thought, “This is going to be fantastic.”

“I remember him rubbing his hands together,” says Moss today. “I thought, ‘Blimey, I’ve really got to try now’ and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been working my guts out just to get to where we were!” Despite having to slow because of damaged road surfaces they did the section in 61 minutes.

The Moss/Jenks relationship was an easy one that had started in 1949, when the former was racing a 500cc single seater. Jenks, racing sidecars, was on the same bill and the two struck up conversation. “He was such a character, as anyone who met him will know,” says Moss. “He always had amusing and interesting things to say and at weekends was the person with whom I found I had most in common.

“By the time we did the Mille Miglia together I knew him extremely well and realised he understood the importance of controlling himself, not getting nervous. He was an extraordinary man and his threshold for fear was way bigger than mine – he was quite happy to do 180mph and I had complete faith in him. OK, we made a couple of small mistakes [there was one sheep fewer and some damaged straw bales by the time they had finished], but really, when you consider the enormity of the problem…

“I didn’t even think about having anyone other than Jenks beside me, I’m not sure why. Mercedes was thrilled as well because he wrote well and to have him in a car that won would work very well for them.” Jenks was originally due to partner John Fitch in a 300 SL, but Moss easily persuaded him to switch cars. “I don’t think John was particularly happy,” he says. “Actually, I don’t think he was very happy at all! [Jenks claimed otherwise, see page 68]

“We had lots in common, Jenks and I, and he was the sort of person that, if you knew him, you either clicked and enjoyed his company or you thought ‘God, he’s a bit of a wanker’. It’s so sad that more people like him aren’t around today. He was just so weird. And he couldn’t understand why people thought he was weird! I can’t remember ever falling out with him; he was difficult, I was difficult and I think we accepted each other’s shortcomings and got on with it. I don’t even think the Mille Miglia changed our relationship very much because we’d been close before.”

It was an unlikely British duo racing a German car in a very Italian race. Until that day in ’55 only one non-Italian had triumphed (Rudolf Caracciola in 1931) and, despite the might of the 300SLR, they weren’t necessarily favourites. “It was very satisfying to beat the Italians on their home turf,” Moss says, smiling as an SLR starts up outside. Once the noise has subsided I comment that, despite their nationality, the Italians seemed to embrace the victory. “Yes,” he says, “by the end of the race I was Italian! If you win the Mille Miglia it means an enormous amount. It’s better than winning Le Mans.”

The Moss/Jenks partnership was clearly a vital part of the historic win, but so too was the car and the absolute trust that Moss could place in it. “I never thought it would break,” he admits, “and it was just beautifully balanced. After 130mph it was wonderful. Jenks’ sign when things got hairy was to tug on his beard and I remember the following year [when they were in a Maserati 350S Fantuzzi, Mercedes having withdrawn from racing] we’d got to Rieti [just north of Rome] when the brake pedal fell off! I pointed it out to Jenks and he looked down in the footwell and all he did was tug his beard!” What Moss doesn’t mention is that they were lucky to escape considering they went over a stone wall, up a bank the other side, through a barbed wire fence, back down the bank and finally came to rest with the horn sounding.

“The shock of going from Mercedes to Maserati was huge because the former was so efficient and the 300SLR so good. You needed a different driving style in the Mille Miglia because on a circuit you knew where the corners were, you knew where the apices were. You had to go into every corner faster than you thought you should and if it suddenly turned out to be slower, you could push it into more oversteer, scrub off some speed and then get hard on it again. That was better than using the [not very good] brakes. But you could get away with it because the SLR was so well balanced.”

Before the race had started Moss’s team-mate Hans Herrmann had discussed tactics with his co-driver Hermann Eger. They realised that Moss would sprint off and they also knew that the SLR’s drum brakes were the weakest part of the car. So they would start gently and conserve the brakes, which would be borderline come the race’s finish. However, according to the Mercedes-Benz archives it was Moss who had used less of them when they reached Rome in the lead.

“There was this damn saying that he who was first in Rome wouldn’t finish and I knew that. I’m superstitious and it was an extra burden as we set off from the control. There was then also a really difficult section. It wasn’t straight and it was very, very fast; lots of great corners where you were doing well over 120mph. If I went back there now I think I’d remember it. This section [between Florence and Bologna] was actually quite easy and slow.”

They aren’t the words that spring to mind as Vietoris opens the steering and lets the SLR’s revs rise once again as we come out of another hairpin. I look over and, his third cap lost to the wind, he’s beaming from ear to ear. “I’m really impressed with the car,” he says afterwards. “I didn’t expect that. The balance is amazingly good and you always feel safe.” I ask him whether he could imagine doing the Mille Miglia in it and he laughs before saying, “Absolutely not.”

Neither can I, despite doing several miles of the course in an SLR. However, I now have a better idea of what it was like and can state that it was, without doubt, one of the greatest feats of human endurance and skill in motor sport history.