Sir Stirling Moss: A Closer Look At The Legend
The man that personified motorsport for decades passed away after a long illnessby Michael Fira, on LISTEN 26:50
One of racing’s most recognizable and revered figures, Sir Stirling Moss passed away peacefully early on Easter Sunday at his home in Mayfair announced his wife, Lady Susie Moss. Stirling was 90 and had withdrawn from public life in 2018, 56 years after the accident that made him retire from professional racing.
Nowadays, when finding ways to criticize racing, be it on two or four wheels, one of the easy targets are the drivers or the riders, usually bemoaned by fans for being too PR-friendly, too stern and lacking the charisma and flamboyance of the likes of James Hunt, Barry Sheene, or Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Imagine, then, that back when Moss was racing, in the thrillingly dangerous ’50s and ’60s, he was seen by his peers as one of the best on the track and also one of those that lived life to the fullest off the track. Now, after his death on April 12th, tributes began pouring in for the ’larger-than-life’ Moss and rightly so for there really won’t be another racer (he hated to be called a ’driver’) quite like Moss.
Mister Motor Racing
Sir Stirling Moss was born on September 17, 1929, in West Kensington, London, the son of a dentist and amateur race car driver who’d finished 16th in the Indy 500 five years before Stirling’s birth.
As a young boy, the one that would become known as 'The Boy' in motorsport circles, showed prowess in everything that had horsepower, including horse-riding.
His first car was an Austin 7 he’d pedal around the house he grew up in on the south bank of the River Thames.
By 1948, a 19-year-old Moss began racing in club events behind the wheel of his father’s pre-War BMW 328 before going up the ladder and purchasing a Cooper 500 Formula 3 car, one of the first mid-engined single-seaters that was very popular in lower formulae at the time. In spite of his family’s reluctance to fund his racing forays, Moss went on to win his first major international race at just 21 years old when he scored his first victory in the RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod aboard a Jaguar XK120.
Moss made his F1 debut that same year, 1951, and would race in the highest echelon of the sport for a decade scoring 16 wins from 66 starts. In all, Moss won a staggering 212 of the 529 races he entered in his 14-year career, at a time when poor reliability got in the way of many a victory and also the coveted Formula 1 World Driver’s Title that Moss never won.
Moss first won a World Championship Grand Prix in 1955 by which he’d joined the Mercedes-Benz factory team led by Alfred Neubauer who’d been watching Moss since 1953 and was impressed by his driving in a Maserati 250F that was always among the front runners in 1954 when it didn’t break down, usually only beaten by the Mercs themselves.
That first win came on home soil, in the British Grand Prix held at Aintree, after a race-long battle with team-mate and friend Juan Manuel Fangio, a figure that can be considered the idol’s idol as Moss would often put the five-time World Driver’s Champion at the top of his list of the best drivers of all time.
Even on that day in 1955 when Moss scored his only F1 win for the ’Silver Arrows’, he believed Fangio gifted him the victory, the Argentine finishing a scant 0.2 seconds behind. Following Fangio’s retirement part way through 1958, Moss rightly became the benchmark for all of the drivers that came into F1, a benchmark that nobody would even be close to matching up until the dawn of the ’60s when one Jim Clark arrived on the scene.
Many pundits consider Moss the rightful champion in 1958 and 1959 and, indeed, the crown would've been his barring for a lot of misfortune coupled with a seemingly abnormal level of sportsmanship and the fact that Moss was fond of racing for British outfits.
In 1958, for instance, only one point separated runner-up Moss to Mike Hawthorn and, arguably, it was Moss that landed Hawthorn the title as Ferrari’s top man eluded disqualification during the Portuguese Grand Prix partly because Moss took his side and argued against the claim that he’d driven in reverse on the track. In all, Moss was second in the final year standings four years in a row, between ’55 and ’58, finishing third in 1959, 1960, and 1961, his final full season.
Beyond his exploits in Formula 1, including some seminal drives in his final season behind the wheel of the grossly underpowered Rob Walker Lotus 18 that Moss took to victory lane at Monaco and the Nurburgring, Moss gained his nickname for being fast in any car. While it was somewhat the norm for drivers to switch from one form of racing to another in those days when an F1 driver was paid barely 50 British pounds to do horrifically dangerous races such as the Spa-Francorchamps 1,000-kilometer sports car event, Moss stood head-and-shoulders above most of his peers due to his prowess no matter the car or the track.
His list of victories is long and makes for a compelling read for anyone who believes that a driver’s value rests solely on the number of F1 World Driver’s Titles he was able to win throughout his career. Moss became the first non-American to win the fabled 12 Hours of Sebring in 1954 when he made the unthinkable happen by winning outright in a 1.5-liter OSCA MT4 1450 he shared with Bill Loyd. One year later, he won the Mille Miglia by over half an hour over Fangio himself in what was, according to many, his career-defining drive.
Manhandling the 300 SLR, he was overwhelmingly fast down the perilously narrow Sicilian roads, making Italian veterans from Ferrari or Maserati look like mere pedestrians, in part thanks to co-driver Denis Jenkinson's idea to come up with a way to shout pace notes into Moss' ear throughout the race.
Despite there being no overall Le Mans 24 Hours triumph on Moss’ resume, ’The Boy’ did come home second overall a couple of times, even winning his class in a works Aston Martin in 1956. That year he also won his class at Sebring and, three years down the road, it was due to Moss’ unrelenting pluckiness that David Brown’s company ended the year as World Champions in sports car racing after Moss persuaded the team to enter the Nurburgring 1,000-kilometer race, a race he duly won in dominating fashion over the more powerful and faster Ferraris.
In 1952, a decade before his career-ending shunt at Goodwood in an Easter Weekend race meeting, Moss showed the world he could go fast in slick conditions too by finishing second overall in the Monte-Carlo Rally in a Sunbeam-Talbot 90 he co-drove with John Cooper and Desmond Scannell. Moss’s sister Pat would make a living out of competing in rallies and is widely regarded as one of the best female rally drivers of all time just as his brother is considered one of the best of all time in his own right.
Tributes pouring in from all over the world
A man like Moss, someone who transcended his sport and acted as a worldwide ambassador for it a bit as Muhammad Ali did for boxing, was highly regarded even well after his retirement. It is, then, unsurprising that tributes began pouring in from all over the world following the news that Moss was no more, his wife announcing on Sunday that "it was one lap too many, he just closed his eyes."
Among those that rushed to pay tribute to Moss was Martin Brundle, former F1 driver, and current F1 pundit who acted as team-mate to Stirling way back in 1981 when the two of them drove the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-run Audis in the British Saloon Car Championship. Despite formally retiring from racing in 1962 after that Goodwood crash that put him in a coma for almost a month and rendered half of his body paralyzed for six months, Moss did make a few rare appearances at the pro level in the decades that followed and the two seasons of BSCC racing were his last before shifting his attention fully to historic racing.
RIP Sir Stirling Moss. A mighty racer and gentleman. He had a press on style on the track and in life. Remarkable man. Survived the most dangerous era of motorsport and died today aged 90. He had such great stories to tell, and it was a privilege to know him. 😢
— Martin Brundle (@MBrundleF1) April 12, 2020
The modern-day iteration of the Mercedes F1 team for which Moss raced in ’55, Mercedes-AMG F1, also talked about losing a "dear friend" that was "not only a true icon and a legend, but a gentleman." Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff made a poignant point saying "it is no exaggeration to say that we will never see his like again."
Today, the sporting world lost not only a true icon and a legend, but a gentleman. The Team and the Mercedes Motorsport family have lost a dear friend. Sir Stirling, we’ll miss you. pic.twitter.com/XEsDf68A7r
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) April 12, 2020
Three-time F1 World Driver’s Champion Sir Jackie Stewart told BBC Radio 5 Live that Moss was the epitome of a racing driver in his era. "He walked like a racing driver should walk, he talked like a racing driver, he looked like a racing driver and he set a standard that I think has been unmatched since he retired." Damon Hill, 1997 champ and son of two-time title winner Graham Hill, spoke of a man who "launched all the other careers of British racing drivers who went on to become world champions of which he was sadly denied."
Moss in his own words
Stirling Moss may have retired from racing back in 1962 when his car hit the bank at St. Mary’s corner but he lived an incredibly busy life right until the end, trekking the globe year after year to take part in anything from galas to historic race meetings, car launches, and events related to the brands his company, Stirling Moss Limited, was associated with. Running the business with Lady Susie Moss, whom he’d married in 1980, he made a living out of being one of the most recognizable figures of the sport and one of the best racers his country ever had to offer as his 60% win rate (of the races he did manage to finish) underlines.
“Movement is tranquillity, boy. I only feel tired if I do nothing. Keeping on the move is relaxing to me," said Moss in a 2006 interview for Motor Sport Magazine. But moving from one event to another was never as pleasurable for Moss as it was to drive a car flat-out, something he himself admitted to being the only thing he knew how to do. "I’ll never retire, I love racing too much," he once said and he did keep his promise by attending numerous historic race meetings while being well into his 80s by which time most of us begin to really slow things down.
Moss raced in what we now refer to as the romantic era of motorsports, a time when everything seemed a lot more laid-back and, according to Moss, it really was. Asked by the authors of the gorgeous Can-Am 50th Anniversary book if he has any recollections of those days, he said "yes, I have many wonderful memories of the Can-Am series, old boy. Your problem is that none of them are printable!"
When at the height of his success, Moss was able to enjoy his time off the track as well as go faster than anyone on it. "My quality of life was far higher than Jenson Button’s or Lewis Hamilton’s. All I had to do was turn up to drive the car and then go off and chase crumpet," he pointed out in 2009 talking of the busier schedule of current drivers that are flooded with media and sponsorship-related duties during each and every racing weekend.
But Moss enjoyed that lifestyle because, between ’58 and ’62, there was none better in a racing car than him. "I always felt confident in my own ability. I don’t think I was big-headed – I would have hated to be that – but I just felt I could beat the others. I always rather liked starting from the back of the grid and coming through, I liked being the underdog," he said while also motivating his often peculiar choice of going for British machinery over otherwise quicker foreign cars by saying "patriotism doesn’t matter nowadays, but it mattered to me." It was this feeling that made him drive for Rob Walker on a number of occasions, scoring along the way the first win for a mid-engined car in F1 (in the 1958 Argentine GP) and the first and only win for an AWD F1 car in a race run to F1 rules, the Moss drove the 1961 International Gold Cup at Oulton Park that fell in Stirling’s clutches after a masterful drive in damp conditions that suited the Ferguson P99.
It was Moss, too, that helped Vanwall to win the first Manufacturer’s World Championship title ever awarded in F1’s history (in 1958) but he could do nothing to change Audi’s fortunes when he returned to racing in 1980, a decision he rates as "the biggest mistake of my life." He was put in a Group 1 Audi, the first FWD car he’d ever driven and also the first of any kind to be running slick tires. "And the standard of driving was appalling. If you finished a race without damage to all four corners of your car, you weren’t trying hard enough. It wasn’t my style, and I didn’t enjoy it," Moss admitted, a testament to the attitude of drivers racing in the ’50s and ’60s when reckless driving was life-threatening and, as such, a gentlemanly approach was seen as natural.
Throughout his career, Moss seemed fearless, coming back to action just seven weeks after suffering a horrendous shunt at Spa-Francorchamps but he wasn’t foolish in his on-track endeavors. "I was nervous about my own well-being, I suppose. But I can’t remember ever having an accident because of driver error," he says, brushing off the Spa shunt as a Chapman failure, "so it was acceptable."
While talking danger, Moss never shied away from admitting that, above all, he relished it, saying once that "the danger was one of the plus points which encouraged me and other drivers to race," - a point he underlined more recently when he said of the decision to introduce the Halo head protection device that it "emasculates" the sport too much.
In an era when helmets were made out of leather and belts were non-existent, Moss regrets not taking part in the Indy 500 and also not being able to go flat-out at Le Mans like they do nowadays. He also reckons he returned to the track way too soon after his 1962 crash. "My accident and the aftermath had stirred up a lot of interest, and I felt I owed it to the press and the public to make up my mind. After my previous accidents, I’d always come back to racing very quickly but after Goodwood, I didn’t give myself enough time to heal myself mentally."
Moss’s finest hour
Coming up to Stirling and asking him what of his many brilliant drives he rated as the best of the best would usually result in him splurting out one of two answers: the 1955 Mille Miglia or the 1961 Monte-Carlo Grand Prix. The former because 534 cars started the race and we finished first in 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds, a record that would never be bettered. The latter, however, for a different set of reasons. "The shark-nosed Ferraris were dominant that year, and I was in my old four-cylinder Rob Walker Lotus . I put it on pole, but at the start, the Ferraris got ahead on sheer power into St. Devote, and it took me 14 laps to get past them. I just had to go flat-out everywhere the whole way, precision all the time, no errors."
Looking over the data, it’s clear Moss did exactly that. Back then, the Monegasque race was run over 100 laps and, over the entire race distance, Moss ran laps within 0.4 seconds off his pole lap. He said only 10 of those 100 laps were not driven at 100%. Phil Hill, who drove for Ferrari in 1961 and ended up winning the title for the Scuderia that year, would argue years later that the 18 had the natural upper hand at Monaco because of the tight and twisty nature of the course that put the more cumbersome Ferraris at a clear disadvantage. "It’s like riding a horse in your living room," Hill put it.
1961 was the first year of the 1.5-liter formula brought about in a bid to make the cars safer by supposedly slowing them down, "which was bloody ridiculous," Moss would lament years later. "This was supposed to be Grand Prix racing – we weren’t kids, playing about…"
Other safety features that made their way onto the new cars - all developing well under 200 horsepower, even Carlo Chiti’s Ferrari 156 F1 - were things like the roll-over hoop but, again, it was more about the sanctioning body trying to make it seem like a problem is being addressed than it actually being addressed. "They were worse than useless – made of half-inch tube that you could bend with your hands!”
The Monaco Grand Prix would be the scene of the new formula’s debut as previous non-championship F1 races that year were run to the older 2.5-liter rules. Then, at Syracuse in April, Ferrari brought out the 156, a car that would forever be known as the ’Sharknose’ due to its emblematic nose section. Giancarlo Baghetti put it on the front row and effortlessly got by Dan Gurney’s Porsche at the start to score his first F1 win - at his first attempt, no less. Baghetti remains the only F1 driver to ever do it, be it in a non-championship event. Moss, meanwhile, hurdled along to finish eighth four laps down due to a faulty engine.
By the time Moss arrived in the Principality, the engine was still grumpy and it took Rob Walker’s mechanic Alf Francis an entire night to get it to run cleanly after having Weber, the carburetor maker, show up with a new unit for him to compare with the one on the car. A groove that was missing on the 18’s carburetor was found to cause all the ills of the engine. Moss ultimately took pole, half a second quicker than anyone, and shared front row with Ferrari’s Richie Ginther and Lotus’ Jim Clark driving the new Lotus 21 (yes, they’d start three line-astern on the front row on some circuits back then).
On the grid, the unthinkable happened: Moss noticed a cracked chassis tube right next to the gas tank, a tube that mechanic Alf Francis rushed to weld on the spot after carefully covering the tank with some pieces of wet cloth. You certainly won’t see something like that happen ever again!
When the race got underway, Ginther’s Ferrari sprung into the lead followed by Clark’s Lotus and then Moss in the 18 that now lacked its side body panels for better airflow on what was a very hot day in Monaco. Ginther’s defense finally cracked on lap 14 when both Moss and Jo Bonnier got by him and, a dozen laps later, Ginther allowed team-mate Hill to get up to second and try to reel Stirling in. The American, try as he might, could only do as much as reducing the gap slightly before Moss would gain back 0.5 seconds or a full second. With the gap ebbing and flowing, "I’d pull away a bit, but then they’d close up again – I really felt they were playing with me…"
You may hear Moss say time and again that, in those days, you had to nurse the car home and, while especially true when it came to long-distance endurance racing, none of the three front-runners nursed their cars throughout the three-hour-long Monaco GP in ’61. In fact, Hill laid down a 1:38.8 on lap 40, three tenths faster than Moss’s pole lap and Moss responded by lapping in 1:38.5.
By lap 75, "I was wiped out by that stage," Hill said, "and when they held a board out to me, saying I should let Richie through, it made sense." Ginther, racing in only his fourth GP, really got on with the job at hand and began reeling in the dark blue Lotus by virtue of lapping in 1:37.7 - 1.4 seconds quicker than the pole position lap. As ever, Moss responded with his own sub-1:38-minute lap and this went on and on akin to a game of tennis played with the two sportsmen at an extended distance from one another.
With no more than 16 laps to go, Ginther gave it all and, with a low fuel load, managed to lap the street course in 1:36.3. Astonishingly, the lap after that, Moss’s time was the same: 1:36.3. "[It] just broke my heart," Ginther admitted. "I was running at the limit and a bit more – and he instantly responded! I had no idea of the times we were doing – all I knew, every time past the pits, was the gap…"
By the end, Stirling’s margin of victory was 3.6 seconds over an exhausted Ginther. Moss too was weathered after the only race that he wrote down in his diary as having been driven "flat-out all the way". But even Mr. Motor Racing wasn’t aware of just how fast he was hurdling along the narrow roads of the Principality until after the fact. "The thing was, I knew I was going as hard as I could – and yet I was never able to get away from them, so I figured they were coping with my pace without too much trouble. As it turned out, they were on the limit too, but I didn’t know that at the time."
Team Manager Rob Walker agrees with Moss on his assessment that the 1961 Monaco GP was his finest display of driving. "I was always in two minds," said Rob Walker, “about which of those wins was Stirling’s best, but in the end I think it was Monaco – and if that was his greatest drive, for me that means it was the greatest drive by anyone."
Was Moss better than Fangio?
Stirling Moss ignored his patriotic spirit in 1955 when he decided to sign the deal that would see him join the Mercedes-Benz team for the entirety of both the World Sports Car and the Formula 1 season. The catalyst behind Moss’s decision was his future team-mate, Fangio. 18 years his senior, the Argentine had already racked up two World Driver’s Championship titles by ’55 and three more would lay ahead into the future. Moss often cited Fangio as the greatest driver he ever raced against and you could see the respect between the two throughout that year. "But I could beat him in sports cars," Moss would like to add. It is a widely-known fact that, for all his immense talent, Fangio didn’t like to drive cars with bodywork arching over the front wheels because he wanted to see them actively turning into a corner which, in turn, would allow him to better place the car on the track.
Away from the sports cars, though, who was the better racing driver? Was it Moss, then a future star at just 25 years old, or the one known as ’El Maestro’ who viewed Italy’s Alberto Ascari as his no. 1 peer over Moss? Sadly, the 1955 season didn’t deliver on its promise of a two-way fight for the world championship as Ascari, firmly in Lancia’s boat since ’54, crashed out in spectacular fashion at Monaco before perishing in peculiar fashion at Monza a fortnight later while testing a Ferrari 750 Monza.
It would’ve undoubtedly been great to see Ascari race the innovative Lancia D50 with its engine used as a stressed member of the chassis against Moss and Fangio in their W196 Silver Arrows. Alas, the season turned into a match between Neubauer’s boys and Moss played second fiddle to Fangio in almost every round. "In the grands prix for Mercedes we were known as ‘the train’", Moss said, "because I followed him so closely, usually three or four feet apart."
This too was a sign of Moss’s complete trust in Fangio’s ability as he would’ve been wiped out himself had Fangio gone off ahead. "Fangio never goes off and I’m sticking with him," Moss once told a bemused Neubauer after such a display of ’follow-the-leader’ driving.
It made sense for Stirling as "Fangio was the greatest. He had tremendous stamina, he was tremendously consistent and he was a gentleman, too. He has to be number one, for me." What, then, were Moss’s thoughts on his own prowess as a driver? "I would ask to be remembered as one of the greatest all-rounders," he pointed out. "But Formula 1 is the pinnacle of excellence – you have to be very, very precise and that was where Fangio was without peer," Moss added before admitting that "if I knew how he did what he did, I would have then done it myself!"
But within Moss, there was also a different kind of respect for Fangio the man, one that extended beyond the layers of the sport. "I had that much respect for the man. For me, it was the same sort of respect I had for my father, actually. I loved the man, in a different way from my father, but yes, I loved the man." So much so, in fact, that it didn’t bother him to act as number 2 within the squad that year. "The only man in the world with whom I would have agreed such a thing was Fangio."
Denis Jenkinson, who was an F1 correspondent at the time and attended every race meeting on the calendar, would often time the drivers through a certain part of a certain track and his findings are definitive, at least when it comes to the 1955 season when Fangio and Moss shared the same car. "In almost every grand prix circuit there has been a corner that Fangio could take faster than Moss," Jenks said, coming up with the slight right-hand curve inside the tunnel in Monaco. "Even using the same car in practice Fangio could go through the tunnel without lifting, while Moss admitted freely that try as he might he always eased the throttle a fraction as he entered the tunnel."
"These few vital fifths of seconds, or even tenths, all add up in a race and, added to Fangio’s superior track-craft through having more experience of open grand prix battles, I would rate him Number 1," Motor Sport’s legendary writer concluded. There was, however, a silver lining to all of this. You see, Fangio knew all the tricks of the trade while Moss’s star was only just beginning to shine and 1955 was the first season that his bum sat in a competitive car. Thus, Jenks would always ask, "for how long?"
What’s clear, as Moss himself stressed, ’El Maestro’ disliked sports cars while Moss was ravagingly fast in any car, without putting as much as a dent on it oftentimes - Fangio would bang up his sports cars pretty good with enough photographic evidence out there proving this fact. For his unmatched ability to go fast in anything, I rate Moss above Fangio and, within the confines of F1, I’d say the two are incredibly close in terms of sheer ability but none of them could lay claim to being the greatest driver of the ’50s. That seat’s got Alberto Ascari’s name written all over it but, then again, we never saw enough of either ’Ciccio’ or Moss. The latter was only 32 when he crashed at Goodwood and, he reckons, 20 more years of hard racing were still in him so just take a moment to picture in your head all those great battles between Moss and Jim Clark that we were deprived of...