Stirling Moss had yet to break through as a Formula 1 Grand Prix winner when he established a racing benchmark
We all know that Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR with our former continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson at his side, proving by way of hand signals a series of pace notes recorded on a roller encased in an aluminium box – the famed ‘bog roll’, no less. We know that Moss smashed the lap record for the Mille Miglia and we know his time will stand forever. But perhaps we could delve a little deeper into why Moss proved to be unbeatable around Italy that day or, as it transpired, on any other.
It was not as if Stirling was an old hand at the Mille Miglia. True, he had entered three times before, but in both 1951 and ’53 he was forced to retire in the early stages. In 1952 he and Norman Dewis did get within 145 miles of the finish and were third when he had to retire his disc brake-equipped Jaguar C-type but, compared with the local crews, he was almost a stranger to the race. And the 1955 event followed an only similar, not identical, course.
The strange thing about the Mille Miglia is that not only did it run over many routes in its 30 years, so far as I can work out not one of them was ever 1000 miles long, but as few as 945 (1953) and as many as 1139 (1948). Moss drove 992, to the nearest mile.
I digress. Was it perhaps the car? At the time the 300 SLR was the best sports racing car in the world. The closest competition came from Ferrari, and it is to be remembered that Umberto Maglioli’s 118LM Ferrari finished third, just 13 minutes behind Juan Manuel Fangio’s SLR, not so long over such a long distance, especially given the fact Maglioli was injured in practice. Moss, by contrast, finished over half an hour ahead of his team-mate, though to be fair Fangio had been delayed by a fuel injector problem.
Was it having a co-driver? Having someone next to you was not exactly an innovation in 1955, the majority of cars entered in the race did so with two on board. So was it the co-driver? Well Jenks was tiny, so the usual weight penalty would have been substantially mitigated, and absolutely fearless; but I suspect it was his history in sidecar racing that made a difference, for there can be no other sport where two people depend more upon each other not merely to win a race, but literally to survive it.
What part did the ‘bog roll’ play then? Again, pace notes weren’t new and had been used extensively in the Carrera Panamericana, but the role of American driver John Fitch – who generously provided both Jenks and the ‘bog roll’ idea – cannot be underestimated. But it’s probably also true that no one had refined the communication process as well as Moss and Jenks did, particularly for cars where spoken instructions were not possible. Their sign language and pace notes were refined over what added up to seven entire laps of the course in practice. Scarily for the opposition, it should have been better still, because Mercedes-Benz had devised radio communications between the two that had worked perfectly when Moss drove at half-sensible speeds, but at maximum attack he found himself unable to hear a thing. Surprisingly, this had nothing to do with the sound of the SLR’s desmodromic valve gear, but simply that for Stirling to drive like that required such complete concentration his brain automatically blocked all external distractions, including DSJ’s voice.
Evidence for the success of the notes is suggested not only by the margin Moss was able to pull over Fangio, but also the fact that his other team-mate, Karl Kling, did a barely believable 30 laps in practice trying to learn the route and drive solo. Moss won, while Kling crashed out barely halfway around.
The real decisive advantage was Moss. But not necessarily in the way many think.
If you look at the margin of victory it is understandable to conclude that Moss just smoked off into the distance. Not true. One of Alfred Neubauer’s smarter moves was to let his drivers set their own pace and Moss, though just 26 and not yet a Grand Prix winner, was a very cool guy in a car prepared to hitherto unimagined standards, surrounded by hotheads in very fast, very beautiful, but possibly quite fragile Italian exotics. Paolo Marzotto’s Ferrari made the early running until it retired with tyre failure, to be replaced by team-mate Eugenio Castellotti, whose engine then blew. And, while Moss then briefly led, by Pescara it was Piero Taruffi out in front. It was only on the approach to Rome that Moss finally took a lead that, despite sliding into hay bales at least three times and leaving the road once altogether, he would never relinquish.
Moss won partly because he had the best of everything – car, team-mate, strategy and preparation – but mainly because on that course and day he was better than Fangio. He came home in 10hrs 07min 48sec, improving the course record set by Giannino Marzotto in 1953 by almost exactly half an hour, despite the fact the ’55 route was 20 miles longer.
Why did no one go quicker in either of the two years the Mille Miglia had left to live? Mainly because the bar was almost certainly unattainable on the best of days. As it happened there was appalling weather in 1956 and it rained in 1957 too, but only towards the end. Which meant the great Taruffi (Ferrari 315) won his final race aged 50 in 10hrs 27min 47sec, the second fastest lap of the Mille Miglia course.
You can look for all sorts of reasons to explain what Moss did that day, but the truth is the package he put together and the way he drove was not just better than anyone else, it was on another level altogether.
The diary of a legend
Denis Jenkinson’s record of his adventure, taken from the June 1955 issue of Motor Sport
Moss and I had similar plans, of using the passenger as a second brain for navigation.
We logged the corners, grading them as “saucy”, “dodgy” and “very dangerous”, having a hand sign for each. I wrote the details on a sheet of paper 18 feet long. Moss had an alloy case made, on a roller system, with me winding and reading through a Perspex window, sealed with Sellotape in the event of rain.
The first of the over-2,000cc sports cars left Brescia at 6.55am on Sunday. Our big worry was not those in front, but those behind. With all these works Ferraris behind us we could not hang about, [Eugenio] Castellotti was liable to catch us, and [Sergio] Sighinolfi would probably scrabble past using the grass banks, so if we didn’t press-on there was a good chance of the dice becoming exciting, and not to say dangerous, early on.
Entering Padova at 150mph we braked for a bend, and suddenly I realised that Moss was beginning to work furiously on the steering, for we were arriving much too fast. I sat fascinated, watching, intrigued to follow his every action, and completely forgot to be scared. We bumped into the bales and bounced into the middle of the road as Moss opened it out again. Castellotti nipped by, grinning over his shoulder. I gave Moss a handclap for showing me just how a great driver acts in a difficult situation.
Castellotti was driving like a maniac, using pavements and loose edges of the road, rubber pouring off the rear tyres. Yet beside me was a quiet, calm young man who was ready for any emergency.
All the way there were signs of almighty incidents, and many times on corners we had signalled as dangerous or dodgy there were cars lying battered and bent. We passed Castellotti at a control, where he was having tyres changed.
Moss continued to drive the most superb race of his career. Little did we know that we had the race in our pocket, for [Piero] Taruffi had retired with a broken oil pump and [Juan-Manuel] Fangio was stopped in Florence repairing an injection pipe.
We crossed the finishing line well over 100 mph, still not knowing that we had made motor-racing history.
At the garage it was finally impressed upon us that we had won, achieved the impossible, broken all the records, ruined all the Mille Miglia legends.
As we were driven back to our hotel, tired, filthy, oily, Stirling said: “We’ve rather made a mess of the record – sort of spoilt it for anyone else, for there probably won’t be another completely dry Mille Miglia for 20 years…”