In 1927 the first Mille Miglia took place from Brescia to Rome and back. So began the history of an endurance race which would quickly earn mythical status. Winning the Mille Miglia at least once was something all racing drivers were soon dreaming of. But it was easier dreamt that done, given the huge reserves of driving talent, luck, courage and instinct required to top the time sheets. Narrow roads through small villages and long straights lasting for several kilometres took turns to hog the drivers’ attention, and the route also included level crossings which could stay closed for minutes at a time. Plus, if you caught up with a slower car, you first had to battle through the cloud of dust thrown up by its wheels before even contemplating an overtake.
In the shadow of war.
1940 was a bad year for motor sport. The outbreak of war forced young men to swap civvies (and racing overalls) for military informs, and industrial companies switched to manufacturing armaments. But still there were indefatigable stalwarts on the scene who were determined the show must go on, especially when the “world’s hardest road race” was at stake. In the last edition of the race before the war – a loose description, given that hostilities had been ongoing for some time – the route was re-fashioned into a 165-kilometre (103-mile) loop through the Po Valley, which the cars completed nine times.
The aerodynamic shape of success.
The BMW 328 was a sports car of proven ability by regular standards, but it lacked the necessary brawn for the Mille Miglia. The works-tuned version of the 2-litre engine developed 120 hp, fundamentally too little for a racing machine with aspirations of competing at the head of the field. And so the engineers explored other avenues, honing the car’s aerodynamics to the point where an impressive top speed could be achieved. Weight was also reduced – to 780 kilograms in the case of the Coupé. And the combination of measures was enough to push the car’s top speed up to 220 km/h (137 mph), ideal for the many full-throttle sections of the race.
Two drivers, one team.
Fritz Huschke von Hanstein and co-driver Walter Bäumer hit the front early in the race and dominated proceedings. In the latter stages, the second-placed Alfa Romeo of Nino Farina made some significant inroads. But it was too little, too late, the BMW duo’s time of 8 hr 54:46 securing them a margin of five minutes over the field: victory was theirs! The average speed recorded by the winning BMW was approx. 167 km/h (104 mph), despite von Hanstein and Bäumer stopping to change seats shortly before the finish – against the express order of their team boss and Corps Commander Adolf Hühnlein. Sportsmanship had prevailed over ideology.
This was only the second time that the top step of the Mille Miglia had not been occupied by an Italian. The next edition of the race was in 1947, but these kinds of road events now belonged to a bygone era, and the Mille’s days were numbered. After a succession of serious accidents, the axe duly fell in 1957. In 1977 the Mille Miglia was reborn as a slower but also much less dangerous classic car event – one which has since attracted excited throngs of spectators from around the world in every greater numbers. For BMW, though, the hard-won Mille Miglia triumph of 1940 remains one of the most momentous victories in its racing history.