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Memories of Stirling Moss, 1929-2020

Memories of Stirling Moss, 1929-2020

by George Webster

On Easter Sunday last weekend, Stirling Moss, perhaps the best-known racing driver ever, died after a long illness. Perhaps it was fitting that he should have passed on Easter given the his career-ending crash occurred on Easter Monday in 1962. I can’t say that I knew him personally but for most of my years as a race fan, Moss seems to have been part of part of my racing milieu and an important marker for my personal history.

In 2000, Moss was awarded a proper British knighthood, making him Sir Stirling Moss. Only one other British racing driver has been given such an honour – Jackie Stewart was knighted in 2001. Jack Brabham was given a knighthood in 1979 but it was a colonial knighthood awarded under the auspices of the Australian government. Canada once had such colonial knighthoods as well but we gave them up decades before the Australians did. For my part, I felt it was obsequious to call him Sir Stirling given all the decades he had been simply Stirling to the generations of us race fans who had always known him simply as ‘Stirling Moss’.

The first time I ever saw him race was in 1959 when I attended the Formula Libre race at Watkins Glen – a precursor of the proper F1 Grand Prix which came there in 1961. He had his own Cooper-Climax F1 car which totally outclassed the rest of the field and he cruised around in the snow flurries that day to an easy win. The second place car, an Offy midget, finished seven laps behind. A couple of months later, the first F1 US Grand Prix was run at Sebring when he was entered in a Rob Walker Cooper; he still had a shot at the championship but the car went out of the race early, leaving Brabham to win the title that year.

My first immersion in what we called sports car racing (but it included F1 in that definition) came when I attended a local sports car race at Edenvale, Ontario, in June 1955. This race converted me from someone with a general interest in cars, especially American cars, to a sports car racing fanatic. My reading switched to magazines like Sports Cars Illustrated (later Car and Driver), Road & Track and the British weekly Autocar.

These new-to-me information sources brought me news of international racing. I can’t remember now when I learned about Moss’ historic drive in the Mille Miglia that year or about the tragic Le Mans accident. I do remember reading about how Moss finished second to Fangio in Holland – a GP which ran a couple weeks after Le Mans. That year, except for a glitch at Monaco, Mercedes won every other F1 race. Fangio won them all but for the British Grand Prix which Moss won – and we are still debating whether Fangio let him win or not – Fangio always denied it. In retrospect, 1955 was Moss’ best shot at winning the world championship – he was in the best car and he was a full-season driver in the Mercedes team. Had he not been paired with such a great driver as Fangio was it seems that Moss would have been the team leader and he would have romped home to the title.

photo Moss Jenks 300SLRMoss and Denis Jenkinson at the start of the 1955 Mille Miglia (Daimler AG)

Of course, he did have that amazing win in the Mille Miglia with Denis Jenkinson as his navigator – no doubt the race of his career. That year, he went on to win the sports car races in Ireland and Sicily. But for Levegh’s tragic crash at Le Mans in a sister car, Moss – paired with Fangio – would have won this race for sure. Their car had a lead of several laps when the Mercedes company decided to withdraw all their cars from the race. There was no championship for drivers in this series but Mercedes, with three Moss race wins, won the manufacturer’s title.

After 1955, Moss only had one season in which he ran every F1 championship race for the same factory team. In 1956 he was a works driver for Maserati. He won two races but he finished second in the title standings to Fangio who was driving for Ferrari. In 1957 Moss was contracted to the British Vanwall team but he drove a Maserati in the first race in Argentina and he missed the French GP mid-summer due to illness. He had three race wins to Fangio’s four (now in Maserati) again finishing second to the Argentinian in the championship standings.

For 1958 he remained with Vanwall but the fuel rules had changed to pump gas and the Vanwalls were handicapped by the loss of the cooling effect of the ethanol. They missed the first round again and Moss drove an underpowered Cooper-Climax for Rob Walker. A strategy born of necessity saw him on a fuel run to save tires and fuel and, without a pit stop, he came home the winner by a three-second margin over the first Ferrari. He won the Dutch GP and the German GP in the Vanwall and it all came down to the final race in Morocco. Moss did everything he could, he won the race and set the fastest lap (for an extra point) but Phil Hill dropped back to let his Ferrari teammate Hawthorn finish in second place and that was good enough to give Hawthorn the 1958 world championship by a single point. This was Moss’ best shot ever at winning the title and it slipped out of his fingers.

Vanwall withdrew after the 1958 season and Moss was unable to get a contract with a British team that year. As I remember it, Moss had a personal contract with the BP fuel company and this conflicted with the fuel deals (Esso, Shell, etc.) that the factory teams held. He was able to sign on with Rob Walker to drive a privateer Cooper-Climax for the full season winning at Portugal and Italy, Brabham’s wins at Monaco and Britain. He was still in the running for the championship going into the finale at Sebring but, after leading initially, his gearbox failed and he was out of the race and the championship went to Brabham. Tony Brooks, who finished in third place at Sebring in his Ferrari, finished second in the drivers’ championship with Moss third.

Every time I make a stop-over at Gatwick I go to the Jack Fairman pub and it reminds me of one of Moss’ remarkable race wins. In 1979 Moss was paired with Fairman in a borrowed works Aston Martin DBR1 for the Nürburgring 1000 km. Now Fairman was a competent but not great driver; perhaps he got this ride the way many ‘gentleman’ drivers get these endurance rides – with his cheque book. In his first stint, Moss built a half-lap/five minute lead over the competition and then he handed over to Fairman. Not only were Fairman’s lap times nowhere close to Moss’, he went off the road and had to dig the car out. Returning the pits, he handed over to Moss but they were now over a minute behind the race leader. Moss regained the lead when the leading Ferrari pitted but when he handed back to Fairman, the car started losing ground again. Moss took over the car for a final stint and Moss caught Phil Hill and won the race by a 41-second margin, setting a new lap record. It was drives like these that made Moss a legendary driver.

In 1960, Moss continued in F1 with the Rob Walker private team. He ran the Argentine round in the Cooper but after that they switched to the new rear-engined Lotus 18 which had shown such promise. Moss scored a brilliant win at Monaco, one of his best-ever races – and he also won the US Grand Prix, run in 1960 at Riverside. The fragile nature of the Lotus cars saw Moss crashing in practice at Spa mid-season and he suffered a broken back; this kept him out of the next two GPs – France and Britain – before he could return for the Portugese GP. Brabham had a most consistent year, winning five Grands Prix in a row, enough to give him a second straight championship ahead of teammate Bruce McLaren with Moss third in the standings. It seems likely that, had Moss been able to secure the No. 1 seat with Cooper that year, he would have been champion.

In 1961 Mosport opened and its first big race was an invitational sports car race called the Player’s 200. There was a racing controversy in the US over whether ‘professional’ drivers could compete in SCCA races and the SCCA banned its drivers from competing in the Player’s 200. This depleted the potential entry for this race. Moss showed up with his Lotus 19, a new car based on the Lotus 18 F1 design. Despite having a modest 2.5-litre Climax engine (like the F1 cars had had) he was dominant in the race. He won handily with the next two cars – Porsche RS 61s – finishing two laps down. Despite this runaway win, Moss was tremendously a tremendously popular winner and this helped cement his strong relationship with Canadian race fans. Moss returned to Mosport for the sports car Canadian GP later that year but he had trouble with his Lotus and finished third, a lap down to local driver Peter Ryan in his Lotus 19.

Later that year, I went to my brother’s wedding on Saturday and then drove through the night to get to the first USGP at Watkins Glen. This was the first year of the new 1.5-litre formula and Ferrari had been best prepared for the new rules – clinching the championship with Phil Hill before the Watkins Glen race. Hence Ferrari sat out the USGP leaving the race to be fought out among the other runners. Coventry-Climax had developed a new more powerful V-8 engine but it was still having teething problems. Both Brabham and Moss showed up with the Climax V-8s but Moss opted to run the less powerful 4-cylinder Climax in the race.

Brabham started on the pole with Graham Hill alongside and Moss in the second row – but Moss was already up into second place as they climbed the hill into the esses after the start and he had the lead when they came back around to the pit straight. Moss looked like he had the race in hand after Brabham’s new V-8 Climax lost its coolant; he had a 40-second lead over Innes Ireland in the works Lotus 18. But Moss’ engine failed and he was out of the race, handing the win to the relatively unknown Ireland. This was to be Moss’ last start in a world championship Grand Prix.

The next year, my wife and I drove to New York city for the Easter break and while there we heard the news of Moss’ accident. He had crashed heavily in the Easter Monday race at Goodwood. Afterwards he was in coma for several weeks before he started to come around – and he was partially paralyzed for six months. Early the next year he returned to Goodwood and drove a Lotus 19 sports car as a test to see if his form had returned. Afterwards he said that he believed that he had lost his edge as a race driver and that, in his lessened state, he would not ever again enjoy racing. He retired from racing at that point; he never again returned to any top rank racing series. I’m not the first to make the comment that we now know much more about concussions – and he no doubt had suffered a massive concussion – and we know that rehab after a concussion can take a long time but often, eventually, one gets most or all of their mental acuity back. There are many recent examples of sports figures who have recovered from concussions given enough time – Dale Earnhardt Jr being a notable race driver example. Perhaps had he waited another year before closing the door on racing, he might have been able to get back up to speed again and extend his active racing career. 

Robert Daly in his 1961 book, ‘Cars at Speed’, quoted Moss as saying, “I will race as long as I live – however long that may be.” It was no easy decision for him to accept that his racing career was over at the age of 32.

Moss had not made a fortune in racing and he set for himself the task of making a living of being the retired version of ‘the best driver to never win a world championship’. When the Can-Am championship was established in 1966, Moss was appointed as the series’ ‘commissioner’ which was essentially a PR position but his name recognition opened a lot of doors and was a big help in publicizing the new series. He also did quite a bit of television commentary work. I don’t remember seeing much of this here in Canada but, in the movie ‘Rush’, an actor plays his role as a TV commentator so this is evidence of his front-and-centre role in TV work for a number of years. He managed to stay high on the name recognition lists for decades – right up to his demise this year.

Some other memories of mine: Moss made several visits to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s doing PR work for British auto companies like BMC (MG and Austin-Healey). A common format was for him to come and host a track day at one of the local road courses and give helpful tips to would-be race drivers. My wife still remembers one such session at Shannonville when he borrowed her pen to sign autographs.

Moss did return to racing in a limited way. He drove in historic or vintage races many times and he raced an Audi 80 in 1980 and 1981 without much success. He has been quoted as saying that he found the uncompetitive front-wheel-drive Audi hard to drive and this may have reinforced his opinion that he was not able to race competitively again – but by then he was pushing 40, which is closer to retirement age for most race drivers. In 1979 I saw him racing an F1 Ferrari Dino 246 in a historic car race at Silverstone; as I remember it he was the class of the field

I remember seeing him at the Monterey Historics in the early 2000s. He drove a Sebring Sprite In which he managed to lead the race ahead of a V-8 Morgan and a Porsche Abarth for most of the laps – even though, on paper, his car was outclassed . I put some of that down to the fact that some vintage car drivers, driving their own priceless cars, don’t drive them full out while Moss had no such reservations.

For a number of years Moss was a regular at the historic race car events at Goodwood – enough times that I did not find it remarkable when I saw him there and behind the wheel of a racing car.

photo moss Amelia 2015Moss standing beside three of the Mercedes race cars at Amelia Island (GRW photo)

In 2005, at Monterey and Goodwood, on the 50th anniversary of his big win he drove the Mercedes 300SLR sports car with which he had won the Mille Miglia. In 2015, the Amelia Island Concours made him their featured driver and they collected a large number of the cars which had driven over the years. In 2010 he fell down the elevator shaft in his three-storey home and had a number of injuries. After that, he sometimes needed a walker to get around and, at Amelia, he was obviously showing the effects of the injuries his body had sustained over the years.

On my last visit to Goodwood a few years ago I had occasion to speak to him but I still called him simply ‘Stirling’.

In his racing career he was a non-stop racer, he once drove in 62 races in a single year, he won 212 of the 529 races he started, including 16 F1 Grands Prix. He finished second in the world driving championship four years in a row – 1955 to 1958. For sure, had he not been so loyal to British cars and personal sponsors it is easy to see him having the pick of the race teams as Number 1 driver once Fangio retired after the 1957 season – and, with the right choice of factory teams, he might well have won the F1 championship in any year – or every year – from 1958 onwards. Perhaps, for a driver who made 62 starts in a single year, his all-consuming love of racing transcended his ambition to win the F1 title – and, free of manufacturer team contracts, he was free to race ever kind of car every weekend to his heart’s content.

Moss was a big part of the sport when I was introduced to ‘sports car racing’ in 1955 and he has been a part of my life as a race fan until today. Was he the greatest driver of all time? I must admit that Fangio was my first love. There have been many drivers over the years who were ‘great’ but for someone from my era, Moss stands on the top pedestal alongside the great Fangio – not just in the time period he occupied but in all time. I can give no greater tribute to this amazing man than that.

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