15.02.18 Chris Mann

An Italian adventure


When you are young you have all the time in the world but years pass and, suddenly, you are no longer gilded youth but old buffer, with a lengthy ‘bucket list’ of things not yet achieved.

High on my list was the desire to compete in the Mille Miglia. The event, which was described by Enzo Ferrari as “the most beautiful race in the world”, was first staged in 1927. The race was banned In 1957 after the Marquis de Portago, his navigator and nine spectators were all killed when his Ferrari crashed at 170mph.

1953 Jaguar XK120

1953 Jaguar XK120

Revived In the 1980s, the event has become one of the world’s most exclusive classic car events, with entries harder to obtain than an invitation to Elton John’s birthday party. My 1953 Jaguar XK120 was eligible, though, and my co-driver Jo Ramirez had worked for Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini back in the 1960s and, later, for the McLaren F1 team, so we felt we were in with a chance. To our relief my entry was accepted and at 7.27pm on Thursday 15th May 2014 we launched off the iconic Brescia starting ramp to begin our Italian adventure.

The Mille Miglia ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ – a 1,000-mile driving course around Italy, starting and finishing in Brescia, travelling via the Adriatic coast to Rome, then back up the Mediterranean coast and east to the finish line in Brescia. With three days to complete a course that Stirling Moss covered in just over 10 hours back in 1955, we thought it would be a doddle. The first evening’s drive did nothing to puncture our perception as we were waved through picturesque towns and villages by Polizia who had clearly torn up whatever passes for the Highway Code in Italy. Every so often we would be diverted on to a timed section which required us to travel a series of set distances in specified times but, despite having a sophisticated rally meter, neither of us could fathom its complexities, so our efforts soon descended into farce. However, the car drove beautifully and we arrived at our destination near Padua just after midnight.

On the road

On the road

Day two dawned bright and sunny, prompting us to ditch our bulky sheepskin flying jackets as we headed off on a 775km dash down the Adriatic coast. The sky was blue, the scenery glorious and the drive magical but, late in the afternoon, the sky turned grey and sunshine turned to driving rain. Battered by a barrage of icy sleet needles, we slowed to a crawl as we squinted into the gloom of an increasingly dark and stormy night. Sodden and frozen, we eventually reached Rome at 3.20am having endured 20 hours that would have taxed the endurance of Bear Grylls and the temper of Mother Teresa.

In the morning, though, sunshine and warmth returned as we headed towards the beautiful medieval town of Siena, then over the spectacular Futa and Raticosa passes to Bologna. The final leg of our journey took in Modena where Jo pointed out the apartment block where he had lived during his time with Lamborghini, and the Albergho Real hotel favoured by Ferrari’s drivers in the 1950s and 60s. We finally arrived back in Brescia to the cheers of a million delirious spectators and with smiles a mile wide. Mission accomplished, we had successfully completed the most beautiful race in the world.

Crowds welcome the drivers

Crowds welcome the drivers

My co-driver Jo Ramirez is the one wearing the yellow crash helmet. This helmet has an interesting history as it used to belong to his friend Ricardo Rodriguez who, at the age of 19, drove a works Ferrari in his first F1 race, the Italian GP of 1961. Incredibly, Rodriguez put his car on the front row but retired from the race (in which his team-mate Count Wolfgang Von Trips was killed).

Ricardo himself was killed the following year in practice for the Mexican GP and Jo was asked by the Rodriguez family to clear his effects from his suite at the Palace Hotel in Modena and given his spare helmet and race suit. Jo reckoned that Ricardo Rodriguez was the most talented race driver he ever worked with.

Thanks to former Guild of Motoring Writers chairman Guy Loveridge for the photos of Chris and his co-driver.