La Mille Miglia ( mille meaning 1000, miglia meaning miles ) is often dubbed “the most beautiful race in the world.” Around 500 classic cars parade from Brescia, through northern and central Italy down to Rome and back over the course of 4 days each May making quite a show. But the Mille Miglia had much grittier origins.
According to the Mille Miglia website there is an old motto which says that fuel rather than blood flows through the veins of the Brescian people. In fact, Brescians have been motor racing since the end of the 1890s entering events involving some big names in the future of car making such as Ettore Bugati, from Milan, who won the Verona-Mantua-Brescia-Verona race in his Prinetti & Stucchi three-wheeler in 1899. Petrol was definitely a part of Brescian culture from an early stage in motor car development!
And it was this Brescian passion for speed that developed the Mille Miglia as an open-road endurance test in 1927. The race had few speed limits and little car safety to speak of. Crashes were an occupational hazard. But the Brescians kept the race going, racing 24 times between 1927 and 1957, until it was finally banned after 2 devastating crashes took the lives of 3 drivers and 9 spectators, including 5 children watching at the side of the road. In fact, more than 50 people had died over the years and the Mille Miglia was a long way from today’s race.
In the late 1950s attempts were briefly made to revive the race as a rally over several stages and largely adhering to speed limits, but it wasn’t until 1977 when the current race took form.
Running each year in early to mid-May, the Mille Miglia is now usually broken into stages over 4 days, although it retains most of the original Brescia-Rome-Brescia route. And as a further nod to the original race only cars made before 1957 are eligible to take part which makes for a spectacular beauty parade of classic cars including famous marques such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, MG, Aston Martin, BMW and Healey. It is lip-smackingly good and draws crowds of petrol heads and old romantics alike!
As 6pm chimes, 435 classic cars set off from Brescia at 20 second intervals, the final ones crossing the starting line two and a half hours later. The race follows a time trial format, with all entrants adhering to normal road rules, but as these are old classics, not sleek turbo-charged rockets, the old, slow ones go first to get a head start so that the race doesn’t take forever!
The crowd control barriers are already up in Padova’s Piazza dei Signori and Piazza delle Erbe, the official finishing post for the first stage, but it will be a further 4 hours before the first pace cars start to arrive in Padova. VIPs toast the drivers in the beautiful colonnaded Palazzo della Ragione before taking drinks and coffee outside to tables out in the main square to await the first arrivals around 10.15pm. But these aren’t the real racers, “just” around 100 sleek modern Ferrari to whet the appetite! After the first 60 odd, spectators start to get a bit blasé!! Modern cars are certainly impressive feats of engineering and streamlining, but this is not what the crowd wants. Piazza dell Erbe is brimming with (mostly) men fanatically, breathlessly awaiting a bevvy of amply curvaceous cars careering round the tight corners of the Piazza like a gaggle of gorgeous girls out on the town!
Finally, around 11pm, the first cars pull up outside the Palazzo della Ragione for a heroes welcome and then a celebratory lap of honour of the square, to great applause, before leading the pack off to their overnight pit-stop at the Montegrotto Therme thermal spa hotel outside the city. And I suspect some of the drivers could do with a massage after bouncing these old classics over the bone-breaking cobbles of northern Italy all evening without much suspension or upholstery to protect them.
An Alfa Romeo G1 from 1921, Bugati T 35/37 Grand Prix from 1925 and Lancia Lambda serie VII from 1927 are some of the first to enter the arena and kick off a steady parade of nearly 40 years of motoring history from an era long gone. Millions of pounds worth of well known names like FIAT, Bristol, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Talbot streak past, interspersed by some lesser-knowns like SIATA, Ermini and Stranguellini. Some of the older entrants pass with more of a grumble than a growl but the crowd laps it up drooling over the makes and models in awe. And for once, the drivers are very much a second thought although the occasional celebrities like actor Jeremy Irons, AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, US TV host Jay Leno and legendary Jaguar Design Director Ian Callum do raise a cheer!
Finally, as 2am chimes, the crowd has significantly thinned to just a hardy few as 1950s Porsche, Maserati and Triumphs continue to purr round the Piazza and on out into the dark country roads to the hotel stopover. The race still has another hour or so to run before everyone can hit the hay and leave the street cleaners to ready the town for market in the morning. And as we wend our weary way home, blearily waving our flags as the last stragglers roar past, it is clear that this is not a spectator sport for those who like an early night, or sleep of any kind for that matter as the second stage kicks off at 7am the next morning. This is a race for fanatics – both the participants and the crowds who line the route. And as long as the cars can still manage the circuit without overheating or blowing a gasket there will be a millionaire to drive them and spectators to cheer them on, dreaming of one day steering a Jaguar or Aston Martin or Healey through the narrow streets of northern Italy. Well, we can but dream!
Official Website here
Follow events from 15th – 18th May 2014
Stage 1 starters list – www.1000miglia.it/crono/2014/A100OEU.pdf
2007 documentary film Mille Miglia – The Spirit of a Legend