The Mille Miglia in Italy.
Those two words are so onomatopoeic, four consonants which evoke the greatest car race in the world, this thousand mile rally around Italy. The quintessential race in a country that can rightly claim the greatest passion for the motorcar. The home of the “red” car, Ferrari, Lambhorgini and Maserati.
The Mille Miglia starts in Brescia in the north of Italy, descends down the east coast to Rome over two days, and then ends with a single day dash from Rome back up to Brescia on the west coast. It is a magnificent cortege of the greatest racing cars and classic road cars ever built. To enter, the cars must have either been in the original Mille Miglia, or a car of sporting history listed in Palmares Winner’s Lists of international significance. This is about as exclusive as it gets even before the costs of the race and the cars come into it.
I went to race two Bentley “Blowers” (1929 & 1930) and the 1954 Bentley R Type Continental with Bentley Motors Ltd, now German owned but whose directors are demonstrably passionate about maintaining the quality and history of this iconic English brand. James Bond drove a 1930’s “Blower” Bentley in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker. The Bentley “Blower” gets its name from the supercharger mounted at the front of the radiator. Only four team cars were developed for racing thanks to the persistent efforts of Bentley Boy Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin who convinced Woolf Barnato into fitting a supercharger to enhance performance with the goal being to win Le Mans again.
On the first day the cars are registered in a big warehouse in Brescia resulting in the grandest cornucopia of classic and high end super-cars in one place ever. It is a race aficionado’s dream, you just do not know where to look next. I could not help thinking of a twist on the film “The Italian Job”, only this time they steal the cars themselves, a much bigger haul than the bullion they stole in the movie.
A pre race dinner is hosted that evening by Karl Scheufele, President of Chopard Jewellers, who are the main sponsor of the event. They even produce a coveted special edition “Mille Miglia” watch which is given to each entrant, though only one per car, making it tricky deciding who keeps it between the two drivers. Stone, paper, scissors anyone?
During the pre prandial drinks and to my great delight I was introduced to a childhood hero, Jacky Ickx, the legendary racing driver who could not have been more charming or debonair. This former Belgian racing driver achieved 25 podium finishes in Formula One and six wins in the 24 hours of Le Mans.
It is our own Stirling Moss that holds the race record at 10 h 07' 48” in 1955, an average speed of 100 mph, which is simply incredible when you take the mountain roads into consideration. Stirling Moss’ navigator was the journalist Denis Jenkinson who concocted a brilliant navigation instrument not unlike a loo roll in a metal box, with all the turns and directions marked down, more practical in an open car than the Tulip maps used now.
On day one I drove in the Bentley “Blower” with Andrew Day, the president of the Bentley Drivers club, a thoroughly English gent and great company, to Piazza Paulo VI, where our cars were to be parked for the initial media frenzy. We had lunch in the sunshine and watched the entire population of Brescia roll by admiring the marvels cruising all over town. The greatest classic sports cars of all time are gathered for this race, supported by their modern road equivalents. The Bentley “Birkin Blower” next to the Bentley GT V8, the Bugatti Veyron next to the Buggati 35T, the Ferrari Enzo next to a Ferrari 250 GT, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing next to the Mercedes SLR McLaren, the list goes on. The crowds were intense with thousands of people jostling to film, photograph or touch the motors. It was a feat of skill just to get the “Blower” through the multitude which had to be gently nudged aside as the car crawled along the narrow streets towards the square.
The race itself starts at around 7 pm and takes in a tour of the town before roaring off towards Ferrara, the first days finish line. There are control time stops in every town along the way and these are used at the end to select the final winner. The passion, support and enthusiasm from the Italians is unsurpassed, the entire route is lined with families, shouting and cheering as each car roars past. Each new motor is greeted with a fervour that is normally only seen in teenagers at a pop concert, the atmosphere throughout the whole country is electrifying and young kids and old timers alike are waving flags and indicating the route to the drivers.
Our support cars were the 1954 Bentley R Type Continental, the new Bentley Continental GTC W12 and the new Bentley Continental GT V8. The new Continental bodies are based on the R type which has the most beautiful lines. We nicknamed it “Bella” as that was the most frequent outburst from the crowds as we appeared in the car. Though “Oooh La La Bentley”, “Que Bella” and “Bellissima” were frequent contenders.
The route on the second day runs from Ferrara to Rome via the Republic of San Marino along stunning, winding mountain roads. The R Type whilst heavy and a manual performs like a dream and even gave the V8 following us a run for its money. The day culminated with the convoy of cars speeding into Rome headlights blazing as night fell, towards the Olympic stadium, where the after parties were being held in front of the worlds media. Each car drives up onto the famous ramp to be interviewed for television as it arrives around midnight.
The third and last day is the most competitive as the cars compete to be the first back to Brescia whilst passing all the control points at precisely the right times. The stopping point in Siena is glorious as hundreds of Ferraris turn out to follow the route as part of an additional Ferrari support rally. Siena is turned into heaven on earth for any car enthusiast when, for one long lunchtime, it hosts a plethora of classic cars and super cars revving through its narrow streets to grand acclamation.
Sadly all good things come to an end, I may even have shed a tear on parting from the Bentley R Type Continental, which along with the Bentley “Blowers” I would recommend to anyone as a sound financial investment. One of the original team “Blowers” is coming up for auction at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with a starting price of $12 million and change.
The Mille Miglia is a unique life experience that for sheer excitement, history, legendary racing drivers and superbly engineered cars is unparalleled in the world. Not to mention the delectable food, dazzling scenery and sympathetic people. Go for the weekend to soak up the unbelievable atmosphere or enter yourself, if you like racing this has to be in the top ten of things to do before you die. Mille Miglia 2013 or bust!
I’ll leave the last words to the legend Jacky Ickx: “It is the quintessence of an adventure as full as that of Marco Polo or of Magellan, it is also a contribution to man’s conquest of the impossible. A Mille Miglia might be an outburst of folly, a sporting madness, but it is always glorious and heroic.”