Most of you, our readers, are very familiar with the general make-up of endurance racing. While today, nearly all endurance racing occurs on closed circuit type courses like Daytona, Sebring, and others.Even street circuits like Lemans are, for all intents and purposes, converted to fully closed circuits for the race events. Most racing that occurs on public roads today are rally style events. But for years, in parallel to track based events, some endurance events were held on public roads, like the Carrera Panamericana, Targa Florio and perhaps the most recognized, the Mille Miglia.
The Mille Miglia (MM) took place 24 times between 1927 to 1957, with several years off as an impact of World War II. While the Targa Florio pre-dates the first MM, it didn't take long for the MM to become the most famous testing ground of GT sports cars. Perhaps because during its peak, it is estimated that the MM had an estimated crowd of 5 million spectators. In an era without the immediate access and bombardment of media like we have today, to have that many people watching an event was a great marketing draw for companies like Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz.
The Italian name Mille Miglia translates into 'thousand miles', and the 22nd running of the MM in 1955 measured 992 miles on a course made up entirely of roads in Italy around the outer parts of the country. The route was essentially a round trip between Brescia and Rome, starting and finishing in Brescia. Adding futher interest to the race, the MM had developed into the third round of the 1955 World Sports Car championship – a practice that had begun in 1953.
The MM started much like modern rally races, in that it was a race against the clock, with cars released apart at one minute intervals. Interestingly, where today teams and drivers choose their car number, it was standard practice at these types of events that a car number was assigned to you at the event based on your allocated start time. Your car number was your start time, and it was painted on the car by event officials. Typically at these types of events, the larger, more professional classes would be sent before the slower cars. The 1955 MM was different. They sent the smaller displacement, slower cars out first. The numbering system made it very easy to identify this.
There were 534 cars across 12 classes that started the 1955 MM race, with major factory efforts for the heavy classes from Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, and Mercedes Benz. This appearance by Mercedes was their debut as a factory team for this event, and they came to win. They brought drivers Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Hans Herrmann, and Karl Kling – and equipped all of them with a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W196S) was an iconic 2-seat sports racer that took sportscar racing by storm in 1955. Designated "SL-R" (for Sport Leicht-Rennen, eng: Sport Light-Racing, later condensed to "SLR"), the 3-liter thoroughbred was derived from the company's Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula One racer. It shared most of its drivetrain and chassis, with the 196's fuel-injected 3.0 liter straight 8 .
The W196s monoposto driving position was modified to standard two-abreast seating, headlights were added, and a few other changes made to adapt a strictly track car to a 24-hour road/track sports racer.
In addition to the exotic hardware, the 1955 MM race introduced a new racing concept. Typically, these grueling races allowed for a riding passenger, but not for the reason you might think. This was allowed because the slowest cars often took more than 20 hours to complete the lap, so the passenger often shared the driving responsibilities. American John Fitch, a team driver for Mercedes-Benz at the time, suggested utilizing the allowance of the passenger to help recall the route from notes, since only locals knew all the nuances well anough to recall during such a long, one-lap event. Fitch suggested that British racing journalist Denis Jenkinson ride along with him in the 1955 MM, and that they pre-drive the route and take notes of the more complicated areas. When Mercedes relegated Fitch to the 300 SL production car versus the faster SLR sports racer, he suggested Jenkinson ride along with Stirling Moss instead to help the team. This idea had not been performed previously. They had 'created' the 'rally navigator' - a position that is used without exception in today's rally.
In the early hours of the race, the Ferraris showed their superior strength. The privately entered Ferrari 121 LM of Eugenio Castellotti ran away from the field. The high-strung 4.4 liter Ferrari engine had more punch than the Formula car-derived 300 hp Mercedes could muster. What the Ferrari had in power, it lacked in reliability. It had been pushed too hard and failed mid-race. Castellotti's teammate Paolo Marzotto also had a favorable start, but blew a tire at speeds nearing 175 mph, and for some peculiar reason, his spare tire was not the same size as the others on the car, forcing him to retire. Moss recalls the 300 SLR he piloted as the greatest sports car ever. He has said about the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, "It was not an easy car to drive. The steering was heavy at low speed, and the brakes were heavy. It wasn't a wimp's car. It's great strength was that it was a driver's car, so well-balanced and responsive to the throttle and the brakes." Recognizing the strength of his car over the faster Ferraris, Moss shared, "with a Mercedes, you didn't worry whether a wheel was going to fall off or the gearbox was going to break."
As the two lead Ferraris fell out of the race, Moss took the lead. But it was not a secure one initially. A third Ferrari driver, Piero Taruffi, in his 118 LM was averaging a blistering 130 mph on the leg leading to Pescara - shattering all previous records for this stage. His pace on that leg of the race brought him within a very thin margin of Moss. Some of Moss's lead was able to be reclaimed thanks to a quicker pitstop than the Ferrari at the conclusion of the stage.
By the next checkpoint, the small town of L'Aquila, Moss has extended his lead to 35 seconds, and The Mercedes cars were running in first, second, fourth, and fifth place. The Ferrari of Taruffi sitting in third.
The leg from Rome to Siena was where Moss shined brightest. The 140 mile stretch of mountainous roads drove many cars and drivers to attrition. Through that stage, Moss had increased his lead to just under six minutes, beating the next fastest driver on that single stage by one minute, 36 seconds. Fangio, who likely would have fared better, had been driving a broken car for most of the race. One of the intake pipes on the exotic fuel injection system had broken on his car, leaving his car down one cylinder.
Ever the competitor, despite having a significant lead, Moss hit speeds of 170 mph on the final stage to the finish. He had no idea until he had gotten across the finish that he had shattered essentially every record for the MM. Moss was the first and only Briton, and only the third non-Italian to ever win the MM outright, as well as against the index of performance - a handicap index system, which allows smaller cars to compare themselves to the top classes. Only 281 of the initial 534 finished the race.
Mercedes went on to win that year's World Sportscar Championship before a catastrophic crash and fire at Le Mans ended its domination prematurely.
And the Mille Miglia only ran for two more years, before a catastrophic accident with many fatalities stopped the event in 1957.
There are still some public road events today, such as the Targa Newfoundland, but they are a different breed than the Mille. It was a different time.