Danger and Glamour: Mille Miglia

wp-1467231204816.jpg

The original Mille Miglia is one of motorsport’s legendary races, run at a time when health and safety came second to excitement. The thousand mile race over open public roads was conceived by an Italian Count in protest of the Italian Grand Prix being moved from his hometown of Brescia to Monza. The track was set as a lap of Italy from Brescia to Rome and back, and entry was restricted to unmodified production cars. Out of 77 starters only 51 made it to the finish line of the very first Mille Miglia. The race cemented the legendary status of marques such as Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Alfa Romeo, regularly attracting 5 million spectators along its route. Who wouldn’t want to see beautiful cars tear by on open beautiful roads?

Unlike modern rallies, the Mille Miglia sent the slowest cars out onto the course before the more powerful factory-backed competitors. Each car was given a number based on the time at which it started the race, so Sterling Moss’s legendary #722 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR set off at 7.22 am. He and navigator Denis ‘Jenks’ Jenkinson set the absolute record for the thousand mile lap with a time of 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds. Their average speed over that time was an eye-watering 97.9 mph/157.6 km/h. The race was held twice in its original format after that record-setting run, but the time was never beaten.

While probably for the best, it’s a shame that there aren’t many races left that match the drama and danger of the Mille Miglia. Holding it on public roads was divine madness. One year, German driver Hans Herrmann at the wheel of a low-slung Porsche 550 Spyder saw the gates of a railway crossing begin to lower as he approached. Tapping the back of his navigator’s helmet to tell him to duck, he floored the nimble little Porsche and flew under the barrier just before the train passed. That was the kind of race that the Mille Miglia was. Unfortunately, you’re only lucky so many times. At the 1957 running Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago, desperate to win, waited too long to change tyres on his 4.2 litre Ferrari. He lost control and crashed, killing himself, his navigator, and nine spectators. Five of those were children. The race was subsequently banned, and is now held as a timed rally at legal speeds open to pre-1957 cars which attended or raced in the original Mille Miglia.

Posted @Whippstagram on Intsagram, Wednesday June 29th 2016

Advertisements
Danger and Glamour: Mille Miglia

Unmatched: 300 SLR and Stirling Moss

image

Sir Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia driving this gorgeous Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Departing at 7.22 am, Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson maintained an average speed of 97.96 mph on the 1000 mile figure eight course from Brescia to Rome and back again, while competing with other racers and dodging public traffic to whom the entire course was still open. The pair completed the course in 10 hours, 7 minutes, 48 seconds, and finished 32 minutes ahead of second place teammate Juan Manuel Fangio. The SLR’s edge was that under its magnesium bodywork it was essentially Mercedes’ W196 Formula One car, which had won 9 of the 12 races and both of the world championships that it had been entered in. Modifications included adding a second seat for the navigator, headlights, and enlarging the W196’s 2.5 litre straight 8 engine to 3 litres. The car produced 310 horsepower, and took sports car racing by storm in 1955.

Tragically, one of the SLRs collided with an Austin Healey at the end of the pit straight Le Mans the same year while being piloted by factory driver Pierre Levegh. The Frenchman’s Mercedes was still travelling at 150 mph, and he had no time to react. The car became airborne and disintegrated, with parts flying into the tightly packed crowd before flames from the fuel tank ignited the magnesium bodywork. 84 people including Levegh lost their lives in the single worst motorsport accident in history. Mercedes had already been courting the idea of ceasing motorsport operations at the end of 1955, and the Le Mans disaster was the final nail in the coffin.

After the end of Mercedes’ racing program the SLR’s deisgner, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, appropriated one of the SLR/SL coupes (built with an enclosed cockpit to increase driver comfort in long distance races like the Mille Miglia) as his personal daily driver and enjoyed what was by far and away the world’s fastest road car with a top speed approaching 180 mph (remember, this was essentially a Formula One car with enclosed wheels). The car came to be known as the Uhlenhaut Coupe, and now resides in Mercedes’ museum near Stuttgart. It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most valuable cars.

Published @Whippstagram on Instagram, Dec 15th 2015

Unmatched: 300 SLR and Stirling Moss