Drivers Tale

Mille Miglia, Italy


..... the 1940s and 1950s, fans were hypnotized into taking their holidays early and driving down to the old town of Brescia on the plains of Lombardy where the race started.

It is not difficult to understand why this great race fired the imagination. Apart from its being the last of the old 'heroic' events, just consider its length and its hazards. A thousand miles of busy Italy was converted for a night and a day into one vast race-track. The race was run through several dozen towns, numberless villages. Although the roads were officially closed, it was quite impossible to prevent the odd dog or cat from scuttling across the route from time to time-or to forecast when a herd of cows might decide milking hour had arrived.

Imagine a parallel in Britain. Throughout the night cars would leave, say, London and head north at one minute intervals. By the early morning there would be upwards of 400 competing vehicles on the road between London and Aberdeen, 500 miles away. Then back again to London: time taken by a large car, ten or eleven hours. During the race all roads near the route would be closed to traffic (that would be enough to topple a government) and many railway crossings would be barred to trains. It would be a national holiday, and all other entertainment would be subordinated to the race. Radio and television programmes would be day-long commentaries on the event. Telephone calls connected with the race would be given priority throughout the country, and over one-eighth of the entire population of Great Britain would be at the kerbside to cheer on the competitors.

An interesting picture-but quite impossible to stage in Britain. And it was precisely this Alice-in-Wonderland quality of an entire country shutting up shop to go to a motor race that had a strong fascination for all who had come under its spell.

The Italian course is approximately 1,000 miles long. The start, at Brescia, east of Milan, catapults the cars eastwards to Verona, past Lake Garda, through the villages of Lombardy. From Verona to Ravenna the course is fast, permitting an average of over 100 m. p.h. in the larger cars. Then from Ravenna the competitors take the coast road down the Adriatic coast to Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona-almost flat out all the way-and further south to Pescara. Then westwards across country to Popoli, a long climb up the mountains to Aquila, Rieti and into Rome. Turning north for the first time then, they pass the towns of Vetrella and Viterbo, over the bumpy Radicofani Pass up through the mediaeval town of Sienna. Then into Florence, dodging in and out of the tramlines, and over the famous Futa Pass with its tight, twisting bends, bad road surfaces and steep gradients. By the time Bologna is reached, drivers have motored for a minimum of eight hours, usually in the broiling Italian sun, and fatigue begins to take its toll of cars. Modena, Reggio, Parma and Piacenza flash by and a last burst of speed is made between Cremona, Mantua and Brescia. The stretch between these towns brings the Nuvolari Cup for the fastest driver and all the larger cars make a determined effort here. The last few miles into Brescia are twenty-deep with waiting crowds ready to cheer in their favourite, and when the town is reached they swarm into the road like a wave of ants, each trying to see the cars as they flash by toward the tree-lined finishing area. . . .

It is said of this type of event that the contest begins when the entry forms are signed, and finished only when the prize is in the hands of the winner; but many of the entrants and teams that were to compete in the 1955 Mille Miglia started their preparations long before the forms were printed, way back in the summer of 1954. Daimler Benz in particular had worked through the year on four new 300 SLR sports cars, which were, in fact, not far removed in design from the Formula 1 models of that time. Their engine capacity had been increased from 2 litres to 3 litres, and the driving seats had been moved to the left of the cockpit. But there was a strong and thinly disguised family likeness to the all-powerful Grand Prix cars still grinning through.

The Mille Miglia was to be the maiden run of these silver Mercedes, and months before the event drivers were sent out to practise on the course. Neubauer, manager of the Mercedes team, had instructed them to drive at least 5,000 miles on practice runs-five times round the course-so that they could refresh their memories on the more intricate parts. Four cars and four drivers were entered in the event. Moss, Fangio, Hermann' and Kling, each with a superbly prepared 3-litre, straight-eight fuel-injection unitS under their control. The actual specifications of the machines were kept a close secret, so that the inquisitive Italian betting rings that blossomed at this time of the year had to chance their arms in setting odds. They knew all about their own cars: the Ferrari 4.9-litre car and its smaller partner, the 3.5-litre Europa; the I.8-litre Maseratis, and hundreds of lesser vehicles that were due at the start in Brescia; but of the mysterious German entries they knew nothing.

Although Herr Neubauer had issued orders for an unprecedented length of reconnaissance, Stirling Moss and his passenger Denis Jenkinson, the small, bearded motor cycle-sidecar ace and motoring journalist, had decided early in the year to augment the orders. They made up their 'minds to learn the entire course as thoroughly as humanly possible. It proved to be impossible, even though they started touring round the Italian course early in February. So Jenkinson took copious notes of the turns, straights, when the car could be let out at speeds up to 170 m.p.h., dangerous bends after a fast road, hidden bridges, hump-backs, bad surfaces, landmarks and so on. After a couple of times round, these notes took on the look of a small volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica. They both realized that it would be folly to try to read them in their present form during the actual race.

Jenkinson had the bright idea of making a sort of toilet roll of the notes (a method now used in many rallies) and putting them in a perspex-covered box which would contain two rollers. As the race progressed he could turn the rolls and read off the signs and warnings. They devised a system of signals so that the co-driver could instruct Moss by hand-the engine noise and the screaming wind would have whipped away any shouted instructions. Moss must have had a deep faith in the accuracy of Jenkinson's roll as he intended to obey him completely during the race, and they both knew what the result would be if his notes were wrong.

Meanwhile other drivers were cruising round Italy on a refresher course. The Italian drivers obviously had a tremendous advantage, as many of them were businessmen travelling over the country in the normal routine of work, and would use the Mille Miglia route deliberately on their way north and south through Italy. They were all out during the last month or so before the race, sharpening up for the final contest. And this year there were more than ever. . . .

Three days before the race was due to begin, the dignified stone-built town of Brescia put up the flags. From all corners of Europe and America journalists, photographers, race fans, officials poured into the town. The garages of Brescia and the district for miles around were bursting at the seams with competing cars. In the town itself it was almost impossible to drive, so great were the crowds of visitors.

At the Piazza Vittoria, the sun funnelling down in a dazzling glare which made the shaded arcades the goal of all those who were unoccupied, the scrutineering took place. It was quite a task. In addition to the 648 cars, each of which had to be examined in detail, there must have been some 5,000 eager, scrambling fans determined not to miss the sight of even one little Isetta as it trundled up to the official paddock. A great cheer went up as each Ferrari or Maserati inched up to the officials, and as the great drivers appeared the sound of whirring cine cameras sounded like a swarm of bees.

The Mercedes cars, prepared to the last flick of a duster, were forbidden by their meticulous manager to be driven up to the scrutineering bay. They were rolled in on trailers to the amusement of some of the locals; they thought it was all part of the German team's showmanship. Maybe they were right, but it was backed by such thorough prerace work that even the mechanics were allowed to do no more work on them before the race started-an unprecedented routine.

Scrutineering went on for two hot days. The scenes at the Piazza were out of an Italian holiday brochure. Comic little vendors of ice cream and pirate entry lists dodged in and out of the throng; umbrellas, with the Mille Miglia motive sprayed across them in red, sprang up around the square; tumultous action raged side by side with lemonade-drinking signorinas and their boy friends. The Piazza was a riot of fun for all except the police and the scrutineers.

Throughout the rest of the town, one had to be wary when stepping off the pavement. Snarling Italian cars would rip by at speed; cyclists, involved in some unofficial G.P. of their own, would fly into the main roads from almost invisible byways; and priests on scooters would flip the unwary base over apex before you could say Te Deum.

On the evening of 28 April the organizers of the race, Count Aymo Maggi and Commandatori Castagneto, gave a massive formal dinner for the drivers and a few favoured journalists at Aymo Maggi's ancient draw-bridged villa a few miles out of Brescia. To this man a great debt was owed by many Britons for years he had thrown open his doors to visiting journalists and had regally accommodated them as house-guests over the race period. This year was no exception, and most of the British journals were represented there, Autocar, The Motor, Autosport; and many of them were at the dinner that night. It was a most cosmopolitan affair, and how some of the Argentinian drivers, Italian administrators, British pressmen and German managers communicated with each other, goodness only knows. But somehow they did.

The last day of April began-and ended - in typically beautiful Italian Primavera weather, the perfume of wistaria~mingling with the fumes of oil and petrol as the last of the army of cars were sealed and ticketed.

As the evening rolled up to nine o'clock the fever of the crowds rose on the tree-lined avenue on the east side of Brescia where the starting ramp had been erected. In the light of the tree-suspended lamps people were buying the usual fortification for the night's vigil-large onion-shaped flasks of red Chianti, pizza, and gigantic salami sandwiches. The stands were full of chattering fans, the occasional urchin was chased by voluble caribinieri, pretty girls were selling programmes, and the stalls lining the starting area were making their yearly fortune. A queue of the early-starting cars, the smallest, was lined up behind the ramp, almost hidden by probing enthusiasts. The entry for this race of r 955 had exceeded all records. The early entry lists had shown 29 sports cars, 7 special touring cars, 47 grand turismo cars, 7 diesels, and 73 production touring cars. The list later rose to 648, of which 503 were actually flagged on to the course.

At 9 p.m. precisely the first of the small cars was sent off into the darkness. At oneminute intervals the Isettas, Fiats and Renaults shot off into the night on the first leg of the 1,000 miles course. On through the small hours the starter's flag whipped down every sixty seconds, until by dawn the bigger of the G.T. cars had left Brescia.

Stirling Moss and his partner had drawn 7.22 a.m. for the time of their start. The numbers on all the cars corresponded with their time of start, and the Moss-Jenkinson Mercedes had a bold 722 painted on its side.

At 6.58 a.m. Fangio, in the first of the Mercedes, rolled down the ramp; he was driving solo, having refused a passenger. Kling left five minutes later, and Hermann at 7.04 a.m. Moss left the bustling ramp at 7.22 followed by one of his greatest rivals, Castelotti, in a Ferrari just one minute later. The veteran Piero Taruffi roared away in the rear, at 7.28. . . . The small and undistinguished village of Lonato, some twenty-five miles from the sj:art, was one vast grandstand, particularly at its only corner, at the south end: It was a wicked, sharp left-hander, and the local fans-which meant the entire village-were watching the cars knowledgeably as they took the tricky bend. In the early light the main contenders slewed around the corner, clipping the doorsteps of houses and almost polishing the shoes of many of the more reckless spectators. The different cornering techniques were discussed at length. A British T.R.2 slipped round to a murmur of admiration. An Austin Healy swung a little too wide; the afficionados demonstrated with mobile hands how they would have done it. Then at about 7.40 a.m. Moss's silver car thundered down the main street and took the turn. It could clearly be seen that the young Englishman was on top form.

He seemed to turn his wheels into the corner almost two metres before he entered it. Then he was on it and through in one easy controlled slide-it looked twice as fast as any other car-and the sight stopped the breath of even this hardened crowd. The photographers on the straw bales shook their heads. If he keeps this up he'll win, they said. . . if he doesn't kill himself first.

Moss had a long way to go before his first break. The Mercedes had an extra-large tank built in, so that it could travel non-stop as far as Pescara, one of the most southerly points of the course, refuel there, and continue to Rome where mechanics would change tyres and put in the last load of petrol. There had always been a certain amount of difficulty with re-fuelling points on this race, and it was decided that the fewer stops the better. On occasions, when re-fuelling has been assigned to one of the petrol companies, chaos has resulted. Traditionally the job would be given to good-service pump attendants and this had often resulted in some over-excitement on their part. Drivers had even been asked how many litres they required before now!

Mercedes had in fact arranged that their own men should be stationed at the fuel points, with the result that Moss stopped for only twenty-seven seconds at Pescara, while Piero Taruffi, who at that time was in the lead, had to wait for a minute and a half while his tank was refilled. It lost him the lead.

The road from Brescia to Verona and Vicenza was good for speeds of up to 160 m.p.h. and Moss took full advantage of the fact. Concentrating on the driving, he left 'Jenks' to read the map, supply him with signalled information and press the headlight-flasher when he needed to pass slower cars. Jenkinson did the job thoroughly, so thoroughly that neither of them noticed that Castellotti's Ferrari had appeared behind them and was now rapidly closing the gap. The Italian was driving as though he was out to break a Grand Prix circuit record, giving his car the gun during this initial part of the race while he was still fresh. As they approached Padua, the Ferrari was breathing up the exhaust pipe of the German car. They weaved through the town seconds apart.

At the south end of Padua Jenks suddenly realized that Moss was moving far too quickly to take a sharp left turn after a straight. He held on and prayed while the drier fought with the brakes and steering wheel. At the last possible moment Moss released the brakes and took the corner, just biting the straw bales with his left front wing, and crumpling the bodywork around the headlight. It was the lightest of grazes, due to Moss's superb skill, but it slowed him down just enough for a wildly grinning Castellotti to slip past.

Moss had previously decided in his cool way to run this race at his own speed and not to be magnetized into a duel. Consequently he let the Ferrari go, and continued to motor as fast as he thought reasonable. He was proved wise in the event, for after watching Castellotti scorch away, leaving great black tyre deposits at every bend, he passed the over-exuberant Italian at Ravenna sitting angrily in his red car while mechanics feverishly replaced his worn tyres.

Now Moss and Jenkinson thundered southwards past Forli, through the holiday town of Rimini and on to the coast road towards Pescara, passing slower cars, wrecked cars, disabled cars and literally millions of wildly waving Italian fans. On the fast sections the big Mercedes would travel like a projectile towards the crowds on the horizon. As the car approach the roadside watchers would recede like a wave before a battleship, leaving just enough room for the car to flash past. This, in fact, was one of the worst hazards of the race, for the opening bottleneck of people could sap the courage of the most veteran driver on the long trip through Italy. Karl Kling actually became so frightened that he braked too rapidly and shot off the road, luckily missing the packed spectators. One can imagine his choice of vocabulary as he remonstrated with the crowds when he had climbed out of his Mercedes.

Moss hurtled down the Adriatic coast road through the bright morning. Jenks continued to use the toilet-roll computer with complete confidence, saving them second after second as he directed the driver round bends and over hills. The incessant noise and shaking of the roaring car shook his inside around like a pea in a cocktail shaker. He shed his early morning meal at 160 m.p.h. and continued to read and signal. Later the buffeting wind snatched off his spectacles. He put a spare pair on his nose and continued to read and signal. Nothing could stop Jenks working.

The sun climbed high. Heat seared down on the English pair, sweat poured down their backs, into their eyes, over their hands. And still they flew south at an., average of over 115 m.p.h. Somewhere along the coast road a hump-back bridge was marked on the long roll of notes. Fairly smooth said the code, and Jenks gave the flat-out sign. The car screamed up to the bridge and Jenks saw that the code was wrong. The road dipped away rapidly after the crest of the hump.

At 170- plus the silver car took the brow of the small hill, left the road, and sailed through the air. For fifty metres the Mercedes shot forward, all four wheels off the tarmac. Moss sat rigid, gripping the wheel firmly in his hands, not deviating a fraction from dead centre. The car hit the road sickeningly-and continued as straight as an arrow on its course. Both driver and passenger must have said a brief prayer of thanks for they knew well enough what would have happened to them if the steering wheel had moved a millimetre off centre. . . .

As, they drew into Pescara they were waved into the control and refuelling point where they had their card stamped, windscreen cleaned, and enough petrol put in the tank to carry them to Rome across the other side of the country. Time taken for the lot-twenty seven seconds. A few moments later Taruffi's Ferrari drew into the control at Pescara. It was announced that he was fifteen seconds ahead of No. 722-behind in time, but ahead in the race, for he had started four minutes later than Moss. Over the radio, came the announcement that Castellotti was catching up fast. Television reporters and local stations picked up the happy news and relayed it to the entire country. But Taruffi's pit stop lasted too long-and by the time he drove furiously out of the town he had lost the leaD to the Mercedes...

Moss, meanwhile, had lost a few seconds of his hard-won lead by spinning as he left Pescara, swinging into the straw bales-luckily they were loosely packed-reversing the car, and continuing his way with the unruffled calm of a master. A quick flip across country through Aquila and Rieti, over the central range of mountains, brought them to Rome. The Eternal City was crammed to the balconies-the roofs-with wild crowds. They lined the route almost on each other's shoulders. It was impossible for the drivers to recognize any of the landmarks of the route, or for that matter to see any of the race signposts. The road ahead of them was clogged solid with humanity.

Stirling Moss slowed down to a strolling 100 plus and weaved his car from side to side to frighten a path through the populace, while Jenks flashed the headlight and honked the horn. It worked. They reached the fuelling point, filled up, had their wheels changed, card stamped and steering column tag sealed, and were on their way within a minute of stopping.

Now Jenks is not superstitious but Moss is. And there was an old Mille Miglia saying that went, 'He who leads in Rome never leads at Brescia'. They had been informed that they were in the lead; Taruffi, Castellotti, Fangio, and the other 400 left in the race were all trailing along behind-in time at least. One wonders what Moss must have been thinking as they sped north on the last leg of the circuit. He had been lucky with his car number-it had a seven in it, and he was wearing his horse-shoe around his wrist. Gould he break the proverb that had held good since the race was first run back in the 'twenties? .

As they turned towards Viterbo, the news that Fangio was running in second place was wired to every agency in the country. The Italian favourite, white-haired Taruffii, had not drawn a winning ticket this time and came to a grinding haIt with his oil pump out of action. Of Castellotti there was no sign.

Moss stepped up the power. He had driven comparatively easily to Rome, aiming to turn up the wick on the return leg. Now he was on it and let the Mercedes out at full extension. Past Viterbo, storming up into the mountain region and the dangerous Futa Pass, the low car plunged northward. Neither Moss nor Denis Jenkinson (the Italians called him 'Barbarossa'-'Redbeard') knew at this stage whether they were leading the field or had been overtaken on the clock by one or several of the fastest cars. They knew nothing of Taruffi's breakdown, or that Fangio was speeding up despite peculiar noises from his car, or that an Italian Ferrari in the hands of Maglioli was creeping forward on the graph of leaders. They just batted on through the afternoon, round thousands of bends, through hundreds of gear changes, slides, drifts, past a continuous blur of suntanned faces cheering them on their way. And the locals, surprisingly, were cheering on the Moss-Jenkinson car: they cheered everything within sight on that fevered spring day.

At the foothills of the Futa they passed Hans Hermann who waved them on with a wry smile. His Mercedes had been holed in the tank by a flying stone, and he was out of the race. Jenks waved back and they ploughed up the steepening road. At Florence a few minutes previously there had been no news of relative positions, and Moss had made up his mind to scramble up the Futa at maximum speed. Actually by this time Taruffi was out and Fangio had made a stop at Florence but the Englishman knew nothing of this and was still hell-bent on maintaining his speed.

They wound up the Futa and the Radicosa Passes like champion hill climbers, sliding on the poor surface of the road, taking hairpins in a way that sent the spectators running for their lives, and entered Bologna on the other side of the Apennine range just over an hour after leaving Florence. Moss kept the car moving at sprinting pace at the Florence control, making the plump officials trot alongside as they stamped his card. This little trick saved a few seconds, but the Italians must have chuckled as the car streaked off for Modena - they had been given no time to tell Moss that he was well in the lead.

Over went the rev. counter again as they gobbled up the road to Parma and Piacenza, then turned right sharply to approach Cremona, once home of the greatest violin maker in Europe. With a most unmusical blast they whisked into the cobbled town, through the main arch with inches to spare, and away into the long stretch of straight between Cremona and Mantua. The car that made the fastest time over the section (Cremona-Mantua-Brescia) was awarded the Nuvolari Cup; for the famous, the one and only Nuvolari, the man who stands at the apex of Italian esteem, had lived here in Mantua for most of his life. Moss must have wanted it for his sideboard, for his speed over this section was at times up in the region of 180 m.p.h. As they entered the outskirts of Brescia once more, just over ten hours after they had shot off the ramp, Jenks sat back and relaxed for the first time. Moss cut his speed to 100 m.p.h. and lined the car up for the finishing flag.

He sped through a narrow lane of photographers and officials flashing his lights in warning, while Jenkinson raised his right hand in a high-spirited salute. The frantic applause of the crouds and the fall of the flag told them they had won. As Moss ran the car round to the finishing area again, both he and Jenkinson were mobbed by police, press, officials-anyone who could get near them. They wearily levered themselves out of the car and were both heartily kissed by manager Neubauer. Moss linked arms with his stocky passenger, and they staggered through the crowd to the refreshment buildings, Count Maggi supporting them on one side and Neubauer helping them to keep on their feet at the other. . . .

Stirling Moss broke almost every record during his epic drive. He shattered the course record by over I I m.p.h. He set a new record for the two halves of the circuit. He had been the leader at Rome and had won the race. He was the first Briton to win since the race began. Twenty-five-year-old Stirling Moss had completed his finest drive - and had won the toughest race in the world.

General classification:
1. 722 Mercedes-Benz (S. Moss): 10 h. 7 min. 48 sec. (97'90 m.p.h.). 2. 658 Mercedes-Benz (J. Fangio): 10 h. 39 min. 33 sec.
3. 705 Ferrari (Maglioli): 10 h. 52 min. 47 sec.
4. 63 I Maserati (Giardini): II h. 15 min. 32 sec.
5. 417 Mercedes-Benz (Fitch): I I h. 29 min. 2 I sec.
6. 724 Ferrari (Sighinolfi): I I h. 33 min. 27 sec.

Positions at some controls:

Ravenna: 1st - Castellotti

Pescara: 1st- Taruffi

Rome: 1st- Moss

Florence: 1st-Moss

Bologna: 1st-Moss

Coppa Nuvolari: (Fastest: Cremona-Mantua-Brescia)-S. Moss (Mercedes-Benz).

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