WELCOME TO THE MILLE MIGLIA
Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. You can hear your pulse pounding in your brain like Charlie Watts' drums. Just like in the movie Le Mans, when Steve McQueen is on the start-line in his Gulf-Porsche 917, there's noise all around, but inside your head, all is quiet. Apart from that thumping heartbeat.
Three minutes to go and the crew is pushing us towards the start line. We've been told many times of the perils of slipping the D-type's fragile, massively heavy, on-off, racing clutch. It's a three-day job to Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. You can hear your pulse pounding in your brain like Charlie Watts' drums. Just like in the movie Le Mans, when Steve McQueen is on the start-line in his Gulf-Porsche 917, there's noise all around, but inside your head, all is quiet. Apart from that thumping heartbeat.
Three minutes to go and the crew is pushing us towards the start line. We've been told many times of the perils of slipping the D-type's fragile, massively heavy, on-off, racing clutch. It's a three-day job to replace.
And the rain that started as a drizzle 15 minutes ago is now a downpour of biblical proportions. We're soaked to the skin; the pristine route book – our guiding angel for the next 1000 miles – is rapidly turning to pulp.
Twenty seconds to go. Twist the key. Punch the button. Baaaarrrapp: 3.8-litres of race-tuned straight-six detonates into life via straight-through pipes. Into first, foot off the clutch. Go! Start time 9.34pm and 40 seconds. We're away in a slither of whirling Dunlop cross-plies, the Jaguar's rear end clawing for grip on rain-soaked cobbles. And it's straight into the first of four short time trials. Stopwatches clicked, clutch up – whoa, way too many revs. There's that tail-slide again. First section is good. Second one better. Then into an uphill series of hairpins. In the pitch dark.
It's not going to make it! With the turning radius of an oil tanker, the D-type barely makes it round the first bend. Jeez. Faster, faster, we're losing time. I can't see. Horizontal rain is spearing my eyeballs. Go for it. Four-three-two-one. Trip the last timing wire. Done.
Exactly three minutes and 20 seconds into the start of what Enzo Ferrari once described as the “world's greatest road race”, I take my first deep breath of sweet, damp Italian air.
Welcome to Mille Miglia 2008. Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia. Two and a bit days. Thirty-six hours of driving. 375 iconic cars. A thousand miles. And, excuse the pride, but we're without a doubt, driving the coolest car of the lot; the legendary 1956 ‘long-nose' D-type Jaguar that Mike Hawthorn drove at Le Mans in '56; the car that won the gruelling Reims 12 Hours the same year. It's one of the most celebrated possessions of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (JDHT) in Coventry, and one of the most original Ds in existence.
And for a 52-year-old vintage racer, it's blisteringly quick. After last year's rebuild, it has 300-plus horsepower and will probably run zero to 60 in four and a bit seconds. With leggy Le Mans gearing you'd have no trouble seeing 195mph (313kph) on the speedo. Not that it comes with a speedo.
I'm sharing the driving with Jaguar's new boss, and my good friend, managing director Mike O'Driscoll. This is our first Mille and we are both more used to pushing a pen rather than racing a half-century-old racecar through the middle of Italy.
“When I started at Jaguar 30 years ago, every morning I'd walk past the museum on the way to work and see the D,” he says. “The shape, the history; it never failed to give me this jolt, this rush. Never failed to put me in this great mood for the start of the day. How could I turn down the chance to drive that very car, and drive it on the Mille Miglia?”
We have a three-hour run to the first night's stop in Ferrara. When the rain eases an hour in, the smiles come back to our faces. Life becomes good again. Prior to washing up in Brescia, neither O'Driscoll nor I had spent much more than a few minutes behind the Jaguar's skinny, wood-rimmed wheel. Just enough time to fill me with a mild panic attack at the thought of its estimated £3 million value, and its cantankerous, thigh-spasming clutch.
But with a bit of familiarisation, and the survival of that frenetic start, I'm suddenly head over heels in love with this car. It has perhaps the purest steering I've ever experienced. It has fabulous brakes. And a wonderfully precise, bolt-action gearshift. And, ahhhh, the noise. Loud doesn't come close.
It snaps, and snarls, and barks like an angry rottweiler. Every blip of the throttle steals your breath.
The sun is beating down as we leave the 11th century walled city of Ferrara on Day Two. I spend 30 minutes prior to the start prising apart the waterlogged pages of our route book. O’Driscoll is now behind the wheel, driving hard. We feel like rock stars. At every curve, corner, straight and village there are thousands of people cheering, waving, applauding, and flailing their arms in celebration of our road-going racecar. And the instant they see the D’s voluptuous curves and its shark-like fin, and hear that crackling exhaust, they mouth the word: Jag-whaar!
The original Mille began in 1927 and ran until 1957 when it was banned after Marquis Alfonso de Portago’s Ferrari left the road at 165mph (265kph). In 1977, it was revived as a time trial for cars that either competed in the original race, or would have been eligible to do so. From 1985, it became an annual event.
The quality of the metal every year is amazing. This year’s field includes no fewer than 15 Bugattis from the 1920s; thundering blower Bentleys from the 1930s; Alfas and Lancias from the 1940s; and scores of Ferraris and Maseratis, Mercedes and Astons. Lots of unusual stuff too: Crepaldis, and Erminis, Stangas and Bandinis. And 14 Jaguars.
Our little quartet of cars out of the JDHT museum also includes the 1952 XK120 Montlhéry endurance record breaker driven by Jaguar’s head of global marketing, CJ O’Donnell, and journalist Ben Oliver.
Then there’s the 1953 C-type that competed in that year’s Mille Miglia. It’s being piloted by Jaguar North America PR chief, Tim Watson, with Car and Driver magazine executive editor Mark Gillies. And the fabulous NUB 120, the Alpine Rally-winning 1950 XK120 driven by Max Noetzli and Stephan Voegeli of Jaguar Switzerland.
We press-on hard through Ravenna, San Marino and Urbino, crave to spend time in gorgeous Assisi, but instead head onwards to Rome, just in time to hit the Friday-night gridlock. After we cross the Roma finish line in the shadow of the towering Castel Sant’Angelo, we feel like we’ve done 12 rounds with George Foreman.
Day Three is a long one. A good 16 hours behind the wheel. We blast out of Rome in a magical Maserati, Ferrari, Jaguar race-car convoy. Anyone not awake at 8.30 in the morning sure is after we've blown past.
I do the first long stint, through traffic-snarled Pienza to the lunch stop at Buonconvento; Mike then settles in for the hard Tuscan countryside thrash through Siena and Florence and on to Bologna. He also gets to hammer the Jaguar up and down the legendary Futa and Raticosa mountain passes, powering from one hairpin to the next, revelling in the cheers and applause of all the crowds that have parked their lawn chairs on the bends.
“Bella Macchina! Via, via! Faster, faster.” Mike is in the zone. Foot to the floor. Running through the gears. Hard on the brakes. Driving the D like he stole it. Revelling in the Raticosa.
For the last five-hour run into Brescia, the heavens open up with the same ferocity as they did at the start. Darkness falls. So does the mist. We splish and splash all the way to Modena, where we traipse through the official welcoming line twice after getting lost (unfortunately for us, the red arrow Mille direction signs are prized souvenirs).
In the inky blackness, and with old-style headlamp bulbs throwing out as much illumination as Florence Nightingale's candle, we run in safe, sedate convoy with fellow competitors to the outskirts of Brescia.
We finish a highly respectable 185 th. Pretty good for a couple of first-timers. And the best score of our JDHT car quartet. It's been nothing less than a life-changing event. To drive so fast, for so long, in such a magical machine, it simply doesn't get any better.
Mike says afterwards: “That's the most demanding, most intense driving I've ever done. A great thrill.”
A thousand miles. But a million memories.
A RACING LEGEND
Tony O'Keeffe, curator of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, describes the D-type used on the Mille Miglia as one of the Trust's "most treasured possessions". Which must have made Howard and Mike just a little nervous of the 1000 miles ahead. Built in March 1956, it was the next-to-last D-type to come off the line and went straight to the Jaguar works race team. Originally fitted with fuel injection, it was entered for the Reims 12 Hour race. With Duncan Hamilton and Ivor Bueb sharing the driving, it won. In July 1956, Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb drove the car in the Le Mans 24 Hours and were tipped to win. But a persistent misfire - traced to a cracked fuel-injection pipe - held them to sixth place. An Ecurie Ecosse D-type won the race. After Le Mans, the car was loaned to Briggs Cunningham's race team in the US, repainted white and blue, and fitted with a new 3.8-litre engine. In the 12-hour race at Sebring in 1957, with Hawthorn and Bueb again driving, it came in third. Returned to Jaguar in 1961, it was then loaned to Italy's national motor museum for 20 years before returning home.
[Issue 2, 2008]