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Brescia-Rome-Brescia, 15th - 18th of May

There is a lot written on the most famous race in the world, following the red arrows through Italy over 1000 miles, back in the glorious era of road racing all the greats came to challenge the long distance race, mostly with Italian winners on Italian cars. After the last race in 1957 it just took 20 years to resurrect the Mille Miglia as a historic rally in the spirit of the origin, open for those cars running the original race as a regularity event. Right from the beginning the MM was a huge success and once planned as a tribute for the 50th anniversary it soon became an annual event attracting both spectators and entrants from all over the world for some unforgettable days in Italy, enjoying the food, landscape and enthusiasm of the locals to all things fast and loud (particular in Italian red). This special ambience along the road is the major key to the success of the MM as this is an event lived by a whole country rather than just a few individuals.

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Last week this year’s edition was held again with start and finish in Brescia and the turning point in Roma but several changes were made in the second year after the MAC-intermezzo. As the Brescia Car Club had the impression that the commercialisation was going too far they decided to organize it with external help by themselves. After a year of transition with the same route as the year before the new concept was revealed earlier this year. Most important was a prolongation to a fourth day rather than the usual three and a changed route both on the way down to Rome and also back. Furthermore the amount of cars was increased to 430 making this a record year including the known Ferrari tribute and its Mercedes-counterpart.

Taken over from the last years was the scrutineering in the Fiera di Brescia. Certainly the fair ground is not as charming as the chaotic procedure in the Brescia city centre but with this amount of cars it was not manageable anymore. So from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday morning the driving and supporting crews had the possibility to check in to get their road book, transponder and the race stickers. Beside some new entrants and a lot of repeaters again the works supported teams were numerous, led by the main sponsor Mercedes-Benz. The German manufacturer was the only marque outside Italy that was able to win the original, both in 1931 and 1955 with legendary models and drivers. Most important and famous is without doubt the drive of Sir Stirling Moss and Dennis Jenkinson in the record time of about 10 ½ hours in the 300 SLR and although the original car is kept in the museum for several years now one of the sister cars was again on display in Brescia on the blue race transporter and even without driving it was a crowd puller.

The second win was on the legendary SSKL in the hands of Rudolf Caracciola in 1931 and this year the entry list looked very much like a meeting of the Mercedes Supercharger Club as more “white elephants” (although not all of them were white) could be seen in Brescia than in previous years. The new organisation decided to loosen the regularities so again several shortened versions of the “ordinary” 710 SS were allowed to take part. Although some might discuss their originality the bystanders certainly do not care whether a particular car was born as a short or long chassis version. The Mercedes entry was rounded of by two W194 300 SL prototypes, the racing version of the famous Gullwing that also could be seen in large numbers, one was entered privately, the other in the hands of Jochen Mass. He was joined by former DTM Champion Bernd Schneider and Klaus Ludwig and whereas the later drove one of the Gullwings Schneider discovered slowness in a Mercedes 220 A, sometimes one forgets that the MM was not just about sports car racing as numerous smaller displacement classes including Diesel cars featured cars like these.

The second German manufacturer that won a Mille Miglia (although the 1940 triangle edition around Brescia), BMW entered again their special streamlined 328 models from Touring and Zagato.

Less fortunate in the original race were the British manufacturers but nevertheless Jaguar was present in full force with several C- and D-Types and XK120 race models. Lined up with the recently sold Ecurie Ecosse transporter outside the fairground they made an impressive entry for the marque with the cat. They were either piloted by racers like Marc Brundle and Bruno Senna but also by car addicted celebrities led by Jay Leno. The American talk show master took the chance after his “retirement” to experience the MM by himself and wherever he appeared he was the star both with spectators and journalists. Starting with the scrutineering in Brescia he gave countless interviews and posed for fan-photos along the road, being a professional always with a smile. When entering the piazza in Siena an American tourist couple recognized him by chance and handed its crying small child into the open Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar XK120 for a photo to remember very much to the enjoyment of the bystanders. Leno is very well known for being a petrolhead; others like US actor Jeremy Irons or ACDC frontman Brian Johnson are less known for their car affinity. When looking at the spectators on the road one could see all types of visitors including school classes, priests, nuns and business men but groups of long hair heavy metal fans in ACDC T-shirt might be a novelty for the MM.

But the majority of cars were entered by privateers and again a variety of different sports cars could be admired. As soon as one of the Ferrari opened its bonnet numerous Ferraristi were checking every number, other curiosities on the other side remained ignored. One of these obscurities was a Healey with very unusual body called “Drone”. Reportingly about 15 of these were made and after all these years this was the very first entered at the Mille Miglia retrospective. With a rather ugly body one was interested in learning the story behind it and not few were surprised that this was for tax reasons. Back in these days there was a luxury tax for cars over 1000 pound and so these were bodied in the cheapest possible was to be sold at 999 pounds, after being registered the car could be rebodied in a favoured style, but this car was entered in this form in the original MM and therefore restored back to this original specification. One just have to imagine one of the Ferrari of this era would have left the factory like this before being rebodied by Touring or Pinin Farina leaving the question what to do with it to restore it to original configuration.

After the crews finished scrutineering they were led to the city centre on Thursday morning for the sealing of the car making sure that they actually drive with the entered car but also to show the cars to the people. The sealing this year was back at the Piazza Vittoria where most of the pictures of the original MM were taken but this was not because the organization wanted to change from the previous one but because the building of the subway finished earlier this year that blocked the place the years before. One could see who was a first timer at the MM as most of the regular entrants were more than surprised when entering the previous location that the tents disappeared, on the other side this way a very good spot to see all the cars coming by in one of the cafés as this was the only entry to the Piazza Vittoria. Later the cars were parked on the various piazzas in the crowded city centre in perfect sunshine before the traditional start in the evening on the Viale Venezia.

With a field that large the cars were sent off by presenter Simon Kidston without much comments so the last car left just about two hours behind the first making this maybe the fastest start in recent years. After passing Desenzano and Sirmione the route made a sidestep to the foot of the Dolomites at Bassano del Grappa, the playground of another Italian rally, the “Mittiche Sport a Bassano”. Unlike in previous years the day did not end in Ferrara but in Thermae Abano Montegrotto near Padua. The thermal bath was ideal with a lot of good hotels to take the hundreds of guests and although the first car just arrived about midnight the streets were crowded at every city drive through until the last cars passed.

Early at the next morning the journey led south, first to Ferrara and then to the traditional stop in San Marino. Being later on the timetable San Marino was also the lunch point after a morning drive through the traffic of the region. Completely different was the further route down the Adrian coast to Ancona whereas the journey led to the inner country in previous years. Certainly it is good to change the route from time to time but it took a while before the cars finally could leave the traffic at the coastline to make some miles. Being a regularity event it was difficult to keep up with the timetable with the numerous passings of the city centres and less miles on wide country roads. Finally the road climbed up the mountains to L´Aquila and whereas the first cars were well before the bad weather the later had to deal with rain and the darkness on the way up, the last cars arrived about midnight in the historic city centre. With more than two hours still to drive down to Rome this meant another short night after half time.

The biggest change was made on the third day as the Saturday did not lead all the way back to Brescia but just to Bologna for the first time. Although this was a reduction of several hours the first car already left Rome at 6:30am for maybe the nicest part of the MM. Going all the way through Tuscany Viterbo was crossed on the way to Radicofani. The old town on top of the mountain is one of spectators’ favourites as the cars were awaited by a lot of people, unfortunately construction works made a passing of the old church impossible, normally the stairs in front of the ancient building were used as tribunes by the visitors. After the creep through Siena the next big change was made in this year road book as Florence was left to the right and the route led to Pisa instead before the Passo Futa and Radicosa were taken to arrive in Bologna for the final night. This additional stop was very much discussed upfront this year’s Mille Miglia. Many had the impression that this was a good step to make the MM safer as normally the last leg from Bologna through the flat Po area was a blast of tired drivers to make it to Brescia as fast as possible, followed by even more tired drivers of the support vehicles (as those had to spent good parts of the short night to service the car), others mentioned that this was even part of the feeling of the MM to arrive late at night in a crowded Brescia centre, tired but happy to finish, something that will be lost within the new format.

Now the last stage was done on Sunday morning with an arrival at noon. But this did not necessarily mean that the day on Saturday was much more relaxed as the Futa and Radicosa was passed much later. Another downside of this Sunday arrival is that those who usually trailer their car home the following day had to prolong their holiday for another day, so a lot of cars just disappeared straight from the ramp for their way home. Others stopped in front of the numerous cafés to have a deserved beer and pizza after a 1000 miles drive.

“How was your MM” might have been the first question people were asked by friends and other entrants, especially the opinion of those who came back after several years (as not few seemed to skip the MAC-era coming back after a year looking at the new organization) was very interesting. Everyone had a different story to tell as it does make a lot of difference what type of car and with what starting number one was driving. For those with the lower numbers the day usually starts very early and features some business traffic in the morning making it difficult to keep up with the timetable. Especially on the leg to San Marino (and this year through Ancona) this leads to a very own interpretation of the traffic laws in the cities when new lines are opened at traffic lights and a lot of passing to get through the traffic. The pre-war cars also have to deal with inferior drum brakes in modern traffic but they are rewarded with less pressure as they do not risk to get out of the classification due to the closure of the check points when dropping back a few minutes due to a technical issue like the cars at the end of the convoy do. They also drive most of the stages in daylight whereas the later cars tend to run into dusk with a lot of miles left. The weather was another difference as the early cars were driving in front of the bad weather to Rome whereas the later had hours of heavy rain spoiling the fun. The later cars on the other side have less traffic and usually do not have to wait as long at the check points compared to the cars in the middle, a problem especially for the race cars as their cooling is not designed to creep up the hill in San Marino in MM traffic.

But not all of the later cars are the powerful Porsche, Maserati and Ferrari as there are also VW Beetles and Renault 4CV who need to drive most of the day at the limit to stay in their designated time window, maybe not exactly the fun one is thinking of when driving the Mille Miglia.

For some the best and most interesting places are the ones in the middle, mainly occupied by the many Eceterini like the beautiful Stanguellini, Ermini, Gilco, Giaur and others. These tiny cars mostly based on Fiat parts are basically the backbone of the Mille Miglia, today as they were in the past.

So this was another memorable Mille Miglia although the timing of the new route was very much a favour to the early cars as the timing was not great for the later ones. Running with numbers of the second half of the field meant that the more interesting parts of the rally were driven at night, even the Futa and the Radicosa became dark when the last cars passed. Basically the first car arrived there when the last passed in previous years. Presumable the route might change in the years to follow to make the MM a little bit more different for those coming every year but on the other side some fix points like San Marino, Radicofani, Futa and Siena should be kept reducing the possibilities of changes.

To make things complete there is also an overall classification for the regularity trial and as in previous years the first places are reserved for pre-war cars because of the better coefficient. The first five places were taken by all Italian crews with the most consistent being the team Mozzi/Biacca in their Lancia Lambda from1928. With a lot of champagne the prestigious overall victory was celebrated but beside a few of the runner-ups no one has to be disappointed as finishing the Mille Miglia after four days is reward enough for the exertions of the long days and short nights.

Certainly the MM does not only see sun but there are also shadows that should not stay uncommented. This year (like in previous years as well) saw again several severe accidents, most of them involving upcoming regular traffic when rally and support cars were passing at high speed. Unfortunately some of the entrants take Simon Kidston too serious when he sends them off the ramp with the words “the road is yours”, some really pretend to be in a race (just look at the stickers on the supporting cars stating “race support”) but tend to forget that they share the roads with the normal traffic. As mentioned before driving though the city centres is sometimes fun with all the enthusiastic spectators but makes it difficult to keep up with the intended average. Later the cars try to catch up time with stupid overtaking manoeuvre, not few of them ending in tragedy. Most of these accidents usually do not make it to the newspapers as no one wants to spoil the party but this year one case was discussed especially in Germany. With the “celebrity” sons of a German rental car company family crashing their Mercedes-Benz 300 SL at high speed in upcoming traffic one should think that such an accident in the future ending with a fatal of an uninvolved person might be the end of the Mille Miglia as it was after the crash in the original race in 1957. Those taking part in the MM should be aware that they have a responsibility as there are certainly political forces who do not like the fact that this is a tour “of rich people” in times of economic pressure and one should not give them arguments with people being harmed during these four days. The rally in its present form is just possible with the good will of the responsible local governments, on the other side the organization has to find the compromise between the blast led by the police being part of the fun and the danger of several hundred cars on the limit on public roads so that the following generation also have the chance to enjoy the “Corso piu bella del mondo” rather than ACDCs “highway to hell”.

Report & images … Peter Singhof