Driving in the 2015 Mille Miglia – picture special
Fifteen million. Or perhaps 20. Nobody was certain, but when €5m can be bandied about in terms of ‘give or take’, you quickly get the idea of the value and rarity of a car.
The car in point was the BMW 328 Berlin-Rome Touring Roadster, and I was about to drive it in a hailstorm for two hours, in preparation for taking part in the Mille Miglia rally in Italy.
Intimidating? You bet. No matter how many times carefree colleagues reminded me that all the value was in the chassis number rather than the actual metalwork, I couldn’t shake off my unease. The supposedly comforting suggestion from one BMW man that “the only way you’ll cost us €20m is by writing the car off – in which case you won’t be around to worry about it” did little to help.
Built in 1940 by coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring, it was one of three 328s streamlined to take part in the Berlin to Rome race of 1941, an event subsequently cancelled for obvious historical reasons.
Powered by a 1971cc straight six engine linked to a four-speed gearbox, it has around 120bhp at 5500rpm and weighs just 700kg.
Top speed is rated at 120mph or so, while stopping power comes from a combination of drum brakes and ventilated anchor plates. Oh, and you’ll note the absence of any seatbelts and rollover protection, never mind anything resembling a roll cage or crash structure.
Even in that hailstorm, my face stinging from the force of the ice pounding my skin, I discovered that the car was fast, nimble and a little tail-happy.
In fact – and possibly helped by the fact that the staff of BMW’s Classic division have a reputation for being the master craftsmen of the tens of thousands of engineers working in Munich – it was quite easy to drive, revving cleanly from low down to the redline and riding and handling with a smoothness and directness that defied its age. Only the brakes required any real recalibration of my brain, being about half as effective as those of a modern car.
But I was never going to approach the event with any confidence; to do so would have been tempting fate. Just over a week after my first acquaintance with the car, waiting in the holding area for the start at the incredible Mille Miglia museum in Brescia with the team and my team-mate Ian Robertson, BMW’s board member in charge of sales and marketing, I slipped away and felt more than a little bit sick.
Piled on top of the sense of the responsibility to the car and Ian, there was the pressure of following the road book, getting the time cards stamped at the 33 set locations and programming and using the on-board trip computer that was required to complete the 84 regularity and average speed tests around the route.
While Ian and I shared the on-road driving, we opted for a consistent strategy in the regularity tests, with him at the wheel and me calling out whether he needed to speed up or slow down in order to hit the required target speed or time.
The closer you get to being within two seconds of the target time, the fewer penalties you accumulate. It sounds simple enough, but when they run up to six of these tests consecutively and you consider that you must judge yourself when your wheels cross a start/finish line, it gets terrifically complicated.
We were dreadfully inconsistent early on. The BMW Classic crew reckoned we’d do well to crack the top 150, but we managed 161st despite an erratic first day and rapidly climbed the order on days two and three, getting as high as 76th. We even managed a couple of top 10 overall results.
But just when we thought we were getting the hang of it, we hit disaster, first when the gearbox started getting increasingly reluctant to engage first and second (crucial when the regularity speeds were between 15mph and 30mph or so) and then when the GPS computer stopped measuring our speed, which ruined our last five runs and left us 82nd of 435 finishers.
However, to sum up the Mille Miglia on the basis of these fun challenges would be to miss the main focus of the event, which annually attracts the finest cars (and the wealthiest owners) from around the world.
For many of you, the history lesson won’t be necessary, but to fill in, the Mille became famous between 1927 and 1957 as an open-road endurance race, when it was reputedly watched by upwards of five million people who lined the route. Standing alongside the likes of the Targa Florio and the Carrera Panamericana as a headline-grabbing road race, it was seen as a perfect showcase for grand touring cars from the likes of Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.
In Britain, of course, it became scorched forever into the national consciousness 60 years ago this month, when Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson took victory at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, averaging 98.53mph over the course of 10hr, 7min and 48sec of driving. Just stop and consider that average of nearly 100mph over 1000 miles on open roads and with stops for fuel and tyres for a moment.
Contemporary motorsport magazines described it as the greatest drive in history – and there are commentators who feel no need to update that assessment today.
Like every other road race, bar perhaps some of the Dakar Rally-style cross-country events, the Mille Miglia became too dangerous for modern sensibilities and was canned after a tragic accident killed nine spectators and pushed even the motorsport-loving Italians’ tolerance too far.
In 1977 it was reborn as a regularity event for classic and vintage machinery that took part in the original, and it found popularity among manufacturers keen to emphasise their heritage. Which, of course, is how I found myself in Brescia with BMW.
Today, the Mille Miglia is not as fast nor as tough as it once was – but it is still fast and tough. To have any hope of staying on schedule, you need to drive assertively in traffic and quickly on the open roads.
All road regulations remain in force, but police line the routes in towns to wave you through traffic lights, and the vast majority of the locals make sure to get out of the way at the first sign of a competing car, to the point of stopping on roundabouts to wave you through.
Police bikes also follow the route and, while they frown on anything too fast, it’s fair to say that they are happy to set a pace that is energetic to say the least. Through some generous sharing of a few cans of Red Bull, Ian befriended one of these police riders, and by far my most enjoyable runs were into the evenings as he led us along the route with brio, waving locals out of the way in time for our arrival.
So we went from Brescia to Rimini, on to Rome, then Parma and then back to Brescia, all in three days of driving over four days of competition. For two of those days, we drove from around 6am to 10pm, and on one of them I’m not sure I got out of the car for more than 15 minutes while we refuelled. Going fast for that long is both gruelling and intoxicating, and if you like that heady mix, Mille Miglia veterans say there is no better place to experience it.
Along the way, there was also an atmosphere unlike anything I’ve experienced. While I doubt we drove past five million people, every single bit of the route was lined with enthusiastic fans. Roundabouts into and out of every town were rammed and there were even people standing on the side of the autostradas as we blasted by.
Best of all, though, were the runs into the towns and cities along the way, where vast crowds of enthusiasts of every age and gender lined the route and cheered us on, dropping regional specialities into the car as gifts at time controls. Highlights included a run into the normally pedestrianised (or closed for horse racing) square in Siena and a run past the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but in truth everywhere we visited oozed history and character in that utterly beguiling Italian way.
This, then, was an adventure on an epic scale. If you have the wherewithal to buy an eligible car and pay the entry fee (by which point you’ll be several hundred thousand pounds out of pocket, at least), I’d recommend it. If not, I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest to go and watch.
I’ve been lucky enough to be trackside at Monaco, in Monza while Ferrari was running one-two and to watch Colin McRae and Richard Burns in full flight, fighting for the WRC title on home soil, and this event is right up there for the scale of the atmosphere, if not perhaps the outright intensity.
More than anything, though, I reached the finish line feeling privileged to have taken part in such an incredible event in such a great car. Relieved, too, to have done it all without putting a scratch on the BMW. I can’t truly say that I ever got the €20m figure out of my head, but more than once, sun blazing, crowds cheering and pushing along as hard as I dared, the magic of the Mille Miglia was more than enough to push it to the back of my mind.
Mille Miglia 2015 report – the view from a €20 million racer
Celebrating Stirling Moss’s Mille Miglia win – 60 years on
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