The 2016 edition of the Mille Miglia begins this week. The unsurpassable crown jewel of the historic automotive world, it's often peculiarly Italian: a thrilling and frequently chaotic 1,000-mile advertisement for the indestructible allure of the automobile (and Italy, for that matter).
It’s a regularity rally these days, although as someone who has competed in it this past three years I can confirm that the famous red mist still descends. However, its roots are as a full-blooded racing epic, encompassing some legendary roads, breathtaking scenery and passionate support.
The first race was held in 1927, organised by Count Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti, apparently unhappy that their hometown of Brescia had lost its status as Italy’s crucible of motorsport to Monza. Seventy-seven cars lined up on 26 March 1927 and followed a figure-of-eight from Brescia to Rome and back again. There would be 23 more races before fate intervened in 1957.
It’s an event that helped forge many great reputations. Alfa Romeo is a name that still generates immense goodwill, not least because its tally of 11 wins in the Mille Miglia will never be beaten.
Every serious car collector desires a 6C 1750 like the one Tazio Nuvolari raced to victory in 1930. Rudolf Caracciola won the following year in Mercedes-Benz’ SSK, the only interruption to a decade-long winning streak by the Milanese outfit whose racing exploits were overseen, of course, by Enzo Ferrari.
Enzo’s nascent car company Auto Avio Costruzioni took part in the 1940 event, which resumed after a year off and was conducted over the same stretch a number of times rather than the previous 1,000-mile loop – amazing to think it ran at all given what was happening in Europe (and indeed there would be no more between 1941 and 1946).
Having established his own company in 1947, the Mille Miglia was high on the Old Man’s list of ambitions. One of Ferrari’s earliest achievements came in 1948 when Clemente Biondetti won in a 166 S; he proved that the upstart Maranello equipe was no flash in the pan by winning in 1949 in the 166 MM Barchetta. Ferrari won the following year with Vicenzan aristocrat Giannino Marzotto, who famously raced in a double-breasted suit.
Marzotto won again in a Ferrari in 1953, driving a Vignale-bodied 340 MM (there had been wins for the Prancing Horse in 1951 and 1952), and Stirling Moss won in 1955, driving a Mercedes with his navigator Denis Jenkinson.
Their appearance that year is often cited as the greatest competition drive ever, Moss completing the route in 10 hours and seven minutes, averaging 98mph.
‘Winning the Mille Miglia was a more difficult challenge than Le Mans,’ he told me recently. ‘The stress on the car was far higher, you were racing on public roads. I could learn the Targa Florio, where I knew how to set the car up for each corner. I couldn’t for the Mille Miglia: you can’t learn 1,000 miles. To be honest, the Mille Miglia was the only race that really frightened me, at least until the moment the flag fell.’
Perhaps Moss was right to be wary. The following year, he and Jenks had a close call in their Maserati 350S. Eugenio Castellotti won for Ferrari in the 290 MM; in 1957, Piero Taruffi triumphed driving a Ferrari 315 S.
That, however, was a devastatingly fateful race, and the last of the original Mille Miglias. Ferrari’s other great driver, Alfonso de Portago, lost control near the village of Guidizzolo, killing himself, his co-driver and nine spectators.
The weight of history, both glorious and tragic, will weigh heavily on the minds of all who take to the road this week. And rightly so.