MAY 19th 2015

GRR At The Mille Miglia ‑ 1000 Miles In A Mercedes‑Benz SL

A Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR Stirling Moss sits ahead of me, another behind and a LaFerrari alongside. Not your average traffic jam then, but then the Mille Miglia Tribute isn’t your average event. That latest Ferrari hypercar is comparatively common to the mentally-styled no-roof, no-screen, long-bonneted and side-piped McMerc. Just 75 were ever built, the white car, numbered 608, is a recent acquisition for its Dutch owner. Like us, it’s running in the Mercedes-Benz Mille Miglia Tribute and owners of the red cars are also running a support act for the main classic Mille Miglia event.

The same course, same timed stages – though the organisers are quick to point that it’s a time-trial rather than a race. Sure, right. The Mille Miglia Tribute is afforded the same sort of support, both from the public, and, more crucially, the police, who manage to get hundreds of cars through the mayhem of Italian city congestion with incredible ease. Usefully, given the tight scheduling, they seem to forget any speed limits, which makes the Mille Miglia Tribute not just a 1000 mile advance run around the entire route undertaken by the classics, but a high speed one.

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Nothing quite so glamorous as an SLR Stirling Moss for us, instead we ride in the SL500 Special Edition 417 Mille Miglia; the 417 denoting American racer John Fitch’s number in the famous 1955 race. In that 1955 running, most famously remembered for Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson managing an incredible average speed just shy of 100mph for a winning time of 10 hours, 7 mins and 48 seconds, Fitch placed fifth. That fifth place’s significance has, rather understandably, been lost to Moss’s incredible achievement. Fitch achieved his fifth position in a standard production 300 SL, taking a class win with the iconic Gullwing.

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That perhaps explains the SL 500 Special Edition 417 Mille Miglia’s specification. It’s based on the standard production model (either a 400 or 500) rather than an AMG. All the changes are cosmetic rather than performance-orientated, the 500 production run featuring red and black highlights to the interior and exterior, some AMG Performance 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels and some unique badging. In the company of SLRs, SLSs and a sole 300SL a fruiter exhaust might have been useful, particularly with half of Italy lining the road and encouraging heavy right foot usage.

‘It is impossible to think of anywhere else in the world where such an event would be so well received and embraced, and where the police would facilitate it so impressively.’

Even in special edition form the SL’s fairly ordinary in the company of these Mercedes and Ferrari Tribute runners, not least as there’s at least 10 of them. A few lucky customers and a handful of media are their drivers and navigators, initial worry that the SL might be outclassed in such company quickly proving unfounded. Always a car possessed of a wide range of talent, the SL has plentiful speed in 500 guise. Powered by a turbocharged 4.7-litre V8 with 435hp, the 500 hits 62mph in 4.6 seconds with a, usually academic, 155mph electronically limited top speed.

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Usually academic as to say the police take an enlightened look on speed limits during the Mille is something of an understatement. The local police help close the roads, while Brescia’s own police bikers and cars follow the route, creating a mass of expensive metal (carbonfibre, leather, wood and everything else) that, presidential-style, runs through the Italian countryside and the tight, usually pedestrianised cobble-stoned streets of some of Italy’s most famous villages, towns and cities. If the police escort’s not travelling fast enough, just pass it, there’ll be another ahead that eases progress at bottlenecks and turns a blind eye when the roads are clear.

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Motoring nirvana then, helped by Italian traffic that moves out of the way for faster cars. That, and streets lined with enthusiastic onlookers goading the sensational cavalcade of expensive, exotic vehicles to hit limiters and torture tyres for their enjoyment. Brescia, Verona, Ferrara, Rimini then to San Marino makes up day one, a 210mile (340km) journey that’s relatively tame, if fast, save for hours lost in San Marino thanks to some wrong turns and a fruitless quest for a self-service fuel station that accepts credit cards.

‘Fitch would have approved of the pace though, the SL’s economy read out giving 0% scores across all three measures it offers.’

Three-hundred-and-ten miles on day two, with what might usually be considered an early start – 6am – though it’ll look like a lie-in over the next two days. Rome is our destination, a run down the eastern side of Italy on fast, usually open roads. There’s the road book to master, time checks on route and regularity challenges, where average speeds over checked distances are required and points given/deducted accordingly. Hedonistic stuff, the SL mixing pace with comfort, it feeling like cheating doing it with the roof up, climate control on max and air-conditioned, massaging seats cooling and kneading. The people in the following classics, closely in the case of the front-runners, have no such luxuries, 30+ degree heat from the sun and soak from the engine making it significantly more gruelling than it is in the SL500 417 Mille Miglia.

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Fitch would have approved of the pace though, the SL’s economy read out giving 0% scores across all three measures it offers. Day three passes in a rush of intensity and disbelief that never calms, a 4am start, a handful of hours sleep caught before it but buzzing with intensity as Rome, Siena, Pisa and Lucca pass on the way to Parma. The route’s more mountainous, mixing bewitching scenery with some epic driving roads. This being a Saturday everybody’s out for a look, the roadsides littered with people’s classics and sports cars, many chancing the police’s blind eye and exercising them with rare commitment.

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Each town and destination city feels like a carnival, the moving motorcade of Mille Miglia Tribute Mercedes, with the odd straggling Ferrari interloper and fast main Mille Miglia competitor welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. It is impossible to think of anywhere else in the world where such an event would be so well received and embraced, and where the police would facilitate it so impressively. The final run from Parma is short, an early start, of course, but finishing before lunchtime in Brescia – though with enough time to take in a run up the banking at Monza. As you do. Knackered, elated, still slightly disbelieving car number 621 is locked for the last time, the key handed over and a beer had with new friends. Toasting the memory of Fitch, whose 1955 achievement was every bit as sensational as that of Stirling Moss, it’s difficult to comprehend just how heroic those men really were.

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