My relationship with Stirling Moss started in 1953. I was seven. I lived in Coventry, then the heartland of Britain’s, indeed Europe’s, motor industry. The Jaguar car factory, then makers of sports cars that regularly won at the Le Mans 24 hour race, the most famous race on the calendar in the 1950s, was a couple of miles away. I was car crazy. To the chagrin of my parents, I wasn’t interested in reading. Until, that is, I discovered motor racing magazines and, in the blink of an eye, I learned to read. My idol was Stirling Moss.
I wrote him a letter in 1953, saying how much I admired him and wishing him every success. I didn’t expect a reply. I was just a little kid in a small semi-detached 1930s house in Coventry, a city without much distinction apart from its car industry and its suffering in the blitz. Then soon after I got a letter from Stirling with some photos. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wrote back.
And there followed a correspondence that was to last until the late 50s, perhaps a little longer. My parents, moved by my passion for motor racing, took me to my first race, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, in July 1954. I told Stirling that I would be going and he said: “Why not come and visit me in the paddock?” He was driving a privately owned Maserati in the grand prix. I found him in the paddock behind the pits, talking to a cluster of admirers; I seem to remember being pretty tongue-tied in the presence of my hero. Our relationship continued: letters, Christmas cards, and meeting at least once a year at the British Grand Prix. He sent me birthday presents. When he was driving at the Argentinian Grand Prix, the only faraway race in those days, he would send me a postcard.
In the 1950s, Stirling Moss was not just my hero, he was many people’s hero. He had a following way beyond motor racing. I guess the name Stirling had a certain romance to it. And he was a terrific driver. Compared with the drivers of today, he was the antihero: he never drove the best car in Formula One, with the exception of the Mercedes Benz in 1955. Otherwise he was almost invariably at the wheel of an inferior car. One reason for this was his loyalty to driving British. At the time, British cars were way off the pace in Formula One, with Ferraris and Maseratis dominant except in 1954-55 when Mercedes ruled. Moss was the inveterate underdog, the most gifted driver in a below-par car. By the late 1950s it was different, with the arrival of Vanwall, Cooper and Lotus. But even then Moss chose to drive a privately entered rather than a works Cooper or Lotus. It was as if he liked and needed a handicap. Winning was not everything.
He never won the world championship because he never had the best car. The year he came closest was 1958 when he drove for Vanwall and was pipped at the post by Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari, who became Britain’s first world champion. But Moss’s defeat shone another light on the nature of the man. Hawthorn was disqualified in the Portuguese Grand Prix but Moss pleaded on Hawthorn’s behalf and his points for coming second were reinstated. Without Moss’s intervention on his behalf, Hawthorn would not have become world champion, instead Moss would have been. For Moss it was not just a question of winning, but winning in the right way.
He was runner-up four times in the world drivers’ championship. He won 16 of the 66 F1 races he competed in between 1951 and 1961. He was an all-rounder in a way that today’s F1 drivers are not: they just do F1. At the 1954 British Grand Prix where I first met him, he drove in a saloon car race, a Formula 3 race and a sports car race as well as the grand prix. He was a fine sports car driver, one of his most famous victories being in the legendary Mille Miglia in 1955, a 1,000-mile open-road race around Italy. He was extraordinarily versatile. With typical modesty he always described the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio as the greatest driver of his era. I was never convinced, I always thought Moss was his equal, if not in the record books. Without question, Moss was one of F1’s greatest ever drivers.
As many have previously said, it is impossible to compare drivers from different eras. Moss chose to drive second-rate machinery. Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton would never make such a choice. Winning as many grands prix and world championships as possible has become the religion. For Moss that was secondary. Moss always preferred to drive a British car: that kind of national loyalty disappeared long ago. He was a man of his time. If he had been born less than a decade earlier, he would have been a fighter pilot in the second world war: his preference for driving a car painted British racing green belonged to the early postwar era. His career finally came to an end in 1962 after an accident at Goodwood left him in a coma for a month and partially paralysed for six months. His condition was front page news for weeks on end. That he lived until the age of 90 was something of a miracle. A substantial number of his fellow racers during those years died at the wheel.
My correspondence with Stirling lasted, I guess, until my very early teens. As a kid I had always wanted to be a motor racing driver but by the age of 11 I was not so sure. My interest in motor racing waxed and waned over time, but to this day remains. Many years later, soon after I became editor of Marxism Today and now in my very early 30s, I bumped into Stirling at the top of Charing Cross Road. I introduced myself. He wanted to know my story. I thanked him for all his generosity when I was boy and just how much his friendship and kindness had meant to me. It was the last time I saw him.