Seven Things You Need To Know About The Mille Miglia Race
Messrs Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson in a Mercedes 300 SLR, on the Futa Pass during the Mille Miglia, 1 May 1955. Photograph by Mr Yves Debraine/Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
On 16 June, 375 classic cars will leave Brescia and head off on a four-day odyssey that will take them through some of the most beautiful landscapes Italy has to offer. Founded in 1927, the Mille Miglia is among the most famous motoring events in the world. When it was originally run, the 1,618km course (the equivalent of 1,005 Roman miles) was an all-out race that started and finished in Brescia, with Rome marking the turning point for home.
After ceasing to exist in its original race format in 1957, the Mille Miglia was revived during the 1980s as a time and reliability trial for cars built between 1927 and 1957 and has taken place annually since 1987, even surviving last year’s Covid crisis after the organisers rescheduled from spring to autumn.
Some of the finest, rarest and most valuable cars of the era take to the roads in the manner for which they were intended, creating an intoxicating assault on the senses of sight, sound and smell and turning back the clock as they pass through the same towns and villages where crowds lined the roads during the Mille Miglia’s early decades. Here is our race-pace guide to the Mille Miglia 2021, plus a look at the new Mille Miglia Race Edition watch from timekeeping partner Chopard.
The race origins
The inaugural Mille Miglia was organised by four members of the Brescia Automobile Club, led by chairman Mr Franco Mazzotti. The idea was to create a race that would allow manufacturers to show off their wares, but which would also be open to everyone – not just the wealthy elite, but any skilful driver who could handle the rough and winding roads of the 1,000-mile course. The gruelling event attracted the world’s best pre- and post-war drivers, including Mr Tazio Nuvolari, Mr Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss.
The first winner
The first Mille Miglia, which cost one lira to enter, fielded 77 cars and the winner was local Brescia driver Mr Giuseppe Morandi. He completed the course in his OM 665S at an average speed of less than 50mph and took 21 hours and five minutes to travel from Brescia to Rome and back. It was immediately decreed that the race would become an annual event and it went on to attract thousands of spectators at the roadsides in and around the towns and villages through which it roared.
Sir Stirling Moss makes history
Undoubtedly the most celebrated Mille Miglia victory was the once achieved by Sir Stirling Moss in 1955. Driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR with the motoring journalist Mr Denis Jenkinson as navigator, he set an all-time record of 10 hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 97.96 mph – a performance that’s difficult to comprehend in light of the fact that much of the route followed rough roads that were frequently flanked by thousands of spectators. Jenkinson’s account of his terrifying experience in the passenger seat was published in that June’s issue of MotorSport and is still regarded as one of the greatest pieces of motoring journalism ever written.
The tragedy of 1957
The 1957 Mille Miglia was a memorable event for all the wrong reasons. That was when aristocrat racing driver the Marquis Alfonso de Portago lost control of his 390 horsepower, V12 Ferrari 335S on the final stage of the race towards Parma. While running at full throttle, a tyre burst, which caused the car to hit a milestone, ricochet into a tree and spin out of control. It ploughed into a grass bank where a crowd of spectators was watching the action, and the marquis and his passenger suffered fatal injuries inflicted by the Ferrari’s ill-fitting bonnet. Nine locals were also killed, five of them children, and 20 others were injured. Road racing in Italy was subsequently banned and Mr Enzo Ferrari was charged with manslaughter, but acquitted after a four-year trial.
A race re-born
The Mille Miglia was tentatively revived by Alfa Romeo in 1968 as a “re-enactment tour” to mark the launch of the marque’s 1750 model. It was not until 1982, however, that the decision was taken to create a biennial time trial for historic cars. The move to the current, annual format happened in 1987. The following year, Chopard became the principal sponsor and official timing partner of the Mille Miglia and has held the role ever since. It has established a tradition that each competing team is presented with a special Mille Miglia Race Edition watch engraved with their car’s entry number. Of the 33 Mille Miglia designs produced to date, most have been wrist chronographs, although there has been the occasional three-hander as well as a fob watch (1989) and a hand-held stopwatch (1990).
Italian roads, Swiss timing
The fact that Chopard has been a key element of the Mille Miglia for more than three decades is largely down to the fact that the brand’s co-president, Mr Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, is unashamedly passionate about classic cars – so much so that he has competed in the event no fewer than 32 times and, inevitably, covered 32,000 miles in the process. He first drove it in 1989, alongside six-times Le Mans winner Mr Jacky Ickx, in his distinctive, strawberry-coloured Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing from 1955. The two men have been firm friends ever since and have taken part in the Mille Miglia together on about 15 other occasions in cars including a Porsche 550 Spyder and Scheufele’s Ferrari 750 Monza.
The 2021 Race Edition watch
This year’s Mille Miglia Race Edition watch takes the form of a 44mm chronograph, which, in addition to the numbered versions reserved for competitors, is also available in a 1,000-piece, all-steel version or in 250 examples with bezels, pushpieces and hands made from ethical 18-carat rose gold. Both have slate grey, satin-brushed dials complemented by sharply contrasting chapter rings and chronograph subdials with red-tipped markers to enhance legibility.
The three-counter set-up enables individual recording of 12 hour, 30 minute and 60-second elapsed times, while speed and distance calculations can be made using the dashboard-inspired, white-lacquered markings on the black ceramic insert of the tachymetre bezel.
As with all Chopard Mille Miglia watches, the 2021 Race Edition’s motoring pedigree is confirmed by the presence of the famous Mille Miglia red arrow on the dial, while the case back is decorated with a chequered flag design, the 1000 Miglia logo and the inscription “Brescia-Rome-Brescia” as a reminder of the event’s celebrated circular route. There’s a final automotive touch, too, in the calfskin leather bracelet, which is lined with rubber stamped with the pattern of a 1960s Dunlop racing tyre.
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