When the first cars sprint away from the Mille Miglia starting line this Saturday, hurtling through the warm and scented mid-May Italian night, they will begin what surely will be the most fiercely contested series of world championship automobile races in Europe since World War II.
The season opens with two historically brilliant races, each helping to solve a different world championship. First comes the Mille Miglia, the thousand miles of open-road competition for sports cars where the winning points count toward the manufacturers' title. Then, on the following weekend, there is the Grand Prix of Monaco, which, like the other top Grand Prix races, brings the best Formula I cars into play and counts toward the drivers' title. And thus begins a five-month European season in the sun for the great and near-great drivers (see pages 45-48) who are idolized by one of the largest audiences in sport.
The most famous of all cross-country events, the Mille Miglia sends its 350 cars down to the Adriatic coast from the northern Italian city of Brescia, south along the seashore in a lightning dash to Pescara, across the spine of Italy to Rome, and north over and around the Apennines to the finish back at Brescia. It is the race of races for the average Italian, who, whether he zips a motor scooter through the swarming streets of Rome or practices automotive gamesmanship on the highways, seems always to be training for the Mille Miglia.
That this year's competition will be vigorous is assured by the scrap between those perennial Italian racing car rivals, Maserati and Ferrari, for world supremacy in 1957. A wagonload of laurels won abroad would not be nearly so gratifying as a triumph before the eyes of the nation at home. Since this is a championship limited to sports cars, even though they may have engines of unlimited size, they must also carry a number of the appurtenances of touring cars, such as fenders, headlights, doors, a spare tire, and they must use commercial gasoline, not racing alcohol.
The majority of the Mille Miglia cars, to be sure, will not be as potent as the screaming red Ferraris and Maseratis from Modena. Many of them will be normal passenger cars (usually reflecting a racing heritage), and some will be amazingly small. For these there are a staggering and bewildering variety of prizes in both class and category. But the over-all prize seems sure to go to Maserati or Ferrari. Theirs are the machines which are as close to being purely racing cars as the rules allow.
If there is one favorite, it is the 4.5-liter Maserati to be driven by Britain's young Stirling Moss. This brilliant new racer—winner by miles at Sebring in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, the world champion, and Jean Behra, France's best driver—may well become the outstanding car of the year. It is faster than any of its competitors, it handles remarkably well in twisty going for so powerful a car and its drum brakes have been unusually trouble-free. With Moss (who won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a factory Mercedes at a record average speed of nearly 98 mph) at the wheel, the entry will be formidable indeed.
There is no sign of discouragement, however, from Enzo Ferrari, the automotive genius whose racers have won every Mille Miglia since the war except those of 1954 and 1955. Ferrari is now said to be getting 350 hp from his 3.5-liter, 12-cylinder models, against the 400 hp of which the 4.5 Maserati is capable. Developed from the car which carried the late Eugenio Castellotti home first in last year's Mille Miglia, the Ferraris are equipped with four overhead camshafts and new power-assisted brakes. Brake fading cost Ferrari any chance of victory in the 12-hour endurance run at Sebring, Florida, but then Sebring is the world's most arduous test of brakes; the problem should not be as critical in the Mille Miglia.
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT
Ferrari's youth movement, too, is expected to harass the Maserati team without mercy. No. 1 Driver Peter Collins of Britain is in rare form. He led at Sebring for 18 laps (while using up his brakes rather unwisely) and went on to win the most important tuneup for the European season, the Grand Prix of Syracuse. Collins, the second-place man in the 1956 Mille Miglia, will be ably backed by his fellow Briton, Mike Hawthorn; Italy's only real driver hope, Luigi Musso; the conscientious German, Count von Trips, who has probably been around the course 100 times in three previous races and practice; and Spain's improving Marquis de Portago (see page 49).
In a year dominated by Italian cars, the prospect of a foreign victory in the Mille Miglia is quite bare. There have been rumors of a D Jaguar entry by the Ecurie Ecosse, private Scottish team which won last year's 24-hour race at Le Mans, and there is the certainty of an American entry (a Chrysler-engined racer with a Kurtis chassis, to be driven by Ak Miller, a veteran of the Pan-American Road Race), but all the betting is on the Italians. With one world championship victory apiece so far this year, Maserati and Ferrari are both likely to make extraordinary efforts in this and the year's five other title races, yet neither will win the Mille Miglia on preparation alone. It is a race with as many uncertainties as its thousands of curves. As Maserati's Behra says, "You must choose whether to push your car to the limit along the 630 kilometers of straight, fast stretches from Brescia to Pescara, or save yourself for the tough mountain passes from Pescara onward. If you drive too hard at the beginning, the moment inevitably comes when you suddenly realize that you are now going too slow. If you go slow at the beginning, then you suddenly find yourself saying, 'I'm halfway and I can never catch up now.' "
In the more rigidly defined sphere of Grand Prix racing, so admirably realized at Monaco, the one great certainty is that Fangio is invariably the man to beat. As Indianapolis cars are the ultimate in pure racing design in the United States, so are the Grand Prix Formula I cars the ultimate in Europe, and in them Fangio's artistry has its widest scope. The car is an aerodynamic projectile which carries nothing that has no racing function. It is easier to handle than a sports car, in one sense, because it is more responsive to the driver's will, but in another it is more difficult, for this responsiveness frequently causes the unwary to drive it beyond his capacities. Alcohol is used as fuel for greater power at cooler burning temperatures. All the competing cars are equal as far as piston displacement is concerned (the maximum is 2.5 liters) but, beyond that, as they say, some cars are more equal than others. Ferraris were best last year as Fangio drove to his fourth world championship, yet Maserati opened the 1957 campaign with an impressive sweep of the first four places in the Grand Prix of Argentina.
Since Fangio won that race he stands at the head of the class in the struggle for the 1957 driver championship—the title decided only by achievement in six big Formula I races. So rare is the air in the winner's circle at these races that only five of the current driver crop have breathed it. They are Fangio, Moss, Collins, Hawthorn and Trintignant, and of these Trintignant is no longer in his prime. The wayside is cluttered with excellent sports car drivers who could not manage the thoroughbred Formula I cars adequately, and as long as Fangio drives, the air will continue to be extremely rare. At 45, the thick-shouldered Argentine has all his old magic. Monaco will see his return after a vacation from racing since Sebring, where he so effortlessly co-drove the winning Maserati.
If a foreign car is to penetrate the Italian bloc in the 195-mile Monaco race this year, it may well be the English Vanwall. England for the last few years has expended prodigious efforts on its Grand Prix cars (Vanwall, Con-naught and BRM), and this may be the season the eager British have been waiting for. Extremely fast but temperamental in 1956, the Vanwalls now appear to be on the verge of winning. A Vanwall driven by Moss was easily the fastest car in the Syracuse Grand Prix, and Moss led until a split fuel line forced him into the pits for repairs. He subsequently made up enough lost ground to finish third. Moss and his young countryman, Tony Brooks, give Vanwall a redoubtable team.
THE FUEL-INJECTION FIGHT
Much of the success of the four-cylinder, high-backed Vanwall lies in the insistence of its manufacturer, Tony Vandervell, that he have access to the Bosch fuel-injection system used with stunning success by Mercedes. Ferrari and Maserati wanted the Bosch system, too, but were turned down, because Mercedes disapproved. Vandervell threatened to quit selling his bearings to German automotive manufacturers—and got his system.
Still, Moss knows that he and his car will have to be very good indeed to beat Fangio's reliable six-cylinder Maserati. (Maserati has a new 12-cylinder engine under test but probably will not make a serious effort with it until after the Monaco event, in one of the high-speed circuit races.)
It is at Monaco, with its perilous route through narrow streets and along the breathtaking harbor, that Fangio displays one aspect of the incredible security with which he drives. At one point the drivers plunge abruptly into a dark tunnel at high speed.
"When Fangio goes through the tunnel," says the British journalist, Denis Jenkinson, "he doesn't lift his foot from the gas. Unconsciously, Moss lifts his foot imperceptibly." To Moss there comes that moment when a man feels alone in the dark and sudden cold. To Fangio the roar of his engine is company enough; he has absolute confidence in light or dark.
It has been said of Moss that he likes to sprint to the front in a race and obtain a considerable margin over the field, if he can, and then "live on his income." Fangio, on the other hand, is frequently found behind the leaders, patiently waiting for the chargers to wear out their cars, judging the pace he thinks necessary to win with a precision that rivals Eddie Arcaro's performance in a Thoroughbred race.
Maserati and Vanwall are primed for Monaco, but again, Ferrari has not been standing still. The winning Ferrari at Syracuse appeared without the customary side bulges which once held fuel tanks and thereafter were retained as aids to streamlining—an example of Enzo Ferrari's ceaseless tinkering. One of the novelties at Monaco will be the debut of his Formula II car (maximum piston displacement: 1.5 liters) with a V-6 engine. Developing 190 hp at 9,200 rpm, it is by no means as powerful as its Formula I stablemates, but its lighter weight and surefootedness may give some of its bigger competitors an unpleasant surprise. The twisty Monaco circuit, which places a greater premium on jack-rabbit acceleration than top speed, is an ideal course for the V-6.
With the prospect of all-out competition unexampled since the war nearly everybody is properly ecstatic—nearly everybody.
"This is going to be a wonderful year for the spectators," says Maserati Engineer Giulio Alfieri glumly, "but for the drivers and makers of cars, it is going to be a year of worry and uncertainty. I wish it were December and it were all over."
The world's finest road-racing drivers, like Britain's 28-year-old Mike Hawthorn (opposite) and those on the following three pages, are professionals who sell their services dearly or cheaply, according to stature, and sometimes lose their lives in the bargain. (At home the Americans are not permitted to accept money, but they may be professionals abroad with impunity.) For a driver outside this group to win this week's Mille Miglia, with its 350 entries, would be possible, but for one to win next week's more restrictive Monaco Grand Prix would be a staggering upset.