Mille Miglia - one thousand miles of pure excitement and danger
In the history of motorsports, there are some races that remain famous even decades after they were held. One such event is surely the 1955 Mille Miglia, won by Stirling Moss and the famous #722 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. However, the Mille Miglia has much more to it than Sir Stirling and his 722 SLR. The Mille Miglia is a legendary race that was held 24 times between 1927 and 1957. It was the race which distinguished brave racers from ordinary drivers, and unfortunately, it was the race which took over 50 lives across a span of thirty years.
Mille Miglia is an open-road race which name literally means 1000 miles in Italian. That was the approximate length of the first and all other races held under that name. The event was established in 1927 by Counts Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti, in response to the Italian Grand Prix being moved from their hometown of Brescia to the new location in Monza.
1000 miles from Brescia to Rome and back
Together with a group of wealthy associates, the duo chose to race on the route from Brescia to Rome and back, on a figure-eight shaped course of roughly 1500 km (one thousand Roman miles). The races held later followed other routes and had different lengths, but the basis continued to be the 1000-miles-long route of Brescia-Rome-Brescia with beautiful country and mountain roads running across northern and central Italy.
Mille Miglia had an interesting system of numbering cars. There were lots of cars in the race, sometimes a few hundreds, and organizers decided that smaller and slower cars would start first, to minimize the period of the road closing. Cars got starting numbers according to the time they were planned to begin the event. For example, Moss would get a number 722 because he started at 7.22 am.
77 vehicles in the first Mille Miglia race
At the time, racing circuits were rare and road races were normal, although very dangerous. The first race had a total of 77 participants of which only 51 crossed the finish line. The winners were Giuseppe Morandi and his co-driving partner Ferdinando Minoia, who needed about 21 hours for the 1618 km in the 2-litre OM 665S. The winners of the following two races were Giuseppe Campari and Giulio Ramponi. In 1928, they won with the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport Spider Zagato, and the following year, the winning car was the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 SS Spider Zagato. Famous Tazio Nuvolari, with Battista Guidotti as the co-driver, won the 1930 Mille Miglia in the Alfa Romeo 1750 GS Spider Zagato.
The domination of the Italian cars and Italian drivers came to a stop in 1931 when the race was won by the German star driver Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz SSK. Caracciola raced together with mechanic Wilhelm Sebastian and they had, for the first time at Mille Miglia, an average speed more than 100 km/h. The following seven races were again won by Italian drivers in various Alfa Romeo cars. The winners were Carlo Maria Pintacuda (twice), Baconin Borzacchini, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, Antonio Brivio and Clemente Biondetti.
Mussolini banned the race in 1938
The race was briefly stopped by the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini after an accident in 1938 when ten spectators were killed near Bologna. During the World War II, one race was held in 1940, but it wasn’t the ‘real’ Mille Miglia because the route wasn’t original, and the event took place on a 100-km course which was lapped only nine times. The winners were Germans Huschke von Hanstein and Walter Baumer in the BMW 328 Berlinetta Touring.
Post-war racing resumed in 1947. Clemente Biondetti won the following three races with three different cars and three different co-drivers. The cars were Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B Berlinetta Touring, Ferrari 166 S Coupe Allemano and Ferrari 166 MM Barcheta Touring. The domination of the Italians continued with the victories of Giannino Marzotto (1950 and 1953), Luigi Villoresi (1951), Giovanni Bracco (1952) and Alberto Ascari (1954). Few non-Italian drivers achieved podium finishes (Karl Kling, Hans Klenk, Juan Manuel Fangio, Peter Collins, Wolfgang von Trips) but nobody was able to win until 1955 and Stirling Moss.
An incredible 661 cars at the 1955 Mille Miglia
That year, Mercedes sent to Italy four specially-prepared 300 SLRs, based on the W196 F1 car. It had four star drivers – Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling. An incredible number of 661 cars entered the race, which was also part of the World Sports Car Championship.
Before the race, Stirling Moss and his partner Denis Jenkinson ran six reconnaissance laps, enabling Jenkins to make pace-notes. That brought Moss at par with the Italian drivers who had the knowledge of local roads, and enabled him to achieve a record average speed of an incredible 157,65 km/h. He finished the race after 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, about half-an-hour faster than team-mate and rival Fangio.
The worst accident happened in 1957
Two more Mille Miglia races were held, with Eugenio Castellotti and Piero Taruffi as winners, and after that, the race was banned. Road-races of that time had poor security standards and were deemed extremely dangerous, mostly because lots of spectators watched from close proximity of the track. According to some statistics, 56 lives were lost during the races from 1927 to 1957.
The biggest tragedy took place in 1957, in the village of Guidizzolo, when nine spectators were killed (5 of them were children) by the wreckage of Ferrari 335S of Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago. He and his co-driver Edmund Nelson were also killed. In the same race, one more driver, Joseph Göttgens, died in a separate accident.
One of the most prestigious vintage events in the world
From 1958 onwards, the event was resurrected as a highly-controlled rally run mostly at legal speeds, but was quickly ended again in 1961. The Mille Miglia Storica, as it’s known today, was born in 1977 as a timed historic rally event, reserved for cars produced and raced before 1957.
Today, Mille Miglia represents the most prestigious vintage rally in the world and serves as a reminder of the courage, glamour and dangerous racing that occurred approximately 60 odd years ago.
Mille Miglia winners list:
1927: Giuseppe Morandi / Ferdinando Minoia – OM 665 S
1928: Giulio Ramponi / Giuseppe Campari – Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Sport Spider Zagato
1929: Giulio Ramponi / Giuseppe Campari – Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 SS Spider Zagato
1930: Tazio Nuvolari / Battista Guidotti – Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Spider Zagato
1931: Rudolf Caracciola / Wilhelm Sebastian – Mercedes-Benz SSK
1932: Baconin Borzacchini / Amedeo Bignami – Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider Touring
1933: Tazio Nuvolari / Decimo Compagnoni – Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider Zagato
1934: Achille Varzi / Amedeo Bignami – Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza Spider Brianza
1935: Carlo Maria Pintacuda / Alessandro Della Stufa – Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Tipo B
1936: Antonio Brivio / Carlo Ongaro – Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A
1937: Carlo Maria Pintacuda / Paride Mambelli – Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A
1938: Clemente Biondetti / Aldo Stefani – Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Spider MM Touring
1940: Huschke von Hanstein – Walter Baumer – BMW 328 Berlinetta Touring
1947: Clemente Biondetti / Emilio Romano – Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B Berlinetta Touring
1948: Clemente Biondetti / Giuseppe Navone – Ferrari 166 S Coupe Allemano
1949: Clemente Biondetti / Ettore Salani – Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta Touring
1950: Giannino Marzotto / Marco Crosara – Ferrari 195 S Berlinetta Touring
1951: Luigi Villoresi / Pasquale Cassani – Ferrari 340 America Berlinetta Vignale
1952: Giovanni Bracco / Alfonso Rolfo – Ferrari 250 S Berlinetta Vignale
1953: Giannino Marzotto / Marco Crosara – Ferrari 340 MM Spider Vignale
1954: Alberto Ascari – Lancia D24 Spider
1955: Stirling Moss / Denis Jenkinson – Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR
1956: Eugenio Castellotti – Ferrari 290 MM Spider Scaglietti
1957: Piero Taruffi – Ferrari 315 S
Video: The story about Sir Stirling Moss and his #722 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, reunited 60 years after historic win
Video: Footage from the last edition of Mille Miglia in 1957, on which 9 spectators were killed in a Portago’s crash