Travel: This Is Why Sir Stirling Moss’ Mille Miglia Record Is Unbeaten

This Is Why Sir Stirling Moss’ Mille Miglia Record Is Unbeaten

Petrolicious Productions By Petrolicious Productions
May 12, 2015
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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. 

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“Mille Miglia”, l’Italia e la corsa più bella del mondo | Poche StorieJim MediciClayton MerchantJA GarfieldMichael Banovsky Recent comment authors
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[…] i 1.600 chilometri in 10 ore e 8 minuti, al volante di una Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR numero 722 (qui il perché quel record resta imbattuto). Nel 1957 una tragedia segnò definitivamente la storia della corsa: la vittoria […]

Jim Medici
Jim Medici

Dwight Knowlton has published a fabulous children’s book called “The Greatest Race”, chronicling the ’55 MM. The original artwork alone is worth the price. Having personally driven many of the roads on the Rome/Brescia leg I find the feat of averaging 100mph the most astounding performance in the history of motoracing.

JA Garfield
JA Garfield

I think you meant to say – to finish first, first you must finish. No?

An amazing feat, especially considering the sea of spectators on the road and passing slower cars all day on narrow roads. It would be an accomplishment keeping this pace on an Interstate today, not to mention the physical toll required to concentrate and average 100 mph for 10 hours, an amazing feat!

Nice article, thanks.

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

To complete the story the 1956 Mille Miglia was run in heavy rain making any chance to break the record impossible. In the Ill fated 1957 Mille Miglia; Peter Collins in a Ferrari 335S, and co driven by photographer Louis Klemantaski, was on course to break the record until a rear axle problem put him out on the return leg to Brescia. Piero Taruffi’s winning time in the sister Ferrari was some 20 minutes slower than Moss’ Also the 121 and 118LM Ferraris were straight sixes not V12s. The only time to date Ferrari have built a car with a… Read more »

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

Add to Mr Lange’s comment ; Had Mercedes not pulled out of racing after the 1955 LeMans disaster : between the car they were readying and the driver they had in place to replace Moss ( American John Fitch ) all bets are if not in 56 than in 57 Sterling’s record would of been shattered . Then of course there was the disaster of the 1957 Mille Miglia that brought abut such an uproar from the Italian public as well as the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church : finally bringing an end to what was then being called… Read more »

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant

Well……technically Mercedes did not pull out of racing after the LeMans disaster. The World Sportscar Championship continued and was concluded with the RAC Tourist Trophy race and the Targa Florio, both of which were won by Sterling Moss in the 300 SLR, handing the manufactures title to Mercedes.
Incredibly, in the first race following the LeMans tragedy, The Tourist Trophy at the Dundrod circuit, 3 drivers would be killed in separate incidents during the race.

Michael Banovsky
Michael Banovsky

Jeez! Not sure how that V12 thing got past me, but thanks for the correction. Appreciated. Best, Michael