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WHEN Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia, his navigator Denis Jenkinson had an advantage over other co-drivers in this 1000-mile Italian road race from Brescia to Rome and return—he had a box of magic.
The Brescia/Rome/Brescia routes varied over the years, from the inaugural 1927 event to its final—and tragic—running in 1957 (when Alfonso de Portago’s Ferrari crashed into a crowd, resulting in the deaths of 11, including de Portago and his co-driver).
The best recounting of the 1955 Mille Miglia—possibly the best motorsports writing of all time—came from no less than Denis Jenkinson himself, writing for MotorSport magazine. A supplement to its May 2005 issue reprinted the article. What follows is based on this reprint and my interactions with Stirling and Susie Moss.
Co-drivers were not obligatory in the Mille Miglia. However, in planning for the 1955 event, Jenks recalled a conversation with Moss in which they both appreciated “using the passenger as a second brain to look after navigation.”
In Mercedes-Benz’s hyper-thorough preparation, Moss, Jenks and other team members practiced the entire 1000 miles on three different occasions—at near racing speeds with the roads open to ordinary traffic. Out of this came 17 pages noting bad surfaces, bumpy railway crossings and the like. Also logged, said Jenks, were “all of the difficult corners, grading them as ‘saucy ones,’ ‘dodgy ones’ and ‘very dangerous ones,’ having a hand signal to indicate each type.”
As for confidence in topping a blind hill at 170 mph, Jenks told Moss, he “need not worry, as any accident was going to involve me as well.”
Moss responded he’d probably ease off to 160 mph, merely as a psychological comfort.
Jenks transcribed the notes onto a sheet of paper 18 ft. in length. Moss had an alloy case fabricated with a map-roller system, the notes being wound under a Perspex window.
As co-driver, Jenks had plenty to do. Roller Map data were interpreted to Moss with one of 15 hand signals. Jenks was responsible for record keeping, for getting route stamps, often garnered as officials trotted alongside the car at check points. He also had a combination headlight flasher/horn button on his grab bar; this, to alert cars they were passing.
And there were lots of these cars to pass. Mille Miglia start times were assigned by car displacement, the smaller cars first, the earliest leaving at 9 p.m. the night before. The Moss/Jenks Mercedes-Benz 300SLR carried number 722, leaving Brescia at 7:22 a.m., May 1, 1955.
From then on, it was a free-for-all. Predicted Jenks, “Sighinolfi [Ferrari No. 724] would probably scrabble past us using the grass banks, he being that sort of race driver.”
Jenks described near-misses with haybales lining the route—and several non-misses. They got past one slower car by travelling momentarily on the other side of the haybales!
Moss and Jenks reached Rome in less than 3 1/2 hours, with an overall lead of a tad less than 2 minutes. Jenks encountered only one error with his Roller Map. Not long after the Rome refueling, “I received a shower of petrol down my neck…I looked around to see what happened and I missed a signal.
“Fortunately Moss had recognised the corner… I looked back to see him saying very rude things at me and shaking his fist, all the while cornering at a fantastic speed.”
After 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds, Stirling Moss became the first—and only—Brit to win the Mille Miglia.
Moss and Jenks won the 1955 Mille Miglia at an average speed of 157 km/h, 97.5 mph, a record that will never be surpassed.
Fantastic driving; fantastic navigating; the latter, because of Jenks and his box of magic. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013