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Stirling Moss on Racing a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR in the 1955 Mille Miglia

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 8/19/2015 Angus MacKenzie

The term “legend” is an overused one these days. But Stirling Moss is the real deal. Moss was Britain’s superstar racing driver of the 1950s and early 1960s. He won 212 of the 529 races he started, including 16 Formula 1 Grands Prix.

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Fast and versatile—he drove 84 different makes of car in his career, and would compete in as many as 62 races a year—Moss was unlucky not to win the Formula 1 championship, finishing fourth four times in a row from 1955 through 1958. However, his win in the 1955 Mille Miglia, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, ranks as one of the greatest feats in motorsport history

Read more about the Mille Miglia and watch a video of the SLS AMG retracing the original route RIGHT HERE.

1955 Mille Miglia© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mille Miglia Run 24 times between 1927 and 1957, the Mille Miglia was a 1,000-mile road race from Brescia in northern Italy to Rome and back. Moss was one of only three foreigners ever to win on the narrow, treacherous, and at times unbelievably fast Italian roads.

The Mille Miglia rules allowed cars to run with a co-driver—for some of the smaller, slower cars the race was a 20-hour marathon. Moss’ co-driver was racing writer Denis Jenkinson, whose remarkable first-person account of the race, published in British magazine Motor Sport in 1955, remains a benchmark piece of auto racing journalism.

It's been 60 years since Stirling Moss stormed across the finishing line in Brescia in the 300SLR, having taken 10 hours, 7 minutes to cover 1,000 miles, a record that would never be broken. We sat down with the feisty 85-year-old, a regular attendee at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and relived that remarkable race.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Around Curve© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Around Curve Motor Trend: 1,000 miles in 10 hours on ordinary Italian roads. From a driver's perspective, how difficult was the Mille Miglia?

Stirling Moss : Difficult, but you were greatly aided by the fact that if you crashed, it was going to hurt, which kept your concentration up. The trouble with the Mille was that if you went off and had an accident, you were going to be traveling pretty quickly. You don’t make mistakes on tight corners.

MT: So how hard were you driving in the 1955 race?

Moss : I’d say I was driving at about nine-tenths. Sometimes up to ten-tenths, but [Denis] Jenks [Jenkinson] would go like this [hand signal for slower] and I’d slow up a bit. It depended on the terrain you were on, but a car like the SLR was so well-balanced and responsive to the throttle and the brakes—and to backing off the throttle, which was important because if you were going into a corner and it tightened, the tail would swing out and you could correct it and get around the corner.

1955 Mille Miglia© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mille Miglia MT: So it was a lift-off oversteer car?

Moss : Yes, exactly. The 300SLR is certainly the greatest sports car ever built. Not an easy one to drive, not forgiving, but it had a tremendous amount of power even though it was only 3.0 liters, which has always amazed me.

MT: Denis Jenkinson's pacenotes—the first time they'd ever been used—were your secret weapon. Whose idea were they?

Moss : [American racing driver] John Fitch's. They were a godsend because they gave me a feeling of security, because if you’re going over a brow at 170 mph, you want to know if the road goes straight. Those sorts of things we’d write down. Anything that was different from what it looked.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Front Side View© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Front Side View MT: Though you did get caught out on a bridge near Pescara ...

Moss : Well, we got caught out because in practice we only did 110-115 mph over it; when we got there, we were flat out and probably doing 170-something, and I can tell you there was quite a big difference. The car just took off. No problem whatsoever. The problem was in one’s mind. I just waited for it to land, and it was really a non-affair.

MT: Denis Jenkinson's contribution was remarkable. Can you imagine sitting next to yourself going that fast for 1,000 miles?

Moss : No way! But Jenks was just that sort of guy. He’d been three times world motorcycle sidecar champion [riding in the sidecar], so his credentials were there, and he also knew an awful lot about motorsport. Because he was looking down, reading notes, he was sick at one point. There were all these fumes inside the car—with the SLR the front brakes were inboard, and so you got the brake dust coming back and the oiliness on your face. It was not pleasant. Then he lost his glasses—thank God he was smart enough to bring along a spare pair.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Side View© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Side View MT: Jenks described the Raticosa Pass as a whole series of slides. ...

Moss : The actual passes were quite easy. What was difficult was when you started talking about corners that were 120, 130, 140 mph where you couldn't see anything. The roads were really quite narrow. They estimate 5 million people saw the race, and spectators were a big problem because if they were lining the inside of the corner, you couldn’t see where you wanted to make your apex. They were literally on the side of the damned road. You couldn’t see what the corner was like.

Mercedes Benz 300SLR Black And White© Provided by MotorTrend Mercedes Benz 300SLR Black And White MT: The Mille Miglia was tough on drivers but also tough on cars?

Moss : The SLR was really strong, with a fantastic engine. Not very good brakes, but only Jaguar had those. With a Mercedes you didn’t worry whether a wheel was going to fall off or the gearbox was going to break. Everything was very good. The only problem I had was the gearbox shift pattern was back to front and I had to relearn how to shift.

MT: As in Formula 1 today, Mercedes-Benz seemed in a totally different league from anyone else in motorsport at that time?

Moss : At that time there was no team anywhere in the world that would compare with it. Mercedes was No. 1. Jaguar did a pretty reasonable job; so did Aston Martin, but nothing like Mercedes.

MT: Were you surprised to lead into Rome?

Moss : The saying was, “He who leads in Rome is never first home.” I was superstitious and thinking, "Oh my God, that’s all we need."

Sir Stirling Moss© Provided by MotorTrend Sir Stirling Moss MT: Was the return section from Rome to Brescia more challenging, more difficult than the run down?

Moss : Oh, yes. For a start we’d already done 500 miles. The second thing, of course, was we were passing much slower cars. I think there were 500 or 600 entries, and there were not that many competent drivers. On the last 34 kilometers—a standing start from Cremona to Brescia—we averaged 165.1 mph, which is quite quick. On one straight there were these three Isettas on the crown of the road, and I remember pulling to the side and passing them and looking in the mirror and seeing them go like this [mimes correcting cars all over the road] because we were pushing a lot of air. It must have been pretty hairy for them.

MT: How fast were you going?

Moss : 180. And you know they were probably flat out at 51 and a half!

MT: The Ferraris were your biggest rivals?

Moss : The Ferraris were actually faster than our car. We were a 3.0-liter with about 300 horsepower. They had 450 hp or so, maybe even more than that. [Ferrari driver Eugenio] Castellotti actually passed us after the start, and I noticed after he put his foot down there were black marks up the road. I thought then there was no way he was going to last, which of course he didn’t. Castellotti was a fast guy, but he wasn’t exactly easygoing on the car. The SLR was ideally suited to the terrain. It was a pretty strong bit of gear that gave you a feeling of confidence it would go through anything.

MT: The record average speed prior to your win was 88 mph, and you beat it by 10 mph. …

Moss : If you’d taken Jenks out of the equation, I would have been slower than 88 mph for sure because he gave me so much confidence. If he said it was flat out over the brow, I kept it in there at 180 mph. I can’t tell you how much he contributed, because when you’re going 170-180 mph and you back off, that’s losing quite a bit of ground, even if you only back off for a couple of seconds.

MT: Top racing drivers talk about getting in the zone; it’s a place where they exist all by themselves; the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Somehow both of you ended up in this one place.

Moss : Yes. Joined at the hip.

MT: In that 10 hours, 7 minutes, how long were you actually stationary?

Moss : One minute and 4 seconds. Before the race I said to Jenks it was going to take about 12 hours, and I’m going to have to stop and have a pee. We tried it in practice, and even with your fly unzipped it takes quite a while. So I said the only time we’ll do it is when we get to Rome, which is half way. Well in Rome they’d put up 75,000 grandstand seats, hadn’t they? So I couldn’t very well stand by the car and do it, so I had to run around and go under the grandstands. And in that time Mercedes-Benz had changed the tires, washed the car, filled it with 45 gallons of fuel—which is pretty economical when you think of it.

MT: Today’s endurance racers have special energy drinks and foods to keep them going. Did you eat or drink?

Moss : No. We bought some fruit. At one point Denis grabbed an orange, and by the time he peeled it, it was as black as his face [with the dust from the inboard front brakes] so I said no way. Fortunately, he also had brought along a banana, and I was able to eat it. A banana is all I had, and a bottle of lemon juice. Ten hours and 7 minutes is a long time sitting talking here, but when things are flashing by at 180 mph, it doesn’t half go quickly.

MT: When did you know you’d won?

Moss : When we got to Brescia, we knew it was pretty likely. But I seem to remember we waited 5 or 10 minutes, which was a little anticlimactic.

MT: What was the feeling?

Moss : Unbelievable. I was so elated. As you could imagine, there was a lot going on there—parties—but afterwards I drove up to Stuttgart.

MT: Do you look back on it now and think you must have been mad?

Moss : Oh, absolutely. The thought of having gone to those speeds with that much traffic on the roads, it’s quite frightening actually. It was the one race that really made me nervous. It made me nervous because I couldn’t learn the circuit.

MT: Of all your achievements in racing, how do you rate the Mille Miglia win?

Moss : I think of its type—open road racing—it was the best I ever did.

1955 Mille Miglia© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mille Miglia Want more? Get more on the Mille Miglia and watch a video of the SLS AMG retracing the original route RIGHT HERE.

1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Around Curve Closer View© Provided by MotorTrend 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SLR Around Curve Closer View
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