For an event that presents itself as the most beautiful race in the world, the Mille Miglia is a surprisingly difficult, dirty and dangerous business. I completed my third competition outing there in June, this time at the wheel of a mesmerizing 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, owned by the brand’s museum in Stuttgart and worth around 1.8 million of dollars. After each event, I returned the keys to my priceless vintage car to the crew with a sense of relief and disbelief that he and I were still in one piece and wondered if I’d have the nerve to do it. remake.
You will have read other stories of this extraordinary vintage rally along Italy. But for some reason, perhaps out of a sense of duty or quid pro quo to the watch or automobile company that sponsored their efforts, most journalists seem reluctant to really grasp the bureaucracy, the confusion of rules, the extreme fatigue of driving for 16 years. hours a day for four days, three hours of sleep a night, and the all-too-frequent sense of impending doom as 400 vintage cars with values often deep in the millions of barrels blasted through 2,000 miles of open public roads , in complete disregard of the law, but with active encouragement from the Carabinieri and locals, who come cheering you on as you do 100mph through their school zones.
It could only happen in Italy, and there is nothing like it in the world of classic cars. But it is really hard work. I had wondered, after my previous races, why so many millions and billionaires are fighting to guarantee entry, paying premiums for classic cars that are already worth millions of dollars because they are more likely to be admitted, and often spending well into six figures over four days of driving once you factor in the cost of preparing your vehicle and transporting and lodging your support crew. But this year, as I wiped sweat, sand and the smell of oil, brakes and clutches from the back of my neck at my hotel in Brescia, the answer came to me.
First, the briefest of summaries. As its name suggests, the original Mille Miglia was a race run over miles of public roads, from Brescia in the north to Rome and back. It took place between 1927 and 1957 and was dangerous enough that Mussolini banned it in 1939 and from 1941 to 1946. It was finally officially banned in 1957, when the Ferrari helmed by the Spanish-Irish nobleman, racing driver and playboy the Marquess of Portago blew a tire at high speed and crashed into the crowd, killing him, his co-driver and nine spectators, including at least two children.
An accident of this magnitude had been on the cards for some time. The great Nuvolari was so exhausted from the Mille in ’48 that he had to be carried from his first Ferrari – which was also rapidly disintegrating – into the cool darkness of a church to recuperate. Stirling Moss admitted he needed amphetamines to cover the road in a fraction of more than 10 hours at an average speed of nearly 100 mph in 1955 in his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, which remains one of greatest engines in motorsport.
The race was revived in 1988 as a historic rally for cars that might have competed at the time, and although in theory you could go the whole course within the speed limit, it’s not at all like that it works in practice. If you get lost, break down, or have trouble finding fuel, you end up driving flat out to get to the next checkpoint in time. And even if you’re not late, you end up driving like this anyway, carried away by the manic exuberance of the event. Usually flashing blue lights in your side mirrors are a really bad thing when you’re driving “enthusiastic”, but on the Mille it just means you’re going to have a police escort for the next few miles and you can dive in the circles -points with just a brush of the brakes and without checking traffic because you are at least reasonably confident that your police riders have stopped it.
It lasts all day for four days until you are deliriously tired. And that’s the point, I think. It’s a kind of special luxury experience, but fatigue is what you pay for.
There’s nothing else you can do with your classic racer that really makes you feel how your heroes behaved when driving cars like yours back in the day. It’s very nice to park your Alfa from the 1930s or your Ferrari from the 1950s on the lawns of Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este and let yourself be admired while drinking Champagne, but that’s not why it is done. Historic circuit racing is getting close, but it can be tamed and is more likely to expose your lack of ability than make you feel like Moss or Nuvolari.
But the Mille can. These are the same crowds that come out to wave at you, although I did spot an elderly lady peering from her balcony who looked at me cynically as if to say she remembered Moss in 55 and that I was not Moss. It’s the same fear of an accident: my Gullwing’s only concession to safety being the tiny chrome handles on the dash that were too hot to grip anyway. Drivers have died in the historic version of the Mille, and I know people who have suffered serious injuries. And sure, you do it in four days rather than one, but it’s a similar kind of exhaustion. Now you rely on caffeine rather than amphetamines to complete each day. You sometimes wonder if it’s enough, but you have another double and carry on.
I don’t expect you to feel sorry for the contestants, though. There are more than enough transcendent moments to outweigh any entirely voluntary difficulties, such as when a setting Tuscan sun transforms that glorious long polychromatic silver cowl as you cross the Apennine mountains, or when that same cowl rises as you give the Gullwing its head and screams hard and fast and unleash the endless straights across the cornfield plains between Milan and the finish line in Brescia. When I got there I slept for 13 hours, I still wondered if I would risk my neck if they asked me Fourth time and fairly quickly came to the same conclusion.
Ben Oliver is an award-winning motoring journalist who writes from the UK.