It’s not been two weeks since I’ve returned from Italy – and from my first ever experience with the legendary Mille Miglia – and I’m still struggling with how to describe it to people who ask about the trip. Not great for a writer, I know.
The idea is easy. Mille Miglia is a recreation of a road race that occurred from 1927 to 1957, when competitors in the greatest sports cars of the time blasted from Brescia in the north of Italy, southwest to Rome, and back again. Then, the race wound through public streets at a bloodthirsty pace (literally, in many cases) and the winner was determined entirely by the time from start to finish. Today, the competition takes place within the bounds of a regularity rally format – where drivers must achieve a predesignated average pace between stages – and entrants limited to vehicles that were eligible in the original 30-year run.
The reality, as I found while chasing historic, often priceless machines across the length and breadth of Italy, is complex. Insanely stressful driving, with the threat of a multi-million euro incident always looming, especially for an uninitiated novice like me.
I’m here with Alfa Romeo, a seasoned Italian colleague with amazing skills behind the wheel, and keys to a super saloon so limited that it’s already sold out, and two goals:experience Mille Miglia and report back, and to conduct what will amount to the world’s longest “first drive” of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio 100 Year Anniversary Edition.
Gallery: Mille Miglia 2023
The Most Famous Alfa In Italy
Automakers are often clever when it comes to the locations they’ll use to first share a car with the media. Tracks and road routes are selected to best demonstrate the desirable capabilities of the vehicle, while mood-setting is achieved with locations that are picturesque, remote, romantic, or otherwise Instagram-able.
Putting a couple of journalists – Motor1 Italia editor Andrea Farina and me – behind the wheel of the latest and greatest Giulia to chase the Mille is an extreme example of this positioning. Driving an Italian car in Italy: fantastic. Driving an Italian car with throngs of passionate Italian car fans lining the streets for days at a time: otherworldly.
Here in the States, if someone knows about Alfa Romeo at all, they probably think of the Giulia as an attractive, slightly exotic alternative to the defacto lease of an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. In Italy, especially during this particular week, the Giulia Quadrifoglio is a flat out superstar everywhere we drive or park it.
Of course, the Giulia in question is a special one. Alfa Romeo built its very first Giulia Quadrifoglio to compete in another historic endurance race, the 1923 Targo Florio. One hundred years on, this super sedan is a massive anniversary present to the fans – or, at least to 100 of them.
The Giulia Quadrifoglio 100 Year Anniversary Edition – can I call it GQ100 from here on? – is somewhere between a desirable trim package and a full model facelift. Visually, the limited edition is easy to pick out if you simply look for the flashes of gold. Brake calipers have been so painted and a brilliant (literally) new four-leaf-clover badges rest on the cars flanks like jewellery. Inside, you’ll find gold stitching throughout the cabin, most prominently with large embroidered logo on the passenger-side dash panel.
Perhaps the best addition to the cabin is an Alcantra-wrapped steering wheel, which offers amazing grip for my sweaty palms when things are getting intense across the Italian countryside. The seats are also trimmed in the stuff, making the cockpit both comfortable and performance-focused for very long stints behind the wheel.
The font fascia of the GQ100 has been revamped as well, with new three-piece LED headlamps flanking the iconic Alfa shield grille. And for the European version of the car output has been boosted to 520 horsepower, with a new, self-locking mechanical limited-slip differential now in place to keep the power flowing to the tarmac.
Try Not To Blink
Andrea and I were credentialed as “support” for the larger Alfa Romeo team, which was running a handful of impeccable classic piloted by petrol-headed influencers from all over Europe. Thankfully, this was mostly just a clever way of allowing us to drive the race route as the competitors do, without being impossibly hampered by Italian traffic.
Even with the formal designation it only took about 20 minutes for me to realise this would be some of the most intense driving of my career. Mille Miglia takes place during the working week, and though there’s a cadre of Carabinieri and polizie attempting to block intersections and clear space for the event, the course is still absolutely chocked with regular drivers doing regular things.
Worse, support vehicles like ours are required to make way for the competitors as needed, often while already passing regular cars, splitting lanes, and watching for fast-closing police vehicles. Don’t forget to watch for the small, red, often-obscured “Mille Miglia” signs that describe the thousand-mile track.
Throw in the natural tendency of Italian drivers to aggressively pass and crowd into open spaces on the road – legally or otherwise – and the fact that we were often trying to stay behind or in front of a particular vehicle for the sake of photography, and you start to get the idea. This is not a casual fast drive through the country or a stroll around a track, but some of the most attention-demanding work behind a steering wheel I’ve ever been party to. With days often stretching to 16 hours on the road, the term “endurance racing” took on a very literal meaning for me.
A Friend of Modernity
I’ll admit that, when I found out Alfa’s invite was for me to drive in a new Giulia rather than a classic roadster, I was mildly disappointed. Having now seen what it takes to make it from Brescia to Rome and back again, I’m so relived I had all the poise and power of the special-edition Giulia for my rookie experience.
Having 520 horsepower on tap, with downshifts just a paddle flick away, meant making big passes or scooting through urban lanes was nearly always stress-free. I might see a pre-war chariot planning a pass for minutes, with aborted attempts and thwarted runs up to speed a frustrating reality for the exhausted driving teams. Seconds later, I could make the same move without breaking a sweat, the cracking of the excellent exhaust the only outward indication of mechanical effort.
The 100 Year Anniversary car was blessed with the same very quick steering with exceptional road feel as every other Giulia I’ve driven. The precision and excellent response was a godsend just about everywhere along our route, save for the stretches of autostrada we sometimes ran. Clipping an apex or stringing together mountain road corners was hugely entertaining thanks to the Alfa’s quick-twitch tiller, but it proved a bit too frenetic for mindless highway driving. As far as tradeoffs go, driving enthusiasts should prefer the Alfa strategy here.
I was also happy to finally configure the car in a way that best suited this very strange kind of driving, with what Andrea and I dubbed “Mille Miglia Mode.” With crowds thronging the streets and often shouting for us to let then hear the engine, we were careful to both shut off automatic stop-start (a buzzkill) and to set Alfa’s drive mode selector to Race with traction control disabled (for occasional demonstrations of sideways-ness). The general unevenness of the road surfaces demanded the softer of the two damping settings, and our tendency to drive on and over lane markings made the lane departure warning my personal worst enemy.
Thus configured (and with the hazard lights that Andrea calls “the magic button” activated) the Giulia Quadrifogio was perfectly tailored for our weird needs. In many competitive sports sedans, we could’ve saved all of that to a driver profile or custom drive mode, but Alfa makes you work for it.
The National Pasttime
To see mechanically perfect, historically significant vehicles from the likes of Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Bentley, Bugatti, etc. all driving in anger is almost indescribable. An acquaintance and retired car magazine editor called Mille Miglia “a religious experience,” and I assumed he was talking about the machines.
But after five of the longest, most arduous, and most satisfying days of my professional life, I think I know what he meant. Watching the people care about those historic race cars is the religious part, the experience unlike any concours or race I’ve ever attended.
I could write another story just about the people I met during the week; crowded onto sidewalks, high-fiving weary drivers, waving flags, and holding their kids up high over their heads. My notebook has very few of the driving impressions I typical capture on a car launch, if I’m honest, but is chock-full of observations about the fans.
We waited on the side of the road, a few miles out of Brescia, with an Alfa Romeo club fronted by a hilariously animated old guy called Battista. Battista was in love with the GQ100, naturally, and explained why in impenetrable Italan – and universally understood hand gestures, thank goodness. He insisted on waving a chequered flag (where did he get it?) before we launched back into the fray, GoPros blazing, behind a line of racers.
At a time control stop in Rome, I met whole families – Mom, Dad, and small kids that should’ve been in bed hours ago – enraptured by the million-dollar machines firing up with blats of exhaust and valves tapping away like Swiss typewriters. Skater kids trading disaffected looks for huge smiles and unironic waves to drivers. Two young women closely inspecting the cockpit of a 1950s Ferrari while the driver casually smoked a Gauloise to the butt.
There was the blond barista in Ferrara whose bar counter was about 30 metres from the road, telling me how sad he was not to be closer to the action. Another band of fans in the southern end of Tuscany that gather every year at the grave maker of a local Mille Miglia hero from the 1930s who died on the spot. Kids with red arrow flags and faintly heard brass bands and good smells of ad hoc food stands just about everywhere.
I want to go back. I’d accept an invitation to compete in any car eligible, drive as a member of the media in anything at hand, or certainly get behind the wheel of another sublime Alfa Romeo in a support capacity, or any other. I’d also go back just to watch, to catch the race entering Rome at night, or the centre of old Siena at midday, or just to hang out in Brescia and drink coffee between the start of the first cars and the triumphant return of the last.
As the time and progress take some of the most visceral automotive expressions from our daily lives – often for very good reasons – the Mille Miglia somehow seems more vital than ever. History, tradition, and, sure, religion, all rolled into one.