A nostalgic look at the Mille Miglia circuit
Twenty years ago, on May 1st, 1955, Stirling Moss became the only British driver ever to win the Mille Miglia open-road race round Italy. This tremendous demonstration of race driving was seen at close quarters by only one person, Motor Sport‘s Continental Correspondent Denis Jenkinson, who sat alongside Moss in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR during that epic drive, helping him to concentrate totally on controlling the car by forewarning him of the approaching hazards. The story written by D.S.J. about this amazing ride with a top-class racing driver has become a classic piece of motoring documentation, the fascination it holds for enthusiasts being heightened by the fact that the Mille Miglia no longer takes place, indeed there is no such open-road race left in Europe. Changing attitudes of drivers and organisers over the question of safety as well as an increasing reluctance on the part of Governments to allow the individual the choice to put himself at danger have markedly changed the face of motor racing over the past generation and the Mille Miglia in consequence, succumbed to the pressures of “public opinion” 18 years ago. Nevertheless, memories of the race still hold a magnetism and interest for enthusiasts who were barely of school age in 1955 and we recently allowed ourselves a generous helping of nostalgia in re-tracing the route of this 1000-mile motor racing adventure.
The Daimler-Benz A.G. built the winning car for the Mille Miglia on two occasions, the first being in 1931 when Caracciola drove a Mercedes SSKL, to victory in 16 hr. 10 min. 10 sec. and the second being in 1955 with the eight-cylinder fuel-injected, desmo-dromic valve-gear, 3-litre 300SLR sports racing machine in which Moss and Jenkinson completed the course in 10 hr. 07 min. 48 sec., an average speed of almost 98 m.p.h. On both occasions a non-Italian driver won the event, the only two Mille Miglias in its history from 1927-1957 in which this ever happened, and with Moss’ time over the route standing as an all-time record, it only seemed appropriate that we should re-trace the route in a modern product of the Stuttgart factory. With the assistance of Erik Johnson, P.R. of Mercedes-Benz (GB), and the press department at the factory, a 450SE saloon was made available for us and on a Tuesday morning in the Spring we flew to Stuttgart in company with Stirling Moss for a preliminary visit to the factory test circuit. Before we actually set off for Brescia, the starting point of the Mille Miglia, it was intended that we should be taken for a few laps round the Mercedes test track in one of the 1955 300SLRs and one of the sleek, purposeful silver German cars was ready waiting for that very purpose on our arrival. Looking as impressive as it did twenty long years ago, this 300SLR carried number 658 in distinctive red letters along its side, this being Fangio’s number in the 1955 Mille Miglia, indicating that it started the event at 6.58 a.m.; Moss’ starting time was 7.22 a.m., his car consequently running with that number, and it was noticed that the “exhibition” 300SLR was a development car, having as it did outboard front brakes instead of the original inboard arrangement.
The whole approach to motor racing adopted by the Mercedes-Benz engineers was that of a technical exercise and the essentially practical design of the 300SLR makes this abundantly clear, it being a typically German, highly efficient tool for the job in hand. Attractive in a purely functional sort of way, we all felt that the 300SLR reflected the German personality inasmuch as it was built to win long-distance sports car races efficiently and with the minimum of difficulties. The fact that the 300SLR is also a good-looking car seems to be incidental to its function. In the same way as one gets the impression that the 450S Maserati was built for its sheer beauty, Maserati then saying “this looks good, we’ll race it in the Mille Miglia”. Every detail learnt from the pre-War Mercedes motor racing programme had been carefully logged and incorporated in the design of their post-war cars if it was felt to be useful or relevant. For example, the 300SLR has three small holes on its scuttle, immediately in front of the windscreen, and these were designed to take a temporary “slot in” screen should the main screen be broken by a stone. Hermann Lang was nearly suffocated in the face of a 170 m.p.h. breeze at Donington Park before the War and this refinement was developed for successive generations of Mercedes racing cars including the 300SLR as a result. Of course, even the best road racing car is ineffective in a 1000-mile race if its crew fail to familiarise themselves with tyre changing and plug changing procedures and other mechanical details of the car, so Moss and Jenkinson practised hard at these tasks in addition to lapping the Mille Miglia route many times before the event itself. The whole effort was clearly a monumental task of organisation and co-ordination, but the painstaking Mercedes-Benz approach paid dividends and the research and development department they maintain to this day would make contemporary racing car constructors drool with envy. While they no longer involve themselves with motor racing, they still remain very much abreast of the latest technical developments, and a few quick laps in the passenger seat of a rotary-engined C111 coupe proved just as memorable as the spine-jarring ride of the 300SLR. The 4-rotor Wankel engined prototype accelerated from rest to 100 k.p.h. in 4.8 sec, and easily attained 150 m.p.h. and its well-damped ride and quiet interior was a striking contrast to the harsh practicality of the 1955 sports racing car. Amongst the Mercedes-Benz personnel present at the test track was former racing driver and competitions manager Karl Kling, a member of the four-car Mercedes team in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and it was good to hear from him that the gargantuan Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes team manager from the late 1920s who had presided over the racing programme in 1954 and 1955, is still alive and well at the splendid age of 84 years.
Whilst we could happily have spent a day just “playing” with the those fascinating Mercedes-Benz “museum pieces”, our schedules obliged us to exchange nostalgia for reality and we were soon speeding effortlessly down the autobahn towards Munich in the air-conditioned luxury of the 450SE saloon, this beautifully contrived and superbly finished executive express content to cruise for hours at a stretch at 120 m.p.h. and returning something around 15 m.p.g. whilst doing so. A brief pause for the night at Innsbruck and we were back on the autobahn heading up into the Austrian Alps, across the impressive Europabruck – the highest single-span bridge in Europe – and on towards the snow still lying in the Brenner Pass. Many of Europe’s long-distance motorways are tedious grinds to the Continental traveller, but this route up over the Brenner and down into Northern Italy provides spectacular scenery and splendour which is well worth seeing. Round the tight, sweeping curves, the 450SE seemed stable and confident, the spirited rasp of a Swiss-registered Dino 308 coupe on the inside of a tight curve heralding the only car to pass us between Innsbruck and Trento, the first major town on the Italian side of the border.
Up at the border we were obliged to deviate from the autoroute for a few miles to by-pass an avalanche, but we were soon back on the dual carriageway and up to our 120 m.p.h. cruising gait and rushing down towards Trento, Verona and the Spring sunshine. Passing Lake Garda we recalled how Stirling Moss had driven his 1000 c.c. Cooper V-twin on the road circuit there back in the early 1950s, confounding all the Italians by finishing third behind two Ferraris, and then we turned right at Verona to speed through the dull and uninspired North Italian countryside to the ancient town of Brescia, starting point of our whole exercise.
It took some time to thread a path through Brescia to the famous Piazza della Vittoria, the hordes of Italians who rode Vespas and bicycles back in 1955 having replaced them with Autobianchis and tiny Fiats, and we found that one-way systems make the city a nightmare for the motoring stranger. Finally we swung into the picturesque square where scrutineering for the Mille Miglia took place during the week prior to the race, where twenty years ago the whole atmosphere progressively built up throughout the week, culminating with the start of the race from the nearby Via Rebuffone. D.S.J. recalled that many teams drove their cars through the streets to scrutineering, most of the cheering being reserved for the Ferrari and Maserati entries, but Mercedes Benz played safe and arrived with the 300SLRs on two enormous trailers. They even got their mechanics to push the cars up onto the starting ramp, reasoning that after such exhaustive preparations, they were not about to over-strain the single plate clutches which had already proved to be something of a weak point on the 300SLR.
Back in 1955 only two of the Mercedes-Benz team took along co-drivers in the Mille Miglia, D.S.J. partnering Moss and Hermann Egar sitting alongside Hans Herrmann. Fangio drove alone as did Kling, the latter extremely confident that he would win the race after driving a 300SL Gull-Wing coupe to second place behind Bracco’s Ferrari three years earlier. From the tree-lined Via Rebuffone we followed the route out through the Brescia suburbs, our 450SE threading a path through the maze of heavy lorries which now seem to clog even the smallest by-way in this part of Italy, a section down which the faster cars quickly built up to near-maximum speed. Except for traffic islands and road signs, the route has not changed much over twenty years and it was exciting to imagine the silver 300SLR screaming up towards 170 m.p.h. in fifth gear as D.S.J. followed his carefully plotted and practised route map-roller system with which he warned Moss of any hidden hazard. There was no point in using the carefully devised system of hand signals on open corners, for the driver could make up his own mind what to do in those circumstances without any outside advice. D.S.J. agreed that the Mercedes certainly had impressive acceleration, but that Castellotti’s 4.4-litre 6-cylinder Ferrari was even faster and the Maserati 450S which he shared with Moss in 1957 built up to 170 m.p.h. in the specially contrived “overdrive” fifth gear so quickly that they had held high hopes in 1957 of improving on their Mercedes record. Unfortunately, after just 12 kilometres we passed a Shell station on a medium speed left-hand curve, the scene of the big Maserati’s ignominious retirement from the last Mille Miglia with a broken brake pedal. Then it was on out towards Lonato, under the huge railway bridge into Desanzano and onto the long straights past the bottom of Lake Garda with the traffic thinning out in 1975 just like the watching crowds did 20 years earlier. The 450SE was cruising fairly energetically at a modest 130 k.p.h. on sections that the 300SLR topped 275 k.p.h. before we slowed to wind through the narrow streets of Peschiera, past the tree into which Farina crashed his 4.9-litre Ferrari in 1954 and then out again through highways of long trees down to Verona and Vicenza.
By this time the magnitude of the Moss/Jenkinson achievement allied to the demands of the Mille Miglia was becoming clear. It took us fractionally over an hour in traffic to arrive at Verona but the winning Mercedes averaged about 120 m.p.h. for this opening stretch, covering the 68 kilometres in about 20 minutes, a feat which even with the roads all closed gave us a fresh sense of proportion about high-speed motoring. Suddenly we realised that this was only a tiny fraction of the 1000-mile route, and the first official control on the route didn’t come up until Ravenna, some 303 kilometres from Brescia! With the route winding through little country towns and villages, every garage must have an interesting story to tell about the Mille Miglia and one of the most amusing anecdotes concerns the two small boys who “borrowed” their mother’s Fiat Topolino and “joined in” on the route between Brescia and Verona during the 1955 event. These ambitious youngsters got as far as Padova before they ran out of petrol and were found out by race officials. They might well have been in a lot of trouble with their mother, but the local motor club took the incident in good part and D.S.J. recalls that the two nervous youngsters, dressed in their Sunday best, were invited to a victory banquet at Mantova after the race and sat next to Fangio. Where are these two young men now? They will be over thirty years old by now, probably respectable middle class family men.
Down towards Padova we sped along some long straights on which Moss found Castellotti’s 4.4-litre Ferrari closing up in his mirror and, going through the town the Ferrari went by on the inside of a right-hand corner as Moss made one of his rare mistakes and brushed the straw bales on the outside of the corner. The Ferrari then pulled away down the straights but the Mercedes caught up on the fast swerves, sections on which we cruised the 450SE up at 160 k.p.h. despite having to weave our way through the maze of Fiat 131 Mirafioris and Citroen CX2000s which indicate that Italy’s economic problems do not seem to be apparent at first sight. Still the countryside remains flat and dull as the route winds down through Rovigo and Ferrara to Ravenna, the first control on the route where competitors had their route-card stamped, 303 kilometres from the starting point in Brescia.
Pressing on in the 450SE, we reached Ravenna in four hours’ fairly enthusiastic motoring. The Moss Mercedes arrived at the control 1 hr. 36 min. 20 sec. after rolling off the starting ramp in the Via Rebuffone and Castellotti, driving alone, did 1 hr. 34 min. 29 sec. on this section! By this time the Mille Miglia competitors had already travelled the distance of a 1975 World Championship Grand Prix and the 1955 winners still had almost nine hours’ near flat-out driving to complete before reaching the chequered flag. Looking at a map it seems logical that the Mille Miglia route should follow a route out to the coast from Ravenna, but for some unaccountable reason it deviated inland to Forli, now passing beneath the new autostrada, and then turned left to return to the Adriatic coast at Rimini. On several occasions round the route we were conscious of unexpected detours from what appeared a logical path, so it can only be assumed that pressures by various local motor clubs to have the great road race pass through their town were taken into account when preparing the itinerary.
By this stage on the route we were trying to work out just how quickly the 1957 Maserati 450S would have arrived at Ravenna, this prompting us to speculate over who would be running in the Mille Miglia if it had still been taking place in 1975. Upwards of 600 competitors used to take part during the 1950s, the slowest cars such as Citroen 2CVs and even Isetta “Bubble” cars leaving Brescia on Saturday evening from 9 o’clock, one car leaving every minute until the big Mercedes, Ferraris and Maseratis departed early on Sunday morning. We found ourselves compiling a 1975 starting order with Fiat 127s, X19s, Lancia HFs, VW Polos, Alfasud Tls and Alfettas leading the field away at 9 o’clock on Saturday evening, followed in due course during the night by Porsche 911s, Lancia Stratos, Chevron B31s, Ferrari Daytonas, Dino 308s, Berlinetta Boxers and de Tomaso Panteras before leading up to a trio of Matra-Simca 660s, Ferrari 312Ps and Gulf-Cosworths in the morning and rounding off with a couple of Gulf Porsche 917s right at the back. The prospect of a Porsche 917, possibly geared for a top speed of 230 m.p.h. as it streaked down the Adriatic coast towards Pescara, made us swallow hard for a moment as we realised that such a car would probably complete the 1955 route in something around 8 hr. 30 min., although we would be interested to see how many journalists would be prepared to sit alongside the drivers. D.S.J. felt that he would like to go in a Porsche 917 with Brian Redman who would take notice of the instructions given to him and remain philosophical and smiling when the car broke down miles from anywhere in the Abruzzi mountains. I felt inclined towards a Ferrari 312P driven by Peterson because I fancy an open car, while M.J.T. preferred the prospect of Lauda doing the driving of his Ferrari because it would be flat-out all the way with both of them but Lauda might have a genuine chance of winning!
Our dreaming was abruptly interrupted in the main square of Forli where we spied a neat little Fiat Balilla “Coppa D’Oro” sports car in the showroom of a Fiat garage, the same garage that retrieved the wreckage of a 300SL Gull-Wing coupe which Moss bounced off an errant army lorry during practice for the event in 1955. D.S.J. recalled the garage being managed by Sig. Mambelli at the time and a quick look into the workshop produced a couple of employees who almost immediately recognised his bearded face. Gushing with such enthusiasm for the Mille Miglia that it left us feeling that the race was just about to come through the town that very evening, they both recalled the silver Mercedes sliding through Forli’s main square twenty years ago although, sadly, Sig. Mambelli is no longer there having died in 1963. Incidentally our conversation revealed that Mambelli himself was a keen Mille Miglia competitor, having been riding mechanic on Pintacuda’s winning Alfa Romeo in 1937 and later sat with Farina in the 1940 race round the reduced Brescia-Cremona-Mantova circuit finishing second behind the von Hanstein/Baumer BMW 328.
From Forli we slotted the 450SE into formation behind a single-file queue of holidaymakers (Italians go to the seaside early, it seems) down to Rimini, where the route joined the Adriatic coast for the picturesque run down to Pescara, although the scenic value of the drive could not have been of much consequence for Moss and his co-driver in 1955. The Adriatic coast section features spells of flat-out motoring between lines of high trees and many of the town names are familiar to racing enthusiasts, Cesanatico, Rimini, Seningalia, Pescara and (going further down) Bari, having all held road races at some time in the past. Just beyond Rimini we deviated off our route to have a look at the Autodromo Santa Monica, at Misano, this clinical circuit providing racing enthusiasts with their substitute for the many road circuits now that motor racing on public roads is deemed an anti-social pastime. In fact, the whole format of Italian racing has changed over the past twenty years with the Mille Miglia ending, the Targa Florio being reduced to the status of a national level club race, the Mugello road circuit being abandoned and a new autodromo rising up near Florence to replace it as well as the demise of the Giro del Sicilia and several other pure-road events. Reflecting that Misano was probably better than no racing at all, we continued on our way with the very efficient Mercedes-Benz air-conditioning making the 450SE most restful to drive in the warm Spring sunshine which shone for most of our trip. The Seningalia circuit was the subject of our next detour, this town holding sports car races in the 1950s on the weekend prior to the Pescara Grand Prix race, and then it was on down towards the hilly seaside town of Ancona, keeping pace with the route on D.S.J.’s map-roller, by-passing Loreto and rushing uphill under the “blind” arch at which Moss had to be reminded of a sharp left-hand turn immediately afterwards, one of the many occasions on which advanced warning enabled the Mercedes driver to save vital seconds as well as allowing him to concentrate purely on driving the car. A second here and there is of little consequence in today’s Formula “sprint races” but, over 1000 miles of public road, it could mean the difference of winning by a few minutes or finishing second, particularly when Fangio was a member of the same team.
At the 401 kilometre stone we found the famous “jump” at which the Moss/Jenkinson 300SLR had leapt into the air at over 170 m.p.h., this being in a 9-kilometre straight along which Moss just kept the Mercedes revving constantly at around 7500 r.p.m. in top gear, and then we were running into Pescara along the final straight which was also used on the 15-mile Grand Prix circuit round this town. Having checked into our hotel, we explored the GP circuit very conscious that two days’ motoring had brought us barely half-way round a circuit which the 1955 winning car had lapped in fractionally over ten hours!
From Pescara the format of the route changes significantly, this being the section on which D.S.J.’s “navigating” really paid off in 1955 as the Mercedes headed out over the Abruzzi mountains. After a bit of a dice with a locally driven BMW 3.0Si, we were soon winding our 450SE up into the mountains beyond Popoli, this being real “reflex stuff” where Moss fully extended himself and the 300SLR to its maximum in his effort to wrest the lead from Taruffi’s 3.8-litre Ferrari which was leading the field at Pescara. This section had started literally with a bang, Moss misjudging a corner in front of the Pescara railway station and bashing the front of the car through some straw bales, so the first few miles were a bit worrying as D.S.J. scanned the temperature gauge just in case the radiator had been damaged in the impact. It had not, so all was well. Beyond Popoli the road really starts to twist and turn into the mountains with a succession of hairpin bends, it being almost impossible to drive fast in the 450SE owing to the chance of head-on collisions on blind turns. This problem presented itself to Moss and Jenkinson during practice in 1955, so they devised a technique whereby D.S.J. hung over the back of the seat watching the road above the hairpins yelling “yes, yes” if the road was clear so that Moss could try at “nine-tenths” with the 300SL and really find out what the surface was like at near-racing speeds.
Having completed the climb, it was almost unnatural to find ourselves running onto a rather desolate plateau along which we could build up to an easy 200 k.p.h. in the 450SE, and then we found quite a lot of road alterations on the descent to Antrodoco with many of the tighter swerves having been straightened out, these modifications so completely changing the nature of the road in some places that it was extremely difficult to follow the route on D.S.J.’s map-roller. Nearing Antrodoco we stopped at the point where Moss’ racing career almost came to a premature end in the 1956 Mille Miglia when his 3½-litre Maserati (again shared with Jenkinson) got out of control in pouring rain and skidded over a cliff after smashing down a concrete barrier. A sapling just a few feet below road level caught the Maserati and prevented it from falling another 300 feet into a deep gorge, in D.S.J.’s words this being “one of those lucky breaks which keep some people alive”. In fact a newly built bridge almost totally obliterates the scene of their escape and the cobbled hairpin into Antrodoco which leads over a level crossing has been replaced by a gently curved section of elevated road. There is also a by-pass round Cittaducale, but we followed the original route up through the town before dropping down through Rieti and down into the northern tip of Rome where the half-way control point was situated. The roads have hardly altered and it was possible to follow the exact path of the 300SLR along the tree-lined road which contained the pits and this was the point at which Moss and Jenkinson were told that they were leading the 1955 Mille Miglia. It may seem unbelievable to younger readers, but apart from two tanks of petrol, the 300SLR received only one set of fresh rear tyres at Rome and that was all the maintenance carried out in 1000 miles of racing. The bonnet was never lifted, no oil was added and Moss just had time to relieve himself before leaping back into the driving seat and heading out of Rome for another 450 miles of non-stop hard motoring back towards Brescia. Out onto the Via Cassia to Vitterbo and past the Vallelunga Autodromo we came upon the little town of Monterosi, the scene of another of Moss’ practice shunts for the 1955 Mile Miglia. This time it was a sheep which made rather violent contact with the 300SLR, the animal being killed and the Mercedes sustaining severe rear axle damage when it spun off the road. Just as they were clearing up the mess, along came Karl Kling, practising the route in a 220A saloon, and after Moss had explained the problem, Kling agreed to telephone Neubauer in Brescia and recount the tale. Unfortunately it appears that Kling translated “sheep” as “jeep” and there followed a hilarious conversation as Neubauer attempted to find out the damage and insurance position connected with this imaginary “jeep”!
On beyond Monterosi we sped, passing a huge scrapyard containing hundreds of cars, most of which were not even built in 1955, and then on through Vitterbo and up through Montefiasconi towards the Radicofani pass. Even with the 450SE floating gently over the bumps and smoothing out the most violent undulations, this section proved to be real “point and squirt” stuff to maintain anything approaching a respectable average speed. So it was quite easy to understand why Hermann and Kling thrashed the fully-tanked prototype 300SLR over the bumps between Rome and Siena during pre-race testing, trying everything they knew in an effort to break the car’s chassis, as this was felt to be the one section of the route that the Mercedes would break on if it was to break at all. M.J.T. demonstrated the excellence of the 450SE’s handling and traction by “playing bears” on a typically twisty and tortuous section leading up to the top of the Radicofani mountain pass, but the big Mercedes saloon refused to be ruffled and the splendid automatic gearbox “hold” mechanism enabled it to be powered through the tight hairpins with deceptive ease. Flashing back to 1955 we could suddenly appreciate the enormous demands that had been made on Moss’ driving skill as well as his stamina, for by this stage in the Mille Miglia he had been driving pretty well non-stop for seven hours and had shown no signs of flagging. However, on the descent from the Radicofani, D.S.J. admits that the “Golden Boy” did have one slight lapse, spinning the 300SLR on a tight left-hand corner after a front brake grabbed on suddenly. But as luck would have it their apparently inevitable route into the ditch on the outside of the corner was saved by a conveniently placed track leading into a field and they were able to continue with the minimum of delay. Jenkinson feels that Moss only made three minor mistakes throughout the entire Mile Miglia route during the 1955 event, a testament not only to his driving ability but also to the efficiency and reliability of his navigator’s essential hand signals.
About 24 kilometres before the town of San Quirico d’Orcia we caught our first sign of enthusiastic support for the Mile Miglia. The parapet of a bridge still carried the faded, but nonetheless unmistakable, legend “Viva La Lancia, Lancia, Lancia” this graffiti having featured on D.S.J.’s route notes for the 1955 event and obviously the work of some Alberto Ascari fans from the previous year. In 1954 Ascari drove a Lancia D50 to victory in his last Mille Miglia and going into San Quirico itself we noticed more signs proclaiming allegiance to the marque Osca. Through the narrow streets of this village, Moss would have eased off to around 120 m.p.h. and it was just after we had stopped to photograph the 450SE between the high walls that we had one of the most amusing encounters of our trip. A happy-looking lady approached the open passenger window and engaged D.S.J. in a torrent of enthusiastic conversation about the local church and how the British Ambassador once came to their town and was photographed in front of it. In the middle of this seemingly endless tale he managed to interrupt long enough to ask her if, by any chance, she remembered the great motor race coming through the town. Her face clouded over for a moment. “Oh yes” she said in a completely disinterested tone that suggested only last week the roar of racing cars had disturbed her shopping “It went up here, this is the main street. Where else could it go? Now… I must tell you about the time the Pope came to our village… “
Friday’s motoring finished at the ancient town of Siena, another control on the Mille Miglia route, and it was a case of rising early the next morning to get the section over the mountains to Firenze completed and allow plenty of time to tackle the Rita and Ratticosa Pass section to Bologna. Firenze itself is largely unchanged, but again we found that one-way systems obliged us to deviate from the old route. Going down into the city is a badly surfaced hill and, with Moss really pressing on hard by this stage in the 1955 Mille Miglia, we agreed with D.S.J. that Moss must have been very brave to build the 300SLR up to peak revs in fourth gear and then slam it through to fifth as he rushed down that hill into the city. The route threads a rather confusing path through the centre of Firenze before climbing up into the mountains and we all smiled at the story of the little boy of 13 who cycled all the way from his home in Lucca to stand behind the straw bales in the main square of Firenze and wave as the Moss/Jenkinson Mercedes flashed by. That enthusiastic youngster was Mario Andretti, long before his family moved to America and many years before he started on the road to fame as a racing driver of the 1970s.
On the way up the Futa we stopped off at the new Mugello autodromo long enough to watch some practice for the following day’s motorcycle meeting, leaving the circuit we agreed that it was very nicely laid out rather in the manner of the Osterreichring, but we would rather be watching racing on the nearby Mugello road circuit which actually runs along part of the Mille Miglia route (but in the reverse direction) on a section of the Futa foothills. Of all the specific sections on the Mille Miglia route, the 60 miles from Firenze to Bologna is certainly the most challenging and demanding, particularly when one remembers just what a competing car has had to suffer simply to get this far. Moss’ great ambition was to complete the Futa and Ratticosa section in one hour flat, only failing to achieve this ambition by one minute. At the top of the Futa the countryside is bleak and exposed, but there were thousands of enthusiastic fans cheering all the competitors during every Mille Miglia and just before the summit we paused to look at two very nice monuments, one to Count Massetti, who was killed in the Targa Florio, and one to that great Mille Miglia hero Clemente Biondetti, four times the winner. The literal translation of the wording on this tasteful memorial struck us as being sentimentally appropriate, it read: “To Clemente Biondetti, Champion of the Steering Wheel who raced audaciously on this road, crowned four times for his victories in the arduous and glorious Mille Miglia. 1938; 47, 48, 49”.
All too soon the barren twists and turns of the Ratticosa were falling away behind us and we were dropping down into Bologna, Moss by now having caught up with most of the earlier runners which would have left Brescia the evening before. The whole character of the route completely changes once again after the Bologna control, the frenzied “on-off” opposite lock, nine-tenths effort of those two mountain passes giving way to the long straight roads up through Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma. Having driven the previous hour “on reflexes” for much of the distance, there must have been an enormous psychological pressure to relax ever so slightly as the Mercedes built up to maximum speed in fifth gear and hurtled across the featureless countryside. But Moss kept concentrating hard and the 300SLR must have been averaging nearly 140 m.p.h. all the way up this stretch, passing some of the earliest starters such as tiny Fiats and Citroens who had left Brescia the previous evening and D.S.J. recalls a sense of fantasy as he suddenly realised that their 170 m.p.h. top speed meant that they were overtaking a twin-engined aeroplane which was photographing the event. When they got to Fidenza the aeroplane caught and passed them as the Mercedes had to negotiate the by-pass and the plane simply flew straight on over the town, but they caught and repassed it on the following straight!
Jenkinson also admits that he and Moss both received quite a jolt when they found themselves catching a 2-litre Maserati A6G, for they had calculated that they would pass all these cars a lot earlier. This car was driven by Francesco Giardini who eventually finished fourth, his being one of many splendid driving feats in the Mille Miglia history which have gone uncelebrated and unrecorded owing to the sheer size and scope of the event which makes it impossible to record, or even remember, every praiseworthy performance over the years. From Firenze the route “dog-legs” back to Cremona and Mantova, the wide sweeping curves and long straights remaining the same to this day, although the Fiats and Alfa Romeos which crowd the road are slightly diluted by the presence of the occasional Lamborghini Urraco, de Tomaso Pantera, Ferrari Dino 308 or Maserati Merak. On that last Cremona-Mantova-Brescia section, our minds saturated with nostalgia and just coming round to the stunning realisation that this epic route had taken us three and a half days to explore in detail, we neared the end of our journey almost understanding the feeling of achievement Moss and Jenkinson began to sense as they neared the finish 20 years ago. Passing through the little town of Guiddozola, just 30 kilometres from the finish, we reflected sadly that this is probably where the Mille Miglia really ended for good, for this was where the Marquis de Portago crashed his Ferrari into the crowd and not only killed himself and his passenger, but also several spectators. Unfortunately the “media” were only a few miles away at the finish and, after taking taxis to the scene, were able to make the grizzliest possible stories in the national newspapers the following morning. The national papers gloated over the Portago disaster, indicating a ghoulish sense of values and lack of perspective.
Rushing down those last few kilometres into Brescia, D.S.J. pointed out the hill from which they reckoned they could coast to the finish and the corner from where they would be prepared to push the 300SLR to the finish! But, as history so glowingly relates, their emergency tactics were never needed and the 300SLR swept round the final corner into the Via Rebuffone and took the chequered flag 10 hr. 7 min. 48 sec. after leaving the same place. Nostalgia often clouds memories in the most lucid minds, but the most overwhelming impression left with us after our four-day tour was that the Mille Miglia was not dead after all. It certainly lives on in the memories of many enthusiasts whom we met round the route, ordinary people with ordinary jobs who recall the great race of 20 years ago with a clarity that suggests it was only last week. One almost felt like looking up the calendar just to check on which weekend the 1975 Mile Miglia is scheduled to take place! — A.H.