That Sir Stirling Moss, who died on Sunday, remained one of the most well-known British racing drivers of any generation was in no little part down to the affection and admiration he engendered that extended beyond motor racing and across the public consciousness. This was partly, of course, because he was the inspiration for the 1960s policemen’s inquiry to speeding drivers: “Who do you think you are? Stirling Moss?”
After a career cut short because of an accident, the other popular legacy he left was as the greatest driver of his time never to win the world championship. In truth, Moss transcended both of these footnotes. He was a driver of remarkable skill, of hard-edged determination to win allied to an uncompromising sense of sportsmanship, wit, and a genuine joy of racing and life itself that was irrepressible.
Admired and feted by his peers and respected by drivers of note who have succeeded him, he was, crucially, also hugely successful in almost any car in any discipline, an all-round talent that ensured his place among the greats of the sport.
That the F1 title eluded him, when placed in the context of when and with whom he was racing, in no way detracts from a record that is still inspiring. He was runner-up on four occasions – three times to the great Juan Manuel Fangio and once to Mike Hawthorn – and third a further three times before a crash at Goodwood in 1962 ended his career prematurely.
Fangio was at the peak of his powers when Moss joined him at Mercedes in 1955 and the British driver, often outspoken but always honest, insisted the Argentinian was the better driver. “He was the best Formula One driver of his day,” Moss said. “I knew that if I kept my eyes on him and followed his line, I would be very fast. But I saw no chance of being faster than him.”
He did score notable victories against his great rival, however. He beat him to become the first Briton to win the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955 and although Moss had said he believed his teammate had let him win, Fangio always insisted this had not been the case.
Moss recalled later: “When I asked him, after the race, if he’d held back, he said: ‘No, you were quite simply the better driver today.’”
It was Moss’s preference for privateer teams over manufacturers, alongside a determination to drive for British teams whenever he could, that contributed to missing out on the F1 title. After switching to Maserati after Mercedes, he drove for Vanwall and British Racing Motors before returning to Rob Walker’s team for two of his most striking victories – at Monaco and the Nürburgring in 1961. Facing down the new V6 ‘sharknose’ Ferrari 156 his Lotus was underpowered but his skill on the twists and turns of Monaco made up for the deficit and he won by 3.6sec, while at the Nordschleife, his decision to take wet tyres before the race proved decisive.
A fierce competitor but great sportsman, Moss was scrupulously fair as was displayed when he came closest to the title in 1958. Battling his countryman Hawthorn, the fight went to the final race of the season and his rival won by a point – a tiny margin that Hawthorn had maintained after a threat of being disqualified from the earlier Portuguese Grand Prix for reversing on the track. It had been Moss’s fervent defence of his friend that ensured he kept the second place in that race that ultimately proved crucial in the championship.
The title might yet still have been his with a drive for Ferrari lined up for 1962. Enzo Ferrari believed Moss, alongside Tazio Nuvolari, to be one of the greatest drivers of all time. He desperately wanted him to drive for the Scuderia and had even agreed to allow him to race a Ferrari in the blue colours of the privateer Walker’s team to do so.
Sadly it was not to be, as the accident while racing for the Glover Trophy at Goodwood put Moss in a coma for a month and left him partially paralysed down his left side for six months. He later attempted a comeback but after a private test session admitted he no longer had the control and concentration required.
He had already scored many notable wins in sports cars. With an unbridled enthusiasm to test himself Moss gained a class win at Le Mans, victories in endurance racing at Sebring and Reims-Gueux as well as wins in the RAC Tourist Trophy and the Targa Florio.
He entered 527 races during his 14-year professional career, finished 375 of them and won 212. Indeed, he always chose the 1955 Mille Miglia as his best performance. It was one of the exceptional drives of his generation in a punishing race across 1,000km of public roads in Italy. Driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR he set a new record time and beat Fangio by 32min. His record still stands, with the race being outlawed as too dangerous two years later.
He recalled he and the navigator Denis ‘Jenks’ Jenkinson heading slightly unprepared for a humpback bridge. “In practice it had been flat-out, but that was only at about 80mph,” he said. “When we arrived in the race, I was probably doing 170mph, and the damn thing took off. It was really frightening. All I could do was hope it would land true. We got away with it.”
As he would throughout his life he succeeded with aplomb, embracing all that came with being a driver in the 50s and 60s. In conversation with his old friend, the motorbike and F1 world champion John Surtees in 2012, he noted: “We did not have sponsors to tell us what to do, did we John? I imagine it would be a difficult decision: shall I go and chase that bird or talk to Vodafone? I can’t believe drivers today get the same pleasure we got.”
Moss unashamedly loved what he did, yet all the time he was fully aware of just how dangerous the day job was. His remarkable success should be measured against his very real awareness of the risks involved in achieving it. Moss never underestimated the nature of racing, especially during a period when safety was coming a long second to speed. “I wouldn’t say that I loved the sport because of the danger,” he said. “The fear of having a serious accident was always there; an ever-present black shadow lurking beside me in the car.”
There was, however, no sign of him allowing it to affect him. His record will for ever attest that it was behind the wheel, where he so clearly belonged, that he should be remembered.