Jenks wasn’t the only navigator in the 1955 Mille Miglia using pacenotes. John Fitch explains to Hartmut Lehbrink where the basic idea came from
Stirling Moss’s triumphant record-shattering lap from Brescia to Brescia deserves the limelight, the laurels and its special place in the history of the sport. But hardly less remarkable was John Fitch’s fifth position in the same race. In a standard Mercedes 300SL coupé he finished the 1955 Mille Miglia just 83 minutes behind the winner, in the wake of four fully-fledged sports-racing cars. He also grabbed the class record by a full hour, and came within 3min 11sec of Alberto Ascari’s overall winning time from the previous year in a Lancia D24.
How did this American, not exactly in the first rank of sportscar drivers, pull off such a result in a road car, behind the SLRs of Moss and Fangio, Umberto Maglioli’s Ferrari 118LM and Francesco Giardini’s Maserati A6GCS? There’s no doubt that Fitch drove extremely well, but he also shared a secret weapon with car 722 — pacenotes. And if Denis Jenkinson and John Fitch had not originally planned to team up for the event, DSJ’s famous roller-box might never have come about.
In late December 1954 the lanky American had driven to Stuttgart with journalist and Mercedes stalwart Günther Molter to discuss the next season with Alfred Neubauer. He had thoroughly enjoyed his exploits with the Untertürkheim outfit in a 300SL roadster at the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. Why not have an American on the Mercedes team, which might boost sales in the States if he did well in Europe? A couple of weeks later a wire arrived at Fitch’s home in Lugano-Castagnola, not far from Rudi Caracciola’s villa. Neubauer was offering him a works production 300SL in the Gran Turismo category of the Mille Miglia; otherwise the class was left to private entries led by Belgium’s up-and-coming star, Olivier Gendebien.
Before joining Moss, Jenkinson had discussed a navigating role with Fitch. Jenks’s passion for the Mille Miglia, remembers the 87-year-old Fitch, made him extraordinarily good in his navigating job as he could graphically remember whole sections of the enormous single lap through Italy. During their discussions they had, however, acknowledged that many of the better Italian drivers such as Castellotti, Maglioli and Taruffi knew the roads like the backs of their hands. The only way a non-Italian could win was by employing a passenger, or navigator, to keep the driver informed of the road ahead and warn him of thousands of hazards by reading off detailed route notes.
In his new book Racing with Mercedes, Fitch states that he suggested these be written on one long continuous piece of paper and rolled up. This roll could then be mounted in a box with a take-up reel that could be wound on slowly, revealing the notes in order. “We went ahead on planning a ‘navigational system’ and spent a lot of time poring over large-scale road maps, as well as planning reconnaissance runs in his 1100cc Fiat,” Jenks wrote. When he was asked by Moss to ride with him, he took the roll-of-paper idea along with the American’s blessings. In his Motor Sport feature (see June 1955 issue) Jenks says: “Fitch sportingly agreed it would be a good thing for me to try out our plans for beating the Italians with Moss as driver.”
This of course left Fitch without a passenger for the race, so instead he took along the young German reporter Kurt Gesell, who had been dispatched to cover the race first-hand for the Hamburg magazine Seben und Hören.
Both Fitch and Gesell arrived in Brescia a week prior to the event and set out in a Mercedes 180D to practise on the course, as their dark Gullwing coupé, one of the first made, arrived only two days before the actual race. With a top speed of around 75mph the 180D was a poor substitute for the 300SL. The pair completed the entire route twice. After the second run Gesell, who was a complete motor racing virgin, said to Fitch, with his eyes wide: “John, I’m amazed. I don’t see how you could have possibly driven any faster.” The poor chap was to know better come race day.
Unlike Jenks, Fitch and Gesell did not use a roller-box. “Our navigation system was different,” says Fitch. “Ours was just notes. We did not have the time and Kurt was not familiar enough with racing.” They had graded the perils in four degrees — X-1 for careful, X-2 dangerous, X3 very dangerous — all referring to the damage the car might be in for. X-4 was reserved for potential serious personal damage if the 300SL slid off the road. It was used about 30 times over the 1000 miles, Gesell resorting to additional exclamations to voice his ever-increasing fright, such as “Caution! Caution!”, “Very dangerous!” or even yelling “Mein Gott!” (my God!) in his native German when he had come to the conclusion that his end was near.
The twosome started at 4.17am, taking things relatively easy before daylight on the outskirts of Verona because “night racing on unfamiliar roads was not my idea of fun,” as Fitch puts it. The first occasion for Gesell to turn to his native tongue in panic came between Ancona and Pescara. It also uncovered an obvious weakness of the navigational system. The notes had been taken in normal traffic and even during the rush hour, so they did not allow for race conditions. Fitch recalls it vividly in his book: “We’d just come through a fast right hander at perhaps 120 and were drifting to the outside under control when a hump in the road sent us flying. It was the dreaded invisible vertical curve that killed (Felice) Bonetto in the PanAmericana — one that is never discovered in practice when slowed by traffic. The drivetrain and wheels shuddered in the air as we sailed towards the outside of the curve.”
Although he backed off immediately, the car landed at a radical angle and shot across the road towards the opposite ditch. Frantic cranks to the steering wheel and the ensuing slides and counterslides, during which Fitch mistakenly thought the 300SL was under control, really shook its passenger up.
Things were not made better by the fact that a miss in the Mercedes’ engine above 5000rpm, which had first worried Fitch shortly after Rimini, was occurring continually and earlier in the rev range during the second half of the race, the six-cylinder unit being practically powerless beyond 5000 revs on the high-speed final section between Bologna and Brescia. He had to make up for this by pulling out all the stops, shifting to higher gears at lower speeds, pushing harder, taking the corners faster and generally maltreating his brand-new mount as well as his despairing co-driver. In Rome they had been leading the GT class, while at the Florence control point a Mercedes mechanic poked a slip of paper through the vent window with the stunning message that they were a minute behind the Gendebien/Washer pairing in Siena. Much to Fitch’s chagrin this had widened to 2min 20sec at Florence. This piece of information was passed through the window on yet another piece of paper at Bologna after he had stormed over the Futa and Raticosa passes in an all-out effort, to the tune of a frequent “Mein Gott —very dangerous!” from Gesell.
He need not have worried. The Belgian, who had started 11 min after Fitch, arrived at Brescia some 17min later while Fitch and Gesell were still being treated to a raucous back-thumping, Neubauer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut and assorted Mercedes directors shouting their congratulations and hugging them both impulsively. It turned out that Gendebien had made an excursion off the road, bending the body of his own SL into a wheel. Its tyre had gone flat and had to be changed, and this cost him more than six minutes.
As to the missfire at high revs, Uhlenhaut explained that it had happened before in hot weather. Months later it was discovered that extreme engine heat was conducted to a fuel-supply valve, which then directed too much of the incoming fuel to the overflow line and back to the fuel tank. The valve was relocated and the problem was solved.
John Fitch, however, had scored an overwhelming achievement that left him “glowing with that bone-deep satisfaction that warms and relaxes both mind and body”.