When the first cars sprint away from the Mille Miglia starting line this Saturday, hurtling through the warm and scented mid-May Italian night, they will begin what surely will be the most fiercely contested series of world championship automobile races in Europe since World War II.
The season opens with two historically brilliant races, each helping to solve a different world championship. First comes the Mille Miglia, the thousand miles of open-road competition for sports cars where the winning points count toward the manufacturers' title. Then, on the following weekend, there is the Grand Prix of Monaco, which, like the other top Grand Prix races, brings the best Formula I cars into play and counts toward the drivers' title. And thus begins a five-month European season in the sun for the great and near-great drivers (see pages 45-48) who are idolized by one of the largest audiences in sport.
The most famous of all cross-country events, the Mille Miglia sends its 350 cars down to the Adriatic coast from the northern Italian city of Brescia, south along the seashore in a lightning dash to Pescara, across the spine of Italy to Rome, and north over and around the Apennines to the finish back at Brescia. It is the race of races for the average Italian, who, whether he zips a motor scooter through the swarming streets of Rome or practices automotive gamesmanship on the highways, seems always to be training for the Mille Miglia.
That this year's competition will be vigorous is assured by the scrap between those perennial Italian racing car rivals, Maserati and Ferrari, for world supremacy in 1957. A wagonload of laurels won abroad would not be nearly so gratifying as a triumph before the eyes of the nation at home. Since this is a championship limited to sports cars, even though they may have engines of unlimited size, they must also carry a number of the appurtenances of touring cars, such as fenders, headlights, doors, a spare tire, and they must use commercial gasoline, not racing alcohol.
The majority of the Mille Miglia cars, to be sure, will not be as potent as the screaming red Ferraris and Maseratis from Modena. Many of them will be normal passenger cars (usually reflecting a racing heritage), and some will be amazingly small. For these there are a staggering and bewildering variety of prizes in both class and category. But the over-all prize seems sure to go to Maserati or Ferrari. Theirs are the machines which are as close to being purely racing cars as the rules allow.
If there is one favorite, it is the 4.5-liter Maserati to be driven by Britain's young Stirling Moss. This brilliant new racer—winner by miles at Sebring in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio, the world champion, and Jean Behra, France's best driver—may well become the outstanding car of the year. It is faster than any of its competitors, it handles remarkably well in twisty going for so powerful a car and its drum brakes have been unusually trouble-free. With Moss (who won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a factory Mercedes at a record average speed of nearly 98 mph) at the wheel, the entry will be formidable indeed.
There is no sign of discouragement, however, from Enzo Ferrari, the automotive genius whose racers have won every Mille Miglia since the war except those of 1954 and 1955. Ferrari is now said to be getting 350 hp from his 3.5-liter, 12-cylinder models, against the 400 hp of which the 4.5 Maserati is capable. Developed from the car which carried the late Eugenio Castellotti home first in last year's Mille Miglia, the Ferraris are equipped with four overhead camshafts and new power-assisted brakes. Brake fading cost Ferrari any chance of victory in the 12-hour endurance run at Sebring, Florida, but then Sebring is the world's most arduous test of brakes; the problem should not be as critical in the Mille Miglia.
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT
Ferrari's youth movement, too, is expected to harass the Maserati team without mercy. No. 1 Driver Peter Collins of Britain is in rare form. He led at Sebring for 18 laps (while using up his brakes rather unwisely) and went on to win the most important tuneup for the European season, the Grand Prix of Syracuse. Collins, the second-place man in the 1956 Mille Miglia, will be ably backed by his fellow Briton, Mike Hawthorn; Italy's only real driver hope, Luigi Musso; the conscientious German, Count von Trips, who has probably been around the course 100 times in three previous races and practice; and Spain's improving Marquis de Portago (see page 49).
In a year dominated by Italian cars, the prospect of a foreign victory in the Mille Miglia is quite bare. There have been rumors of a D Jaguar entry by the Ecurie Ecosse, private Scottish team which won last year's 24-hour race at Le Mans, and there is the certainty of an American entry (a Chrysler-engined racer with a Kurtis chassis, to be driven by Ak Miller, a veteran of the Pan-American Road Race), but all the betting is on the Italians. With one world championship victory apiece so far this year, Maserati and Ferrari are both likely to make extraordinary efforts in this and the year's five other title races, yet neither will win the Mille Miglia on preparation alone. It is a race with as many uncertainties as its thousands of curves. As Maserati's Behra says, "You must choose whether to push your car to the limit along the 630 kilometers of straight, fast stretches from Brescia to Pescara, or save yourself for the tough mountain passes from Pescara onward. If you drive too hard at the beginning, the moment inevitably comes when you suddenly realize that you are now going too slow. If you go slow at the beginning, then you suddenly find yourself saying, 'I'm halfway and I can never catch up now.' "