Sunday, December 17, 2006

Book Review - Mille Miglia by Mike Lawrence

Regular readers of this column will know that I am a great admirer of Mike Lawrence, author of one of my all time favourite racing books, Wayward Genius on Lotus founder Colin Chapman. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to happen upon a copy of a book he had written nearly twenty years back, telling the 30 year history of Italy's famous road race, the Mille Miglia.

In the very early days of motorsport, city-to-city road races were common throughout Europe (though they were never allowed in the UK). However, as early as the mid 1900s, racing cars had become too powerful for the primitive roads of the time, and the problem was exacerbated by the fact that braking, suspension and tyre technology did not advance as quickly as engine technology. This early part of motor racing history came largely to an end, at least in Europe, with the tragic 1903 Paris-Madrid city to city race, which was stopped at Bordeaux after the fatalities of several drivers and spectators. That was, more or less, the last of the great pre-war European city-to-city races (though similar events in South America would continue into the 1950s).

In Italy, however, things were different. Four men, aged between 21 and 34 were keen to do something to promote the motor industry around Brescia and had realised that a race from Brescia to Rome and back was, near as makes no difference, 1000 miles. Many European governments of the time might have baulked at the idea of so dangerous an event, but Italy under Mussolini was in love with the concept of modernism - and what could be more modernist in 1926 than a long distance, city-to-city motor race? (It is interesting to note that later, the fascist German government under Hitler would take a similar attitude to motor racing with its backing of Auto Union and Mercedes Benz in Grand Prix racing).

Mike Lawrence's book begins with a brief overview of the history of the event, correcting a few myths along the way. It didn't always run to the same route, it wasn't always exactly 1000 miles long, on one occasion it was simply 9 laps of a 101 mile circuit, and in any case, the race only really came to be legendary, at least outside Italy, long after it had taken place for the last time. As with everything that Mike Lawrence writes, its well informed, very readable, and one only wishes that he had given over a little more space - the summary of the event covers just 5 pages.

Thereafter the book is given over to 3-4 page summaries of each of the 25 races which took place between 1927 and 1957. There are some interesting nuggets in these reports. For instance, the fabled tale of Tazio Nuvolari chasing down Achille Varzi with his headlights off to win the Miglia in 1930 is almost certainly a myth. For one, Nuvolari was running 10 minutes down on the road, and so did not need to pass Varzi to win anyway, and secondly, at the time this is all supposed to have taken place, it would have been light anyway. The account of Rudolf Carraciola's win for Germany in a Mercedes SSK in 1931 is also intriguing - a victory against the odds for a foreign team.

Then there are the real oddities. The charcoal burning cars that ran during the 1930s owing to concerns about the security of oil supplies after Mussolini invaded Abbysinia, the category for bubble cars during the 1950s (they started ahead of the big sportscars too, which must have made life interesting for all concerned). Or the actually rather astonishing fact that in one of the immediate post-war events, one in every thousand cars in Italy was entered in the event!

The event, though, was dominated by the Italians. As well as Nuvolari and Varzi, who both won during the 1930s, larger-than-life opera singer Guiseppe Campari and double world F1 champion Alberto Ascari were also winners. The less well known Clemente Biondetti won the event no less than four times for Alfa Romeo, before succumbing to throat cancer. Nuvolari was another who battled against illness. In his fifties, and suffering from terrible lung problems after years of breathing exhaust fumes, he looked set to win the 1948 Mille Miglia for Enzo Ferrari's fledgling works team, only for a broken leaf spring to put the sickly and recently bereaved legend out of the event, within sight of the finish. He would never race at the top level again, and died five years later.

Perhaps the most famous legend of all though, is that concerning Lawrence's personal hero, Stirling Moss, who recorded the fastest ever Mille Miglia victory in 1955, at the wheel of a Mercedes 300SLR. Partnered by journalist Denis Jenkinson, the pair recced the route endlessly, in an attempt to make up for a lack of local knowledge. They are widely credited with having invented the concept of pace notes. While this is an exaggeration, there is little doubt that they refined their use to a much greater extent than anyone who had gone before. An elaborate series of hand signals were used to allow Jenkinson to convey detailed information about every bend and kink of the 1000 mile course. In 10 hours, Jenkinson and Moss made just one mistake. They won by the best part of an hour.

As Lawrence tells it, it was inevitable that the event would die a death. By the mid-1950s, it was living on borrowed time. With 500 entries, much of the field was made up of clubman amateurs, and alongside the likes of Moss, Fangio and Ascari, in top-line sportscars, it was inevitable that accidents would happen. In the final years of the event, there were several deaths of competitors - and more importantly - of spectators. That the death figures were lower than might have been the case had the roads been used for ordinary motoring that day was beside the point. The Catholic Church intervened, demanding the race be stopped, and in those days, it was a brave Italian government that openly came out against the Vatican. As Lawrence says in his conclusion, the real wonder was that the race went on for as long as it did.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that the story of the race as a whole might have been better told by focusing in detail on a few specific events, rather than the strict race-by-race approach that Lawrence takes here. For anyone curious to know more about the history of the Mille Miglia, I'd thoroughly recommend this book, but I feel the definitive story of the event remains to be told.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: To my knowledge, the book reviewed here, which was published in 1988, is not currently in print. However, Lawrence has subsequently produced two separate books - Mille Miglia 1927-51 - The Alfa and Ferrari years, and Mille Miglia 1952-57, The Ferrari and Mercedes years. I would imagine they cover much the same sort of ground.

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