Sunday, May 20, 2012

2012 Mille Miglia: Maranello

I was jolted out of bed somewhere between three and four this morning, when my bedroom began shaking violently from side to side. My first thought was “not again!” and my second was “I wish I hadn’t worn those sweatpants that are so old they are almost transparent to bed!” Just as I was about to put my shoes on, suddenly the tremor stopped and I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the kind of earthquake tremor that we had experienced here in Lodi earlier this January and we were not at the epicentre. I crawled back into bed and soon passed out, unaware that I had been near the origin of the earthquake only hours earlier.

When I awoke again, I turned on my computer to discover much to my horror that the 6. 3 magnitude earthquake had not only struck near the Emilia Romagna town of Modena, but that it had also killed at least three people. Apparently it is one of the largest earthquakes that the region has ever faced and my thoughts are with the victims and their families.

As some of you may already be aware, the historic Mille Miglia automobile race passed through both Modena and Maranello yesterday and I decided to travel to the home of Ferrari for what may be my last visit in a long time. As I reached my destination, I couldn’t help but think about all of the things that Ferrari means to me and also what my time living near Maranello has meant. Being able to keep a promise that I made to myself when I was a little girl, even if that promise seemed to be a little crazy has given me this wonderful sense of closure and also rekindled the feeling inside me that anything is possible.

When I arrived in the town, I headed immediately for my favourite spot overlooking the Fiorano circuit and after a few moments of contemplation, decided to make a trek around its perimeter. Fighting past overgrown grass as rain began to fall and being startled by random animal noises and abnormally healthy insects, I treated myself to some of Fiorano’s most spectacular views. I paused in particular in front of Enzo Ferrari’s old house and couldn’t help but laugh to think of the many times that I have tried to talk my way passed the security guards that protect the gates to Fiorano or wondered if I could somehow find a bush with a hole in it. I will miss this place and all of my random Maranello adventures. After a good hour spent admiring the track, I emerged from the long grass covered in dirt and certainly dishevelled looking. It’s like I always say, you know it’s been a good day out when you are caked in a layer of mud and sweat!

The Mille Miglia was scheduled to arrive in Maranello at around six in the evening but an hour before that, the Ferrari tribute to the race was set to pass through the historic front gates of the factory. The Mille Miglia race is important to Italian motorsport and to Modena’s motor valley in particular, but to Ferrari the race is of special significance. “The Mille Miglia arouses in me strong emotions, for this race epitomises long years of my life.” Enzo Ferrari wrote in his autobiography at the end of a chapter titled simply “Why?”. “I have been involved in it first as a competitor, then as the race organizer of the firm to which I belonged, Alfa Romeo; and, finally, as a car builder – always filled with admiration for the race itself and its champions. The Mille Miglia, in fact, was a competition that not only made a decisive contribution to the technical evolution of the cars themselves, but also revealed who were the real champions. No driver could call himself complete if his laurels did not include also a victory at Brescia.”

 In “My Terrible Joys” which is like a bible to tifosi like me, Ferrari continues to talk about the race with great fondness. He remembers funny stories such as the amusing incident when he observed Antonio Ascari’s mechanic, Sozzi, sweating profusely. Apparently Ascari had made him put pieces of led sheet in his pockets and shoes when he was found to be nine pounds under weight.

It seems as though Ferrari was even fond of some of the race’s strange regulations, such as one which forbid the use of horns. “Every mechanic carried with him a supply of hammers, bolts, old sparking plugs and other odds and ends that might be used as projectiles with which to signal to the driver in front- deafened by his engine- that he should make way for some one wishing to overtake him. Ah, those races of the heroic days of motoring.” He concluded.

Sadly for Ferrari, all of his memories of the event were not so pleasant. The Mille Miglia was banned in 1957 after two fatal crashes. The first crash involved Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago and killed not only the driver and co-driver but also nine spectators, five of them children. Enzo Ferrari was blamed publically for the incident and although he was eventually cleared of charges that were lodged against him, it was a very difficult time for the Italian. Even after such tragedy, Ferrari’s support for the race and calls to have it reinstated continued.

In 1977, The Mille Miglia became the Mille Miglia Storica. Although its latest incarnation no longer showcases the latest technological advances or provides an arena for the world greatest drivers to do battle, the Mille Miglia still presents a challenge for both car and driver and is a fitting tribute to what was once one of the major events on the automotive calendar.

Enzo Ferrari was notorious for not wishing to look back but only to the future of his cars. In fact, he would often scrap old race cars after they had ceased to be of use to the team. I’m not sure what he would have thought of the modern-day Mille Miglia but for someone like me, who was not around for the dawn of motor racing, it is a unique opportunity to see historic cars being driven as they were intended to be, not collecting dust in a museum.

As the time for the arrival of the Mille Miglia approached, a crowd of fans congregated in front of the factory gates with cameras in hand. I heard many different languages and accents amongst them; there were the Germans, an elderly British couple and of course the ever-present tifosi. Some, I discovered, had been following the cars since they left Brescia on Thursday. One Italian man standing next to me explained that he follows the Mille Miglia every year and hopes one day to be able to even participate.

Present too were the paparazzi, who jostled for position in front of the barriers that had been erected to block off the street and keep spectators at bay. Several were extremely aggressive, shouting at one another in Italian. “Hey, you’re blocking my shot!” one of them exclaimed. “I’m just doing my job.” was the slightly frazzled photographer’s response. “No you’re not, you’re just being an ass!” the first paparazzo hissed with venom.

After observing the Ferrari tribute parade of mostly modern Ferraris pass through the gates of Maranello for quite some time, suddenly the first historic cars appeared. These were cars that I have only ever seen stationary before or in books filled with black and white photos, so to observe them passing right before my eyes in full living colour brought a huge grin to my face. In addition to the cars, some of the drivers even sported classic racing goggles and other gear from an era long gone. One by one, the cars made their way passed the crowd, waving and taking various pictures of their own.

One especially interesting entry was a 1952 Jaguar C-Type which was piloted by none other than Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s Patrick Head. He appeared to be enjoying the attention as his entry passed by where I was standing and the crowd gave him a big cheer as he was recognised. Stirling Moss fans may recognise this particular Jaguar as the car that the legendary driver used in the 1952 Mille Miglia. In fact, sixty years later, Sir Stirling Moss and former Jaguar chief development engineer, Norman Dewis, were reunited once more and drove the car during the race's first leg in Brescia. At the ages of 82 and 91 years old, the pair showed that their passion is as strong as ever.

After several hours of watching beautiful cars from several different positions near the historic factory gates, I happened to look at my watch and realised that it was very late. I asked a nearby police officer when the last bus left for Modena and where I could catch it and was informed that the last bus had in fact left. Faced with the sudden issue of how to get home, I left the Mille Miglia Storica and wandered into the city centre to find a taxi or perhaps book a hotel room for the night.

In all honesty, I was freaking out a little bit since I had on me only ten Euros and was not relishing the prospect of hitch hiking or sleeping in a field! Luckily for me as I passed several shops I noticed a bus stop where several people were waiting. One of the women told me that the last bus was due to arrive in two minutes and just as the words came out of her mouth, the large blue bus rolled around the corner.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief and assumed position on the left side; I wanted to see Maranello one more time. As the sun set, the bus took an unusual route through the town. It wound its way behind the Ferrari factory where employees usually enter the complex, it passed by people carrying Ferrari banners as the remaining Mille Miglia Storica cars arrived and it drove up the hill that overlooks the Fiorano circuit.

As I looked out the window at the miniature cars circulating around the track below, I felt a huge sense of gratitude for everything that I have experienced because of Ferrari. Without a doubt I was sad to leave once again, but I know in my heart that I will be back one day.

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