A LEGEND’S SECRET.
We go behind the scenes at Mille Miglia 2013 to expose the streamlined structuring of this legendary race.
Behind the scenes at
Mille Miglia 2013.
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon!” is shouted out in the car speeding down to Rome, our spirits lifting with the dissipating clouds. Yes, we’ve thrown down the gauntlet against the chucking rain attacking Mille Miglia 2013, and it seems the battle is steadily turning in our favour. Red poppies pepper the sea of yellow-green fields, now cheerfully flagging the one thousand mile long route from Brescia to Rome and back.
On day two of the race, we will of course be salivating at the sight of legendary cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz SSK (W 06) and the “Ponton” (W 180) – the latter of course representing the long-standing tradition of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. A whole array of 300 SL “Gullwings” (W 198) will also whet our appetites. But this year, we investigate the magic beneath the tarmac that makes this race through Italy such a spectacular event. Even as we bolt forward, I recount on our earlier hours in Ferrara, the first scheduled stop of this infamous and historical race.
Pop The Hood.
As early as 6:00 am, Michael Plag, Head Mechanic for Mercedes-Benz appears calm and resolute. Thanks to his leadership and the Mercedes-Benz Classic crew’s expertise, the historic cars are lined up appropriately in front of the century-old brick backdrop of Castello Estense’s moat walls where mechanics stand with crossed arms, gauging the sound of roaring engines.
Even the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing car (W 194) gets a last bit of fine-tuning on this rainy morning. Inching closer to peer, the mechanics’ banter is devoid of any panic and jokes are shot back and forth under the lifted hood.
To the confidence of Plag and his team, the drivers rumble off with grim determination into the rain.
Un Caffè Per Favore!
Their sights are set on San Marino, a steep climb 765 metres up from sea level. Nonetheless the Mercedes-Benz Classic mechanics’ handiwork was up to the task and the cars have hardly any issues, gliding onto the green carpet where we await with espressos and foamy cappuccinos in hand. Energies temporarily restored, we descend down, cross il Rubicone, and lunge through motorway traffic chasing down the Mercedes-Benz Viano Personal Hosting vans with a differing story to tell from the racing fleet.
With the grey slowly relinquishing to blue heavens, we catch up just in time to join for a motorway break where the boys pop open the rear doors of the vans to show off their stockpile of Red Bull cans. “We’re only on espresso for now. But when we need it, we’ll be roping in the hard stuff!” And at some point, they really will need it.
Mille Miglia 2013
A Streamlined Army.
The assistance crew with its 36 team members is subdivided into six groups: Flag Team, Personal Hosting, Hotel Reception, Luggage Transport, Media Transport, and Safety Drivers. All of these are the men and women who work to the point of exhaustion when Mille Miglia kicks off in all its glory.
The Luggage Transport crew, for example, pick up and deliver driver and staff bags from one hotel room to the next. As inconsequential as it may seem, this level of detailed attention relieve drivers from added stress when already delirious from the day’s stretch. As if to underscore the team’s machine-line operation, our early arrival in Rome is to the sight of a bustling army prepping the hotel for the arrival of the racers.
Ulf Hässler overseeing the operation, offer that they additionally serve as an “info desk,” open twenty-four hours. He himself will stay on call until 4 a.m. when he’ll be replaced by a team member. Buona fortuna!
The Chase is On.
For the final stretch back from Rome to Brescia, endurance pays off and Tuscany dignifies the Mille Miglia with her complete glory. But brief glimpses are all we can afford with eyes aimed straight ahead. Our Media Driver Philipp Gelse remains alert thanks to his constant doses of doppio espresso.
With him behind the wheel, we bolt out of Sienna and head into the hills of Tuscany tailing Jochen Mass (former Formula One, German Sports Car and Le Mans driver) and Karl Wendlinger (Sauber Mercedes Formula One driver) in the Mercedes-Benz SS (W06). The camera is rolling and twenty-five year old Gelse, is hard pressed to keep up with Mass’s fifty years of ruthless racing expertise and fluid driving instincts, but we manage to keep the gleaming cherry-red beauty in sight.
Eventually we peel off for a chat with the bandeline or the Flag Team. This crew of eight ladies, looking beautiful in grey uniforms, blue caps, and tartan arm patches, have figuratively been paving the racing tracks of the Mille Miglia.
Rock Star Girls.
Elena Bieder and Alexandra Kiener amongst them, boast that with over 60,000 flags given out so far, they’ve earned high praise and respect even from competing car teams usually disdainful of their rivals. After the calm of the night in which every second of sleep counts, they have to be ready for the next phone call, even if that means cutting short a relaxing bath. They’re always a few hours ahead of the race, handing out flags to waiting bystanders or planting them alongside the route as indicators. In enthusiasm, people literally snatch flags away by handfuls, leaving countless paper cuts on their hands.
But “with people asking for flags, a change of hotels every night, and luggage delivered directly into our rooms,” fellow teamster Stefanie Klaeser beams with sparkling eyes “we feel like rock stars!”
Before long, Scottish driver David Coulthard (13-time Formula One Grand Prix winner and Mercedes DTM racer) drives onto the finish ramp in the 300 SLR (W 196 S). Despite clutch problems resulting from having to weave through a flood of pedestrians in Sienna, Coulthard and all of the other drivers are looking forward to the prospect of a hot shower and a celebratory drink.
However, not all ends at the Viale Venezia finale. Support drivers, including Philipp Frohwein here at his first Mille Miglia experience, sit tight behind the wheels of their cars. They wait for radio-wielding team members to signal the arrival of the racers. Rest is still an eternity away for these boys guiding the competing cars off the finish ramp, through Brescia, to the final
parking destination. But with adrenaline coursing through his veins, the fatigue in Frohwein’s eyes contrast his ecstatic grin and youthful laughter.
Mille Miglia is indeed a test of one’s endurance and stamina – three days of driving on “la corsa piu bella del mondo” – not to mention of one’s nerves and that despite knowing what one is letting oneself into. It’s thus no wonder that some cities
“The Legend Passes Through Here”.
proudly fly banners with the words La laggenda passa di qui (the legend passes through here) and that, come rain or shine, their citizens pour onto the streets to cheer on the racing fleet.
Legends though, are hardly built on empty air. Against the odds – weather, work, and the limitations of human energy – the men and women normally unnoticed, fight a parallel war alongside the celebrities and stars of this piece of Italian history. While the tale of these mechanics and the entirety of the support and assistance crew may not be the saga of the elite racers in their cars dating back to the original racing years, they truly are the structure that the proud legend of the Mille Miglia stands upon.