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Unforgettable Triumph: Reflecting on Sir Stirling Moss's Historic 1955 Mille Miglia Record

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Unforgettable Triumph: Reflecting on Sir Stirling Moss's Historic 1955 Mille Miglia Record


Mille Miglia Mercedes SLR300 Stirling moss


A promising driver, a world-class team, a truck of unexploded bombs, a toilet roll and an unbeaten record. This isn't your typical race report, as Alex Dunlop attests.


The 1955 Mille Miglia is where this record was set, a fearsome time trial ran over Italy’s most beautiful yet treacherous public roads. First held in 1927, the Mille Miglia was created by a group of friends who loved motor racing, the story goes that they created the event in response to the Italian Grand Prix being moved from Brescia (their hometown) to Monza. This inaugural event saw 77 entries with 51 finishing, Giuseppe Morandi won the race at an average of 48mph in a 2-litre Officine Meccaniche.


Fast forward to 1955 and the Mille Miglia is one of the most prestigious events on the sportscar racing calendar. 1955 saw 661 cars entering the race, with entries from Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, Aston Martin and Porsche. As for drivers, well you likely have heard of a few of them, Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Umberto Maglioli, a real who's who of the greatest of the period.


Moss was yet to win the MM, with 1950-53 seeing retirements due to mechanical issues. 1954 saw Moss step away from the MM, instead racing a Maserati 250F across Europe. Although he wasn’t hugely successful in that year's Formula One Championship, he did see success with the 250F in other events. These multiple victories and podiums lead to Moss catching the eye of Alfred Neubauer at Mercedes Benz.



Sir Stirling Moss Mille Miglia
A focused Moss and Jenkins ready to roll

Mercedes had recently re-entered the world of motorsport after an absence during the war years. Their W 196S 300 SL was proving to be extremely successful, taking victories at Le Mans, Nürburgring and even the Carrera Pan Americana. Their other car, the W196 open-wheel car had taken Juan Manuel Fangio to victory in 1954’s Formula One Championship. Head of motorsport, Alfred Neubauer wanted to continue Mercedes's dominance and assembled a team of all-stars with Moss being the second-star driver. After a successful test in the winter of 1954, Moss joined Mercedes to race in the 1955 season alongside Fangio.

Mercedes' sole victory at the Mille Miglia occurred in 1931 with Rudolf Caracciola behind the wheel, 1952 saw 2nd and 4th place finishes but in subsequent years they stopped entering in order to focus on Formula One. The W194 race program was axed and as such, they had no sports car to race. They did however have the W196 Formula One Car, you see where this is going don’t you?


Turning the W196 R into the 300 SLR (W 196S) was a relatively easy task for the team’s engineers. Engine capacity was increased to 2982cc, compression was dropped to 9.0:1, wheelbase extended, and a large fuel tank was added. The car was then topped with a streamlined body that could support 2 occupants in relative comfort, if you ignore the side exit exhaust, prop shaft between your legs and lack of windscreen that is. The car was fast but commanded respect thanks to its rear swing axle, Moss himself even described the car as “Not an easy one to drive, not forgiving, but it had a tremendous amount of power”.



Mille Miglia start line Mercedes SLR300 722
The famous 300SLR 722 leaves the line

With Mercedes now having the car and the drivers the 1955 Mille Miglia was on the cards. 2 cars would be entered with Moss and Denis Jenkinson in car 722 and Juan Manuel Fangio in car 658. Despite the irrefutable talent of the two A-listers, this was seen as a gamble by Mercedes, as the previous eight races had been won by Italian drivers. Moss now has the team and the car set about a serious training regime.


Alongside his co-driver Denis Jenkinson, the pair undertook months of trial runs, analysis of the course and creation of the famous “toilet roll” pace notes. These notes ran for 18 feet and went into such details as “saucy ones, dodgy ones, and very dangerous ones” to describe the twists and turns of the route. Moss famously crashed a 300 SL Gullwing on one trial run hitting an Italian military truck that happened to be carrying unexploded ordinance, so strong was Moss’s focus that even this didn’t phase him.


Come race day Moss and Jenkinson were match fit and ready to go, the 300 SLR was in fine fettle with the team believing it could complete the 1000 miles with no mechanical issues and only needing to stop for fuel. Mechanics pushed the car onto the start whilst Moss and Jenkinson made themselves comfortable, once the clock hit 7:22am the pair were gone, and the race was on.


Leaving Brescia at a confident pace it was only 10 minutes before they caught number 720, Jenkinson’s pace notes and hand signals clearly gave Moss the confidence he needed to push on. Trusting the notes allowed Moss the reach over 170 mph on the run towards Verona and continue to hold this speed even whilst overtaking and cresting hills. Jenkinson described Moss as “ sitting back in his usual relaxed position, making no apparent effort”. Moss was driving hard but taking no risks, a small venture into some hay bales in Padova lost the pair some time but being unscathed they carried on. The next section saw Moss dice with a pair of Ferraris, but by keeping his cool he held a tremendous pace without damaging the car or taking unnecessary risks. The strategy paid off and Moss cleared both Ferraris at the next checkpoint.


Jenkinson now experiencing fatigue thanks to the combination of heat, fumes and sideways g forces, led to him releasing his breakfast at 150mph. Fast food eh? The sickening ride was far from over yet and Moss continued to drive flat out. After stopping for fuel at the next checkpoint the pair received a note confirming they were in second place and 15 seconds off the lead car. This spurred the pair on to push harder and catch Piero Taruffi in the lead Ferrari.



Mille Miglia pace notes Stirling Moss
Pace notes gave Moss local knowledge

Continuing at speed, an issue developed with fuel leaking from the filler, but undeterred by this they carried on. A front brake was also starting to grab and although Moss could adapt the unthinkable happened and the car pitched into a spin on the Radicofani Pass. Luckily no damage was caused other than a dent in the tail from entering a ditch, Moss calmly selected first gear and simply drove out, again showing his composure. The pair continued to work in unison enjoying the brief respite each control checkpoint gave them, but the pace was starting to take its toll. After a local policeman had tried to shut the engine off at one checkpoint Moss chose to no longer stop but instead roll through each checkpoint with Jenkinson hanging out of the car and frantically waving the route card at officials.

Coming onto the final stretch, traffic was increasing as were the crowds, passing some cars in the 2-litre category Jenkinson calculated their average must be over 90mph, this encouraged Moss to press on and hunt Taruffi. Little did they know that Taruffi had retired with a broken oil pump, his car was hidden by officials hence Moss did not spot the car. As they headed towards Brescia, Jenkinson put the pace notes away and enjoyed the last few miles watching Moss go to work. They reached the finish line, stopped the car and Moss asked “Do you think we’ve won?”

Yes they had, the official time was 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds, at an average speed of 98mph. Their average on the final stretch was 123 mph. The pair were elated, the first British duo to win the Mille Miglia and the first victory in a Mercedes. As the crowds descended Moss and Jenkinson were rushed back to the hotel, during the journey Moss remarked: “We’ve rather made a mess of the record haven't we”. He wasn’t wrong, the record has never been beaten and I doubt it ever will.



Sir Stiling Moss Mille Miglia
An elated Moss and Jenkins celebrate a feat that will never be topped.
 

Special thanks to motorsport historian Colin Johnston of www.racingdaydreams.com for correcting a couple of research errors. Find out how the 1955 World Sportscar Championship went down to the wire on his site.


All images courtesy of Mercedes media


FURTHER READING - With Moss in the Mille Miglia: 1955 report June 1955 - Motor Sport Magazine by Denis Jenkinson

Written by

Alex Dunlop

Published

14 April 2023

Last Updated

14/04/23

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