In this story we go sixty years back in time, to the legendary record victory of (Sir) Stirling Moss in a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR in the Mille Miglia of 1955. The Mille Miglia is a famous race which starts in the old town of Brescia and runs 1,000 miles across Italy. Today it is a rally for enthusiasts, but it used to be a grueling race. Imagine, racing a 1,000 miles in one day as fast as possible on normal Italian roads! Stirling Moss and his co-driver Denis Jenkinson won this race with an average speed of almost 100 mph!
This impressive story was written by Denis Jenkinson, a famous British (sports)car journalist, who worked for the British magazine MOTOR SPORT for as long as five decades. One of the best motorsport journalists according to many. He knew like no other how to make the reader feel the experience of what had happened on the asphalt. He was a man who breathed racing and understood it like no one else. He took the reader behind the scene of the racing world, even in factories where they worked on secret race cars.
Jenks’ reports gave the reader the impression as if he was watching through his eyes. He knew what he was talking about. He had a wealth of experience, including technical education and he really understood the cars. He had also been a motorcycle racer and even won in 1949 the World Championship with Eric Oliver as a side car racer. This had taught him exactly what the driver was thinking and how he acted.
Jenks wore his hart on his sleeve and had no fear. He analyzed everything with precision and no detail was being overlooked. If appropriate he gave his opinion, which was always intelligent and constructive. He was a respected man and was not afraid to criticize. The life of the bachelor Jenks was one of traveling across Europe from race track to race track, which was his greatest passion.
To get back to the story of the Mille Miglia of 1955: Jenkinson had no time to celebrate the record victory, because he had to write his report for MOTOR SPORT immediately. In his room in the Albergo Brescia he wrote the spectacular race report which follows below. Today it is still a mystery how he managed to write the story of the entire race so clearly, while he was in the winning car himself. His work was sent in an envelope to the offices of MOTOR SPORT in London and fortunately arrived safely. Imagine if the Italian postal service had lost the story!
Enough introduction, let’s now open that envelope!
On May 1st motor-racing history was made, for Stirling Moss won the 1,000-mille Mille Miglia, the first time in 22 years that this has been achieved by a British driver, and I had this great privilege of sitting beside him throughout this epic drive.
But let us go back to the beginning, for this win was not a fluke on the spur of the moment, it was the result of weeks, even months, of preparation and planning. My enthusiasm for the Mille Miglia race goes back many years, among the reasons being the fact that it is permissible to carry a passenger. This event is for all types of road-going cars, from family saloons to Grand Prix type racing/sports cars, and when I had my first taste of the lure of the Mille Miglia as a competitor last year, with Abecassis in the HWM, I soon set about making plans for the 1955 event.
Regular MOTOR SPORT readers will remember that last year I enthused over a little private dice that Moss gave me in a Maserati, and at the time I mentioned to him my desire to run in the Mille Miglia again. Then in September, whilst in discussion with the American driver John Fitch, we came to the decision that the only way a non-Italian could win the Mille Miglia was by applying science. At the time he was hoping to be in the official Mercedes-Benz team for the event, and we had long talks about ways in which the driver could use a passenger as a mechanical brain, to remove the responsibility of learning the circuit. When it is realised that the race is over 1,000 miles of ordinary, unprepared Italian road, the only concession to racing being that all traffic is removed from the roads for the duration of the race, and the way through towns is lined with straw bales, it will be appreciated that the tast of one man learning every corner, every swerve, gradient, hummock, brow and level-crossing is nigh impossible. Even the top Italian drivers, such as Taruffi, Maglioli, Castellotti, ect., only know sections of the route perfectly, and all the time they must concentrate on remembering what lies around the next corner, or over the next brow.
During the last winter, as is well known, Moss joined the Mercedes-Benz team and the firm decided that it would not be possible for Fitch to drive for them in the Mille Miglia, though he would be in the team for Le Mans, so all our plans looked like being of no avail. Then, just before Christmas, a telephone call from Moss invited me to be his passenger in the Mille Miglia in a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, an invitation which I promptly accepted, John Fitch having sportingly agreed that it would be a good thing for me to try out our plans for beating the Italians with Moss as driver.
When I met Moss early in the new year to discuss the event I already had some definite plan of action. Over lunch it transpired that he had very similar plans, of using the passenger as a second brain to look after navigation, and when we pooled our accumulated knowledge and ideas, a great deal of ground work was covered quickly. From four previous Mille Miglia races with Jaguar, Moss had gathered together a good quantity of notes, about bumpy level-crossings, blind hill-brows, dangerous corners and so on, and as I knew certain sections of the course intimately, all this knowledge put down on paper amounted to about 25% of the circuit.
Early in February Mercedes-Benz were ready to start practising, the first outing being in the nature of a test for the prototype 300SLR, and a description of the two laps we completed, including having an accident in which the car was smashed, appeared in the March MOTOR SPORT. While doing this testing I made copious notes, some of them rather like Chinese due to trying to write at 150 mph, but when we stopped for lunch, or for the night, we spent the whole time discussing the roads we had covered and transcribing my notes. The things we concentrated on were places where we might break the car, such as very bumpy railway-crossings, sudden dips in the road, bad surfaces, tramlines and so on. Then we logged all the difficult corners, grading them as ‘saucy ones’, ‘dodgy ones’, and ‘very dangerous ones’, having a hand sign to indicate each type. Then we logged slippery surfaces, using another hand sign, and as we went along Moss indicated his interpretation of the conditions, while I pin-pointed the place by a kilometre stone, plus or minus. Our task was eased greatly by the fact that there is a stone every kilometre on Italian roads, and they are numbered in huge black figures, facing oncoming traffic.
In addition to all the points round the course where a mistake might mean an accident, and there are hundreds of them, we also logged all the long straights and everywhere that we could travel at maximum speed even though visibility was restricted, and again there were dozens of such points. Throughout all this preliminary work Moss impressed upon me at very possible moment the importance of not making any mistakes, such as indicating a brow to be flat-out when in reality it was followed by a tight left-hand bend. I told him he need not worry, as any accident he might have was going to involve me as well, as I was going to be by his side until the race was finished. After our first practice session we sorted out all our notes and had them typed out into some semblance of order, and before leaving England again I spent hours with a friend, checking and cross-checking, going over the whole list many times, finally being 100% certain that there were no mistakes.
On our second visit to Italy for more laps of the circuit, we got down to fine details, grading some corners as less severe and others as much more so, especially as now we knew the way on paper it meant that we arrived at many points much faster than previous when roconnoitring the route. On another lap I went the whole way picking out really detailed landmarks that I would be able to see no matter what the conditions, whether we had the sun in our eyes or it was pouring with rain, and for this work we found Moss’ Mercedes-Benz 220A saloon most useful as it would cruise at an easy 85 mph and at the same time we could discuss any details.
Our whole plan was now nearing completion, we had 17 pages of notes, and Moss had sufficient confidence in me to take blind brows at 90-100 mph, believing me when I said the road went straight on; though he freely admitted that he was not sure whether he would do the same thing at 170 mph in the race, no matter how confident I was. He said he’d probably ease it back to 160 mph for, though that 10 mph would make no difference to the resulting crash if I had made a mistake, it comforted him psychologically! Throughout all this training we carefully kept a log of our running time and average speeds, and some of them were positively indecent, and certainly not for publication, but the object was to find out which parts of the 1,000 miles dropped the overall average and where we could make up time, and our various averages in the 220A, the 300SL and the 300SLR gave us an extremely interesting working knowledge of how the Mille Miglia might be won or lost.
Our second practice period ended in another accident and this time a smashed 300SL coupé, for Italian army lorries turn across your bows without warning just as English ones do. Rather crestfallen, we anticipated the rage of team-chief Neubauer when we reported this second crash, but his only worry was that we were not personally damaged; the crashed car was of no importance; these things happened to everyone and anyway their only interest was to win the Mille Miglia, regardless of cost.
Leaving Italy for another brief respite, we both worried-out every detail we could think about, from every aspect, the car, the route, our hand signals – for we could not converse in the 300SLR – any emergencies that might arise, anywhere we could save seconds, details of our own personal comfort which would avoid fatigue, and so on. We lived and breathed Mille Miglia day in and day out, leaving no idea untried. The joy of all this was that Daimler-Benz were doing exactly the same things on the mechanical side, supervised by engineers Uhlenhaut, Kosteletzky and Werner, while the racing department were working unceasingly and Neubauer was worrying-out every detail of the race-organization in Italy. We were putting all our efforts into this race, knowing that they were negligible in comparison with those of the factory.
After Easter we went out to Brescia for our third and final practicing session, the technical department, with Kling and Herrmann, having already made an extra one. During their practice period they had thrashed the prototype car up and down the section from Rome to Florence, for this part of the route was the hardest. There are few straights, but all the time the car is averaging nearly 100 mph, the chassis being subjected to strains form every possible angle, and as the 58-gallon petrol tank would be full when leaving Rome, this part of the route would be the most likely on which a breakdown would occur.
By now our details of the route were perfected and I now wrote them all down on a special sheet of paper 18 feet in length. Moss had had an alloy case made, on the map-roller system, and for our final practice I employed this machine, winding the paper from the lower roller to the upper one, the notes being read through a Perspex window, sealed with Sellotape in the event of the race being run in rain.
A complete lap in a 300SL was done as a sort of dress rehearsal, this car being ideal as it had a maximum of nearly 140 mph, good acceleration, and was a very good approach to racing conditions, while at the same time we could speak to each other if the need arose, though normally all our conversation was done by hand signals, there being about 15 altogether, to cover every aspect of conversation. During this dress rehearsal we employed an amusing technique in the more deserted parts of the route, especially in the mountains, where I kept an eye on the approaching road out of the side windows, and even out of the rear one on mountain hairpins and, by continually shouting “Yes” while the road was clear, Moss could have a real go at ‘nine-tenths’ on the section of road just in front of him, certain in the knowledge that no traffic was approaching, for it must be remembered that all our practice was being done on normal Italian roads, open to the public. This technique, while being amusing to us, was also useful to Moss as it meant he could get the feel of the road surface conditions at racing speeds.
By now the Mille Miglia date was approaching and all round the 1,000 miles we saw more and more signs of growing enthusiasm, occasionally seeing other competitors practising parts of the route, while the police were beginning to leap off the pavement, stop the traffic and wave us on over crossroads with excited cries of ‘Mille Miglia-via’ and, of course the Italian populace were leaping straight up into the air with joy as Moss fought the sliding SL through many of the corners. It was interesting that the average English enthusiast would turn his head and look if he saw a 300SL being really motored, whereas the Italians, from errand boy to bank managers, will spontaneously leave the ground and spin completely round, with excited waves, at the same sight, and then rush to another point in the hope of getting a further glimpse of the speeding car.
We completed our third practice period without any crashes, though the ‘hack’ SLR decided to give-up-the-ghost while we were having a final run in it, but we were entirely blameless; old age creeps on the best vehicles, and this one had done the equivalent of at least six Mille Miglias in the hands of Moss, Fangio, Kling and Herrmann, the four drivers for the race.
A week before the event…
TO BE CONTINUED SOON
Source: MOTOR SPORT