MY PRIVATE ITALY: “La Mille Miglia”, the fastest (and craziest) car race ever run – Part 2

Thursday, 07 May 2020 20:38 Written by
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Marcello tells the story of the 1948 edition and Nuvolari’s epic drive on Ferrari – The legend was born

1948, the war ended 3 years ago, the democratic governments of Italy are struggling to manage not only a country largely destroyed but also a torn population. The reconstruction, however, has begun immediately and now we must also look for something that can somehow calm the spirits. Sport can be useful for this purpose and is therefore favoured by the authorities. Motorsports are still hugely popular and “La MILLE MIGLIA” is the most exciting race. Already in 1947, the original route, from Brescia to Rome and back, has been modified due to the extensive damage suffered by the road network during the war. In this edition, starting from Brescia cars will head to Padua, then turn south along the Adriatic Sea to Fano. From here through Le Marche, Umbria and Lazio to Rome. North to Livorno along the Tyrrhenian Sea, then inland to Pisa and Florence, across the Apennines to Bologna, then via Piacenza and Alessandria to Turin. Finally, the grand final sprint on the very fast highway Turin - Milan – Brescia. It’s 1000 miles, yes, but marine miles. And remember: the roads remain open to traffic.

There is not a clear favourite for the victory this year, because 4 brands are competing with all their strength: Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari and Cisitalia. Alfa Romeo has built 2 experimental models in great secrecy, two racy 2500 CC sedans with a lightweight alloy aerodynamic body, which can exceed 200 km/h. Maserati runs with 4 2000 cubic cm cars, open, low, very stable and agile; its top driver is Alberto Ascari, who will become world champion formula 1 in 1950. Ferrari brought to Brescia 3 166 Sport, which can exceed 200 km/h. Its top driver is Cesare Biondetti, but in the end, just 3 days before the start, on April 29, it registers the 4th car. That day a driver is wandering among the cars for testing. He has been resting for several months on Lake Garda, where his main activity has been walking with his wife. That morning, however, Enzo Ferrari spots him among cars in Piazza Vittoria a Brescia, during official car tests before the starts. Ferrari does not hesitate, takes him under his arm and says: "Tazio, come with me to Maranello, I want you to see my cars". Tazio is Nuvolari, the legendary pilot. The two leave for Maranello and here Ferrari shows him a red car. "Tazio, why don't you drive one?" The great Tazio hesitates, his wife will be angry, but he can’t say no, the call of the road is too strong: at 55 years old, he will run the longest MILLE MIGLIA, 1800 km, a superhuman challenge.

In the 1930s Nuvolari had become very popular, indeed the most popular driver in the world. His driving style, which was described by Enzo Ferrari as "a prodigy of instinct at the limits of human possibilities and physical laws", was inimitable: he turned by drifting, practically without ever taking his foot off the accelerator. On more than one occasion he had raced without even using brakes, using only the gear to slow down. Nivola easily adapted to the most diverse cars because he felt them, with an animal instinct, and soon entered into symbiosis with them.

It is midnight on May 2, 1948; the first car starts, behind it 186 cars are queuing to start. A few minutes before 4 am the first Alfa Romeo starts, at 4:00 Ascari’s Maserati, at 4:13 here is the first Ferrari with Biondetti and at 4:24 the crowd greets with a roar the departure of Nuvolari on the Ferrari spider marked with the number 1049.

In the Brescia-Padua section, 156 km, Ascari's Maserati averages 145.093 km/h, at night! In Padua, he is first followed by Cortese on Ferrari and Sanesi on Alfa Romeo. Nivola is 6th. From Padua, the pilots then race fast to Ravenna on the Via Adriatica along the Po river and just out of Ravenna Romano’s Alfa Romeo has an accident and overturns: luckily the drivers come out unharmed. In Forlì then, pilots leave the Via Adriatica and enter the Via Emilia, heading for the sea. In Rimini, they touch the Adriatic sea, then Pesaro and Fano.

Now the road, the Via Flaminia, becomes more winding. In Fossombrone the road enters a deep natural rift 2 km long, the Furlo Gorge, and suddenly behind a curve appears the Gallery of Furlo, the ancient tunnel built by the Roman Emperor Vespasian at the narrowest point of the gorge to give easy passage to the Flaminia way. Then the climb to the Pass of the Scheggia (632 m), the natural watershed between the Adriatic side and the Tyrrhenian side of the Apennines. On these roads Nuvolari drives like no other, he is the master of the Apennine passes.

The road continues to the south: Nocera Umbra, Foligno, Trevi, Spoleto, then the ascent to the Passo della Somma and down to Terni, and finally Rome. Nuvolari passes through the control of the capital at 10:13, five hours and 49 minutes after departure; he is first, on the hard Apennine passes and on the nervous roads of Umbria he overcame all competitors and with the average of 126 km/h he just broke the record of the previous year (his record) by far. The radio broadcasting the highlights of the race says: "In Rome, Nuvolari is first". Sanesi follows him on Alfa Romeo, Ascari with his Maserati is 4th.

At the control of Ponte Milvio, outside Rome, the champion arrives at full speed and stops, the mechanics raise the hood of the Ferrari for a fast check, then close it, or rather try to close it because the body does not want to return in its place. Nuvolari tries, nothing to do, time runs, you cannot wait: the champion opens the hood and detaches it from the car and throws it away. Let’s go! Now the pilots take the Via Aurelia at top speed. In Cerveteri Sanesi on Alfa Romeo, who is going very fast behind Nuvolari, runs off the road due to the burst of a tyre; the car flips over several times, the condition of the two drivers immediately appears serious, but they will be saved. Now, with the incident of its second official car, Alfa Romeo is out.

Tarquinia, Grosseto, Follonica, in Livorno at 12:42, 8 hours and 18 minutes after the start, Nuvolari is still first at the spectacular average of 127,301 km/h. Behind him now is Ascari with a delay of 20 minutes, then the other Ferrari of Biondetti with 24 minutes. The unexpected, however, is just around the corner: right after Livorno Nivola is overtaking another competitor when, suddenly, a bang: ending up against the rock face the car turns 180°. The right rear suspension lay is broken, a crossbow is damaged, the seat is displaced jumped and brakes are hardly working. The red car starts again, bruised more than ever, but Nuvolari has no intention to give up.

From Pisa to Florence the road runs flat in the Arno valley. In Florence shortly after 1:30 Nuvolari is still 1st with an average of 133 km/h and his most immediate pursuer, Biondetti, is behind by 30 minutes. Ascari has retired before Florence betrayed by the gear of his Maserati. "Nuvolari is first in Florence" the radio announces to all Italians.

Now, here are the last two climbs: the Futa Pass and the Raticosa Pass. Nivola drives on the winding roads gritting his teeth, in Bologna amid the roar of the crowd he is still 1st. Biondetti is behind with the second Ferrari with a gap of almost half an hour. Now from Bologna in the plain to Modena at full speed. No hood, no seat, no brakes, the battered frame, he just lost a fender and is starting to rain. Nuvolari is on an uncovered car, his opponent instead runs protected in a comfortable sedan. Is it the replay of last year's Mille Miglia, when a storm between Asti and Alexandria took away his victory?

In the end, the incredible adventure ends in Reggio Emilia, the radio announces: "Nuvolari just retired close to Villa Ospizia, 1 km from the city, due to the complete break of the right rear suspension". Realizing that the car cannot go on, Nivola gets out of it: he does not curse against fate, he doesn't say a word, he is only exhausted, he asks where he can lay down and they take him to a refectory. There, he collapses; they lift him and lay him on the priest's bed. His Mille Miglia is over. "Come on, you're going to do it again next year," says Enzo Ferrari, who ran to villa Ospizio to see him. "No, there won't be another Mille Miglia”. Nivola answers by shaking his head sadly. He couldn't win but now the whole of Italy is talking about him, only about him.

The race is almost finished. From Turin, Biondetti on Ferrari heads to Brescia at an average of 160 km/h. The red Ferrari crosses the finish line in Brescia in 15 hours 5 minutes and 44 seconds with an average of 121 km/h. It is Ferrari's first victory in the Mille Miglia: here the legend of the Prancing Horse begins. Tazio Nuvolari, meanwhile, is sleeping in the refectory of Villa Hospice.

A truck brings the glorious spider number 1049 back to Maranello, to Enzo Ferrari’s house. The car is battered, in pieces, it looks like a wreck but only bad luck managed to stop her, and her tamer.

Read 2443 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2023 07:20
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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