Memories of the Mille Miglia
I first got involved in the Mille Miglia in 2007 — although that’s not quite right. My first involvement was as a co-driver, back in 1995. Or, I suppose, you could even take it back one step further, to 1987, when I first watched the race.
I was a student, in between being kicked out of university and getting my first job. I’d grown up in Italy, so my father took me to see what was, at the time, the Mille Miglia retrospective. It was the first classic car event I’d ever been to, and I’ll never forget driving there on a beautiful, sunny day, finding a spot just outside of Siena — and waiting for the cars to appear.
Of course, the original Mille Miglia had only run between 1927 and 1957. Founded by car enthusiasts from Brescia in the north of Italy, the race began as a response to the city losing the Grand Prix to Monza several years earlier. Brescia, they thought, still deserved an important motoring event — so they created a race around Italy.
It was to be a complete loop of the country, with no stops except for refuelling and tyre changes. The 1,000 mile route wasn’t even fully tarmacked, with much of the course just compacted dirt. At the time, the idea that any car could even complete such a distance, let alone do it all at once, was almost unthinkable. And yet, France had Le Mans, England had Brooklands and Germany had just built the Nurburgring. This was Italy’s answer.
That first year, the winning car took around 21 hours to complete the race. And it went on, pausing briefly for the Second World War, but continuing until 1957 — when a terrible accident killed the nobleman driving 170mph in a Ferrari, his co-driver and nine spectators. The government banned the race after that.
In the 1970s, however, a group of Italians decided the Mille Miglia should be reborn. After prototype events by several groups, 1982 saw the first true retrospective — except this time it wasn’t a flat-out race. It was a regularity event, whereby you had to stick to a time the organisers would give you. It worked out, of course, that you could complete the race under the legal speed limit — but only just.
Which brings us back to 1987, just outside Siena. As I watched, these cars began to appear, one by one. I was absolutely in awe. Fantastic vintage Ferraris with 12-cylinder, barking megaphone exhausts and voluptuous red, almost feminine bodywork. Alfa Romeos from the 1930s with booming, straight-eight supercharged whines. It stirred the soul.
And I remember watching a little red Italian car come into view — before seeing something fast and silver appear from the trees behind it.. It was a 180mph Mercedes 300SLR — possibly my dream car, with a Union Jack painted on the back and a gear lever that looks like Excalibur. It proceeded to gobble that little Italian car up. Driving it? The late Sir Stirling Moss — and it was the same car in which he’d won the race in 1955.
That 1955 victory, one of only two times the Mille Miglia wasn’t won by an Italian, was the fastest time ever established for the race: 10 hours and 7 minutes. Sir Stirling had chosen a motorcycle rider as his co-driver to save weight, who devised a system a little like a toilet roll holder to deliver his pace notes for the entire 1,000 mile course. And, even though the ink ran when it began to rain, and his glasses flew off when he leant over the car’s side to vomit, the pair still finished in record time. Sir Stirling even said that he didn’t realise how fast they were going until he looked overhead and saw a twin-engined press plane struggling to keep up. Seeing Sir Stirling that day in 1987 — that’s what really got me into classic cars.
Fast-forward a few years from 1987, and an Italian client invited me to be his co-driver in 1995. After collecting me in a Ferrari 250 Europa, we were driving along the autostrada and I asked him how much he’d driven the car. “This is my first time,” he replied. Suffice to say, we had generator problems, issues with the rear wheel arches and the clutch started slipping. But we still finished 70th out of 250 cars. That was my introduction proper to the Mille Miglia — and I will never forget it.
By 2007, I was brought back to commentate the race, when there were around 450 cars taking part. I would stand on the starting ramp, microphone in hand, and say a few words about each car. It was a very intense few hours. Great fun, but absolutely exhausting. Then, I’d jump in the car, roar off to Rome and do the same thing the next night — by which time the cars were very jumbled up.
You did, however, get to do that in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, a beautiful medieval castle. Huge crowds gathered, and you enjoyed a dinner with all the local politicians and VIP guests. There’s a definite buzz, but it’s far from luxurious. You don’t do the Mille Miglia to be mollycoddled — and it always amuses me to see these masters of the business universe, used to jetting around in their private planes and staying in the biggest suites at the finest hotels, suspending their standards of gastronomy and hospitality and living like gap-year backpackers for four days.
And there are some characters. We’ve had people like Daniel Day Lewis, Juan Fangio, Jenson Button. Italian politicians, government ministers, a lot of Italian TV presenters — particularly of the pretty variety. Jim Gianopulos, an American movie producer and now-CEO of Paramount Pictures. David Gandy, Jodie Kidd. Diverse, fascinating people. And some of them as old as 90, especially the retired racing drivers. It always impressed me, the stamina of these older gentlemen.
Of course, they’re not all racing drivers. There are plenty of people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. It’s become sadly popular to rent-a-drive, where you turn up on the day of the event and have absolutely no idea about your car. Then again, there are those who turn out to be surprisingly knowledgeable. We once had the Mayor of Moscow and his wife turn up. She was one of the richest women in Russia — and very competitive. They didn’t miss one single checkpoint on the route.
And the route is fantastic. My favourite stretch is between Siena and Florence, dotted with cypress trees, white dust roads and old farmhouses. But there’s often snow outside Rome in the Terminillo Mountains, and beautiful coastal stretches on the Adriatic coast. For speed, there’s a road out of Mantua where, back in the day, some cars would average 200mph. That’s fast.
So, naturally, you get hairy moments. I’ve seen cars on fire. I’ve seen cars overturned. I’ve seen cars with their fronts missing — the result of head-on collisions. Some people forget that this isn’t a Roman chariot race. But we’ve all been guilty of that, because the crowd is so fantastic. From 80-year-old women in black waving to you to schoolchildren waving flags from the railings of their schools, the Italian people make the Mille Miglia.
But they can also make you forget that your historic car doesn’t have a seatbelt, an airbag, or a roof. It’s often got no indicators, no ABS or disc brakes. So, while the Mille Miglia is undoubtedly wonderful — four days of euphoria, culture, camaraderie and history — it’s important that drivers remember they’re mortal, and that the laws of both the road and physics apply. Remember that, and there really is no other race like it.
Fancy taking a spin yourself? This 1955 Porsche Carrera Speedster is Mille Miglia eligible…
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