It’s 1955. Stirling Moss is charging towards the finish line of the Mille Miglia - one of the world’s greatest road races - and is about to make history. His co-driver - journalist Denis Jenkinson - has directed the steely British racing driver via an 18-foot-long roll of pace notes, way before the world of rallying decided such a thing was probably a good idea.
Moss is eking every last drop of performance his Mercedes-Benz 300SLR has to offer, the straight-eight howling as that magnesium-bodied beauty blasts forward, hurtling down narrow country roads and tearing through quaint Italian towns at speeds of up to 180mph. All while relying on inboard drum brakes for stopping power.
The race isn’t without its issues for Moss and Jenkins. One hump on the route sees the car go airborne at 170mph (and thankfully land safely), and at one point Jenkins vomits all over the side of the car and loses his glasses. Mercifully, he has a second pair.
In the end, the SLR crosses the line in 10 hours, seven minutes, and 48 seconds, giving an astonishing average speed of 98.53mph, obliterating the previous record by 10 minutes. The new record will never be broken. Two years on, a huge crash in Guidizzolo leaves Ferrari’s Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver and nine spectators - five of them children - dead. A second crash in Brescia later claims the life of Joseph Göttgens, sealing the fate of the event - days later, the Italian government bans road racing in Italy. The Mille Miglia is over.
Fast forward 61 years, and I’m sat aboard another Mercedes - a 190SL Rennversion - competing in…well, the Mille Miglia, actually. But it’s not the same thing as that spectacularly exciting, extraordinarily dangerous road race. These days, it’s what’s known as a regularity rally, run as a tribute to the original. So what’s it like? After trying it out for the first time - partnering with four-time DTM champion Bernd Shneider no less - I can tell you…
This is probably what surprised me the most about the Mille Miglia: at times, it’s extremely chaotic. The most conspicuous display of madness comes at the start: you’re given a time to cross the line, and you have to stick to it. Is your starting time 8:26? Then you can start at 8:26.00 - 8:26.59. No later, no earlier.
As a result, the starting points are just a mess of hyper-expensive cars littering the roads as drivers wait to make their way over at the right time. Cars start in numbered order, so you find yourself gingerly picking your way through this priceless traffic jam, studying the numbers of each car.
As you get closer, there are marshals, who really don’t help Italian stereotypes by waving their arms and shouting a lot. I vividly remember two particular marshals getting especially angry, each one giving us different instructions simultaneously.
Then there’s the way people drive to consider. Which is not at all what you’d expect from someone piloting a car worth more than a lot of people earn in a life time. I saw some brave overtakes which required a lot of faith in other road users, what looked like a mangled Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale in a ditch, having spun off in the wet, and in pretty much every town, competitors simply drive through the middle of the road past traffic, like they’re filtering on motorbikes. Occasionally with a police escort, meaning this disgustingly valuable convoy can blast through every red light safely (ish) and with impunity.
And on the subject of the authorities, as the Mercedes convoy - made up of nine 300SL Gullwings, ‘our’ 190SL, a 220 Ponton and a 1920s SSK - made its way over to the start, a police bike tore past us, abruptly closed a lane of the dual carriageway we were joining on to and caught two drivers by surprise. They crashed into each other…
If you could sum up the Mille Miglia with just one noise, it’d be the throaty roar of an old inline-six. I’m talking about a deep, muscular noise as opposed to a scream, and it’s a noise you’ll here constantly on the rally from the aforementioned 300SLs and many a Jag XK120. Within the mix are roaring Maserati V8s, singing Ferrari V12s, gigantic pre-war inline-fours and much more besides.
Old performance cars don’t care about modern noise regulations. Old performance cars can’t help but breach the peace. And old cars don’t care about your ear drums.
Even the 190SL Rennversion with its comparatively humdrum 1.9-litre inline-four has a kind of firing squad-spec exhaust that’d make a Hyundai i30 N blush. But perhaps more importantly, with no roof, you’re immersed in all that glorious noise from everything else.
As well as trying to make it to a set finish point within a minute of your target time, each day of a regulatory rally will have multiple special stages. In the Mille Miglia these are in clusters spaced several hours apart, with each individual stage having a different target average speed.
Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. With it, you can pre-programme the stages into it, meaning the co-driver simply has to start the counter for each when the car crosses the line (usually a hose laid across the road), tell the driver the target average speed and relay the time and distance remaining (both of which are displayed).
The average speeds are rarely high: think 30 - 40kmh. So it’s not about speed, but about accuracy. It probably sounds quite dull now I’ve explained it, but there’s something weirdly satisfying, enjoyable and particularly tense about these stages. Harder still are the stages with ‘mystery’ end points - you need to keep a close eye on an average speed readout on a device attached to the dash, as it wildly fluctuates before settling down to within 0.1kmh of the target. It’s harder than it sounds.
Day two - the longest day of the rally - involved 14 hours of driving. Granted, that was split between myself and Bernd, but still, I was utterly ruined by the end of it. On top of the mental exhaustion of time keeping and the extra anticipation of traffic ahead needed when using shoddy 1950s-spec brakes, you also have the physical effort of wrestling around a car with no power steering all day. Oh, and the buffeting. The constant buffeting.
The starts are early, and you finish late, meaning - by the time you’ve had some food, got to your room and dabbled in social media-ing - you don’t get a lot of sleep either.
I really don’t think the Mille Miglia would work in the UK. All these rich people driving around, making noise, causing chaos - the angrier of the country’s tabloids would explode with rage.
But during my time on the rally, I didn’t witness a single person irked by our presence. Quite the opposite: much of the route is lined by spectators who seem overjoyed to see these cars noisily rumbling past.
Some of the towns you drive though are packed full of spectators who happily camp out all day - whatever the weather - just to cheers on the drivers. It’s one of the most memorable things about the rally, giving you some idea of what it was like for the likes of Moss back then. Those days are long gone, but as a tribute, the modern Mille Miglia is one hell of a tribute act.