1000 Miglia -- "It was never just another race"

“You only had one chance to get it right, on every corner for 1000 miles, boy! I really did regard it as a special challenge. It was never just another race” — Stirling Moss

Stirling Moss was just 25 years old when he became the first and only British driver to win the world’s toughest road race. His epic charge on the 1955 Mille Miglia, in partnership with Denis Jenkinson, is the stuff of legend. Fifty years on he recalls his day of days with Doug Nye.

A straightforward, dyed-in-the-wool racing enthusiast, spool back 50 years and think yourself into the cockpit of that great silver car in its headlong gallop around Italy.

You are in the most sophisticated sports-racing car that German industry can devise. Its straight-eight engine’s hard-edged, rasping baritone has been buzz-sawing into your brain for hours on end. You are virtually morticed into place, hips and ribs firmly clasped by your deeply tailored wrap-around seat. Your feet are braced against the similarly tailored foot-rests. Who needs seatbelts? You are bathed in a blast of warm engine air, mixing with the battering slipstream, larding a thin film onto your clothes and skin, particles of brake dust sticking like insects to flypaper. You watch the unfolding streak of road through almost an inch-thickness of moulded windscreen. Glance down at your aluminium roller-map box. Read your next route-note through the perspex window, Sellotape-sealed against rain. There’s the cue, 226 (Flat Out) Brow.

Expect the roadside kilometre stone flashing by. Got it! 226. Sure enough, blind brow ahead. With a firm, crisp movement, you deliver an edge-on, karate-style chop forward within your driver’s peripheral version, close against his special three-spoke steering wheel. ‘Flat Out’! Not a moment’s doubt, your driver’s right foot stays confidently flat. Jounce over that brow, 140mph and… the road really does continue straight on.

The big Mercedes rebounds on its long-stroke, supple suspension, booming onward, ever onward. You have just saved yourselves another few precious seconds.

Your initials are ‘DSJ’. You are a meticulous, pernickety, fearless little hard nut — and the young man seated beside you that day in Mercedes number 722 is one of the world’s greatest ever racing drivers, Stirling Moss. It’s 1955, and together you are winning the most charismatic one-shot open road race in history— the Mille Miglia.

Denis Jenkinson was 34 at the time, Stirling Moss just 25. Jenks died in November 1996 but he left for us his personal report, enshrined as the 20th century’s greatest piece of motor racing journalism. Yet 50 years later, one of Sir Stirling Moss’s clearest memories from the left-hand seat that day comes as a surprise…

“You know, a banana is a wonderful thing.

“I had a hand signal for ‘I’m hungry’, clamping my fingers close to my mouth. Jenks rummaged around and waved an orange. Thumbs-up — an orange would be nice. So he quickly peeled it, broke it into segments and held one out to me. I took it in my right hand and when I got a chance glanced down at it, and it looked horrible! We were both so coated in oil and dust, this orange segment from Jenks’s filthy hands just looked like a blackened, shrivelled little prawn. Ugh! It went straight overboard. Thumbs down to Jenks.

“He rummaged around some more and this time held out — a banana!

“Fantastic invention — hermetically sealed, you see. So he peeled it back, didn’t touch the core and it was perfectly clean and delicious — just what I needed. And on we went…”

At a half-century’s range Stirling settles down to recall that great day for something like the ten-thousandth time. But this time, hopefully, it’s different. He’s at ease, at home in the house he designed and built himself on the last bombsite in Mayfair. In the background, Lady Moss is ironing. The 50th anniversary of that brilliant day is looming large, and it’s time to mine whatever untapped memory recesses we can find…

“Having tackled three Mille Miglia races with Jaguar — 1951-52-53 — I fully appreciated the enormity of the problem. You only had one chance to get it right, on every corner for 1000 miles, boy! After those three tries I really did regard it as a special challenge — a monumental challenge in fact. It was never just another race. And it was a specialist event in every way…”

The invitation to join Daimler-Benz for 1955 was some months ahead of him when at Pescara in August ’54 Stirling took Jenks round the long road circuit in Maserati’s hack A6GCS, “…just for a thrash. I immediately realised the little bugger’s threshold of fear was enormously high. I had been seeing a lot of old Jenks around the circuits — he was always so picky and fearlessly critical, so that I took praise from him as praise indeed. It really counted. If he said to you ‘good drive’ then you really valued it…

“The prospect of a Mille Miglia with Mercedes was very exciting. From their travel itinerary and instructions, this plainly wasn’t going to be anything like as amateurish as the way Jaguar had tackled it. Mercedes were laying on proper reconnaissance, a full squad of cars, mechanics and engineers — a military operation.

“They were the most efficient outfit I’d ever been with. They thought of everything, down to the tiniest detail. They didn’t just send a couple of mechanics and leave you to get on with it.

“Jenks had ridden in the 1954 race in George Abecassis’s HWM-Jaguar. He was keen to go again and had been talking with John Fitch, the American also signed up by Mercedes for ’55. After that Pescara ride Jenks was dead keen to come with me, and (Alfred) Neubauer agreed if I was happy, especially since Jenks had been World Sidecar Champion passenger. He had some previous form — he wasn’t just another journalist.

“We put together full reconnaissance laps in a mixture of cars, Gullwing 300SLs, 220 saloons and then the first hack 300SLR, Jenks compiling his course notes all the time. We soon found the obvious — that corners which were flat out in a 220 were not flat out in an SL and if we attempted them flat out in the SLR we’d both be dead!

“On one lap I hit a sheep and telephoned Neubauer who asked, ‘Were the other people hurt?’

“I said, ‘There weren’t any other people involved. I only hit the sheep…’

“And he roared, `Ohhh — I thought you said you’d hit a Jeep!”

“We also hit a bomb disposal army truck which just turned left straight across my bows in the SL — nothing I could do. Both the SL and certainly the SLR drum brakes at low speeds were not that great.

“During the race, as we went by, we both waved to the garage owner who’d helped us. There were certain places where we’d met people or bought food or petrol and you’d recognise the place, maybe spot some of the people. Actually the crowd were amazing. I always relished the interaction with them — it’s surprising that one could do that, you know, even when you were at speed.. but it’s true. Whenever I could I’d wave back. The crowd often knew better than we did what was going on because they could see from the start-time numbers — and their knowledge of which cars had already gone through — who was going well and who wasn’t. The radio commentary also kept tabs on the front-runners, so in some places they’d go berserk. One problem was that markers chosen during practice would often be hidden come race-day behind spectators.

“They never seemed to mind at all that we were in a German car, despite some pretty fresh wartime memories. They might have been keener still if we’d been in a Maserati or Ferrari, but they were still very pro. Perhaps it was just the great noise our car made, and I suppose we must have looked pretty quick compared with what had gone by before…”

How did he react when he first saw the new 300SLR? “First impression, to be honest, was not too positive. It looked very big indeed for just a 3-litre sportscar, big and heavy, certainly when compared to something like an Aston Martin DB3S or even the Jaguar D-type.

“But when I got into it and started it up, that engine sound was just amazing. It’s still electrifying actually, it just doesn’t sound like a mere 3-litre. As a straight eight it makes a very different noise — hard-edged, a real racing engine, nothing ‘production’ about it. Of course it’s very similar in layout to the W196 grand prix car, with the same back-to-front gearchange gate. Every detail spells proper engineering.

“But it was never easy to drive. It was never a 250F Maser, not even a 300S, it really wasn’t. You really had to apply yourself to the SLR, consciously adapt to its mass and get used to its awkward gearbox.

“It felt much larger than its sister grand prix car — such a large expanse of bodywork — but on the open road it was really exceptionally fast, and very rewarding to drive.

“It wasn’t agile, yet it would steer very nicely on the throttle — you could set it up very accurately into a corner, and I found I could make it nimble thanks to its power and torque delivery — squirt it, the back end would go out, and you’d balance it — so it was better in slow corners than medium-speed. But its inherent design made it notably stable through the really fast stuff.

“It was remarkably softly suspended, with long-travel suspension soaking up bumps and very good traction. The low-pivot swing axle suspension didn’t tuck under, it would just bite very nicely and fire you out of corners.

“Only the brakes were, frankly, awful. They were always inadequate, especially since I was used to Jaguar’s discs. So you had to leave a margin, but at least they remained ‘consistently inadequate’ and you trusted them to do the best they could, even if it wasn’t up to the standards you had found in other cars.

“So overall the SLR was an enormously fast car with inferior brakes, but crucially they were not inferior to the brakes on most of our closest rivals in that particular race. One just made allowances …

“Above all, it just felt utterly bullet-proof. We just believed that if we didn’t break it, it would never break on its own.”

With its slant engine, the SLR’s propshaft was offset to the left, passing under the driver’s seat, with a broad clutch housing splitting the foot pedals wide apart, clutch tunnelled far across to the left, brake and throttle pedal across to the right. As on the Formula One W196s, this created an unusual splayed-legs driving position.

“Actually it was very comfortable. If you want to brace yourself when standing up, you brace your feet apart. Any g-load you can counteract. It’s exactly the same in the SLR. The wrapround seat was also very good, and of course we never even considered wearing seat belts, because of the fear of fire.”

Jenks wrote in 1968: “Daimler-Benz offered us a full seat harness and when we said that we wanted to be thrown out if the car went over a cliff, or end-over-end, they said, ‘We have a harness that comes undone when it is upside down’. We still did not use a seat harness, preferring to be able to escape in mid-air if the need arose, rather than stay with the accident. In the proposed SLR coupé that we were going to use in the PanAmericana Mexico race at the end of 1955 we were opting for a full harness, as there was no easy way out of the gull-wing coupé.”

I asked Stirling about the communication systems that were tested to overcome the din in the SLR’s cockpit: “I remember us trying out an intercom at Hockenheim. Initially it seemed fine, but then I said to Jenks, ‘OK, let me try some flat-out laps and see how it works then’. And for a couple of laps I didn’t hear a thing. When we stopped I asked him, ‘What’s the matter? You didn’t say a word!’ and he protested, ‘Oh yes I did — I was talking to you the whole time!'”

Jenks himself later explained the phenomenon: “Everything worked well until he began to reach his personal limit round the corners and then he found that he used so much concentration through his eyes that his hearing faculties failed. Moss driving at eight-tenths could hear me clearly, at nine-tenths he was not sure and approaching ten-tenths he did not hear a word I said! Ten-tenths for Moss, not for you or me; we would have been at about twenty-five-tenths…”

Jenks took this as incontrovertible proof that rally drivers can never really be on the absolute limit, because if they were they would never hear their navigator’s pace notes.

Stirling admits: “For me the Mille Miglia was the only race which made me nervous, because I never really knew the course. To try to go as near ten-tenths as you can without knowing the circuit is not confidence-inducing. Having Jenks beside me gave me a tremendous boost. I tell you, if he hadn’t been there I would never have got anywhere near the average speed we did. Candidly, I also rather liked having someone alongside me to appreciate what I’d done!

“I’m very proud that he thought I’d done a pretty good job that day.

“At the top of the hill at the Goodwood Festival in 1995 we had just finished one of our commemoration runs in the SLR when I happened to glance down at my wristwatch. Jenks said, ‘That reminds me of how l noticed you glance at your watch when we started the Florence to Bologna stretch, over the Futa and Raticosa Passes, and I knew you wanted to do it inside an hour so I rubbed my hands and thought, ‘Cor, now I’m really going to see something…’

“I thought, ‘Kee-rist! I’d just been flat out for about eight hours and here was this wonderful little nutcase, wanting to see me go harder still!’ When he told me that I had to laugh because it was so typically Jenks. His enthusiasm was just bottomless. I asked him once, if I’d invited him to join me in an MG rather than the SLR would he have accepted? And his answer was, ‘No way! I could drive an MG, so being a passenger watching you drive it would have been terrifying!’

“In fact the really difficult sections were not the slow or medium-speed twists through the mountains, but the really fast high-speed stuff where we were running up around 140-170mph for long distances, many of the curves very deceptive. That’s where it was really difficult to maintain an average of say 115-125mph, keeping the throttle open, and setting up and balancing the car. When you’re travelling that fast on a public road, any mistake is major. In comparison the Futa and Raticosa were easy. Jenks’s hand signals — flat, left, right, bumpy, slippery, brake hard, harder, we’re both going to die — were absolutely invaluable.

“Lots of people crashed on the section soon after the start — but that tells you more about the drivers than about that part of the course. It was natural selection, weeding out the incompetent ones who didn’t know where they were! From probably 800 starters, only around 60 would be competent.”

And what about the physical stresses of that amazing 10-hour drive?

“I don’t recall it ever getting worryingly hot in the SLR —not like the Vanwall in which I used to wear asbestos boots! No — the habitat there was warm, not really hot. It was a relatively cool day; we were very lucky to get no rain at any stage though it threatened some of the time.

“We always finished with the famous black faces and panda eyes. But I was never aware of breathing in that mixture of oil fumes and brake and clutch dust. Certainly it never crossed my mind we were inhaling this stuff — Suzie found when we shared the car in the Mille Miglia Retro it got onto her contact lenses, made her eyes run and she had to throw the lenses away afterwards. Jenks was getting a black face, I was getting a black face — you sort of accepted that Jenks always had a black face anyway, but it never bothered me.

“There was never a point in the race when I was aware of any discomfort or fatigue. And I never, ever blistered my hands. Never at all on both counts. You just used the steering wheel to present the car to the corners, and then turned it on the throttle. You’ve got to realise we were going bloody fast. We were passing people all the time. In the second control at Pescara we’d get a piece of paper telling our position at the previous control, Ravenna. So then we’d rush off uncertain whether we had retained that place, or improved upon it, or quite what was happening. So the pressure was just relentless.

“You just go absolutely as fast as you can, trying everywhere to save time. You see someone’s gone off, and from his list of major rivals’ numbers Jenks would know who it was. If it was a significant runner, well thumbs up. And that would encourage me to drive faster to save still more. All the time that race was absolutely ON.

“When you’re concentrating that hard, you become unaware of the passage of time… and of anything outside driving itself. I’ve been in rallies in which I thought, ‘God, I feel tired’, but never in the Mille Miglia.

“The worst news we got was that we were leading at Rome. That’s because I am superstitious and the Mille Miglia saying was, ‘First in Rome is never first home’. But with the crowds all along the roadside, so much of a fiesta feeling around you it’s a wonderfully uplifting sensation. You get an almost constant drip-feed of adrenalin. So fatigue doesn’t come into it.”

Apart from driving, dancing and ‘the other’, did you do anything to keep yourself fit?

“No. I ate anything I fancied, except on raceday I’d always have a light breakfast scrambled eggs or something — but I was racing 57 times a year, driving three days a week. I never considered training, I didn’t drink alcohol. Fitness just didn’t enter the frame. I was naturally fit.”

Jenks consulted an aviation medicine friend at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, because in initial reconnaissance he became car sick through looking down at his notes. The doc suggested a motion-sickness pill, adding, “It can cause drowsiness”. No, that was unacceptable. Another pill was recommended, only known side-effect — constipation. “Aah,” beamed Jenks, “now that could be a positive bonus.”

Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Fangio had offered to share a magic pill of his own, something he had first been given by a medical student friend of his early hero Achille Varzi. This Dynavis pill had been intended to combat chronic thirst while racing, but Fangio found it also boosted stamina. Stirling: “Certainly in the first races that year in Argentina — run in terrible heat — the Old Boy had been the only one of us able to complete the distance solo. So when he offered us his magic pills (and that Mille Miglia was the only time he ever shared them) we accepted. I took mine, Jenks didn’t take his.

“To this day, I’ve no idea if whatever that pill contained would be legal or illegal, accepted for sport or a banned substance. But at that time it was no issue. Dexedrine and Benzedrine were commonly used in rallies where you might have to drive for 36 hours. The object was simply to keep awake, just like wartime bomber crews. “Anyway, I took mine and after we finished, that night I noted in my diary, Fangio’s pills are fantastic!‘.”

In fact, post-race, Stirling attended the victory celebrations, then left Brescia at 12.15am, accompanied by his girlfriend Sally Weston in his Mercedes 220 saloon, and drove right through that night, to breakfast in Munich, and then on to Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart by noon. After lunch with the directors and having redesigned seats fitted to the 220 he left at 5.15pm and drove to Cologne by 9.15pm, when he and Sally finally took a hotel room for the night. He had been awake, and largely behind the wheel, without rest for at least 40 hours…

“Pre-race Jenks and I felt there was an outside chance we might win it. We thought that most probably Karl Kling — a Mille Miglia specialist — would win with either Fangio or ourselves second, and they both had the weight advantage of driving solo. Castellotti in the works Ferrari 4.4 was fantastically fast, Taruffi was the King of the Mountains, we had a lot to beat.”

Clearest memories of the race — other than that banana?

“Hitting a hump-backed bridge about 70mph faster than we’d ever hit it in practice and becoming airborne for about 50 yards — freezing at the wheel to ensure we would land with the steering straight. And overtaking a twin-engined aircraft. That was a buzz.

“But frankly places at which I thought I knew the road became places where I made a mistake. Like at Pescara. I thought, ‘Ah, I know this bit’ so I committed the car into a blind corner and, dammit, they’d changed the layout between reconnaissance and the race, so we crashed through the straw bales. I remember Jenks flapping his hand or pulling at his beard — both signals for, ‘Cor, that was close!’. Thereafter I really paid attention to his signals, made close by the steering wheel, just within my peripheral vision.

“I do vividly recall Castellotti passing us. Boy, that was a sobering thing. I thought we were going well when suddenly, ‘My God, there’s a red car in my mirror’. I let him go past, no point in holding him up, but following him it was obvious he could not possibly finish at the speed he was going. We could actually see his rear tyres leaving tread smeared onto the road.

“When we passed Kling’s crash after Rome, his car up in the trees, our first concern was to hope he was all right. But even though he was a team-mate a big rival was out.”

And can he now picture sections of the course, how it looked from that highly-charged cockpit? “Not really, no. I can picture whole sections of the Nürburgring or all of Monaco for example far more graphically than any section of the Mille Miglia. Though I tried to achieve ten-tenths everywhere I only sustained that for very short spells. It wasn’t for want of trying, but for lack of absolute familiarity with the course.

“Although we did 1000 miles round the Mille Miglia I still ended up not knowing it. And that’s why I cannot remember it. How could I remember something I never knew?”

Know it or not, with the help of Motor Sport’s own DSJ, that day 50 years ago saw ‘Golden Boy’ average 97.9mph on everyday public highways and byways for more than 10 hours to win the world’s greatest one-shot road race for Mercedes-Benz, and to write themselves indelibly into motor racing history. Something to celebrate, I think you’ll agree.