Sir Stirling Moss and Ian Wooldridge’s race across the 1,000 mile Mille Miglia in 1991

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Sportsmail recounts Ian Wooldridge


The world of motor racing was left mourning a timeless great after British icon Sir Stirling Moss passed away in the early hours of Easter morning aged 90.

The legendary driver, and one of the most eulogised figures in sport, ‘just closed his beautiful eyes and that was that’, according to his wife Susie.

Moss enjoyed a colourful life both on and off the racing circuit, and earned universal acclaim thanks to his memorable sportsmanship and wonderful attitude.  

Sportsmail recounts Ian Wooldridge’s escapades alongside Moss in the 1991 Mille Miglia race

Moss's wife Susie revealed the racing legend 'just closed his beautiful eyes and that was that'

Moss’s wife Susie revealed the racing legend ‘just closed his beautiful eyes and that was that’

Many rate Moss’ triumph in the 1955 Mille Miglia as the finest in motor sport history. 

Two years later the 1,000-mile charge through towns and villages was banned in response to public outrage. In 24 races, more than 70 drivers, co-drivers and spectators had been killed.  

But the Mille Miglia was revived. In 1991, Moss then 61, took the legendary – and somewhat apprehensive – Daily Mail sports writer Ian Wooldridge along for the ride. 

PART ONE 

The 1,000-mile epic of Stirling Moss and a very scared hanger-on 

By: IAN WOOLDRIDGE

Thirty-six years ago this weekend, Stirling Moss drove to his greatest victory. Many rate his triumph in the 1955 Mille Miglia as the finest exhibition of road driving in the history of motorsport. Two years later the Italian government banned the event – a 1,000-mile charge through towns and villages – in response to public outrage. In 24 races more than 70 drivers, co-drivers and spectators had been killed, 15 of them in a single accident in 1957. But the Mille Miglia has been revived. Moss, now 61, drives in it again this weekend. In the passenger seat will be an apprehensive Ian Wooldridge.

Stirling never was one to waste time on the telephone. ‘Fancy a ride, old boy? Good. That’s fixed then. Ciao.’

Stirling’s vernacular is still pure Fifties. He calls everyone old boy, including some ladies. He is amazingly fit. His only indulgence in early adulthood – which is how he sees his 61 years of age – is a half bottle of good claret with dinner followed by one glass of vintage port. There will be no drinking this evening. At 10.30pm we nose down the starting ramp in Brescia for the night run down to Ferrara. ‘Better bring the thermals, old boy,’ he warns. ‘Could be bloody nippy.’

Our car is open-topped with quarter-moon perspex windshields almost one inch thick. It is a 300 SLR Mercedes-Benz and is awesomely famous. It is the same 300 horse-power vehicle in which Moss drove to his staggering victory in 1955. Then, with the celebrated Denis Jenkinson as navigator, he covered the near 1,000-mile open road route in 10 hours 7 min 48 sec at an average speed of 98.98 mph.

No-one in the 24-race history of the Mille Miglia ever drove so fast and Moss was the only Briton ever to win it.

Moss, then 61, took the legendary Daily Mail sports writer Ian Wooldridge along for the ride

Moss, then 61, took the legendary Daily Mail sports writer Ian Wooldridge along for the ride

The following year, in a Maserati, Moss skidded over a cliff-edge in blinding rain. He was saved by becoming entangled in a tree. But, in a separate incident, six spectators were killed. Then, in 1957, came the catastrophe that for three decades was to eliminate the Mille Miglia from the sporting calendar.

At 150 miles per hour the Spanish Marquis de Portago lost a front wheel of his Ferrari and ploughed into the crowd. He and his American co-driver, Ed Nelson, were killed. But so were 13 spectators, five of them children. A Dutch driver also died in the race and the Italian government said ‘No more.’

But, while Italian governments come and go, the passion for speed goes on for ever.

‘The revived Mille Miglia isn’t quite the same event,’ explains Stirling, ‘because frankly I doubt whether we shall ever do more than 140. In the old days we were touching 180 on the open road. So to slow it down the race is now limited to older cars and there are two enforced stops where we’ll probably be able to snatch four hours’ sleep. The only snag these days is that you have to contend with on-coming traffic because the roads are no longer closed to the public.’

This, of course, was deeply reassuring to your correspondent whose Mille Miglia accreditation tag hilariously reads ‘co-driver.’

Baffled even by the concept of the internal combustion engine, requiring AA assistance to tackle anything as complex as changing a wheel, so astute at navigation that I have been known to lose my way between Hammersmith Broadway and Piccadilly Circus, I am to co-driving in the Mille Miglia what I suspect Edward Heath might be to an Olympic 100-metres final. 

Many rate Moss¿ superb triumph in the 1955 Mille Miglia as the finest in motor sport history

Many rate Moss’ superb triumph in the 1955 Mille Miglia as the finest in motor sport history

‘Not the point, old boy,’ said Stirling. ‘Your job is to hang on.’ There is not exactly a lot to hang on to in the silver Mercedes 300 SLR which, until it was taken out for fine tuning three weeks ago, has mostly graced the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart as its centrepiece exhibit since 1955.

‘Not much room either, I’m afraid,’ apologised Stirling. ‘Do you mind getting your belongings into an airline washbag?’ Moss is very British. He does not belong to the modern school of sportsmen who reckon it is macho to go into a contest with three days’ stubble. With practically no hair between us anyway, we shall at least be the best-shaven partnership to cross the finish-line. ‘We probably won’t win,’ says Stirling, ‘but that sort of English thing really pisses the Italians off.’

Throughout every twist and turn and hairpin of this small adventure I shall be conscious of usurping the right-hand seat of the 300 SLR occupied in 1955 by Denis Jenkinson.

That year they really went for it.

During the three months before the race they drove the entire route seven times and endlessly tracked the trickier sections until they had covered more than 12,000 miles in rehearsal. Jenkinson, as navigator, noted degrees of turn, camber and gradient and transposed it all on to 16 feet of paper irreverently known as the toilet roll.

This he twisted down to predict every feature of the way ahead, hand-signalling Moss to slow or put his foot down.

‘There was only one screw-up during the whole business,’ recalled Moss. ‘There was one hump-back bridge which in practice we had been taking at about 110 mph. I was concentrating so much that I simply didn’t get Jenks’s signal. We hit it at about 170 and must have been airborne for some 300 feet. The only problem was to keep the car lined up in mid-air. A small deviation and we would probably have been goners, but it worked okay and we went on to win.’

Wooldridge acted as Moss' co-driver during the 1,000 mile charge through Italian villages

Wooldridge acted as Moss’ co-driver during the 1,000 mile charge through Italian villages

Jenkinson, still writing about motorsport with unabated enthusiasm, this week recalled his role in that victory with the casual modesty of so many in the car-racing fraternity. ‘Nothing to it,’ he said. ‘I simply learned the roads like a piece of poetry. Night after night I recited the bends, but I usually fell asleep before we got to Rome.’

Stirling Moss, I urgently confess, will have no such expertise at his elbow this weekend. Until he showed me the route map yesterday I didn’t even know whether we drove clockwise or otherwise down to Rome.

In fact, after Ferrara and the Adriatic coast, we hit the Eternal City for supper and hopefully a brief kip before heading back to Brescia on an uninterrupted daylight run.

‘Terrific fun,’ forecast Stirling. ‘Now let me tell you how this desmodromic system works. No valve springs, you see…’

The man’s enthusiasm is such that he could be 16, not 61, and none other than Juan Manuel Fangio describes Stirling Moss as the greatest driver the world has ever seen.

Corroboration of this assertion may hopefully be printed shortly in this space.

PART TWO

ONE RACE MADE STIRLING MOSS A LEGEND IN ITALY – NOW HE HAS DRIVEN IN AN EMOTIONAL RE-RUN

By: IAN WOOLDRIDGE

If you are contemplating the grand cultural tour of Italy, reflecting on the genius of the Florentine masters and absorbing the architecture of ancient Siena, I’m afraid I can grant my chauffeur no references.

In fact he’s damned lucky to get nought out of ten.

Florence? We went there, did that. Got through the place in six minutes 56 seconds. Would have been quicker but for the crazy road system round that blockhouse with the dome.

Siena? Boy, did we give that a seeing to. If my chauffeur hadn’t been mobbed at one stage, we’d have been in and out in under three minutes, leaving only a trail of pollution and a few Renaissance portraits bouncing off walls.

True, he relented just once. Coming over the high mountain pass between these two cities he became quite lyrical about the grandeur of the Almighty’s benevolence to the Italian landscape. ‘Terrific view down there to the right, old boy,’ he yelled into our intercom.

The pair defied the pouring rain across the course of 25 hours with Moss firmly in control

The pair defied the pouring rain across the course of 25 hours with Moss firmly in control

Heaven knows how he saw it. The rev counter was dancing over the 7,000 mark at the time and we were heading north at fractionally over 140mph. The din inside the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR threatened permanent deafness and the vroom-vrooming as he changed down to humiliate another hairpin-bend into utter insignificance was scattering domestic animals in the valleys below.

Stirling Moss doesn’t go into these bends like the rest of us. Where we brake, he rams on the power. ‘Nothing to it, old boy, apart from experience.’

Some experience. Over the past 25 hours I have just ridden round Italy in the Mille Miglia at his right elbow, mostly on winding country roads, sometimes with a ghastly vacuum on one side, at others with spectators’ toecaps protruding out from the verge.

It rained stair-rods for 750 of those 1,000 miles and I can inform you that high-velocity travelling in an open-topped vehicle with only a six-inch high windscreen between you and the elements leaves you with five sets of sodden clothes, despite the alleged waterproofs, and mild apprehension as to the long-term effects of sitting that long in a bucket-seat full of water. But having thus far been derogatory about my chauffeur, let me say this about the man deemed by many among the motorsport cognoscenti as the greatest driver in history: there were at least 100 near-misses but there was not a single moment of danger.

Early on, when Stirling pulls out to confront fast oncoming traffic, you reckon the best you can get away with is quadriplegia. But he has done it so many millions of times that you suddenly find yourself easing back to your side of the road through a gap which even George Best, on the football field, could not have created. Shameful prayer soon gives way to exhilarating enjoyment.

Moss' unparalleled versatility won him 212 of his 529 races in every conceivable kind of car

Moss’ unparalleled versatility won him 212 of his 529 races in every conceivable kind of car

Only when you have accompanied men of this calibre in the art of high-performance driving do you realise that the next Porsche-owning yuppie who whizzes past you at 120mph on the M1 is a jerk. He has neither the expertise nor the lightning reactions to cope with an emergency. Stirling Moss, though now 61, does. He also has at his disposal two vital assets: fantastic 300-horsepower acceleration and phenomenal works-designed braking.

The odd thing is that as a professional he drives barely 20,000 miles a year. This is probably half the distance accomplished by a London cabbie and one third of that recorded by a long-haul lorry driver. He drives only when necessary. It is his art.

Towards the closing stages of this year’s Mille Miglia we hit Bologna at the height of a traffic jam. This is where the artists take over. ‘Better go for it, old boy,’ said Stirling. He went.

He put the Mercedes into places where no car has driven before. We were through the city’s stoppage in under 13 minutes, passing vehicles on Moss’s blind side with infallible three-inch clearances. I only know this because it happened to be on the side I was sitting on.

On the big fast curves out in the country he drives to within a precise six inches of the yellow kerb-line at 100mph-plus for hours on end, wet or dry. He demonstrated under-steering, over-steering and lectured me on the business of lateral-G. I understood none of it.

Between 1955 and 1961, Moss was Formula 1 championship runner-up on four occasions

Between 1955 and 1961, Moss was Formula 1 championship runner-up on four occasions 

‘I hope you realise,’ said an envious Peter Robinson, European editor of the prestigious Autocar magazine, ‘what a privileged position you are in. There are motor enthusiasts all over the world who would cheerfully pay £10,000 to occupy the seat you are in during this race.’

Stirling received not a penny from this newspaper. We are old friends and I have long been a fan.

He suffers no agitation about the £13million Ayrton Senna – or the £9million Nigel Mansell – will make from this year’s Grand Prix campaign. Moss stormed that field, too, with 16 Grand Prix victories. He merely spills over with admiration for Senna and speaks no evil about Mansell’s lengthening string of bad luck.

‘Money never interested me as much as the driving,’ he said, ‘so when I discovered that someone would actually pay you for doing what you love best, that was it. Do you know, old boy, that I can make as much money in a morning these days signing limited editions of books and mementoes as I did when I won the European Grand Prix at Nurburgring in 1961? I got £600 for that and I was the happiest man on Earth.’

The constant old-boying places him firmly in the Fifties era when, before the colossal accident that ended his Grand Prix career, he succeeded the great Juan Fangio as the world’s finest driver. His ultimate triumph, though, was here in Italy. It came in the so-called Death Race, the 1,000-mile road competition which in 1957, two years after his greatest drive, was banned by an Italian government shamed by public outrage at its carnage.

After 24 races over open Italian roads more than 70 victims – drivers, co-drivers, spectators – lay dead, killed by the manic quest for speed. The end came when the Spanish Marquis de Portago lost a front wheel off his Ferrari and lurched into the crowd. He and his co-driver were killed and so were 13 bystanders, five of them children.

Tributes for the stylish and debonair icon have poured in from across the sporting world

Tributes for the stylish and debonair icon have poured in from across the sporting world

Two years previously Moss, the only British driver ever to win, stormed home in a record 10 hours 7 minutes 47 seconds at an average speed – through towns, villages and tortuous country by-roads – of 98.98 miles per hour.

More than three decades later the Mille Miglia has been revived. But it is not the same race. These days it is slowed by regulatory stage time-trials and speed-limit obligations over certain stretches. These are incompatible with Stirling’s personality. Driving the same Mercedes-Benz in which he won in 1955, he this year raced up to the verge of the checkpoints with such panache that we had to hang around there waiting for the rest of the field to catch up.

For this the Italians, temperamentally attuned to the vroom-vroom sports provided it is other people risking their own lives, love him like a son. His return this year, 36 years after his famous victory, was virtually a national lap of honour.

He was besieged at every stopping point. He was showered with gifts and extravagant compliments. I watched him sign more than 1,000 autographs. He was interviewed constantly. And he constantly exchanged endearments with voluble Italians. 

‘God knows what I’m saying, old boy,’ he confided. ‘I learned my Italian from motor mechanics in the pits and I gather I speak with the equivalent of a Cockney accent. Apparently I use the most appalling swearwords without ever knowing it. But aren’t these people wonderful?’ They were. In pouring rain towards midnight on Saturday they still lined five deep in the towns and villages over the last 100 miles of the race to roar him through. Stirling rewarded them with a wave and a couple of basso profundo notes on the throttle.

Moss's passing was the result of a chest infection he caught in Singapore at Christmas 2016

Moss’s passing was the result of a chest infection he caught in Singapore at Christmas 2016

Had it been flat-out racing Stirling Moss would have won by hours in a 300-horsepower car unmatchable for speed. But under the new regulations the result is determined by a points system based on the accuracy of passages through the speed-regulated systems.

This is greatly the responsibility of the co-driver and navigator. Since this was my role, and I am virtually innumerate when it comes to mathematical calculations in pouring rain, I take full responsibility for his failure.

‘Never mind, old boy,’ said Stirling, ‘it was terrific fun.’ At the finish line a Japanese lady TV reporter who had followed our progress around the race thrust a microphone into his face and, for the fifth time in three days, asked the dumbest of all dumb TV questions. ‘How,’ she smiled, ‘do you feel?’

‘Knackered,’ replied Stirling.

The lady shone with sparkling comprehension and beamed into the camera. In a few days thousands of Japanese will be turning up their English dictionaries.

My own consolation was a master class in the art of car driving. A class from which I can never benefit, like the thousands who will sit in traffic jams this Bank Holiday everywhere from Blackpool to Brighton. To us a car remains a metal object capable of conveying us from A to B. In the hands of Stirling Moss it can be raised into an art form, so our journey around Italy may not quite have been as philistine as indicated.



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