From the north Italian city of Brescia the road east passes through Verona and then Vicenza. But once each year to five hundred or more expert drivers it does not matter where it goes, but only whether it runs straight or winds, dips or climbs. For a night and a day it becomes a thousand miles of road that leads from Brescia back to Brescia, closed to ordinary traffic and pounded by the race car traffic competing in Italy's world championship Mille Miglia. For the 22nd Mille Miglia last Saturday and Sunday the racing traffic was the heaviest and the fastest ever.
Italy's Mille Miglia invariably attracts a large field because it spreads its honors and cash—$35,000 this year—attractively through all the sport and touring car classes, small and large. It attracts much attention because it is generally considered the best balanced test of driver and machine of any of the major sports car races. For all its special merits, at Mille Miglia as anywhere, the big thing is the over-all win, the fight for prestige between the big cars. It is a home course for the good Italians, and they have made the most of this advantage. Only two foreign cars and one foreign driver have won since the first race in 1927. Italian drivers in Ferraris have ruled Mille Miglia since 1947, losing only to a rival Italian in a Lancia last year. The Lancias were not competing this year, and the English Jaguars, running second to Ferrari in the 1955 world standings, were not entered. The road home, however, was not clear for Ferrari. Standing in their way were the meticulous Germans of Mercedes-Benz who, after concentrating on their Grand Prix cars for two years, had suddenly come back to the sports car scramble and were making their first bid for prestige in the Mille Miglia.
The impressive four-car Mercedes team was led by an equally imposing figure, large, blond Alfred Neubauer, a ponderous, painstaking team manager who had also directed the Mercedes force which swept the first two places in the 1952 Pan-American Road Race. The two Mercedes drivers considered to have the best chance to win were the 1954 world champion, bowlegged Juan Manuel Fangio, and 47-year-old Karl Kling, who had come very close to winning the 1952 Mille Miglia. Thanks to the dead-earnest way the Germans went about it, the race became by starting time far more than just a driver's race. It was team against team, the Germans thoroughly planning the race one way and the Italians trying by trick or wit to dash the German plans.
In a pre-race month of preparation Karl Kling took his Mercedes around the thousand-mile course (for this race it actually measured 992 miles) fifteen times, from Brescia east to Vicenza and down to Ravenna on the Adriatic, along the straight stretches, then west through thousands of bends in the Apennine mountains, out of the mountains to Rome, then north again through short, steep bends at Radicofani, and winding again into the Apennines into the last straight stretches before the finish back at Brescia. At sharp bends Kling dismounted and measured the precise angle. He spent most of a day on one moderate corner outside Modena, trying it again and again, feeling the drift of it and seeking the exact moment when he should change gear and press gas pedal. He did almost as much on each of Mille Miglia's 2,987 corners—if he could wrench a yard from each of them, he would save a precious mile and a half. He had lost in 1952 by less than that much, beaten by one of the best of Italy's mountain men, Giovanni Bracco, who some say could take the Apennines with his eyes shut.
Kling's scrutiny of the route epitomized the astounding thoroughness of the whole Mercedes effort, which literally amounted to bringing a small German army into the Garage Restelli, their Brescia base—184 tires and wheels, maps, their own corps of mechanics, their own gas and oil. Champion Fangio went over the course eight times, studying it as Kling had. Twenty-seven-year-old Hans Herrmann, the third Mercedes driver, covered the route six times, and the fourth driver, 25-year-old Stirling Moss of England, ran through it three times. The second time around Moss collided with a truckload of explosives, tearing up a fender. Fussing like a Dutch mother at this near loss to his well-ordered team, Manager Neubauer instructed Moss to make no more trial runs.
The Germans left little to chance. When Fangio announced that he wished to run without a co-driver in order to be more comfortable, portly Manager Neubauer knelt to take exact measurements of the seat of Fangio's pants. With this knowledge acquired, Neubauer could then have the co-driver seat sealed over and leave just enough, and not too much, room for Fangio's bottom. "Winning a race," grunted Neubauer, "is 90 or 95% preparation. Luck is only 5%."
About the only place the Mercedes team thought they might need luck was with the brakes of their new silver cars. The four Mercedes are a new model, evolved from their Formula One Grand Prix cars: a straight eight cylinders, injector fed (carburetorless) of 3,000-cc capacity, with a five-speed gear box. The brakes are large—70 centimeters—though the drums are not on the wheels but in the center of the car where cooling is reduced. Slamming into the sharp curves on the Mille Miglia route they might take a real baking. Fangio, the No. 1 man, was not worried: "The car looks like a tank," he confided, "but it is the lightest car I have ever driven."
In contrast to German precision, the Ferrari pre-race effort appeared slapdash. It began to look as if this year all the Italians would be chasing Mercedes Driver Fangio home. As it turned out, a Mercedes did lead them, but not Fangio. For most of the 992 miles both the Italians and Fangio were chasing the Englishman Stirling Moss.
The Ferrari team was banking largely on their cars and the basic skills of their drivers to beat the Mercedes. They would not until the last minute let anyone know that the entire four-car team would be composed of 3,750-cc Ferraris, nor would foxy Enzo Ferrari say which driver would be at the wheel of which car. He entered the cars under the names of the mechanics and then hoped for luck when the order of start was drawn. Fortune smiled on the Ferrari team. They got four of the last six places, and Enzo Ferrari could now play out a few trumps.
It was Manager Neubauer's plan to have Mercedes Driver Moss draw out Ferraris at the start and burn them up so that Fangio, Kling and Herrmann could run their own races. Tactician Ferrari put Enzo Castellotti, a dashing sort of driver, right behind Moss. Castellotti would chase Moss and might even make Moss chase him. In the starting spot, just behind Mercedes Driver Herrmann, Enzo Ferrari spotted Umberto Maglioli, last year's Pan-American Road Race winner; his job was to push Herrmann. In the next-to-last spot the Ferrari team started Paolo Marzotto, who never forces pace but relies on endurance. And in the most favored place in the whole race, the last to leave the start at Brescia, with a whole day ahead of him to dog and worry the great Fangio, would be the Ferrari veteran, silver-haired Piero Taruffi.
The first car, a small diesel-powered Fiat, was off down the starting ramp at 9 o'clock Saturday night. Every half minute or minute thereafter the beam of another car's headlights followed into the night, flicking against the greenery and pink spring blossoms. After the small Fiats, Citr√∂ens and Renaults came Panhards, Alfa Romeos, small Mercedes, Oscas, Porsches, Maseratis, Gordinis and Ferraris—a noisy field of 521 going away all night and until 8:30 the next morning.
As the gray of dawn turned into a bright day, the rival Ferraris and Mercedes were moving toward the starting ramp. "I feel happy," said Fangio. "It is a lovely day and I am driving a wonderful car." Still smiling, he thundered down the wooden ramp and on to Verona at a "careful" speed of 111 miles an hour. The strategy of the Ferrari team on this first leg came somewhat apart. Paolo Marzotto, generally a conservative back-runner, took the lead at 123 miles an hour. Suddenly the tread left one of his tires. As his engine speed rapidly dropped, the oil cap blew, and the first of the Ferraris was out of it.
Along the road stretches flanking the Adriatic the Ferraris and Mercedes were strung like beads, and Mercedes Manager Neubauer could nod approvingly. Setting the pace through Ancona, at 116 miles an hour, was the gleaming silver Mercedes, No. 722, driven by Stirling Moss, and he was pulling Taruffi, the best hope of Ferrari, with him. Behind Taruffi came Herrmann of Mercedes, and behind him Castellotti of Ferrari. Then came Kling in a Mercedes, Maglioli in a Ferrari and finally Fangio, taking it easy. On the run to Pescara, where the route turns toward the Apennines, Ferrari Driver Taruffi jumps into the lead. This is not according to Mercedes plan, for the Ferrari has more power and better maneuverability in the mountains, and Taruffi is a good mountain driver. Into the mountains, Taruffi is pushed by all four Mercedes. Castellotti is out of it with engine failure on the run to Pescara, so through the mountains there are only two Ferraris against the four Mercedes. Through the Apennines and into Rome and up through the ragged passes of Radicofani, the ironies of this racing business began to show. Taruffi, a better mountain driver in a better mountain car, was passed by Moss before he got to Rome. Kling, who had worked so methodically to know each curve, lost the road on one of them, wrecking his car and breaking three ribs. Between Viterbo and Radicofani, Taruffi's oil pump failed, leaving only Maglioli's Ferrari chasing the three leading Mercedes.
Whether any of Ferrari's grief could be attributed to it or not, Moss had done a splendid job of front running—such a good job that to Florence he had smashed all previous Mille Miglia records with an incredible 97 mph average. He ran a distinct risk of putting himself out of it. Herrmann, also breaking all previous records, did go out with a crippling gas tank leak. On to Bologna Moss continued to pick up time on Fangio in the other remaining Mercedes, while Maglioli hung onto third place in the one remaining team Ferrari. They took the checkered flag at the Brescia finish in that order. Fourth came Francesco Giardini in a Maserati, and fifth, in a small touring Mercedes, came an unballyhooed American, Johnny Fitch.
Winner Moss had averaged an incredible 97.96 miles an hour, covering the 992 miles in 10 hours, 7 minutes, 48 seconds—half an hour better than the record. After red victory flowers were shoved into his hands, Moss explained: "I just drove as fast as I could, following instructions."
It was indeed quite according to Mercedes plan. Moss the rabbit had run the Ferrari hounds ragged to keep them away from Fangio—only the rabbit had kept on running and had beaten even Fangio.
Start & Finish
SAN QUIRICO D'ORCIA
MILLE MIGLIA TOP FINISHERS
SPORTS CARS OF 2,000 cc
SRORTS CARS OF 1,500 cc
SPORTS CARS OF 750 cc