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2009 Mille Miglia still the one

By Simon Kidston

The stars were out in force for this year's Mille Miglia, ranging from royalty (the Crown Prince and Princess of Orange), politicians (the serving Dutch Prime Minister, without a bodyguard in sight), racing drivers (double F1 World Champion Mikka Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Le Mans winner Gijs van Lennep), Olympic skier Kristian Ghedina and all manner of Italian celebrities, from actress Manuela Arcuri to the country's favourite female newscaster and even Silvio Berlusconi's counsel.

Prince and Princess of Orange burned rubber everywhere they went
DC and 300SLR were stars of the event

You wouldn't know there's a recession going on judging from the number of entries: 375 cars in total, converging on the start in Brescia from as far afield as ArgentinaRussiaJapan and the United Arab Emirates. These days the eligibility rules are applied more strictly, so participation of a car in previous MM retros doesn't mean it will get in today. If a car of the same model didn't take part in the original Mille Miglia, then it won't be allowed. Just being built in the right period (1927-1957) isn't enough.

Dutch racer Gijs van Lennep and crew, 2.20am
Wonderful party atmosphere approaching the starting ramp

Some say this makes for a less spectacular line-up (for Ferrari-spotters in particular) but it's also more representative of the original Mille Miglia which was just as important as a rite of passage for Italian youths driving hotted-up Fiats as it was for works teams- perhaps even more so. It's how Ferruccio Lamborghini got his first taste of motorsport, although as he crashed his Topolino into an inn, it was also his last.

Mexican entered Ferrari Monza goes into the night
Classic Italian design in a classic Italian landscape

Still besieged by paparazzi at the start of this year's retrospective was the driver most famously associated with the original Mille Miglia, all-time record holder Stirling Moss (at an average of 99.7mph on 1955-vintage roads...). Ever sprightly at 79, he fielded enquiries and interviews with his usual good humour and tact. "It was the only race I ever feared" he told me for the official event commentary, "as you couldn't learn a one thousand mile circuit. The Nurburgring took some practice and even the Targa Florio [72km] became familiar after a while, but this was much tougher. Once the starter's flag dropped you had to concentrate non-stop for more than ten hours- no time for nerves now- and you were getting up to 180mph on the fastest bits." I asked if he thought he would have won without 'Jenks', his diminutive co-driver. "No way. His pace notes far outweighed him!" And finally, if theMille Miglia was still a race today, what car would he choose? "A Ferrari or a McLaren" he says firmly, then reflects and adds with a smile, "but to win you have to finish, so probably a McLaren."

MM record holder Stirling Moss was a crowd favourite
Olympic skier Kristian Ghedina, actress Manuela Arcuri and BMW Italia boss Andrea Castronovo

This year Stirling was in Brescia to encourage a British driver of another generation, David Coulthard or 'DC' who had been entrusted by the Mercedes-Benz Museum with one of its priceless 300SLRs- actually one which never raced. Chasing him was Mikka Hakkinen in the new, limited edition SLR 'Stirling Moss' supercar (yours for€750,000...plus taxes), leading a convoy of 'normal' SLR owners along the route.

Alfa Romeo factory fielded a strong team
1950 Mille Miglia-winning Ferrari flown from USA

Over 48 hours and one thousand miles later, the road stained cars and smiling faces on the finisher's ramp summed it up perfectly. "What an adventure" was the common refrain. "We've had everything thrown at us" said one British team, "from snow to sunshine, breakdowns and overheating, but we can't wait to come back." The classic Italian landscapes, unchanged along much of the route since Renaissance times, and the warmth of the public urging drivers on their way (not to mention the camaraderie of the Police escorts) makes this the one event that anybody who loves classic cars should try to do at least once. It's tiring, exciting, rewarding and utterly unique.

Our Flying Spur Speed lived up to its name

Many thanks to Bentley Motors for proving not one but two new Continentals which made our 1,000 miles rather less tiring and, as the modern SLR drivers we passed can attest, no less exciting.

Photo Courtesy: Mille Miglia, Eddie Coll.