A 1,000 mile race through Italian towns and villages, with crowds of excited spectators lining the roads as cars flash past at breakneck speeds, sounds like a recipe for disaster nowadays.
Even now, 60 years on from what many see as the race of his life, Stirling Moss still marvels at the madness and the magic of the Mille Miglia.
“It was the one race of the year, the only one race in fact, that frightened the hell out of me,” the 85-year-old Briton told Reuters in an interview ahead of the anniversary on Friday of his epic 1955 victory for Mercedes. “The Mille Miglia was certainly the greatest road race in the world.”
The race, from Brescia in the north down to Rome and back again, also had a reputation as one of the deadliest.
Discontinued in 1957 after 60 deaths in three decades, it saw cars race over public roads at up to 190mph with only hay bales to shield the public — and sometimes not even that.
Moss, whose 1955 win was achieved in a record time of 10 hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds with an average speed of 98.53 mph (159 kph), recalled spectators spilling out onto the road as he roared past.
For his navigator, Moss had the bespectacled and bearded Motor Sport magazine journalist Denis Jenkinson — an eccentric whose subsequent chronicle has gone down in motoring lore.
His ‘scientific’ approach of mapping every detail on what he called his ‘toilet roll’ — a six metre rolling screed — enabled Moss to drive flat out as Jenkinson called out the information.
“At speeds up to 120-130mph we went through the streets of Florence, over the great river bridge, broadside across a square across more tramlines and into the control point,” Jenkinson, who died in 1996, wrote of one stage.
“The last six miles into the Rome control were an absolute nightmare … we would normally have done 150-160mph but the crowds of spectators were so thick that we could not see the road and the surface being bumpy Moss dared not drive much over 130 mph,” he said of another.
As they approached two daunting mountain passes on the return sweep to Brescia, after blasting along cambered country roads, Moss saw his friend rubbing his hands in glee at the thrills to come.
“Jenks did not understand what danger was,” recalled Moss. “I think to be a co-driver in the Mille Miglia you need to be really weird.”
Afterwards, with white circles around the eyes where his goggles had shielded him from oil and dirt, Moss had a bath and a meal — and jumped back behind the wheel of a Mercedes saloon to drive 400km to Stuttgart.
He arrived before dawn, met Mercedes directors and then drove himself home to Britain.
“We can never go back to races like the Mille Miglia,” said Moss with a touch of regret. “I’m sure there are a lot of Italians who’d love to but it just wouldn’t be feasible.”
(Note: Our site typically does not carry stories of racing other than F1, however this story includes a great F1 driver, a great F1 journalist and an amazing race which we felt needed to be told on these pages.)