Unbeatable. The legacy a young British driver created for himself at the 1955 Mille Miglia – and one that seemed destined from the outset.
Just seven years earlier in 1948, at the tender age of 19, Sir Stirling Moss entered his first race and made a lightning start to an international career. He joined the Mercedes-Benz roster for the 1955 season – team boss Alfred Neubauer recruiting the British ace to complement the skills of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio – and competed in all major events that year, driving the 300 SL, 300 SLR and W 196 R.
Success came quickly for the young Brit across the board. But he was truly in his element when at the wheel of the 300 SLR. Developed especially for this season, this spectacular machine was powered by a new 3-litre engine which prodigious design chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut and his engineering team had developed from the 2.5-litre, eight-cylinder power unit from the W 196 R raced in the Formula One World Championship.
The chassis, with its muscular, streamlined bodywork, was developed by Mercedes-Benz to win the battle for the world sports car championship and made its official racing debut at the 1955 Mille Miglia – the world's most popular and famous road race, celebrating its 28th running that year.
Neubauer entered four racing sports cars for the event. Although the designation and bodywork were similar to the 300 SL of 1952, the SLR had a lot more in common technically with the Grand Prix Silver Arrow. A relationship confirmed by its internal designation – W 196 S.
The 1,597km route took the cars from Brescia via Padua, Ferrara and Pescara to Rome, and then via Florence, the Futa and Raticosa passes, Bologna and Piacenza back to Brescia. The favourite in 1955 was Fangio, who was bidding to become the first non-Italian since Rudolf Caracciola to win the thousand-mile race – the German taking the spoils in 1931 at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz SSKL.
Two of the four Mercedes-Benz drivers were accompanied by navigators – red-bearded British motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson supporting Moss, Hans Hermann accompanied by Fangio's mechanic Hermann Eger and Fangio himself joining Karl Kling in preferring to tackle the race alone.
The four Mercedes-Benz cars moved into the top four places en route to Rome. However, leading the way wasn’t Fangio, but Moss and Jenkinson. For Neubauer, this position was a bad omen: “There's an old rule – a kind of curse that hangs over this race. The lead driver in Rome has never won the Mille Miglia. It's not looking good for Moss…”
Kling subsequently retired following an accident shortly after leaving the Italian capital, while Herrmann and Eger were undone by a fault with their tank filler neck. Moss, meanwhile, continued unabated – and with some determination, as Jenkinson later recalled:
“Down a steep hill in second gear, we went into third at peak revs. I thought ‘it’s a brave man who can unleash nearly 300bhp down a hill this steep and then change into a higher gear’. By the way Moss left Florence, as though at the start of a Grand Prix, I knew he was out to crack one hour to Bologna – especially as he also looked at his wrist-watch as we left the control.
“‘This is going to be fantastic,’ I thought, as we screamed up the hills out of Florence. ‘He is really going to do some nine-tenth plus motoring.’ I took a firm grip of the ‘struggling bar’ between giving him direction signals, keeping the left side of my body as far out of his way as possible, for he was going to need all the room possible for his whirling arms and for stirring the gear lever about.”
Moss continued to turn the screw over the Apennines and through the Bassa, secured the Gran Premio Nuvolari for the fastest passage between Cremona and Brescia and romped home in a record time for the Mille Miglia, which remains intact to this day. The pair needed only ten hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds to cover the race distance, equating to an average speed of 157.65 km/h.
Fangio, driving with no co-driver, crossed the finish line in 2nd place just 31 minutes and 45 seconds later – likewise an outstanding performance in probably the most gruelling road race of the era.
Renowned motoring journalist, Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann, recalled the immense challenge of the Mille Miglia, the determination displayed by Moss and the joy as he and Jenkinson finally crossed the line.
“Moss had plenty of incidents during his record-breaking Mille Miglia,” the German writer recalled. “On one occasion, his Mercedes took flight for 15 metres at 250 km/h on a series of ground undulations. On another, he hit a patch of oil when exiting a bend and performed a 360-degree spin. And near Pescara, he had already taken a slight short-cut by ploughing through some straw bales.
“None of this perturbed him in the least. After 10:07.48 hours at the wheel he rocketed down Brescia’s finishing straight in Via Rebuffone. The closely-packed spectators awaiting the winners behind the finishing line sprang aside like drops of water on a hot pan. Jenkinson’s once red beard was now as black as soot. Photographers came to blows with their cameras and the crowd was ecstatic – Mercedes had won.”
That famous victory can be traced back to a number of factors. The strategic genius of Alfred Neubauer in the meticulous planning of his team’s fuel supply, Denis Jenkinson's detailed road book, or the outstanding Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR – which laid down a powerful claim to supremacy in the sports car championship on its debut outing in Italy..
However, the star of the show has to be Moss himself. Brave, determined and, above all, fast – Sir Stirling had etched his name into motorsport folklore. And few would argue the merit of the numerous accolades to be have been bestowed upon him since.
62 years later, the Mille Miglia continues to be a highlight of the motoring calendar, with enthusiasts flocking from across the globe to take on the annual 1,000 mile challenge in all manner of machinery – albeit at a slightly more leisurely pace than that set by Moss and Jenkinson!
Two such aficionados include Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Toto Wolff and Silver Arrows Engineering Director Aldo Costa, who will take turns at the wheel of the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL in this year’s edition.
Follow their progress right here, as they follow in the footsteps of the unbeatable Sir Stirling Moss.