x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ferraris on parade across Italy

In the second-ever Mille Miglia Ferrari Tribute, Kevin Hackett gets caught up in Italy's devotion to and infatuation with its most famous export in a Ferrari California.

The race takes drivers through Italy's finest cities, but also plenty of countryside. Courtesy Mille Miglia
The race takes drivers through Italy's finest cities, but also plenty of countryside. Courtesy Mille Miglia

There's something about seeing an artist or rock group perform in their hometown that is truly remarkable. Imagine having the good fortune to be able to see and hear Tony Bennett crooning in some smoky piano bar in New York City. How about U2 performing in Dublin, REM in Athens, Georgia, or, if you were in the right place at the right time, Nirvana ripping through a set in Seattle during the early 1990s?

Italy isn't known for its rock or pop stars, although it has spawned more than its fair share of opera singers. But Italy does have rock cars. It has Ferrari. And even if there was no other Italian car company, the fact that it has Ferrari would be enough. There's more, however; Italy is home to the most famous road race of them all: the Mille Miglia. And, when the two things combine, Italy spontaneously combusts into a celebration the likes of which I have never before witnessed.

It happened for the first time last year, after Ferrari managed to do a deal with the Mille Miglia's organisers whereby a side event could be run: the Mille Miglia Ferrari Tribute. In essence, this enables owners of Ferraris built after 1958 (or perhaps older ones that never raced in the original competition series) to take part, albeit separately. The same roads and the same regularity sections are used, the same town and city centres are driven through; it's just that Tribute drivers set off at different times. Last year saw 130 Ferraris take part; this year has 150 and I'm fortunate enough to be in one of them: a new California.

There's a caveat, however. Because I'm a journalist I don't get to compete. Which, having taken part in historic rallies before now, is no biggie. For starters I have no co-driver and, to be honest, the thought of having to concentrate on average speeds and distance covered when I'm in an unfamiliar car in unfamiliar surroundings doesn't appeal. I can just kick back, get the roof down and enjoy Italy at its very best; all the while in a high-speed convoy of some of the finest cars ever built. And I get paid to do this? Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

Only I'm not dreaming. This is very real. But when I ease my car out of the hotel car park on the outskirts of Brescia and make my way to the town centre to join the others, it still feels like an out-of-body experience.

I mean, I'm driving a Ferrari, being escorted by a group of motorcycle cops who ride on ahead to stop the traffic, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. I'm sure I've had dreams just like this.

Brescia is the starting (and finishing) point for the Mille Miglia, and today it is full to bursting with Maranello's finest. The narrow streets reverberate to the deep rumbles and shrill barks of Ferrari V8s and V12s and onlookers swarm around the cars like bees around a honeypot. We have a few hours to kill before the competition begins and, a couple of streets from where I'm parked, the 300 or so actual Mille Miglia competitors are being treated like long-lost prodigal sons. A fever has swept through Brescia and it's highly contagious.

But we have some serious driving to do and, before I know it, we're off. Off on a journey that will cover about 1,600km of Italy's finest roads in the space of three days. The 150 Ferraris are closely followed by 300 historic race cars that took part at some point in the original race rally that ended in 1957. If the pope was on live television turning up at one of Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties, the nation would not be interested. All eyes are fixed firmly on the Mille Miglia - it's the highlight of the year for millions of people in this exquisite country. For the next three days I will be a rock star. Actually, I won't; my car will be.

I'm sharing the roads, considered hallowed ground by automobile aficionados the world over, with owners not only from obvious countries such as Italy, Britain, France and Germany, but also from Switzerland, the US, even Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. The efforts these people have gone to (and the sheer expense) shows just how passionate they are about this brand and the Mille Miglia. There's magic being created here. Seriously.

And, like any touring rock group, there's a greatest hits collection to be enjoyed. Ferrari receives many more applications from owners than there are available spaces, so not everyone with the requisite funds (€6,360 or Dh33,076 per team, to be exact) gets to take part. What we have at this year's event are classics worth millions of dollars, such as the delectable 250 GT SWBs mixing it up with less rare, less valuable (but no less desirable to my eyes) 328s, 288 GTOs, Dinos and F40s. But this rock group has new material it wants to showcase. So as well as the old favourites, there's an inordinate amount of newer Californias, 599 GTOs and 458 Italias taking part; something the cynic in me is disappointed by. Still, as marketing opportunities go, this is a pretty good one and it's their party so they can invite whoever they want.

I leave Brescia to the roar of thousands of appreciative Italians and drive into the evening sun, in the middle of the pack. It's still warm, so the roof is down, and it's now I start to feel what the California is all about. It's comfortable and refined, yet focused and extremely quick when you want it to be. I think, despite my reservations about its looks, we're gonna get along just fine.

We drive until 1am, when we arrive for an overnight stay near Imola. Bed by 2am, up again at 5.30. I'm already feeling drained. This next leg is Imola to Rome and, after 90 minutes or so, I decide this is no fun whatsoever. We're driving on motorways and through industrial landscapes - there must be more to the Mille Miglia than this, surely. But then, when I least expect it, we peel off the main roads and enter the countryside. Vistas of unparalleled beauty unfold before my disbelieving eyes and I do the decent thing: switch the steering wheel "manettino" to Sport and floor it. The California, for all its refinement, goes like a scalded cat when you do this. It corners with poise and precision, feeling stiff and composed no matter how much I throttle it. And the noise, oh my, the noise. With the gearbox set to manual, with every up or down change, the quad exhausts emit coughs, splutters and bangs that sound like shotgun blasts. The seduction is complete; I love this car.

It takes a good 12 hours to reach Rome and, when we do, it's rush hour and we need to get across the gridlocked city. I'm going nowhere fast. And then, just when I'm stuck in one of the subterranean tunnels in four lanes of car park, the police arrive. Sirens screaming, they push their way through the sea of stationary metal. The noise must be making my ears bleed but it's a surreally brilliant experience to see them part the traffic, creating a channel for 150 Ferraris to push their way through. My body is coursing with adrenalin - I can't quite believe what is happening but if it wasn't for the police I get the feeling I'd still be stuck here a month from now.

Next day it's Rome to Brescia and we need to do it in one hit. The 800km in one day after, at best, three hours sleep? Bring it on. The route is stunning, taking us through Tuscan hillsides, across mountain passes and through unspeakably beautiful cities like Siena, Florence, Bologna and Modena. And everywhere we go, there are crowds lining the streets, sometimes 10 people deep, expressing their appreciation for these incredible cars. Every age group, from toddlers to old ladies, is on hand, gesturing for us to rev our engines to make their favourite music. It's our civil duty to oblige as they cheer and wave us on our way.

When we finally reach Brescia, the heavens have opened. We've had three days of unbroken sunshine but the thunder and lightning has arrived, almost as if to assert nature's authority as it drowns out the cacophony of our engines. It's been a blast, a privilege to share this experience - as a participant, an observer and a fan. I leave the California with its exhausts ticking and steam emerging from its brakes and crawl into bed to get another measly three hours of sleep. I'm full of admiration for the crews that did the Mille Miglia as an actual road race in cars that were cramped, uncomfortable and dangerous to drive fast; I wouldn't swap places with them, thanks. But I'd do this event again in a heartbeat and, if I had to do it in a new Ferrari, I reckon the California would be my chariot of choice.

Italy might be a republic but, after three days in the company of its people, it's obvious that Ferrari is its royal family and the Mille Miglia its wedding day route. Will and Kate who?