Mille Miglia in a 1938 Alfa
TG mag Editor, Charlie Turner, takes on one of the biggest challenges in motoring...
Posted: 17 Jun 2013
Mille Miglia Day 3: Rome - Brescia 492 Miles
Four hours in bed is just enough time for your body to think that you're making an attempt at catching up on your lack of sleep and for it to slip into a deep comatose state. It is a terrible lie. The alarm finds me still slightly beaten up from the day before. Day three of the Mille Miglia beckons, the big one: 492 miles, 24 regularity stages and a route that sees us through Vallelunga, Sienna, Florence, across the Futa and Raticosa passes and onto Bologna, Maranello, Modena, Cremona and finally back to where it all started in Brescia. A day when you need to know where you're going, when you need to keep hitting all your regularity stages with, erm, regularity, and where above all else, you need to work as a team. Paola?
"Right then dad, last day of the Mille, lets have a blast."
The Start at Rome provides another example of Italian organization at it's best. With 422 cars all vying for position and desperate to hit their allotted start time, the organizers orchestrate the now-familiar highly expensive car drafts and we waft through on the stroke of 6:45. We're off, with the ancient proverb ringing in our ears: ‘You can't win the Mille on days one and two, but you can absolutely lose it on day three'. Conscious of this, Co-pilot is driving the 6c and I'm navigator and keeper of the stopwatches.
We blast out of Rome as the sun lifts in the sky and 6c is transformed from the car we left Brescia with. The pipes have cleared and it's finally showing its true colours, the straight six pulling hard to our designated 4-4500 redline. What a car. Ok, so its performance feels pedestrian by most modern standards, but in 1938 this was some feat of engineering. The support car is full to the gunwhales with kit and so we've spent the last few days driving the 6c with all our baggage on board. Space is becoming even more limited as every town we tour through wants to showcase it's wares, so that we're now carrying our combined body weight in pasta, risotto, nougat and mineral water. To maximize performance we could have, should have, left some of it behind, but that wouldn't be in the spirit of the event, so we head - fully laden - into the longest day, safe in the knowledge that should anything go wrong, we're fully equipped to provide an impromptu roadside banquet.
Rome slips away behind us and our first regularity stage beckons at Vallelunga, the circuit famous for Moto GP and the home favorite, Rossi. Our task today is to average 47.9KPH around the circuit, and to say that it feels odd holding the 6c back to this positively pedestrian speed is an understatement. Still, needs must, and today is more Tortoise than Hare. Eventually we hit the timing beam at our allotted second (not bad) and we're off and on our way to Sienna.
Everywhere we go the Alfa is greeted with smiles and shouts from every generation: "Bella Machina, vai vai Brescia" becomes a familiar phrase. As a small an unrepresentative test, it's clear that the Alfa brand is undiminished in its homeland; all they need now is the product to deliver to their passionate expectation.
Buoyed by not completely screwing up the first regularity, ‘Team 6c' and most notably Co-pilot, have discovered that you can drive the 6c harder than we ever thought possible all those hours ago in the car park in Brescia. We storm across picture perfect Tuscan scenery, with the old Alfa loving the gin clear sky and dry roads.
A fuel stop, another 400 miles worth of smiles and approval from Paola and Alle, and we're off on a more traditional part of the route. At its inception in 1927, the Mille ran on a number of unpaved ‘white' roads. To keep the event true to its roots - and infuriate many of the owners of priceless historics - the next special stage takes place on 10km of those unmade white roads. With a surface like a washboard and dust which has the ability to invade every orifice, this stage will make or break the car. Or us.
"Can you get out, I think we've got a puncture" mutters the co-pilot as we draw up to the line.
I jump out and check but no puncture "No mate, you're fine."
"Its pulling like hell to the right, we should stop."
"Lets do this stage then stop at the next town"
The 6c rattles across the corrugated section, and out to the time control. There's now such a drag that if you release the wheel the 6c merely turns sharp right. We nurse her to the next fuel stop and radio the support crew...
"Freni sono multo multo caldi" I explain in terrible Italian to the worried looking Alessandro who sets to work trying to cool the offside front brake drum down and release the - clearly bound solid - brake shoes.
Co-pilot is looking worried, Paola isn't smiling anymore and Alesandro is working with an efficiency and calm serenity that only he can deliver. I arrive back to the glowing hot wreckage with a hastily filled watering can, which, Alessandro grabs with a swift "mille grazie", and promptly pours over the offending drum, engulfing him in steam... For a while we lose Alessandro in the cloud and when he re-emerges, he's wandering around blindly through his steamed glasses muttering, ‘Too much brake, toooooo much brake'
"You drive now, not Co-pilot..."
This requires careful sales patter, but with some diplomacy I manage to persuade Co-pilot that the next section is boring and it would be better if he took a rest and looked out of the window, all the better able to enjoy the full glory of Sienna.
We depart, Alessandro looking concerned and Paola's smile wattage severely reduced. I make a mental note to see if I can get to Sienna without touching the brakes.
Sienna delivers in style with an Alfa fan base ten deep, and all shouting and waving and willing the 6c to Brescia. At Florence we catch up with Sir Chris Hoy and Le Mans legend Andy Wallace in their XK120 in the traffic. They're clearly having a blast and we helpfully teach them a few Italian phrases that are sure to make the home leg more eventful.
Sorry, chaps. With the Italian for beginners lesson complete, we stick to Wallace as he threads the XK120 gracefully through the Florentine traffic and on towards the legendary Futa and Raticossa passes.
Worth noting here that ‘we' have successfully managed not to set fire to the brakes again (mostly because we haven't used them), but more notably because Alessandro has slackened the front shoes off leaving the rears to do more (see all) of the work. This makes for ‘interesting' braking performance.
Another fuel stop and Co-pilot is back in the driving seat as we head to the Italian petrolhead heartland, and Ferrari. The usually fortified gates are open and we drive the 6c through and into the heart and soul of the Prancing Horse, past the wind tunnel and down past the assembly lines and out through the historical gates. Out and down to Fiorano, Ferrari's backyard test track. And another time trial. Oh God.
It seems incredibly odd, driving the 6c around hallowed turf (not literally) where Lauda made his comeback, Schumacher invented his favorite pasta dish and more recently Alonso honed LaFerrari, but Co-pilot is living the dream, we break the beam and we're done and off to Cremona...
A final fuel stop and the support team are pleased to see nothing is on fire. The smiles and ‘complimeti' are back.
As the light fades I'm back in the driving seat for the final set of stamps and the last blast to Brescia. We clear Cremona and the finish is now tantalizingly close. The goal we've been working towards, fighting over, arguing about - a simple finish - is a mere 33 miles away. True to form it's raining again.
The exhaustion sets in like a bad hangover and the car goes silent. We're both painfully aware that we're in the ‘so near and yet so far zone' and we need to keep the 6c humming to make our allotted time into Brescia. Luckily, the road from Cermona to Brescia is arrow straight and I find my mind wandering to Moss and Jenks, foot buried, pace notes finished, racing flat out to the line, having done what it's taken us three days to complete in just ten hours...
We're pushing the 6c now and sat at 120kmh, which feels like lightspeed when you're surrounded by 1938 aerodynamics with your path lit by 1938 lights, staring into the distance and trying to pick out which is a white line at the edge of the road, and what is the reflection of some distant light source in a raindrop. It's almost lethally hypnotic.
Wave upon wave of all-consuming fatigue hits like a warm, pillowy battering ram, and we fight it off with the reality that get it wrong now and not only will the adventure be over, but we will be too.
The Brescia city limits sign flashes by.
"Left here mate, then down to that roundabout and left and then....we're here"
"Thanks Co-pilot, awesome job today"
"Pleasure mate, mind blowing really"
No sooner have we turned left into Via Venezia than we're back in the organized chaos that is the queue for the finish. Yet more exemplary Italian organization sees us cross the line at our allotted time, beer in hand, 1000 miles done and dusted. We roll down the ramp, race over and are plunged straight back into the modern world as we get lost in Brescia and have to hook up my iPhone and get it to navigate our way back to the hotel and our awaiting support crew. We did it. It feels like victory.
The emotions of the Mille are hard to define, it is the most frenetic, frustrating, exhausting, beautiful, life-affirming event it's possible to imagine. Held in a country that is quite simply the only place in the world with the charisma, organization, beauty and passion to be able to pull it off. It is without question the single greatest way for Italy to showcase all that it's good at.
Our personal Mille proves the Alfa brand still commands respect, and with the right product has the potential to go from strength to strength. We lost count of the tens of thousands of people who jumped up and down in excitement as we passed, grandparents reminiscing, fathers nudging their children and passing their infectious enthusiasm onto the next generation. All of them with the words "Alfa, Bella Macchina" forming on theirs lips as we passed. The 6c was a quite incredible way to experience that passion at all the corners of the country.
As for Co-pilot, to compete in the Mille Miglia is an unbelievable honour; to compete in a works Alfa team with your father (life's co-pilot) at your side was an indescribable pleasure, even when we didn't know where we were going or what the time was. The cliché has it that the Mille is made up of a thousand miles and a thousand smiles. The scale of that understatement is staggering.
A thousand miles, countless smiles and memories that will last for generations to come is more like it. Thank you Alfa, thank you Italy.