Heat, Dust, Speed and Adrenalin: Around Italy in 70 Hours
By Simon Kidston
The ‘Mille’: rather like a pop star so famous they only need use their first name, the Mille Miglia is the daddy of classic car rallies. Everyone wants to get in, whether to see or be seen, from celebrities to politicians, racing drivers to good old-fashioned car collectors. The original Mille Miglia, first held in 1927 as a breakneck test of man and machine on a round-Italy, 1,000-mile course taking in the capital and marshalled by 10,000 soldiers upon the orders of Il Duce who recognised its propaganda value for Italy, has evolved from a flat-out race to a regularity trial best summarised as a glamorous, multinational, mobile museum-carnival in which everyone along the route joins in.
The last decade has seen major changes in the events organisation and size. Originally presided over by a small local team, it’s now in the hands of the Italian Automobile Club and under government supervision. That means stricter entry rules- only cars of the type which originally competed between 1927 and 1957 are allowed, no matter how spectacular your alternative- and a bigger machine to feed. Sponsorship has long been a major ingredient of the Mille Miglia, but this year both Mercedes-Benz and Fiat (parent of Ferrari) fought a tug-of-war wanting a bigger presence, which led to not only a Ferrari Tribute allowing younger cars of the Prancing Horse to shadow the route in an official capacity, but a new Mercedes-Benz Tribute which attracted dozens of non-MM eligible cars bearing the three pointed star to join in too. Consider that these were in addition to the 451 participating teams, of which 10% were already Mercedes-Benz (most of them Gullwings), and you get an idea how the event is now dominated by manufacturers. Newly revitalised Jaguar, keen to promote their latest F-Type, fielded a ‘works’ team driven mostly by celebrities, some of whom clearly didn’t realise what they’d let themselves in for.
In the 24 editions of the original race, Italians dominated the field with just two foreign winners: Caracciola in 1931 and Moss (setting an all-time record 98.5mph average) in 1955, both driving for Mercedes. In the 2014 retrospective no fewer than 35 nationalities were represented (including Russia, China, Kuwait and Thailand among the more exotic) with Italy, Germany and Britain at the top. Perhaps responding to participants’ feedback that the event was too gruelling, this year an extra half-day was added to allow more time to complete the course, although they couldn’t help also stretching that to 1,087 miles too. The fact that local politicians around the country all want the visibility and tourism that the MM brings to town may account for just how many it passes through, but when each showers you with wine, food and a hero’s welcome, who’s complaining?
VIPs taking to the starting ramp this year included talk show host and ‘car guy’ par excellence Jay Leno at the wheel of a factory Jaguar XK120 for his first MM; Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and Adrien Brody; hugely popular AC/DC front man Brian Johnson who was mobbed whenever he stopped his Jaguar C-Type (“Bloomin’ fantastic” was the verdict); statuesque British ‘It’ girl and TV personality Jodie Kidd; racing drivers Martin Brundle and Bruno (nephew of Ayrton) Senna; and British rapper Example.
Having decided after last year that a Gullwing was almost too civilised, this year I’d taken the plunge and entered a Jaguar D-Type. How hard could it be? Handing over the microphone to jump into the cockpit after waving 450 other entrants off into the night might have been ambitious, but by the time we reached Rome 24 hours later I felt like I’d done a year of gladiator school and failed miserably. Numb posterior, aching back and shoulders, gear change hand blistered, sleep deprived and deaf. And yet the next day, as we roar at speed through sun-kissed Tuscan villages with all the locals smiling, waving and cheering us on, I imagine how Nuvolari must have felt. It’s funny how memories are selective: the 2015 Mille Miglia can’t come soon enough...
Watch out for our Mille Miglia video in the next Kidston newsletter