The Mille Miglia needs no introduction to anyone with even a passing interest in motorsport. It isn't the oldest road race in the world but it's easily one of the toughest. The clue is in the name: Mille (thousand), Miglia (miles), which works out at about 1,600km. And, as is the way in Italy, it's an event born of passion, having been instigated by the people of Brescia, a town near Lake Garda in the north of the country, when the Italian Grand Prix was unceremoniously pinched from them in favour of the technically superior Monza in 1922. Suitably insulted, the Brescians devised an event that would keep the town's name alive; a road race from Brescia to Rome and back to Brescia. After all, they reasoned, why should the capital city get all the benefits?
It was a fast and furious race that punished competitors and cars alike, taking place 24 times between 1927 and 1957 (the Second World War got in the way) and was banned after one too many fatalities when a Ferrari crashed and wiped out not only its driver and co-driver, but nine spectators, five of whom were children. Driving the route today, and seeing how many people line the streets, it's a wonder more weren't killed.
In 1977, the Mille Miglia was revived, only this time as a historic rally. The journey is essentially the same but, instead of being a race against the clock, it now tests the navigational and driving skills of teams, while still being an ordeal for the cars that take part. To take part, and to preserve the sanctity of this most revered motoring events, cars must have previously been entered into one of the original Mille Miglia races. Which means every competing car has provenance and history by the truckload. Which, in turn, means they're worth an absolute fortune.
Normally, cars like these, which are worth countless millions, are stored away in museums as static displays; the closest they get to action being a good polish once in a while. So the sight of old Bugattis, Bentleys, Alfa Romeos, Ferraris, Porsches, even Saabs and BMWs, retracing their tyre tracks on roads where once they were raced is enough to quicken the pulse of even the most ardent car hater. If you're not moved by this spectacle, you need urgent psychiatric help.
Although the speed element of the competition has, ostensibly, been removed, that doesn't stop drivers from pushing their priceless cars to its limits. On the contrary, it appears to be a necessity if any of that history is to be preserved and enjoyed. The upshot is that Italy is shaken to its very foundations by the exhaust pipes of 300 old race cars.
And every May these cars are driven hard for the requisite thousand miles on a road route that looks like a gigantic figure 8. Starting at Brescia, teams head south through Verona, Cento and Bologna, before diverting to the east coast and Repubblica di San Marino. It's then south to Rome, which is the traditional halfway point and sees the end of nearly two days' driving. The third, and most gruelling day, is all the way back to Brescia via Siena, Florence, Bologna (again), then north-west to Modena, Parma and, finally, a heroes' welcome at the finish stop.
Car collectors and enthusiasts from all over the world are hooked on the Mille Miglia. It's an opportunity to enjoy their passion in its truest environment. But it's also embraced by manufacturers such as Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, who have Mille Miglia cars in their historic collections. Proud of their heritage, the companies enter their own cars and often invite journalists and VIPs to take part. This year, for instance, Rowan Atkinson drove the route in one of BMW Classic's 328s, much to the delight of the crowds who held aloft signs asking for Mr Bean to stop for a drink.
For anyone that takes part, either as a spectator, driver or navigator, there's a tangible air of respect for the beautiful cars and the drivers that raced them all those years ago. These machines are entirely bereft of creature comforts or safety features we take for granted on modern cars. The Mille Miglia was, and still is, the ultimate test of endurance, and long may it continue.
For more information visit www.1000miglia.eu