Can You Believe Our Bad Luck Before the Mille Miglia?
Photography by Federico Bajetti
I think I’ve lost 20 years of my life by inhaling the gasoline fumes coming out of the engine and the tank of our 1100 Zagato. But it was so worth it! Today was the first day of racing and I had the first taste of what the Mille Miglia feels like. Even better, I got the chance to experience long distance racing in a vintage car.
On the days before the race, we used our car for regular trips to the scrutineering, events and training. It didn’t break a sweat, and it performed flawlessly. We were in high hopes for the big day and we were excited to be racing for four days. Unfortunately for us, the car decided to take its day off the morning of the start, while we were driving it to Brescia, on the highway: a burble, a chirp—and the car lost speed and the engine slowly died.
It could’ve been worse, like a broken axle or a bent suspension, but things like this always ruin your day. I can still see the face of my driver, Enrico, looking at his beloved possession just like a mother looks at his ill child. It was frustrating for us, but we had Scuderia Zagato backing us by transporting the 1100 to the local “car genius”, Mauro Colpani. His shop is a candy store for car lovers, and he is tasked with the delicate job of looking after at the cars racing in the Mille Miglia.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise of how many millions in precious metal were stored in just a few square meters of his facility. We owe Colpani the fact that he wanted us to take the start: “This 1100 must be racing!” he said while talking with Enrico on the phone.
We thank him for that!
As soon as we brought the car to his shop, he gathered a pair of other mechanics and begun working on the engine: as soon as they lifted up the valve cover, it was clear that we had a broken valvetrain support bolt. We thought that this would have destroyed the pistons, but luckily for us, it wasn’t that bad. A quick reparation using a drill and lots of chirurgical precision to create a new base for the valvetrain, and the car was ready to go in less than an hour!
We were finally able to make our way on to final approval in Brescia, where we were finally able to line up the car for the start.
The Mille Miglia is not an event: it’s a car invasion! From timeless beauties parked in the streets, you see clubs, supercars, motorcycles, coming from every part of the world. In this time of the year, Brescia is the centre of the world for motoring enthusiasts.
The smell of burnt oil and gasoline is in the air and everyone just loves to be there. Many are not even enthusiasts, just curious individuals who have interest in looking at old cars.
Kids are also one of the best parts of the event: they love to high five you when driving down the road and ask for autographs! I even signed two when I was lined up for the start, incredible!
In the middle of this serene atmosphere, there’s the persistent rumble of a lot of incredible cars; I cannot recall all of them, but many are just so special, like Ermini, Stanguellini, and other unknown brands. I would love to know all about every car there, but there’s no time. It’s time for the start.
After a painful trip to find the right directions to get to the start, we line up our car and wait for our turn, scheduled at 4:00 pm. This may be the best part, because that’s the beginning of a new adventure. The first kilometers are inside Brescia, and each car is welcomed a huge crowd. This is a particularly “ego-boosting” moment, I guarantee!
Moving away from Brescia, we follow the route all the way to Verona: long stretches of road mostly heavily crowded with ordinary vehicles that are not fun to drive and do not offer many chances to overtake…except for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs and the Jaguar C-Types. They just want to overtake you constantly!
Once in Verona, we passed through the city centre and we head down towards Ravenna and Rimini. Some of the best roads are there: long, with fast corners and breathtaking scenery. The 1100 screamed like hell and we engaged in a battle with an Alfa Romeo 1900 Berlina and a Jeep…the latter wouldn’t let us pass!
Once we start from Ravenna to go to Rimini, the roads are dark, and the only interior illumination we have is the massive headlights mounted on a Fiat Campagnola following us.
On the fast stretches of road, at night, I really felt that I was driving the original Mille Miglia. It was dark, the illumination in front of us was scarce, and we were going at a speed in a road we didn’t know. The 1100 must averaged a speed of 80 mph back in its day and we were doing the same. Thrilling experience.
The course is approximately 300 km (180 miles) long and it’s a healthy 7 hours drive on B roads, plus three time trials. The challenging aspect of the modern MM are that you have to drive precisely, not flat-out like it was in the day. It is a thing that is boring for some, because at every checkpoint this creates a queue of cars, like in modern day traffic. For others, this sort of things constitutes the perfect road trip!
Despite our efforts, we are 200th overall, which is not too bad for a first timer crew.
In the end, I have to confirm all the stories you’ve heard about the Mille Miglia: racing though people and through towns is still the reality. People are everywhere alongside the course to witness the race, and often you pass close to them. Also, they’re the true engine of this race: every time you cross a town center, you have hundreds of human beings that want to greet you and see you.
The Mille Miglia is an experience: it’s not just about the cars, but especially about people. As a matter of fact, during our time spent racing, we were always close to the people: being handed over wine, sweets and other gifts is not so uncommon. Everyone is there for fun and it should be this way. Truly an amazing experience.
The next day is going to be challenging, as we’ll be required to drive for 10 hours straight: if we want to listen to one of the old sayings of the Mille Miglia, “He who leads in Rome is never first”.
I guess we still have small chance to win!