I’d like to say it was only by a process of painstaking planning that I arranged for this column to come out on the exact 60th anniversary of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson winning the 1955 Mille Miglia, but the fact is there was a one in seven chance and I fluked it.
What else can be said of this race that has not been said a thousand times before? If you’re on this site, you’ll know about how, using pace notes on an 18ft roll read out by Jenks, he was able to win a race popular opinion said could not be won by any other than an Italian because of the lack of crucial local knowledge (even though those who peddled the myth forgot Caracciola did exactly that in 1931). You’ll know he set a new course record in his 300SLR Mercedes and you’ll probably know also that after attending the victory party he drove back to Stuttgart, aided by some pills, provided by Fangio, whose content would almost certainly be more than a little frowned upon by sporting authorities if used today.
But one question remains: was it actually his greatest race? Lord knows we’re not short of candidates.
There’s the race put up most regularly as a rival candidate: the 1961 Monaco GP where Moss held off an army of faster Ferraris to win in his privately entered Lotus 18, and the one most likely to be recalled by Goodwood goers: the RAC Tourist Trophy race of 1959 where he took over a slower Aston Martin DBR1 after his own had gone up in flames, drove flat out for four and a half hours out of six, won the race and gave Aston its first, and to date only, World Sportscar Championship. Let’s not forget the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix either, where he fooled the entire grid into thinking he was not a threat because there was no way he’d get through the race without needing new tyres, before doing precisely that, winning in the process the world F1 World Championship race for a Cooper and a mid-engined car.
There are lesser-known races too. Who remembers it was not Colin Chapman who won Lotus’s first World Championship Grand Prix, but Rob Walker, courtesy of another Moss Monaco masterclass in 1960? The car was only completed the previous week and, so unsure of it was the team, they took both it and his trusty Cooper, Stirling only deciding to race the Lotus at the last minute. And what of the Nurburgring 1000km of 1959, a race Aston didn’t even want to enter? By contrast Moss was so keen he paid for it himself and looked like winning until his teammate Jack Fairman threw it off the track. Miraculously Fairman lifted the DBR1 back onto the circuit but left Moss a 75 second deficit. He was back in the lead inside three laps. Spare a thought too for the 1954 Italian Grand Prix where, in his private Maserati 250F, Stirling had the temerity to overtake both the works Ferrari of Alberto Ascari and the mighty streamlined W196 Mercedes of Fangio. He’d have won too had his engine not died late in the race.
But I still think the Mille Miglia just has it and here’s why. First the context: at the time Moss was just 25 and had yet to win a single World Championship Grand Prix. It was only his second globally significant race as a factory Mercedes-Benz driver, having previously come fourth in the Argentine Grand Prix in stifling heat after taking over Hans Herrmann’s car when his retired with vapour lock. Team leader Fangio won with ease.
‘The Mille Miglia was the one race of which Moss was genuinely scared. And as he flew over blind brows at 170mph trusting that the little bloke with the beard hadn’t read the wrong note or given the wrong hand signal, you can see why.’
Then there was the local knowledge or lack thereof. Moss did five full laps of reconnaissance, crashing twice in the process, but I couldn’t learn Cadwell Park in five laps, let alone 1000 miles of Italian countryside. The pace notes will have helped massively, but the weight of his passenger – even one as diminutive as Jenks – would have been a significant disadvantage.
Now add in the fact that the Mille Miglia was the one race of which Moss – who’d think nothing of flinging himself around the old Nurburgring or Spa – was genuinely scared. And as he flew over blind brows at 170mph, trusting that the little bloke with the beard hadn’t read the wrong note or given the wrong hand signal, you can see why.
Finally consider what he actually did: he covered 993 miles in 10hrs, 7min and 47 sec, and without a single break of more than a couple of minutes. In a 3-litre car with drum brakes and skinny tyres, on treacherous and broken roads, through cities and over mountains and, inclusive of all stops, he averaged almost exactly 98mph. The best double F1 world champion Alberto Ascari could manage the year before was 86mph. The year after Eugenio Castellotti won at an average of 85mph. And he beat Fangio – the greatest driver in the world – in an identical car, not to mention the factory Ferrari racing team on home soil.
So yes, I would say that, of Stirling Moss’s 585 competitive outings, the 1955 Mille Miglia was the greatest of all. He and his legendary Mercedes will be back in Brescia and on the starting line this month for the annual retrospective and I suspect it will be for the last time. I for one intend to be there to see it.
Photography courtesy Daimler AG