It’s been just over a month since I took part in the Mille Miglia, and putting pen to paper to explain the experience has proven difficult, to say the least. All I can say, from this distance, is the following: that over four days I experienced a constant, glorious, unforgettable assault on the senses.
Before I begin, I should perhaps explain to the uninitiated what the Mille Miglia is, and why it’s so globally revered. The first Miglia Mille took place in 1927, founded by a group of car enthusiasts in the town of Brescia, Northern Italy — the race was their response to the region’s loss of the Italian Grand Prix to Monza, seven years earlier. A 1,000 mile loop around Northern Italy (hence the name), the race took place every year for three decades, save for a break during the Second World War. But the perilous, do-or-die nature of the contest led to many crashes and more than ten fatalities, and the final chequered flag fell in 1957. In the 1970s, the Mille Miglia was reborn as we know it today — more of a grand tour than a hotly-contested, breakneck race (although some drivers, even now, forget this from
time to time.)
This year, for four glorious days, I somehow found myself in a machine worthy of the race’s golden age: a 1955 OSCA MT4 1100 Sport. I had been kindly invited as a guest of the famed watchmaker Chopard — the principle race sponsor that has enjoyed a long, storied partnership with the Mille Miglia. Chopard always releases a timepiece in celebration of the race, and tradition dictates that each driver is given one as a badge of honour to wear when they return home.
I am not a racing driver of any sort — though I do have a deep passion for motorsports and classic cars. So I was dimly aware of what I was getting myself into. In 1955, Sir Stirling Moss completed the race in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds — an average speed of 99mph. Sir Stirling’s co-driver — a motorcyclist named Denis Jenkinson — lost his glasses early on when he leaned over the side of their Mercedes Benz 300SLR to vomit. Sir Stirling, meanwhile, said he had no idea how fast they were going until he looked overhead and saw a twin-engined press plane struggling to keep up. The fact that it took us four strenuous days to complete the course puts this incredible feat into perspective. It’s stories like Sir Stirling’s that spark many a boy’s imagination and a love affair with cars in general.
Back to 2020. This year, the race had its own challenges, as the pandemic ripped across the world. The Mille Miglia usually takes place in May, but was postponed until October this time round — and many had feared it might be cancelled altogether. But the show must go on — and the sight of more than 400 stunning classic cars glinting in the autumn sun is one I will remember for a very long time.
Italians love their motorsport, and even now, in 2020, it was incredible to see just what the Mille Miglia means to them. In each town we were greeted by crowds of children waving flags, whilst old men drank their morning coffees or sipped their afternoon aperitivi. It was beautiful sight — not least because none of us had attended a live event on this scale for nearly a year.
My co-pilot for the race was good friend and German actor Ben Dahlhaus. Like me, he too was a rabbit in the headlights. Tall and broad, he wondered how he was going to fit in our little car for the next few days — let alone navigate and drive it through the winding Italian countryside. On arriving in Brescia for scrutineering, we both began to realise the enormity of the task ahead. The amount of stunning cars on display was astonishing, from Mercedes SL500 Gull Wings to original Bentley Blowers and Porsche 365 Speedsters.
The day before the race, we were given instructions by Pietro, the owner of our car. He seemed remarkably relaxed to be letting two novices take control of such a vehicle — a car that had raced in the Mille Miglia in 1955, 1956 and 1957 and was built by the famed Maserati Brothers themselves. She was stunning, but it took us both a while to find out which was her accelerator and which was her brake, each being positioned so close together. (A tip: it’s important to work this out, I find, before you embark on a 1000-mile drive around Italy.)
Mille Miglia 2020
Step inside the incredible Mille Miglia 2020 with official timekeeper Chopard
That was the least of our worries. On day one, just before we left the town of Brescia, our brakes decided to stop working altogether. (Just the confidence boost we needed.) The start of the race is mad, with each car jostling for position on the all-important first leg en route to Lake Garda. But we soon found our rhythm, and began to take in the full experience.
We’d drive for an average of 10 to 12 hours per day, and the long, winding route gave us a truly unique view of Italy. From Brescia around Lake Garda; then to Cevia and on to San Marino; then Rome, Siena (parking up in the Piazza Il Campo); then Florence, Viareggio on the Mediterranean,
and back up to Parma — before finally arriving back in Brescia.
There were many many highs — changing up and down gears whilst driving through stunning Italian countryside is a feeling that never seems to get old. There were also a few lows — not least some engine heating issues and a gearbox malfunction just before Rome which threatened to take the car out to the race completely. Even in its current format, the race is not for the faint hearted.
But it wasn’t until the finish line that I really began to appreciate just how special the Milla Miglia is. It’s here, on the final stretch, that the cars drive down the spectator-lined avenue to volleys of cheers and
waving flags. This is a bucket list moment.
As I write this, the dates for the 2021 Mille Miglia have just been released — next year, it’s back on in May. With a vaccine hopefully on the way, you can only imagine the euphoria, relief and passion that will accompany the first post-pandemic race — a truly poignant moment in the Mille Miglia’s roller coaster history. Before the start of this year’s race, the legendary driver Jacky Ickx had said to me: “this is something that you have to do at least once. Not only to discover the racing world of the Mille Miglia — but also to discover Italy.” I couldn’t agree more.
Words by Harry Jarman