Many people have told me that taking part in the Mille Miglia is on their ‘bucket list’. It was never on mine, simply because it seemed so unlikely to happen – but that changed in the early spring of 2011 thanks to an unexpected invitation from Mercedes-Benz.
“Would I like to drive the Mille Miglia in a 300SL from the heritage collection – and don’t worry, we’ll put it through the workshops first”.
Once I’d established it wasn’t a wind-up, my decision to say ‘yes’ was made in seconds, regardless of diary entries, work schedules or existing family commitments. And all I had to do was find a co-driver.
I could think of any number of candidates who would have jumped at the chance – but the obvious choice was my own brother who had previously told me the story of a memorable day at Durham Chorister school in 1958 when, instead of a regular lesson, his class was shown a black-and-white Pathé news reel about the ’55 Mille Miglia in which Stirling Moss and Motor Sport’s own Denis Jenkinson achieved their celebrated, record-breaking win.
Julian had been so enthusiastic in his description of the film that it would have been wrong not to give him this golden opportunity to experience the event for himself.
And so it was that we were handed the keys to a Gullwing (then worth around £500,000) and told to ‘have fun’.
From then on, we entered an almost surreal world in which normal life was put on hold for four days – starting from the moment we were seated at the pre-start dinner with Jochen Mass and Giacomo Agostini as neighbours, the former bonding with Julian, the latter leaving me awe-struck simply by being there.
Being in one of the ‘newer’ and faster cars meant we had a relatively late start number, meaning there was plenty of waiting about before taking to the ramp in the tree-lined Viale Venezia – during which we and the car received a blessing from a couple of nuns who were doing the rounds of all the entrants. I was also able to pick up a few tips from long-standing Mille Miglia competitor and fellow Gullwing driver Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the boss of watch brand Chopard which has been the event’s main sponsor since 1988.
By the time urbane MC Simon Kidston finally waved us off, dusk was descending and it was finally time to get to grips with the roadbook, the stopwatch, the map light and the route – and, to be truthful, those first few hours passed in something of a blur until, somehow, we ended up at the overnight stop.
After that, I determined to keep a diary of what was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is what I wrote:
Friday, May 13, morning
Back to the car for a 7.30am start. Julian is driving and, within five minutes, he’s trying to race someone away from the ticket machine at the autostrada. That someone is Mika Häkkinen and he’s in a Mercedes SLR like the one Moss set the MM record in. It’s allegedly worth upwards of 25 million bucks and should blow our gullwing into the weeds. But we roar ahead – mainly because the distance from the ticket barrier to the prescribed turn-off is about 150 yards. We go hell for leather for two miles. Great start to the day – lost in Bologna without a map. (I should point out that my brother is not some young tearaway. He was 63 at the time).
Luckily for us, two friendly Dutchmen, one in a 911 the other in a Gallardo, know the way back to where we want to be and we return to the proper route in convoy, losing just 20 minutes of valuable time. But now we’re up the creek again outside San Remo where the scorching weather has caused the Gullwing’s fuel to evaporate in the pipes before it reaches the engine. A similar experience with my humble Triumph TR6 means I know that all will be well if things are left to cool down for half an hour.
The stationary Merc soon attracts a crowd, however, and everyone wants to advise on the situation, including a wiry gent who tells me he’s been a mechanic for 50 years. He looks desperate to go home and get his spanners, so Julian suggests we cross the road to the ‘gelateria’ and cool ourselves off with an ice cream. He chooses to combine mint and lemon. The girl with the scoops looks bemused.
The Gullwing, we’ve discovered, loves to be revved. It’s absolutely flying once more and we’ve been driving some small and fabulous roads. This is the real Italy, the real Mille Miglia. We’ve seen Mika again, this time when he blasted past us in the SLR on a twisting hill climb. I think he almost shattered my eardrum. After some exciting dicing with a couple of Maseratis, a Ferrari and a brace of MGs we end up at a checkpoint in a stunning mountain village. We need to get going to reach Rome, four hours away, by 11pm – but Julian’s gone AWOL. I find him in a bar drinking beer – which had been bought for him by a policeman.
Finally left the village at 8pm when it was almost dark. Drove down the mountain like loons (it always feels quicker in the dark and the car runs even better with cold air to breathe). Lots of broken down motors along the way, but there was no stopping us and, despite a couple of wrong turnings (blame the road book) we hit Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, the final checkpoint, at 11.03pm.
We can’t stop yet, however. Some genius has organized a parade of all 376 cars – just the job when some of us have already put in 15 hours behind the wheel. Of course, it requires police motorcyclists and, of course, it goes wrong. Modern cars get between old ones, old ones take wrong turnings, others overheat….. And the Roman public don’t seem that bothered anyway. Goodnight Vienna. I mean Rome.
Saturday, May 14, 7am
After a solid four and a half hours sleep, we’re back in the Gullwing which has been given a quick once-over by the uber-accommodating support team from the Mercedes historic cars division and pronounced good to go. Despite the uncivilized hour, we’re glad to be up and witnessing the eternal city in all its glory: the early morning sun shines through a misty haze as we lollop along beside the river Tiber, up the Corso di Francia and onwards to Vallelunga race circuit for the first ‘special test’ of the day.
Saturday, 9 am
Just been round Vallelunga. Special test involved driving at a precise average speed of 38.4 km/h for the length of the circuit, an exercise Julian describes as ‘banal’ and which demonstrates a skill which is ‘of no possible use in real life’. Therefore he nails it, overtaking several more studious competitors, causing confusion at the timing line and securing us a large quantity of penalty points. A fellow competitor taking things far more seriously is furious because we cut him up on the track, making it impossible to achieve the required average speed. Julian suggests he ‘goes for a drink and calms down’.
Stopped for lunch in Buenconvento. Had another special test earlier which involved a timed drive for several kilometres along a gravel track. We decide it was included purely to make the cars dirty so we all look like real racing drivers who have been out there battling with the elements.
Back to cosseted reality in the town of Buonconvento now, with a vast buffet lunch in a specially erected marquee beside some medieval buildings. We should have been back on the road half an hour ago but have only just returned to the car after my co-driver went AWOL. I found him among the bemused guests at a private party in a nearby house, halfway through a gin and tonic. I take the wheel and we head off, almost the last to leave.
Just realised that one beautiful Italian town is starting to look very much like another and we’ve already forgotten where we’ve been – although we’ve definitely ‘done’ Siena (famous for lunatic horse race on cobbles) and Firenze, which is what the Italians say when they mean Florence.
Crossed the river at the next bridge down from the Ponte Vecchio. We’ve got a housekeeping problem – every time we stop anywhere to get our time card stamped, someone shoves a bag of typical foodstuffs at us through one of the ‘wings’ which we now keep open at crawling speed in order to cool the oven-like interior.
We’ve just been given a Caesar salad of empire-building proportions, two packets of flat pack cheese, some other ingredients for a self-assembly sandwich and a punnet of giant strawberries that look like a fruit mutation experiment that’s gone a bit wrong. We lob the bag in the back to take its place with some smaller strawberries, nine ham rolls in cling film, several packets of chopped apple, a bottle of carrot juice and a selection of chocolate energy bars that have melded into the carpet. Hey, this car’s really starting to look like it belongs to us.
We’ve done more than 800 miles now and the Gullwing’s going better than ever – we keep forgetting it’s 56 years old because it’s unfeasibly comfortable (once the sun goes down) and properly fast. It has, however, developed an alarming pull to the right during braking, meaning you have to effectively turn left before trying to slow down in a straight line. At speeds of more than 150 km/h this sometimes provokes an expression of surprise from oncoming drivers.
We’re clearly feeling the strain though – while we were traversing the snaking Futa Pass I could have sworn we were overtaken by Mr Bean. But he drives a yellow Mini, doesn’t he, not a 1939 BMW 328? Julian hastily checks the entry list: car 87 – Rowan Atkinson, GB. It might sound implausible, but so does having to stop for a timing check at an actual university where people go to learn how to make ice cream, and driving a lap of Ferrari’s Fiorano test track in the dark at an average speed of 43.73465 km/h recurring. Only about 100 miles to the finish back in Brescia.
Sunday, May 15, 2am
Bloody hell – we did it. We’ve completed the Mille Miglia without blowing-up a £500,000 car that doesn’t belong to us, hitting anything or dying. Brian, a Mercedes-Benz intern from Michigan whom we’ve adopted as our best friend from the support crew, can’t quite believe it either. Think he had us down for a pair of clowns, for some reason. Apparently we were among the few from the 19 M-B entries to have made it without having to phone up for assistance due to some piffling mechanical problem such as a broken gearbox or complete electrical failure. We unfold ourselves through the gullwing doors for the last time, shovel out the detritus of three days and 1,000 miles and wish the old Benz an emotional goodbye as Brian gets behind the wheel and heads for the underground car park.
Look after her, Brian – we might be needing her again. Mightn’t we? Please?…….