Historically, the superstars of the Mercedes-Benz classic fleet rendezvous in Brescia to storm through the Italian countryside in the legendary Mille Miglia. This year, the Stuttgart-based racing team once again sets out to complete this epic journey
Bravissimo, Fantastico, Bella Piccola, Stupendo, Classica - car descriptions, racing numbers, and driver names explode out into the dawning night in rapid-fire Italian staccato. The sun sets behind Castel Sant'Angelo for a dramatic backdrop to the cars streaming past in marlboro red, teal blue, fire yellow, forest green, soft whites and classic blacks. If you haven't guessed it yet, this is the halfway mark in Roma for the Mille Miglia 2012.
The origins of this race – its name meaning "thousand miles" – started 85 years ago as an open road race in 1927, from Brescia to Rome and back, until it was deemed too dangerous in 1957. Today, the Mille Miglia is a three-day rally event for classic cars dating from the original racing years and boasts the description of "the most beautiful race in the world." Backtracking to the starting line in Brescia, we definitely agree. This city lies at the foothills of the Prealpi Bresciane e Gardesane mountain range and is considered one of the most revered motor sport capitals of the world; thereby always hosting the start and finish of this historical race. Over a glass of wine at the pre-start dinner, Malte Dringenberg, Head of Press Communications at Mercedes-Benz Classic, comments that it's “equally a national pride as well as individual respect for a whole cultural history of endurance sports and finely crafted machines”.
The general consensus from various teams, both Italian and foreign alike, is sincere thanks to Italia for "keeping the Mille Miglia alive." Why? Because the moments are nearly indescribable in their idiosyncrasies; far more to do with the spirit of the people than with the actual technicalities of the race.
Pedals to the floor in Brescia, sights set on Roma
The 387 classic beauties rumble into the grounds of the Museo Mille Miglia before bursting out of the gates at 6:30 p.m. to speed through Verona and into Ferrara, the scheduled first stop of the race. On their way, they pass alongside Lago di Garda where tables are dotted with bright orange glasses of Aperol, glinting in the sunset. Before long the music of engines and exhaust pipes resonate over the lake and the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SSK, Alpha Romeo 6C 1500, and Bugatti A35 thunder into view across cobblestone. The crowd doesn't seem to tire of the cheering and children lean over guardrails, screaming the names of their favourite drivers who wave back in appreciation.
The following day, the cars climb 700 metres to San Marino, exploding between narrow streets and into the piazza fronting the Palazzo Pubblico. Without taking his eyes off the lineup of cars, the barista at Cafe Piadineria boasts: "This is part of history, to see all these cars on the road." With a pause he adds: "It's… fine." From his rapt attention, we suspect his definition of fine was slightly understated. The cars then descend down into Sansepolcro on to Roma. Paolo, driving one of the legendary gullwing 300 SLs, describes it to be "an unforgettable experience to drive this wonderful car through the paesaggi of Italia." Having similar thoughts is Frank Lamparter of the SLR Club anticipating the opportunity to "site see Rome in an SLR."
Once there in front of the flood lamps of Castel Sant'Angelo, the race announcer encourages a driver to "pump up the engine a bit" and with the overwhelming bellowing that follows, shouts into the mic: "La muuuuusica!" Also Mick Walsh (editor-in-chief of Classic & Sports Car Magazine and co-driver for legendary Formula One racer Jochen Mass) expressed some anxiousness in Brescia due to the press boys attacking with their cameras, but by this point in Rome, seated in their sleek 300 SLR (W 196 S), the side grin on his face paired with the relinquished smile from Mass said what needed saying. He adds: "What a crazy idea to bring all these cars into the centre of Rome. It's a lovely dream!"
Mercedes-Benz continues their heritage of exhilarating driving experiences through Tuscany
Make no mistake: the Mille Miglia is not a Sunday drive through the Malibu canyons. An incredibly arduous race, the schedule calls for drivers, mechanics, press, administration, and all involved, to run through the nights with hardly any sleep. Even still, these drivers are here from all corners of the world to eagerly take part in this famous event and they are looking just as elegant and diverse as their cars: linen and silk scarves, leather driving caps, racing goggles, chequered shirts, flowers through tailored lapels, tartan arm patches, chronograph watches, and driving gloves, truly a timeless look.
The third day then is the longest and hardest stretch of the Mille Miglia, from Rome all the way back to Brescia. After a 4:30 am rise, the mist slowly dissipates and golden light leaks through valleys bordered by the blue-black silhouetted mountains of Tuscany. There is a surreal aura to these early 20th century machines kicking up dust in this ancient landscape and yellow-stoned cities of the region. Yet I dare say appropriate. We trail three classics from Mercedes-Benz, a Ferrari, and a Bugatti through the windy roads north of Siena. The muted red, gleaming black, forest green, and soft white of the car bodies blend beguilingly with the context.
Outside of Florence, a gentleman dressed in sporty formals and violently waving a white handkerchief from his roadside table at Trattoria con Giardino, proudly recounts: "I remember the real Mille Miglia! You were not born yet but fifty years ago, I was at the real races. 1,500 cars in total… with people running after the cars!" But the Mille Miglia is never without challenges. Italy's weather can be as boisterous or tempestuous as the people; the drivers must race with sudden hard rain on treacherous mountain roads. Undeterred, they pull the collars of their outer coats up against the oncoming rain and pound their way towards the finish line.
Brescia embodies the Mercedes-Benz racing spirit at the Mille Miglia
In Brescia, the sidelines on Viale Venezia are already packed long before the cars arrive and everyone has a story to tell. No doubt the Mercedes-Benz Pan Americana SL was not alone in claiming their car to have "no technical problems with more capacity than expected in terms of speed and driving precision." Most of these cars are equally works of precision as they are art. Others like North American Tribute driver Sylvia Oberti driving solo, describes the Mille Miglia to be "an endurance marathon. My car is limping to the finish line." The true racing spirit of this event comes to light as some cars, without the barest of strengths left to make the last several hundred metres, receive willing assistance from their competitors in pushing the cars forward to the finish flag.
Setting aside the bloodshot eyes, pale sleep-deprived faces, and hunches shoulders, every single driver wears a happy grin as they look at the crowds and each other, recognising the significance of this historical and honourable race. Regine Sixt in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL says: "It is so exciting, I am not even tired!" Some drivers jump out of their cars to slap backs, exchanging congratulations, and pose for photographers. Why, even in Milano the following day, a lady sights the press-pass emblazoned with the historical race logo, and excitedly remarks: "Ah! La Mille Miglia, la corsa più bella del mondo. Molto molto bella!"
And she's spot on. After all, these cars have spirit and voice. Where better to sing than at the Mille Miglia?