This Is Why Sir Stirling Moss’ Mille Miglia Record Is Unbeaten
Photography from Daimler via Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre
Every auto enthusiast has a dream race in the back of their heads, a race where you could throw together the best cars and drivers, and have them tackle the most challenging terrain imaginable. Over the course of history, it’s actually a rare occurrence to have these elements come together in a single event.
The 1955 Mille Miglia is one such event.
Blessed with a car that was the class of the field, you probably know that Sir Stirling Moss and co-driver Denis Jenkinson won the race by an incredible margin of more than 30 minutes ahead of his more experienced team made, Juan Manuel Fangio—the then-current Formula 1 champion.
Moss and his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR were a perfect match, but just how much of an achievement was it to conquer a race like the Mille Miglia?
The course: Brescia-Rome-Brescia
As we’ve said previously, it began as an attempt by four men, Aymo Maggi, Franco Mazzotti, Giovanni Canestrini, and Renzo Castagneto, to return their city of Brescia to the forefront of international motorsport.
The first, held in 1927, was organized in just four months. The course stretched 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Brescia to Rome and back, a big ring that circled across some of the most challenging roads in Italy. The magic of seeing the world’s most powerful machines whizz through small villages and town squares captivated the Italian public, and despite the huge dangers for everyone involved, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to watch each year.
In the end, both inexperienced drivers and cars that had become simply too fast for the roads conspired to end the event after the 1957 contest. Sir Stirling Moss, the 1955 winner, says that much of the competition would be off the road by the first few miles—by today’s standards, almost anyone could turn up and drive in the Mille Miglia.
Oh, and for added excitement, the organizers let the slower cars go first, meaning that the faster cars were constantly catching and passing inferior drivers and machinery. On primitive, narrow roads, this often led to serious incidents.
The race: April 30 – May 1, 1955
Numbered based on start time, eventual winners Moss and Jenkinson’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR wore #722 for its 7:22 am departure on May 1. There were faster cars both ahead and behind, and with little contact between checkpoints, drivers needed to go flat-out—strategy planned ahead of time around your competitors was almost impossible until the race itself.
Among the 534 starters, each of whom conformed to one of 12 classes, Moss was in one of the fastest cars to start—but victory was not assured. The factories of Maserati, Aston Martin, and Ferrari had all entered their best drivers and cars to face off against Mercedes-Benz.
From the start, Ferrari drivers Eugenio Castellotti and Piero Taruffi were setting record times. Privateer Castellotti had a 4.4-litre, straight-6 121 LM at his disposal, a brute of a car. It was every bit as fast as Moss’ SLR but Castellotti had local knowledge of the course to help him push the car as fast as it would go.
During the early part of the race, he manhandled the machine in what is today appreciated as a Herculean first stint behind the wheel: it was a display of gusto that left Moss two minutes behind. Luckily for Moss, this gusto ended up producing a mechanical failure, and Castellotti retired. To win, first you must finish…
Soon after, Taruffi ran a record-setting stint in his 118 LM that was quicker than Moss, hauling him up to equal footing with the Mercedes driver. During pit stops, however, the Mercedes team were simply faster—giving Moss a consistent edge as the race wore on and attrition began to set in.
Another advantage was his co-driver Jenkinson, who created a special set of pace notes that lived inside a metal box attached to the car’s dashboard. Having directions called out gave Moss the confidence to attack the course—one less thing to worry about. It’s difficult to imagine today just how gruelling it must have been to pilot one of the world’s fastest machines over such treacherous terrain.
History shows us that the combination of car, driver, team, and technology helped Moss to increase his advantage as the race wore on and the competition began to fade. Moss put in speeds of up to 170 mph (273 km/h) through the Italian countryside, with confidence that his performance would not be over-driving the course.
As spectators, teams, and other drivers discovered, Moss was at his best and began to carve unbelievable amounts of time from his rivals: at one point, he took more than four minutes from his nearest rival over just 65 miles (~100 km). To put that into perspective, it would be like a driver in the Indy 500 pulling out a four minute lead over 26 laps—the same distance covered on Tuscany’s Futa Pass stage.
At the end, Moss and Jenkinson crossed the finish in 10 hours and 7 minutes—a record that stands as the fastest any driver will travel on those roads. Threading his Silver Arrow through Italy’s epic terrain, Moss performed a feat of driving skill that is scarcely believable, even today. It’s important for us to remember this event as an achievement from a time when mankind was pushing the boundaries of speed in every way—and that to go any faster than Moss on May 1, 1955, you’d need wings.