Mille Miglia: A Fatal Attraction
Ben Oliver on the road race that created Italian automotive passion in its own image
You are a driver in the Mille Miglia in the 1950s. You have been racing for fourteen hours now, stopping only to take on fuel and swallow another couple of pills.
It is dark, and you’re climbing through the Apennine mountains towards the Futa and Raticosa passes with over a hundred miles left to the finish line. The road is supposed to be closed, but this is fifties Italy so every hairpin corner brings a bicycle, donkey or badly parked car to deal with.
The tarmac is broken. Your car has three or four hundred horsepower but drum brakes and weak headlights and tyres that squeal but don’t grip. You’re so tired your amphetamine-addled mind is seeing things that aren’t there and missing those that are. And in this state you constantly have to make the finest of judgements; how hard to push. Back off, and you lose the race. Push too hard and you and your co-driver will die. There’s no Armco up here yet; no impregnable carbon-fibre safety cell in your car or teams of paramedics on every corner. These cars barely have seat belts. Get it wrong and your best hope is a quick death.
The Mille Miglia ran – on and off – for thirty years between 1927 and 1957; a race over a thousand miles on public roads, starting and finishing in Brescia and looping through Rome and Florence. It broke cars and drivers; fewer than half of the hundreds who started each year would finish. It was staggeringly dangerous, dangerous enough to be temporarily banned in 1939, back when we thought smoking was healthy and were about to enter a world war. But its influence was immense. “In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event,” said Enzo Ferrari. “The Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry.”
Italians could read in their newspapers about the victories of their home-grown cars in Grands Prix around the world. But before television, they couldn’t see them. So imagine being an Italian peasant farmer who has experienced nothing faster than a mule, and sitting on that mule in your field and watching an Italian hero like Varzi or Nuvolari or Taruffi drive an Italian car past you in a furious, deafening red streak, and reading in your newspaper the next day that he had beaten the Germans.
Ferrari is Italy, Italy is Ferrari. And this is where it all began.
When the race restarted after the war Ferraris won eight of the eleven races, before a Ferrari caused the carnage that finally killed it in 1957. Alfonso de Portago was the 28 year-old nephew of the King of Spain. His Ferrari suffered a puncture and flipped into the crowd who had gathered to see the cars at their fastest. De Portago, his co-driver and ten spectators, many of them children, died. The Mille Miglia was banned for good three days later and the crash grew to assume a morbidly iconic place in Italian culture.
In 1977 the road race was resurrected as a ‘historic rally’, open to cars that could have competed in the original event. The organizers stress that it isn’t a race. Do not believe them. It is insane. It is a convoy of the world’s most valuable, least-replaceable classic cars being driven with zero regard to their safety or their occupants’, on open public roads, chased and cut up by modern supercars, and all actively encouraged by the local police – who even compete themselves. It is no less dangerous than the original race, and it is impossible to imagine this happening anywhere other than Italy.
I competed in it in 2008, in a priceless, utterly original Jaguar XK120 known as the ‘Montlhery record car’, in which Sir Stirling Moss set a series of world speed and endurance records in 1951. It’s a privilege to take part in the Mille Miglia, but not actually much fun. You get a couple of hours’ sleep each night and spend all three days in constant fear of wiping out a piece of automotive history and trying to figure out the rules, which the Italians make utterly incomprehensible. Yet every year nearly 2000 of the world’s wealthiest car collectors apply for just 375 places. They’ll all have to stump up a £10,000 entry fee, but that’s just the start. Most pay for support vehicles and mechanics and fly their cars in from around the globe. And they have to buy them in first place. The popularity of the event drives the value of eligible cars through the roof, and many here have paid millions just to be able to drive up the starting ramp.
But as mad as the modern event might be, we’ll never understand how it must have been for those who drove in the real thing. Stirling Moss averaged almost 100mph over the entire course in 1955; to do that he had to travel at 170mph at times down unlit, cratered back roads, an almost unthinkable speed even in a modern supercar with half a century’s technical advantage. The old Mille Miglia can’t be replicated. Nothing in modern motorsport compares to it, and nobody will ever feel the same way at the wheel of a car.
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