Sir Stirling Moss is probably on the Britains’ most notable motor racing drivers from the 20th Century
Moss, who raced from 1948 to 1962, won 212 of the 529 races he entered, including 16 Formula One Grand Prix. He would compete in as many as 62 races in a single year and drove 84 different makes of car over the course of his racing career, including Cooper 500, ERA, Lotus, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Vanwall single-seaters, Aston Martin, Maserati, Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz sports cars, and Jaguar saloons. Like many drivers of the era, he competed in several formulae, often on the same day.
He preferred to race British cars, stating, “Better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign one”. At Vanwall, he was instrumental in breaking the German/Italian stranglehold on F1 racing (as was Jack Brabham at Cooper). He remained the English driver with the most Formula One victories until 1991 when Nigel Mansell overtook him after competing in more races.
One of the Cooper Car Company’s first customers, Moss used winnings from competing in horse-riding events to pay the deposit on a Cooper 500 racing car in 1948. He then persuaded his father, who opposed his racing and wanted him to be a dentist, to let him buy it. He soon demonstrated his ability with numerous wins at national and international levels, and continued to compete in Formula Three, with Coopers and Kiefts, after he had progressed to more senior categories.
His first major international race victory came on the eve of his 21st birthday at the wheel of a borrowed Jaguar XK120 in the 1950 RAC Tourist Trophy on the Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland. He went on to win the race six more times, in 1951 (Jaguar C-Type), 1955 (Mercedes-Benz 300SLR), 1958 and 1959 (Aston Martin DBR1), and 1960 and 1961 (Ferrari 250 GT).
Also a competent rally driver, he is one of three people to have won a Coupe d’Or (Gold Cup) for three consecutive penalty-free runs on the Alpine Rally (Coupe des Alpes). He finished second in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally driving a Sunbeam-Talbot 90 with Desmond Scannell and Autocar magazine editor John Cooper as co-drivers.
In 1954, he became the first non-American to win the 12 Hours of Sebring, sharing the Cunningham team’s 1.5-liter O.S.C.A. MT4 with American Bill Lloyd.
In 1953 Mercedes-Benz racing boss Alfred Neubauer had spoken to Moss’s manager, Ken Gregory, about the possibility of Moss’s joining the Mercedes Grand Prix team. Having seen him do well in a relatively uncompetitive car, and wanting to see how he would perform in a better one, Neubauer suggested Moss buy a Maserati for the 1954 season. He bought a Maserati 250F, and although the car’s unreliability prevented his scoring high points in the 1954 Drivers’ Championship he qualified alongside the Mercedes frontrunners several times and performed well in the races.
In the Italian Grand Prix at Monza he passed both drivers who were regarded as the best in Formula One at the time—Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes and Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari—and took the lead. Ascari retired with engine problems, and Moss led until lap 68 when his engine also failed. Fangio took the victory, and Moss pushed his Maserati to the finish line. Neubauer, already impressed when Moss had tested a Mercedes-Benz W196 at Hockenheim, promptly signed him for 1955.
Moss’s first Formula One victory was in the 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree, a race he was also the first British driver to win. Leading a 1–2–3–4 finish for Mercedes, it was the first time he beat Fangio, his teammate and arch rival, who was also his friend and mentor. It has been suggested that Fangio sportingly allowed Moss to win in front of his home crowd. Moss himself asked Fangio repeatedly, and Fangio always replied: “No. You were just better than me that day.” The same year, Moss also won the RAC Tourist Trophy, the Targa Florio (sharing the drive with Peter Collins), and the Mille Miglia.
In 1955 Moss won Italy’s thousand-mile Mille Miglia road race, an achievement Doug Nye described as the “most iconic single day’s drive in motor racing history.” Motor Trend headlined it as “The Most Epic Drive. Ever.”
Moss, then 25 years old, drove one of four factory-entered Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports-racing cars. Based on the W196 Grand Prix car, they had spaceframe chassis and magnesium-alloy bodies, and their modified W196 engines ran on a mixture of petrol, benzene, and alcohol. The team’s main race rivals were the factory-entered Ferraris of Piero Taruffi, Eugenio Castellotti, Umberto Maglioli, and Paolo Marzotto.
Journalist Denis Jenkinson was Moss’s navigator. He had intended to go with John Fitch, whose idea it had been to take a navigator, but when Mercedes assigned a 300 SL to Fitch, the American agreed to Jenkinson riding with Moss in the faster SLR. Jenkinson had come up with the idea of pace notes in the form of a roller map of the route on which he had noted its hazards—an innovation that helped Moss compete against drivers with greater local knowledge. Jenkinson used hand signals to tell him about the road ahead. Radio communication had proved ineffective when they tried it, because when Moss was fully concentrated on his driving he was oblivious to Jenkinson’s voice.
Fangio, who regarded the race as too dangerous for passengers, drove his SLR alone, as did Karl Kling. Hans Herrmann drove the fourth car with mechanic Herman Eger as passenger.
The race was a timed event, and competitors started singly at one-minute intervals. Moss’s Mercedes left the starting ramp in Brescia at 7:22 a.m. (hence the car’s race number 722). Castellotti’s Ferrari left one minute later, and Taruffi’s at 7:27.
After about 90 miles, as Moss approached Padua at 175 mph (282 km/h) he saw in his mirror that Castellotti was closing fast. When Moss misjudged a corner and collided with some straw bales Castellotti went past and built an increasing lead. After 188 miles of racing the Italian had to stop in Ravenna to replace the Ferrari’s tyres, and fell behind again. Marzotto’s Ferrari started well but the tread separated from a tyre at over 170 mph (274 km/h) and he had to withdraw from the race because the spare turned out to be the wrong size.
The petrol tank filler came adrift as they neared the Adriatic coast and drenched them both. Jenkinson’s spectacles were blown off by the slipstream when he vomited over the side of the Mercedes; he carried a replacement pair. Arriving in Rome, he and Moss were told they were leading from Taruffi, Herrmann, Kling and Fangio, but from then on they had no way of knowing whether any of their rivals had gone ahead on elapsed time. Soon after Rome, Kling’s race ended when he went off the road avoiding spectators and crashed into a tree.
When Moss and Jenkinson finally arrived at the finish in Brescia they learned that Castellotti’s Ferrari had retired with transmission trouble and they had won. Fangio took second place, nearly 33 minutes slower, his Mercedes delayed by engine trouble and running on only seven cylinders by the end. Maglioli, in the sole surviving factory-entered Ferrari, took 45 minutes longer than Moss and finished 3rd.
Moss’s time of 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, and his average speed of 98.53 mph (159 km/h) for the 1000 miles, set course records that still stand. The race was discontinued two years later.
Before the race, he had taken a “magic pill” given to him by Fangio, and he has commented that although he did not know what was in it, “Dexedrine and Benzedrine were commonly used in rallies. The object was simply to keep awake, like wartime bomber crews.” After the win, he spent the night and the following day driving his girlfriend to Cologne, stopping for breakfast in Munich and lunch in Stuttgart.
Moss won the Nassau Cup at the 1956 and 1957 Bahamas Speed Week. Also in 1957 he won on the longest circuit ever to hold a World Championship Grand Prix, the 25 km (16 mi) Pescara Circuit, where he again demonstrated his mastery of long-distance racing. The event lasted three hours and Moss beat Fangio, who started from pole position, by a little over 3 minutes. In 1958 Moss won the first race in a rear-engined F1 car. Within two years all car featured this design.
Moss’s sporting attitude cost him the 1958 Formula 1 World Championship. When rival Mike Hawthorn was threatened with a penalty after the Portuguese Grand Prix, Moss defended him. Hawthorn was accused of reversing on the track after spinning and stalling his car on an uphill section. Moss had shouted advice to Hawthorn to steer downhill, against traffic, to bump-start the car. Moss’s quick thinking, and his defence of Hawthorn before the stewards, preserved Hawthorn’s 6 points for finishing second behind Moss. Hawthorn went on to beat Moss for the championship title by one point, even though he had won only one race that year to Moss’s four.
Moss was as gifted in sports cars as in Grand Prix cars. To his victories in the Tourist Trophy, the Sebring 12 Hours and the Mille Miglia he added three consecutive wins (1958–1960) in the gruelling 1000 km Nürburgring, the first two in an Aston Martin (in which he did most of the driving) and the third in a Tipo 61 ‘Birdcage’ Maserati, co-driving with the American Dan Gurney. The pair lost nearly six minutes when an oil hose blew off, but despite miserable conditions they made up the time and took 1st place.
In the 1960 Formula One season, Moss won the Monaco Grand Prix in Rob Walker’s Coventry-Climax-powered Lotus 18. Seriously injured in an accident at the Burnenville curve during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, he missed the next three races but recovered sufficiently to win the final one of the season, the United States Grand Prix at Riverside, California.
For the 1961 Formula One season, run under new 1.5-litre rules, Enzo Ferrari fielded the ‘sharknose‘ Ferrari 156 with an all-new V6 engine. Moss’s Climax-engined Lotus was comparatively underpowered, but he won the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix by 3.6 seconds, beating the Ferraris of Richie Ginther, Wolfgang von Trips, and Phil Hill, and went on to win the partially wet 1961 German Grand Prix. In addition to his skill, two other factors helped compensate for the Lotus’s power deficit in these races. The tight circuit at Monaco favored the nimble Lotus, countering the horsepower advantage of the heavier, ill-handling Ferraris; and at the Nürburgring, Moss and manager Ken Gregory took the risky decision to fit rain tyres after a pre-race shower soaked the track. Had the skies cleared and the track dried, the decision would have worked against Moss. The rain returned in the race, and although Moss’s tyres rapidly deteriorated he was able to drive away from Hill and Trips to take the win.
In 1962, he crashed his Lotus heavily during the Glover Trophy at Goodwood held on Monday 23 April. The accident put him in a coma for a month, and for six months the left side of his body was partially paralysed. He recovered, but retired from professional racing after a private test session in a Lotus 19 the following year, when he lapped a few tenths of a second slower than before. He felt he had not regained his previously instinctive command of the car. He had been runner-up in the Drivers’ Championship four years in succession, from 1955 to 1958, and third in each of the next three years.