Motorsport legend Sir Sitrling Moss has died at the age of 90. Following Sir Stirling’s retirement in 2018, Andrew Frankel celebrated the 16-time grand prix winner’s incredible career by touring the scenes of some of his finest moments. This is Andrew’s feature as it ran at the time.
When he was young, he was known as the Boy Wonder. In time, he would become simply ‘Mr Motor Racing’.
If you ever wanted to prove that statistics prove nothing at all, the fact that Sir Stirling Craufurd Moss never won the Formula 1 world championship offers the evidence you need.
He should have won in 1958, winning four grands prix to Mike Hawthorn’s one. The latter appeared to have lost the crown when he was disqualified from the Portuguese GP for pushing his car the wrong way up the track. On the contrary, said Moss at his rival’s appeal, at the time Hawthorn was on the pavement…
Sir Stirling moss dies at the age of 90
Moss gained Hawthorn seven points, and lost the title to him by just one. Imagine Lewis Hamilton speaking up for Sebastian Vettel in such a way with so much as a bag of Jelly Babies at stake. That, far more than his myriad achievements and long before I got to call him a friend, is why Moss has always been my hero.
Why this now? Simply because, after a long illness and at the age of 88, Moss has retired from public life, and now seemed as good a time as any to visit places on the British mainland where just some of the most extraordinary feats of his career were accomplished. As for transport, we wanted a car from a brand he’d raced, which today still includes BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Maserati, Ferrari, Lister, Lotus, MG and, if you count Cooper, Mini too. I chose a Maserati because it was his performances in a private 250F that brought Moss to the attention of Mercedes-Benz and catapulted him to stardom.
We opted for a GranTurismo MC, a car whose brief pleasingly combines the long-distance requirements of the 1000-mile journey it was to do with being the most sporting Maserati currently on sale.
It’s an old and flawed car, already past its 10th birthday and never class-leading even when new. But it doesn’t irritate as exotic Italians once did. The seats are comfortable, the driving position respectable. Apple CarPlay ensures decent entertainment and navigation.
Quaintly, you still put the key in the ignition, but I like that. On the journey north to Aintree, it was a far more pleasant companion than I had expected.
Aintree? You may remember this was once home to the British Grand Prix, but no one we met seemed to care. Large sections of the old track still exist within the famous Grand National race course, but even at 10 days’ distance from the horse race, the suggestion that we might park a car to take a quick snap was met with instant refusal accompanied by mild incredulity and, once, some rudeness.
But we had to come because it was here in 1955 that the boy became a man, winning his first world championship GP, crossing the line in his Mercedes-Benz W196 a fraction of a second ahead of team- mate Juan Fangio. Moss still doesn’t know if the great Argentine driver gifted him the win in his home race – Fangio always insisted not – and I wanted to see if there was any monument to this moment, the first time any British driver had won such a race since the inauguration of F1 in 1950. In the event, we left as soon as we could.
The reception we got at Oulton Park, a fiddly 35-mile journey to the south, could scarcely have been more different. We turned up unannounced but they understood what we were trying to do and made not just the track but their staff available to enable us to do it.
It seems a little odd to visit a circuit in Cheshire when so many of Moss’s greatest moments happened at some of the world’s greatest tracks like the Nürburgring and Monaco, but it was at Oulton Park that Moss did something no one else has managed to date: he won an F1 race in a car fitted with four-wheel drive.
The Ferguson-Climax P99 was essentially a test bed for four-wheel drive in racing form. The idea fascinated Moss, a gadget fiend then as now, and he simply loved the challenge of adapting his driving style to suit. The 1961 Oulton Park International Gold Cup may not have counted towards the world championship, but with drivers like Jim Clark, John Surtees and Jack Brabham in the field, the opposition was not one whit less tough for that. This was a race won on merit.
And just a little bit of luck. By 1961, the P99 should have been obsolete because it placed its engine in front of the driver and was quite heavy. But the combination of its phenomenal traction, the magic of Moss and, yes, a slightly damp track meant the finest drivers in the world were powerless against them. He won by 43sec from Brabham, McLaren and Brooks. Every other finisher got lapped. It was not only the first and only F1 win by a car with four-wheel drive, it was also the last by a front-engined car. Of all the F1 cars he ever drove, Moss said it was the P99 he’d most like to drive again.
Sadly, we could not stay as long as we’d have liked and were soon heading south. If I compare the Maserati to, say, the Porsche 911 GTS coupé quite a lot less money will buy, I find there is little comparison to make. In every way save possibly ride quality, the Porsche is better. Faster, funnier, more agile, communicative, simpler to operate, easier to live with – the list goes on.
Despite its 4.7-litre V8 engine, the GranTurismo is not a fast car by modern standards. On one great bit of road, I drove it as fast as I thought prudent only to suffer the indignity of seeing photographer Stan Papior in a Honda Civic Type R sitting filling the rear-view mirror from start to finish and clearly not trying at all.
Yet I was surprised by how much I liked the Maser. It’s a surprisingly good long-distance car, quiet and comfortable, and ergonomically nothing like as annoying as Italian tourers of yesteryear. And for the look ofits body and sound of its engine, you’d forgive it anything. For all its manifest shortcomings, this Maserati oozes charm and that counts for a lot with cars like this. By the time we reached the Silverstone paddock, I felt some affection for it.
We were here not because Moss drove one of his greatest races here but to show the extraordinary versatility of the man. Today it’s front-page news if a current F1 driver even decides to do Le Mans, but back then everyone drove everything – and none more so than Moss.
It was at Silverstone Moss showed he could win in anything, in this case in both 1952 and 1953 an enormous Jaguar Mark VII saloon. Like trying to race Westminster Abbey, it rolled so much in corners that Moss had to brace himself by wedging his left leg against the passenger door. Yet he still won two years running and would have had a hat-trick had the starter motor not jammed in 1954. He had to get out of the car, rock the body to loosen the starter, climb back in and try all over again. And he still came third. Moss loved the Mark VII so much he said he probably preferred driving it to the pure race C- and D-Type Jaguars the company was making at the same time.
An overnight stop brought the GranTurismo growling into the paddock of Castle Combe, a place I wanted to come to illustrate another facet of Moss’s make-up – his absolute indestructibility. We all know of his awful 1962 Goodwood crash, most will remember he fell down a lift shaft aged 80 and recovered to race again, and some will recall he broke his nose, back and legs in a 140mph shunt at Spa in 1960, but his career could have ended far earlier than that, right here at Castle Combe in 1953.
He had entered a ‘Formula Libre’ race, which as the name implies was pretty much a free-for-all. He was in a Cooper F3 car but fitted with a 1-litre vee twin JAP engine and, despite being up against all sorts of more powerful machinery, raced away into an early lead. But braking for the notorious Quarry corner, a much larger Connaught clipped the back of the Cooper, flipping it over, apparently landing on Moss’s head protected only by a cork helmet before flinging him clear out of the car.
Moss leapt to his feet and sprinted to safety before collapsing with injuries including a broken shoulder that would keep him out of action for three months. As at Oulton, the staff at Combe could not have been more welcoming and it was sobering to visit the spot to reflect on where so great a career could have concluded scarcely after it had begun.
Our final stop was Goodwood. Where else? Goodwood and Moss are pretty much indivisible. His first race here – which was also only his third race anywhere – set the mould. In a 500cc Cooper, starting well down a grid decided by ballot, the race lasted just three laps and he won by over half of one of them. Of course, the circuit almost killed him, too, in that last awful impact against the bank at St Mary’s in 1962.
The crash left him in a coma for a month and paralysed down one side for half a year, but he did once admit to me that it probably also saved his life. In this most lethal of eras, the odds of surviving to race until the mid-1970s, as he’d intended, were probably slim.
Moss won so much here at this incomparable Sussex circuit, it’s hard to choose one race as his best. I was tempted by the 1961 RAC Tourist Trophy for the sheer nonchalance of winning in a Ferrari 250SWB while listening to the commentary of the race on the in-car radio, but I’m going to go for the same event (he won four on the trot here between 1958 and 1961) in 1959.
Driving an Aston Martin DBR1, he left the field for dead (no great surprise there – if Moss was in a competitive and reliable car at Goodwood, best of the rest was the most any rival could hope for) but then had his day very nearly spoiled when his car erupted in flames at a fuel stop and set fire to the pits too. But the team commandeered a pit belonging to a customer in the same race, called in a sister car lying in fourth place, gave it to Moss and told him to do what he did best.
He not only overcame the deficit but extended his lead to win by half a minute. In that instant and against absurd odds including a field comprising five former or future F1 champions and full works teams from both Ferrari and Porsche, Moss delivered to Aston Martin the World Sports Car Championship when all had seemed lost.
It’s a long drive home to Wales from Goodwood but, if the traffic is light and you’re in a GranTurismo and need time to think, not an unpleasant one. To me, Moss is the greatest driver this country has produced, not just for all he won but the way he won them. All top-level drivers will tell you they were as good as anyone, except those from that era, who tend to add to the little codicil ‘except for Stirling’.
Tough as they come but scrupulously fair, a man who raced not despite the dangers but because of them, who’d scrap for tenth as hard as for first and who’d give up the title to defend you if he thought it the right thing to do, he is one of a tiny number of sportspeople from all fields and eras genuinely to deserve to be called ‘hero’.
FIVE MORE STIRLING DRIVES – MOSS’S MOST MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES OUTSIDE THE UK
REIMS SPORTS CAR RACE 1952
This was a race he won in a Jaguar C-Type, the first victory ever by any car equipped with the disc brakes he had personally helped develop.
ITALIAN GRAND PRIX 1954
Okay, Moss came 10th, but he was leading Fangio in his dad’s Maserati 250F when his engine blew. He then pushed the car half a mile to the finish.
MILLE MIGLIA 1955
Probably his most famous win, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at an average speed of almost 100mph, setting a course record that would never be broken.
US GRAND PRIX 1960
Who won the first World Championship F1 race in a Lotus? It wasn’t a Lotus driver but Moss in Rob Walker’s private car, beating the factory car of Innes Ireland by 40sec.
MONACO GRAND PRIX 1961
Driving an outdated private Lotus 18 against the cream of Ferrari’s works drivers, it was Moss’s mastery alone that ensured him a famous victory.
A GRAND NATIONAL TOUR
Our Stirling Moss trail took in some of Britain’s most historic racing venues, starting at Aintree in Merseyside (where it’s now mainly horses doing battle) and culminating 370 miles later at Goodwood on the south coast.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN?
Few would argue that, at the time of his Goodwood accident, Moss was still improving. His two greatest single-seater drives – victory in the 1961 German and Monaco grands prix – came in his final season before the crash. So desperate was Enzo Ferrari to sign him that he had agreed to supply cars to Rob Walker painted blue because, having been let down by the Old Man before, Moss refused to work directly for Maranello.
As he was being pulled out of the wreck of his Lotus, a brand new Ferrari 250GTO was waiting for him in the paddock. The idea of Moss in a GTO and the fact it never happened makes it almost too tantalising to contemplate.
In time, Moss bitterly regretted his decision to retire, made when he was not fully recovered, but not as much as he’d regret his decision to take up racing again in 1980 aged 50 in an Audi 80 touring car sharing with a young Martin Brundle. Completely unfamiliar with slick tyres and front-wheel drive, Moss was outclassed, except at Brands Hatch the following year where, for once, it rained.
Suddenly, Moss was back in his element. Having qualified 11th, he was second and challenging for the lead before mechanical failure ruined what would have been one of the greatest comeback stories of all.