Mille Miglia

You can follow the competitors around Italy but you'll have to drive fast to keep up, says Simon Taylor

Mille Miglia — two magical words which sum up how much the Italians love their motorsport. For 30 years, between 1927 and '57, this flat-out road race from Brescia to Rome and back was watched by more than a million excitedly cheering people, who lined the thousand-mile route oblivious to the danger. Today the Mille Miglia lives on as a three-day historic rally which caters for cars that ran, or could have run, in the original event. And the crowds are as big, noisy and foolhardy as ever.

Everyone should go and watch the Mille Miglia at least once. It's not like sitting in a Monza grandstand for three days and watching everything unfold in front of you, because you have to do a lot of hard motoring too. But it's a wonderful way to have a short break in a beautiful country — and put some hectic miles on a rental car.

The event really starts with Wednesday's ritual in the Piazza del Vittorio. Millions of pounds' worth of historic sports-racing cars queue through the Brescia streets for hours to file one by one through the scrutineering bay. There's no crowd control, so the place is thronged, and if no priceless aluminium panels get dented it's a miracle.

On Thursday evening the cars drive up the ramp on the Viale Venezia and, to the cheers of the crowd, are flagged off at one-minute intervals, just as they used to start the real race. At Ferrara the crews snatch a few hours' sleep before 14 hours' hard motoring through the mountains and down to Rome. Day three takes them from Rome via Siena to Florence, and then over the Futa and Raticosa passes back to Bologna and Brescia.

There's nothing to stop you following the entire rally route, and every year rock apes in various inappropriate cars — expensive moderns, battered dustbins and dubious replicas — choke up the event, to the dismay of the competitors and the boredom of the spectators. Don't do it: you won't see very much, apart from the car ahead and, in the mirror, the car you are holding up. Many of the wealthier entrants have service cars following them in case of breakdown, so the route is crowded enough as it is.

The way to see the Mille Miglia is to zigzag across the country so you arrive at key points ahead of the competing cars, and watch them come through. You'll end up doing a good thousand miles yourself, but you will see the event unfold and really soak up the atmosphere. You can pick up the route — which varies slightly each year — at scrutineering and spend Wednesday afternoon planning ahead. Watch the start in Brescia, get some sleep and then storm off down the autostrada early on Friday morning before turning east to watch the cars climb the snow-lined passes of the Sybilline Mountains. Then you can get ahead to see them arrive in Rome, with huge crowds cheering them in past the Coliseum and through St Peter's Square. Snatch a few hours' sleep and then hurry north to Siena, where the sight of the cars going through the historic Piazza del Campo is simply breathtaking. You may also have time to get to Florence and see the later cars passing through the old streets of one of the world's most beautiful cities. But don't delay — you also want to get to the Futa Pass, or perhaps the Raticosa further along, to watch the tired crews tackling the endless hairpins that were always so crucial in the real race.

Then it's a flat-out blast north back to Brescia to see the survivors coming in. The restaurants stay open late that night, and you can mix with the crews who have made it. Nobody finishes the Mille Miglia without having stories to last them a lifetime — and as a hard-driving spectator, you'll have a few as well.

Car to watch – Biondetti Special

An intriguing car on this year's event is this unique Ferrari-Jaguar hybrid entered by Massimo Raimondi and Gino Perbellini. Shrouded in mystery. the Biondetti Special was conceived by motorcyle ace-turned-road racer Clemente Biondetti. Despite losing his best years to WW2. the Sardinian had an impressive résumé, with four wins on the Mille Miglia (1938 and 1947-49. the '47 event despite lacking two gears in his Alfa Romeo 8C: he still finished ahead of Tazio Nuvolari's Cisitalia) and two Targa Florio victories

In 1950 Biondetti switched from Italian to British hardware, entering a maroon Jaguar XK120 on the Mille Miglia. He finished eighth. The following year saw the arrival of the new C-type and one was driven at Le Mans by Biondetti. He fell in love with the car and wanted one to compete in on local events. Jaguar refused his advances. Instead it agreed to supply engines and a C-type radiator grille. Taking his existing Ferrari 166 as a starting point, he constructed a new tubular frame in his Florence workshop into which was inserted the Coventry straight-six. To clothe the ensemble, he roped in Rocco Motto (of Turin's Carrozzeria Motto) to construct a new body that closely aped the lines of the C-type. This barchetta was then entered in the '51 running of the Mille Miglia but he failed to make the flag. Entered once more for the '52 race, he chose to drive a Lancia instead: the Pezzoli-Cozzulani pairing installed in the Biondetti Special failed to finish. Biondetti was known to have been suffering from cancer and retired from driving that year. He died in February 1955. R H