“It was the biggest regret of my life. I wish I could pay a lot of money not to have done it. I was an absolute twit to have agreed to do it and I’ve got no-one to blame but myself”
Mallory Park must have been a surreal place to be on the third Sunday in March 1980. Chris Hodgetts, for one, couldn’t quite take in what was happening at the opening round of the British Saloon Car Championship. “One minute I’d been a milkman racing for fun in Clubmans,” remembers the tin-top debutant, “the next I was in the middle of a media frenzy, about to sit on the same grid as an Fl legend from a distant era.”
The idea of Stirling Moss competing in saloons was as unbelievable then as it would be for a 50-something Damon Hill to come out of retirement to race in the BTCC 10 or so years hence. The winner of 16 grands prix hitting the comeback trail after 18 years away, and just six months after reaching his personal half century: it could have been taken from the pages of a comic book.
Moss’s comeback was a good story. Which is why it happened in the first place. Publicity was the driving force behind his presence in Britain’s premier saloon car championship during Audi’s two-year stint The thought process that ended with him making his debut at Mallory that day began the previous autumn. Richard Lloyd, who was on his way to claiming class honours with an importer-backed Volkswagen Golf Gil, had the bright idea of handing over the Group 2 version of the car to bike ace Barry Sheene to make his four-wheel debut.
“I’d recently left the entertainment business, so I was always looking for an angle,” says Lloyd, a former record producer with Decca and sometime member of Cliff Richard’s management team. “That was how Sheene drove for us. He did the TT at Silverstone with Derek Bell.”
The result was more column inches for VW in the nationals than Lloyd had managed since Volkswagen-Audi Group UK began taking an interest in his campaigns halfway through 1977. “It made all the nationals,” remembers Tony Hill, then PR manager at VAG UK, “so I thought, ‘Hang on! If you put a celebrity in the car you get loads of publicity whether you win or not’.”
Exactly how Stirling’s name came into the frame isn’t clear though Hill insists it started out as a joke. The link was CSS Promotions, who not only managed Sheene but looked after Moss. They also held the account of the UK importers of Akai hi-fi which Lloyd had brought into motorsport to sponsor his Golf programme the previous year. The British arm of the Japanese electronics manufacturer liked the idea and Moss didn’t take much persuading to sign a two-year deal for what Hill describes as a ‘bargain’ fee. “Stirling jumped at it, as I remember,” he says. “Don’t forget, at the time he was doing more and more historic racing, so I guess it all made sense for him.”
“I remember the mechanics getting fed up and just pretending to let some air out while making a pssst noise.”
It certainly made sense to VAG. They decided to put their full weight behind Lloyd at the same time as switching to the new Audi 80 saloon for its continued assault on the 1300-1600cc class. The team Lloyd had set up to build his cars less than two years before, GTi Engineering, had two 1.6-litre G LE versions ready for the Mallory opener — one for Moss, one for himself— but the cars, and a good proportion of the 30,000-strong crowd that had turned out to see a living legend, were there before the man himself. Moss arrived back in England on the morning of the one-day meeting after jetting across the Atlantic on Concorde. He’d been racing a Maserati Birdcage T61 in an historic event supporting the Sebring 12 Hours. Almost as if to please the hordes of press and television crews, further air transport was required when his engine ingested a foreign body during practice. The head was damaged and a helicopter had to return to GTi’s Silverstone base to fetch a replacement It was hardly worth it: Moss managed just four laps before the throttle system broke and stranded him.
Engine troubles would afflict the Audis right through their two seasons, despite three years of experience with the same power plant in the Golf programme. “There was a weird problem with them that the GTis didn’t have,” remembers future McLaren F1 stylist Peter Stevens, a longtime friend of Lloyd’s who acted as an unpaid engineer. “There was a bizarre resonance in the intake, and we had repeated throttle butterfly problems, which quite often led to something being ingested by the engine.” A string of retirements meant that Moss didn’t notch up his first points score until midseason, at Silverstone in June. But even so, it was clear that he was struggling. Perhaps not surprisingly. After all, he’d been out of the cut-and-thrust of contemporary racing for nearly two decades, apart from a one-off in the Bathurst 1000 in 1976, and was having to learn about front-wheel drive and slick tyres all in one go. “It was a bit like asking a Spitfire pilot to fly a Harrier,” suggests Lloyd. “It must have been a real baptism of fire. And those Audis were pretty lairy.”
Martin Brundle, who partnered Moss the following year when the project switched to Tom Walkinshaw Racing, recalls his team-mate “struggling with the level of grip available. He wanted to drift the car, but that’s the last thing you want to do with an underpowered, front-drive touring car.”
Moss doesn’t totally disagree: “Front-wheel drive wasn’t the real problem — I found slicks very difficult,” he says. “I’d never driven on them before and it took me a while to realise how critical to temperature they were. I remember one damp race when I came up on someone else and he waved me past I went off line and simply sailed off the road because the tyres lost temperature. I had a stark awakening.” Stevens recalls a reluctance to use the kerbs, a necessity in touring car racing then, as now: “He didn’t approve of all that kind of thing. Stirling was neat and tidy as you would expect, but it wasn’t quick.” Another Stevens memory is of Audi’s star driver constantly fiddling with tyre pressures. “He was a fusspot about that, because in his day there wasn’t a lot else you could change. I remember the mechanics getting fed up with it and just pretending to let some air out while making a pssst noise.”