To paraphrase the late and great Denis Jenkinson – surely the finest motor sport journalist ever – on 16 May history was made, for David Coulthard finished first in the Mille Miglia, and I had the very great privilege of sitting beside him.
It was the diminutive Jenkinson who partnered Stirling Moss in possibly his finest hour – victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia. Driving the legendary magnesium-bodied Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR developed by German engineering ace Rudolf Uhlenhaut, with the start number 722 (denoting their starting time in Brescia on 1 May).
They managed to average nearly 98mph over the gruelling 1000-mile course to complete it in 10 hours 07min and 48sec, in the process beating out the great Juan Manuel Fangio in a sister car and Piero Taruffi in a Ferrari. It was an achievement that, even by today’s standards, defies the odds.
Over the weekend I got to relive the broad range of emotions both men must have felt that great day as I partnered Coulthard on this year’s Mille Miglia Historica. Aboard a 300 SLR originally developed for the 1956 season but, owing to Mercedes-Benz’s decision to pull out of motor sport at the end of 1955 never raced in anger, we experienced first hand just what a mighty car it was – and still is.
Over the years I have been privileged enough to have experienced some truly great moments in some truly great cars. However, nothing comes close to matching the sheer exhilaration I felt tucked down into the snug confines of the 300 SLR as David fired it along the Autostrada, first between Florence and Modena and then onto Cremona at speeds approaching 130mph.
The sound its supercharged 3.0-litre straight eight makes even at a moderate 4000rpm is ear shattering. At one point we had the old Mercedes humming along at nearly 6000rpm in top gear as Mika Hakkinen tucked in behind us in the new Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR Stirling Moss. It’s hard to get official figures, but rumours put power at 310bhp at 7400rpm and, depending on the intake manifold used, some 234lb ft of torque at 5950rpm.
Earlier we’d been caught in a fierce rain storm, just like Moss and Jenkinson had experienced all those years ago, and were making up precious time prior to a final leg into the finishing line in Brescia. We were so fleet over those magic few hours through the heart of Italy that the man who oversees Mercedes-Benz classic car collection these days, Michael Bock, come up to us later and said that no 300 SLR had been driven for such a long period of time at such a high average for the past 50 years. Given the intensity of it all, I believe him. Even now, a day and a half later, my ears are still ringing to the sound of the side exhausts positioned down along right flank.
Okay, so it wasn’t the real thing. The Mille Miglia these days is more about showcasing the cars that competed back then than an out-and-out race. But for many of the competitors it remains deadly serious. And thanks to the enthusiasm of the Italian public, some clever choreography on the part of the organisers, who had organised for us to finish prior to the rest of the field as well as magnificent driving on the part of David Coulthard – he’s just so smooth and incredibly focused – I got to be Denis Jenkinson, if only for a day.