Advances in human endeavour have a habit of taking the edge off records that once seemed awesome and unbeatable. And yet motor sport can claim an extraordinary triumph that, if anything, has been strengthened rather than diluted by the passage of time.
Sixty years ago today, Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia. On board a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, the British pair covered 1,000 miles of Italian public roads in 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds at an average of 97.95 mph. They raced east from Brescia, south along the Adriatic coast to Pescara before heading inland to Rome and then north, climbing the Futa and Raticosa passes along the way. The final 83 miles from Cremona back to Brescia were covered at an average of 165.50 mph.
This was in 1955, before the days of the autostrada. It was the equivalent of using A and B roads to go from London to Edinburgh via Cardiff and Glasgow before blasting south through York and Cambridge, back to London, stopping only for fuel and one set of tyres.
Apart from having the might of the Mercedes-Benz competition department behind them, the only assistance Moss and Jenkinson enjoyed was knowing the roads would be clear of every-day traffic. From previous experience with the annual event, Moss also knew he would have no chance against the Italian aces and their local knowledge of the terrain and roads. Which is why he got together with Jenkinson, a motor sport journalist whom Moss knew to be calm and fearless thanks to his credentials as a motorcycle world sidecar champion. Together, they would prepare pace notes long before such a tactic became de rigueur in rallying.
During months of planning, Jenkinson made 17 pages of notes, logging car-breaking hazards such as level crossings, sudden dips, bad surfaces and tram lines. During the course of the 12,000-mile reconnaissance, they graded the tricky corners as 'saucy', 'dodgy' or 'very dangerous', Jenkinson pinpointing them thanks to roadside stone markers at every kilometre.
Talking about what lay ahead while practising in a Mercedes 220 saloon was one thing; passing on this vital information while flat out in a two-seater version of the Mercedes W196 Grand Prix car, quite another. To overcome the wonderful bellow of the 3-litre straight eight at 7,400 rpm, Moss and Jenkinson agreed on a series of hand signals that they used during later practice runs, Jenkinson recalling his satisfaction with the system.
"Moss [or 'The Boy' as Jenkinson affectionately referred to a driver he rated as one of the greatest he had ever known] had sufficient confidence in me to take blind brows at 90-100 mph, believing me when I indicated the road went straight on - though he freely admitted he was not sure whether he would do the same thing at 170 mph in the race."
Having perfected the details - right down to noting landmarks to the side at points where the sun would be in his eyes or visibility reduced by rain - Jenkinson used his meticulous handwriting and diagrams to fill a roll of paper 18 feet long. Thanks to a specially-made alloy case, Jenkinson could roll the notes through a Perspex screen with his right hand while signalling Moss with his left (the Mercedes was left-hand drive).
With the first note warning Moss not to apply the cold drum brakes too fiercely at the first corner, they left the starting ramp early on Sunday May 1. The silver car carried 722 in large red numbers, indicating its start time as cars left at one-minute intervals. Ahead, 1000 miles to be driven as fast as possible. Behind, an assortment of six Ferraris, Maseratis and a Gordini in the hands of grand prix stars such as Eugenio Castellotti at the wheel of 4.4-litre Ferrari number 723. But none of them would have a passenger nor the same diligent preparation as the crew in car 722.
Moss made just two mistakes; Jenkinson one. When Moss arrived too quickly in two corners, they were fortunate not to sustain damage other than a crumpled nose after hitting straw bales. Jenkinson missed a note when, not long after the stop in Rome, fuel surged from the filler and sprayed his neck. Typically, Moss remembered the corner and took it perfectly.
While flat out at more than 170 mph on the Via Emilia on the final stretch, Jenkinson recalled looking up to see they were overtaking an aeroplane. Knowing they were leading the split times - but not by how much - Moss did not let up, his aim being to reach Brescia in the round 10 hours and average 100 mph. The fact that he failed by seven minutes and 48 seconds did not matter in the slightest. Moss and Jenkinson had made history in the most profound manner. The 1957 Mille Miglia would be the last. Their record would never be broken and truly stand the test of time.
Sir Stirling Moss OBE, 85, yesterday (Thursday) celebrated the launch of My Racing Life (Evro Publishing) in London as part of his continuing busy life in and around motor sport.
Denis Jenkinson - or 'Jenks', as he was fondly known - passed away in November 1996. I had the privilege of travelling and working with Jenks for many years. Never a man to boast, you would only hear stories of the 1955 Mille Miglia when relaxing over a glass of wine. Jenks, standing five feet 2 1/2 inches (with a beard that sometimes seemed almost as long) was frequently recognised by many Italians - but not all.
He once stopped for lunch along the Mille Miglia route while covering grands prix for Motor Sport. Two ladies nearby happened to be discussing the days when the Mille Miglia would blast through the neighbourhood. When one recalled 1955 and the victory for "the young Englishman in a Mercedes", the other reminded her friend that the driver had not been alone. According to the woman, Moss had enlisted special help. "He had a little padre with a long beard, sitting beside him as he raced, reading verses from the bible."
Cue much chuckling from Jenks. A memorable victory in more ways than one.