Supporting the Mille Miglia
The company has been involved in supporting the Mille Miglia at various levels for almost twenty years. For example, when Bugatti Autos used to sponsor large teams, our engineers looked after as many as twenty-three Bugattis on the event. This became much easier to manage when this was reduced to much smaller groups of up to just five. However, in more recent times, some clients ask for dedicated one-to-one support. This of course is privately funded and just as equally demanding.
The Mille Miglia 'in period' was a legal road race of just over one thousand miles from Brescia, in northern Italy, to Rome - and then back again. In those times the roads were closed to allow the race cars to travel unimpeded. Nowadays, the re-enactment is a time trial over a similar distance and route. However, for somebody to enter, the entrant has to own a car of a model type that competed in one of the original Mille Miglia races held between 1923 and 1953. Today, all entrants are given a co-efficient handicap to allow a level playing field for the results - with the older cars having a better handicap.
Today, the cars leave Brescia on a Wednesday afternoon; all in order, at five-minute intervals, with the oldest cars leaving first. The main objective is to keep on schedule with all of the planned stops and special timed sections. The timed sections are short or long distances and sometimes in multiples. The driver has to start and finish a distance in exactly the time given - and the timing is down to several digital places. Points are awarded by being accurate over the timed section with penalties given for being late or early at the prescribed points. All of the timed sections are on closed roads with police present at the entrances and exits. However, some of these closed roads pass driveways of residential properties - so a driver can never assume that he/she will always have a free-run. The timing starts when the car's front tyres depress a small rubber tube at the entrance of the section. Similarly, the timing ends when the car's front tyres depress a second tube at the exit of the section. The driver has to get to the end line as accurately as possible, using the calculated time written in the road book. In the early days of the timed Mille Miglia, a bank of stop watches was used by the navigator to help with the accuracy. Today, the serious entrant uses a rally computer with the timed sections pre-programmed and an audible device that gives a countdown as the car progresses through the section.
The closed road sections, as well as some of the routes through towns and villages, are prohibited to support crew vehicles. The two-person support crews have to follow bypass routes and pick-up their entrant at the end of the section. These bypass routes can be up to thirty kilometres long. It's pointless trying to memorise where the timed sections and town bypasses are, because they vary each year. To put things into perspective, during the 2019 Mille Miglia, there were fifty-three detour routes. So, the support crews are given their own road book which clearly highlights the bypass routes. However, it's not unusual for bypass routes to be altered on the day and, more often than not, the support crews aren't informed. If routes have to be adjusted for any reason, the competitors are informed and given the updates every morning. This is not the case for the support crews which inevitably causes great confusion.
To make it easier to follow the client, highly sophisticated tracking devices are used. One tracking device is placed within the client's car and one in the support vehicle. The trackers are triggered every five seconds; by using either an I-Pad or laptop, it's a very accurate way to understand exactly where the client is in relation to the support vehicle.
Over the years and by learning from experience, the company has developed a package of tools, spares, parts and equipment that enables the crews to fix most of the normal and unusual problems, associated with driving vintage Bugattis over long distances in a short time. This equipment is normally shipped out with the client's car and the crew flies out and collects a pre-booked hire car from the airport. Pre-booking has a different meaning in Italy. It's very unusual to actually get the type of car you ordered and wanted, especially when the Mille Miglia is on. It's first-come, first-served or whoever shouts the loudest. The crew then drives to Brescia and meets-up with the client and the car they are there to support. They load their hire car with all their equipment - the tools, accessories, parts and other essential items. The client then has to purchase an extra road book and official stickers for the support car.
Any 'fixes' required for the entrant's car are usually temporary and will therefore normally require a permanent repair when the car returns 'home'. A typical example would be to convert a car with a failed magneto generator to run with a coil ignition system. The serious entrant, who is considered to be a potential winner, would accumulate too many late penalty points for the time it would take to try and repair a failed magneto. That number of penalty points would basically finish their attempt, so it's simply not on option. For that reason, a spare magneto or distributor, as well as a generator and battery, which have already been set-up to enable a quick changeover, are packed into the entrant's kit. Rapid repair times aren't quite so critical for those clients who have entered 'just for the experience' - they're quite happy to just get up and running again. Interestingly, in recent years, the most common items required by our clients have been a full can of fuel and a funnel. Obviously Bugatti GP cars weren't fitted with fuel gauges, but it's amazing how many clients don't know how far their car will go on a full tank of fuel.
The company prefers to provide one-to-one support for clients whose Bugattis it has restored or cared for. Supporting cars that the company doesn't 'know' is a risky business. The Mille Miglia attracts several types of entrant: Type One - is the serious and potential winner. Type Two - is the experienced driver, often from the motoring press. Type Three - is the high-level executive, normally from the automotive sector. Type 4 - is the casual entrant who simply wants to experience the Mille Miglia for the first time. Type One will have entered and finished the Mille Miglia many times and knows 'the ropes'. Type Two is there to enjoy the opportunity of driving a vintage Bugatti and writing about their experience. Types Three and Four often have to be taught how to drive their cars and need to be given as much information about the Mille Miglia as possible.
If an entrant wants their car to finish, it has to be in very good shape and thoroughly tried and tested. If the entrant is a potential winner, then obviously their car has to be one hundred percent reliable.
In addition to following their car and attending to any problems along the way, the service crew is expected to thoroughly inspect the client's car at the end of each day. This is an absolute priority and highly important. It's a routine that must be completed before the service crew even thinks about heading-off to find their hotel, grab a meal or carth-up on some sleep. If a service crew has had any 'fixes' to attend to, it's not unusual to get as little as only fours hours sleep within a twenty-four hour period. This isn't helped by the fact that the service crew is also expected to be back at the car early in the morning to start and warm it up, before the client arrives to set-off for that day's drive.
A few years ago, the organisation of the event was taken over by a new company. Quite a number of changes were made - some for the good but some not so good. In the 'good-old-days', scrutineering, signing-on and gift-giving was done in the centre of Brescia; with all the chaos, confusion and congestion which is so typical of busy Italian towns. Now, with the exception of the gift-giving, everything is done under one roof on the outskirts of the town. So, in order to entice the public to fill the bars, hotels, restaurants and shops in Brescia, evcery car has to drive into the town centre to be sealed. The seal is just a small lead weight with a tag on it. This is also when the gifts are handed-out - which includes the famous Mille Miglia watch. Following this, the cars are then parked-up within the confines of Brescia's Mille Miglia Museum; where the entrants can also enjoy a meal before the first cars set-off later in the afternoon.
Today's Mille Miglia runs over four days but it used to be only three. The longest stretch was the drive from Rome to Brescia on the final day. This is now split, with an overnight stop near Bologna. Not only is this easier for the drivers, it's another opportunity to fill Brescia again with visitors and tourists to see the 'finish', that now happens in the afternoon, rather than late at night.
Anyone who has ever experienced the Mille Miglia, will know it feels like the entire population of Italy is present to line the roads for the whole of the one thousand miles. It must cost the major sponsors a small fortune because virtually every child present is given one of their flags to wave as the cars go by. Schools often close for the day, which is why there are so many children present. The majority of the children proudly wear their school uniforms and line-up to wave their flags enthusiastically; it really is a fantastic atmosphere.
Even on the mountain passes, the crowds are still very much present and well organised. The people always dress appropriately for the weather conditions and they'll have plenty of food and drink available. The Italians certainly know how to picnic. In addition there are teams of weirdly dressed characters who blow horns, ring bells and bang drums as the cars pass by. The 'mountain people', as they are called, usually have small mini-buses. Once all the cars have passed-by, they dash across country to another vantage point to do it all over again.
The route of the Mille Miglia passes through some of the prettiest towns in Italy. Quite often there will be a red carpet and a ramp in the town centres for the cars to drive over. The drivers are often encouraged to give a short interview with the local press or dignitaries. Sometimes a few local gifts are presented and then you're on your way again. As you might expect, these towns are also jammed full of visitors, so it's a great money earner for the local businesses on the day the Mille Miglia passes through. The towns have to pay the event organisers for this to happen and the highest bidders get their 'drive-through'. This is one of the reasons why the route changes each year.
In addition to the five hundred or so Mille Miglia entrants' cars, there are normally two Tribute Groups. In 2019 these were Ferrari and Mercedes. These are modern cars that also drive the route, usually with one group in the front and the other at the rear. They're not there for any kind of competition - they're just there for the 'jolly' and to have a fantastic drive round some of the most beautiful parts of Italy.
When there is an overnight stop, all the entrants have to get to their designated hotels; which can often prove to be difficult. As you might expect when almost two thousand people suddenly descend on a town, all the hotels are fully booked. It's not just the five hundred Mille Miglia drivers and navigators that need a room. You've still got the Ferrari and Mercedes Tribute Groups, the organising crews, the press, the support crews plus any friends and well-wishers.
Hotels is one thing but parking is another. The arrival of the Mille Miglia probably brings with it an additional thousand cars to the town. Obviously finishing times differ for each car, but it's not unusual to be looking for a parking space at gone 10.00pm. Then you have the prospect of a long walk to find your hotel which, may or may not, still have your room available for you.
On each of the four days, the normal start time for driving is around 6.00am. For lunch the organisers choose a large venue that can provide a decent buffet for the drivers and navigators. The lunch breaks are planned to last about an hour. In reality, there isn't any hanging about. The organisers haven't chosen a venue yet that has been able to cater for everybody comfortably. So, if you are one of the front runners you'll have hundreds of cars and people coming in fast behind you. As for the service crews, they don't have a chance. They certainly aren't able to get anywhere near the lunch stop or their clients' cars. If a client happens to be experiencing problems, they are advised to pull-up well before the lunch break area so the car can be attended to. This almost certainly means another meal missed!
In days gone by, all drivers were encouraged by the local police to get through 'their patch' as quickly as possible. This could mean jumping red lights, mounting pavements and ignoring speed limits. This may seem unlikely but it really was the case back then. Nowadays, this isn't supposed to happen, but it still does to a certain extent. If you're in a car with a non-Italian registration plate when the Mille Miglia is on, it's very unlikely you'll be sent a fine for any form of traffic violation. However, if you're driving an Italian hire car, as many of the support crews do, you can certainly expect to receive invoices from your hire company after the event. In 2018, there were a number of towns where the local police were on duty at traffic signals. The police waved all the Mille Miglia entrants and their support crews through the lights when they were clearly on red. The cameras on these lights flashed constantly but naturally our engineers thought nothing of it. It wasn't until a few weeks later that we started receiving substantial bills in the post. One of our hire cars was captured three times for going through red lights under such circumstances and we received a bill for each offence. We tried contesting the issue but our protests were futile - that's Italy for you!
When the Mille Miglia passes through the mountain passes at the weekend, it normally gets accompanied by a bunch of petrol heads on motorcycles or in lightweight sports cars. These people chase certain Mille Miglia cars up the mountain roads then come back down again to chase another one just a few minutes later. The crowds spur them on and encourage them to perform stunts and tricks. They'll do this until all the Mille Miglia cars have passed through. When the inevitable accident occurs, which happens all too frequently, it causes long delays and traffic jams. If applicable, the event organisers then have to disregard all the timings recorded for that section.
As mentioned earlier, with today's four-day event, the entrants and support crews arrive back in Brescia at a 'sensible' time, normally mid-afternoon. Whilst the drivers and their navigators will be tired, owing to the sleep deprivation and gruelling drives of the previous three days, at least they're not absolutely 'hanging'. In the three-day events of yesteryear, on the final day, everyone had to drive from Rome to Brescia in one go. Inevitably, this meant arriving late at night, completely exhausted and filthy dirty. Nonetheless, all the drivers and navigators always finished with beaming smiles on their faces. They may have been tired and in need of a decent bath or shower - but they were absolutely delighted and extremely proud of the fact that they'd just completed the famous Mille Miglia!