Racing Classic Cars at the Mille Miglia

By some accounts, the Mille Miglia is the world's most glamorous road race but that doesn't mean that thrills and spills — and no small amount of danger — are nowhere to be had

It's midnight. We've been driving as hard and as fast as we can for 15 hours straight, after three hour's sleep the night before. The rain is rushing at the windscreen like tracer fire, the tiny 1950s wipers are making a pitiful attempt at clearing it and the dim old headlamps can't tell us much about what's ahead, but we're still flat-out, doing 90mph down the wrong side of the road, bellowing past long queues of ordinary cars. If one suddenly turned across our path, the 1950s brakes and tyres wouldn't do much to save us.

Inside, you can forget airbags, or even seat belts. The only 'safety' device is a long, solid steering column aimed straight at my sternum which will at least ensure a quick, Ming-the-Merciless style death should we crash. But I'm not thinking about my own mortality; my one aim is to get this priceless, historic Jaguar to the chequered flag on time and in one piece, and slump into bed for another few hours' sleep.

Everyone tells you that the Mille Miglia is the world's most glamorous historic motorsport event. The organizers tell you that it isn't a race but a 'regularity trial', held at legal speeds over 1000 miles of open Italian roads. Right now, neither feels entirely true. 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. Many pay for support vehicles, mechanics and interpreters, which the race organizers are happy to lay on – at a price. Some competitors end up handing over £45,000 in fees to ensure their three days go as smoothly as possible. They still have to get themselves and their car to Italy, of course. Some fly their cars in from the United States, South America or the Gulf and leave them in Europe for the summer, taking part in other high-end classic car events, like the Goodwood Festival of Speed held a few weeks later.

And they have to buy the cars in first place. Only cars of a type that competed in the original Mille Miglia races are eligible. If your actual car took part you're likely to get in; otherwise only the best and most historic get the nod from the organizers. And they'll want to see proof; you'll have to get your car's serial numbers and oily bits checked by independent experts to prove that it isn't a fake, or cobbled together from the remains of other cars, and you need to submit as much other documentary evidence of your car's history as you can find along with the lengthy application forms.

Be smart, and you might not have to spend a fortune; lots of humble cars raced alongside the Ferraris and Maseratis. Scan the entry lists from the original races and you'll see Triumphs and Fords which you can buy now for the price of a supermini, and which the multi-millionaires might have overlooked but the organizers are keen to see included; we raced against one brave couple in a tiny, '50s Isetta bubble car. But wealthy drivers' desperation to get on the event in thunderous sports and racing cars drives the auction value of those previously accepted by the organizers through the roof, adding at least a third to prices that are already often in the millions.

 

They then have to risk that investment over two and a half days and a thousand miles of banzai driving. If you don't crash, your car – which will be at least half a century old, remember – could suffer a terminal breakdown at any moment, ending your race with no hope of a refund. So is it really worth it? Too right it is. Forget the Gumball Rally and all its pathetic imitators; the Mille Miglia is the king of road trips, and the most intense weekend's driving you'll ever have. And it could only happen in Italy.

The original race was just as glamorous and dangerous. Held between 1927 and 1957, the Mille Miglia ran from Brescia in the north to Rome and back, done in one stint and against the clock with the fastest time winning. Alfa dominated before the war and Ferrari afterwards. The race forged Italy's love affair with fast cars and motorsport; in the days before television millions lined all thousand miles for their sole opportunity to see their heroes in action, even if they were only a brief red blur.

But the greatest performance came from a Brit. In 1955 Sir Stirling Moss drove the entire route at an incredible average of nearly 100mph, at times reaching over 170mph over narrow, cratered Italian roads, with his co-driver using a system of hand-signals to relay directions from the fifteen-foot long scroll of paper in his lap.

It was one of the greatest drives in motorsport, and his record would never be beaten. The Mille Miglia was always staggeringly risky; many drivers took amphetamines, and after one fatal crash in 1939 Mussolini found time to personally ban the race despite being preoccupied with a looming world war. It restarted in 1947. But in '57, the Marquis de Portago, the 28 year-old playboy nephew of the King of Spain, had a blow-out in his Ferrari and crashed into the crowds, killing himself, his co-driver and 10 spectators, many of them children. The race, in its original form, simply couldn't continue.

In 1977 it was resurrected as a 'historic rally'. Competitors win points for passing through the 79 checkpoints at a precise time or average speed. There are four different kinds of checkpoint, but the rules are so badly explained that I'd be surprised if more than a handful of the 375 crews gathered on Brescia's Viale Venetia for the spectacular night-time start knew what they were supposed to be doing. Officially, you're supposed to be able to complete the route without breaking the speed limit. But the real clue about what was to come lay in the sole, 25-minute break allowed each day. Stop for any longer than this – for coffee, for a comfort break, for fuel, traffic or a breakdown (mechanical or otherwise) and you'll be left literally racing to catch up.

None of this concerns you as you mill about before the start, seduced by the lines of the priceless Bugattis and Ferraris and Maseratis around you, deafened by the gloriously antisocial blare from their exhausts and occasionally left breathless by their fumes. You spot some famous faces; former F1 world champion Mika Hakkinen is driving a Mercedes Gullwing, and the billionaire Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov is next to us in a British-made Lagonda LG45. Otherwise it's a tanned, polished and plainly wealthy set, all slick hair, big watches and thin second wives. Tod's and Chopard sponsor the event, the latter providing every crew with a £3700 chronograph with which they can time themselves through each section.

 

I raced in a beautiful bronze 1951 Jaguar XK120 coupe which Sir Stirling Moss and three others drove non-stop for seven days at an average of over 100mph, shattering four world records. It's known as the Montlhery record car after the French circuit they used; it's so famous there are paintings of it. Some historic racers have been crashed and rebuilt a dozen times but this car's value is in its originality; it is exactly as it was when Moss stepped out of it in 1952, right down to the scars left on its hand-beaten aluminium coachwork by the corrosive brake fluid hurriedly added during the record attempt. It has spent its entire life between then and now in museums, and is insured for millions. No pressure.

Unsurprisingly, we blast away from the starting ramp, but then proceed very gingerly out of Brescia. My co-driver takes the first stint and I call out the directions from the roadbook; you can forget sat-nav. Initially I think that I've got the hardest job; through towns and villages you might have to spot turns every twenty meters, not easy at night with only an ancient dash-mounted maplight to read by. But the right direction is always pretty obvious; not only are there the Mille Miglia's famous freccia rossa red arrows that helped Moss navigate half a century ago, but the route is lined with the same thick crowds of spectators. Through the tight streets of towns they tap the car, compliment you on your bella macchina, reach towards it with cameraphones and ask for an autograph. Even out of town, at night and in the rain they stand on every corner, point the way and beg you to drop down a gear and bellow out of the junction; it would be rude to refuse. Not a mile of the route goes uncheered.

And what a route. After a fast blast over the broad, flat, fertile plains of Emilia Romagna and an overnight stop in historic Ferrara we raced alongside the cobalt-blue Adriatic, climbed up to San Marino and then got stuck, Ferraris and Fiat 500s alike, in a colossal midnight traffic jam in Rome. The second full day took us through the Palio in Siena – home of the famous horse race and setting for the first big fight scene in Quantum of Solace – and the breathtaking center of Florence, both usually closed to traffic, before heading into the Appenine mountains and over the Futa and Raticosa passes, two of the finest driving roads in the world.

It's probably the single most scenic, historic route it's possible to drive. Every bend brings another perfect Italian view; roads lined with tall, slim, dark green cypress tress and laid like ribbons across a landscape of rolling hills, the slopes broken up by vineyards and olive groves and isolated, ochre-walled, red-roofed Tuscan farmhouses. Every 50 miles or so you spot another medieval town perched high in the hills in the far distance, and the route leads you up into it, under arches in the ancient walls and through its mazy cobbled lanes to the market square, where the local dignitaries and some under-dressed local girls hand you a goody bag bearing the local cheese or wine and give you a cheer and sometimes a kiss before encouraging you to bellow off again.

But you're so busy racing that it's impossible to take in the beauty of your surroundings. Most major junctions had a policeman to stop the traffic and wave you through; if not, red lights plainly didn't apply to Mille Miglia competitors. If we hit traffic we'd simply drive up the wrong side of the road, and if the road was too tight and we feared for that historic bodywork, a carabinieri motorcycle outrider would generally appear and part the traffic for us, flat-out and sirens blaring. Can you imagine that happening anywhere other than Italy?

But the best moment came as we dropped down from the Apennines towards Modena. Trying to nose through traffic, we heard a weird, weak siren behind us. It was a 1950s Alfa-Romeo police car, blue light flashing on the roof and Mille Miglia race stickers on the doors and bonnet. We let him pass, and he started to clear a path for us, an arm clad in period uniform emerging from the passenger door to order the other drivers to one side. Some hesitated, plainly wondering whether this guy was actually a cop before deciding to get out of the way. The driver was clearly skilled, torturing the thin tyres of the Alfa as he took every bend like Lewis Hamilton before leading us, siren still wailing, through the iconic gates of our next checkpoint; the Ferrari factory in Maranello. What a way to arrive. Turns out he was a cop; he and his buddy had borrowed the cars and uniforms from the state police museum in Rome. Like we said, only in Italy.

Amazingly, my 57 year-old Jaguar didn't develop a single fault in 1000 miles of hard driving; my support crew, Gary and John, chased us all the way in a modern Jaguar laden with spares we didn't need. Even more incredibly, despite my utter confusion about the rules, we finished a respectable 213th out of 375, beating both Mika Hakkinen and the Mayor of Moscow. The Mille Miglia is hard work, hard to get into and even harder to pay for. But just like the original race, nothing else compares. And seeing your name listed above an F1 champion in the results is priceless.

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