Lunch with... Sir Stirling Moss
Simon Taylor finds out that life for the man they used to call Mr Motor Racing is more hectic than ever. For him it’s a logical continuation of the racing career that ended 44 long years ago
Sir Stirling Moss doesn’t eat lunch. At 76 years of age, he’s far too busy. By 7am each day he’s at his desk in his self-designed, high-tech house in Shepherd Street, Mayfair. Lady Moss, his wife Susie, is at her desk on the floor above. They call up and down the spiral staircase to each other as phones ring, faxes chatter and computers click.
Stirling Moss Limited is a thriving business, with a full-time staff of two. Since he doggedly crawled up out of the coma and paralysis that followed his dreadful (and still unexplained) Goodwood accident, 44 years ago now, and fought back to healthy life, Stirling has earned his living from personal appearances, PR and endorsements. Just as he did when he was racing, he charges a healthy rate – and then delivers 100 per cent. If you’ve bought Stirling’s time for an hour, he’ll give you 65 full-throttle minutes. Around the world, he seems to be in ever-increasing demand. He and Susie fly a quarter of a million miles a year, and a lot of the work involves driving: the Japanese Mille Miglia, the Argentinian 1000 Milas, the Ennstal Classic in Austria. The commitments pile up, from Australia to Abergavenny, Goodwood to Gothenburg. And he’s still racing: in two days he’s off to Le Mans to campaign an Osca in the Motor Racing Legends event.
“Don’t let’s go to a restaurant, boy. That’ll kill an hour. If you need to eat we’ll grab a sandwich from the place round the corner. All the taxi drivers go there. Best Coronation Chicken you ever tasted.” Stirling is always enthusiastically evangelical about his discoveries. Today it’s a German company producing a 1/18 scale model of his 1960 Nürburgring 1000km-winning Birdcage Maserati. “Just look at this. Every little tube is right, and the wire wheels. Under the bonnet, look, the oil filler cap opens.”
This is the man who, to everyone of my generation at least, is still the world’s most famous racing driver. Carve up a London cabbie, and it’ll be: “’Oo you fink you are, Stirling Moss?” Not Mansell, or Stewart, or Hunt.
Like Gordon Bennett, his name has unthinkingly slid into our language.
Even if you weren’t born when his racing career ended against the St Mary’s bank on April 23, 1962, you probably rate Moss as the greatest British racing driver of all time. No World Championship titles: just the ability to race, and win, in any sort of car on any sort of day. In 15 seasons he did 496 races. He retired in 130 of them – cars were less reliable then – but, of the 366 he finished, he won 222. It’s a 60 per cent hit rate. As a true road racer, he was unbeatable.
We trot to the sandwich bar, and Stirling uses the time to tell me his latest joke. Last night he was in Vienna to launch a new range of Austrian postage stamps, one of them depicting his 1961 Monaco GP victory. The joke, about a Chinaman having his dustbins emptied, is politically incorrect, rather rude, and very funny. It’s unrepeatable in print, but “I told it to the British Ambassador in Vienna last night, and His Excellency seemed to like it.” Stirling notes ruefully that his stamp is only 75 cents, while the Jack Brabham one is 125 cents. I point out that the Moss stamp will probably go on first-class letters, while Brabham’s will only be used for parcels, which delights him.
Stirling queues with the office workers and taxi drivers, orders Coronation Chicken on Brown and a bottle of still water, with the same for me, and minutes later he’s back at his desk. Susie works on without a sandwich. “She runs the business with me, knows far more about it all than I do. My floppy disc is full now, but she has an incredible memory. Not just organising me and looking after all the admin: on historic rallies and the Mille Miglias, she navigates and works the watches. When I was racing a Chevron recently, she had to change the ratios in the Hewland box. Did it brilliantly, too. They loved it in the paddock.”
They’ve been married for 26 years; their son Elliott is in the restaurant business. Flying to the Tasman Series in the 1950s, Stirling used to break his journey with a Hong Kong-based friend who had two small daughters. As a visitor’s gift, he gave the younger one a toy giraffe. She still had it when, 20 years later, she came to London to work. They were married in 1980, and he depends on her absolutely. “She’s involved in every trip, organising and taking part. We haven’t spent a night apart this century. I couldn’t have done that with my other wives.”
Stirling justifies his hectic pace by quoting his motto: “Movement is tranquillity, boy. I only feel tired if I do nothing. Keeping on the move is relaxing to me.” After commitments at this year’s Australian GP on the Sunday, he had to speak at a dinner in Manhattan on the Monday. “After the race we flew to Sydney, on to LA and then New York. We landed at Kennedy and went straight to the dinner. Of course, the time change helped us.”
He also owns several residential properties, which he looks after himself. “I’m very hands-on. If a tenant rings up and says the washing machine’s broken, I go round myself and try to fix it. I get a lot of satisfaction from that. If I can save a plumber’s £60 call-out fee, it’s almost like getting pole at Monaco!
“All my properties are within scooter distance. I used to go everywhere by scooter, but one day I got on some spilt diesel near Waterloo Station and fell off. Broke my pelvis. After that Susie said no more two wheels, so I found a tiny three-wheel scooter that Honda make for Japan only, and imported one.
“Then I found I was being done for the Central London congestion charge, because it wasn’t a two-wheeler. Outrageous – the back of the thing is only 22 inches wide. So I went to see Ken Livingstone. He agreed the charge wasn’t meant for vehicles like mine. So I said, good, give me an exemption. He said he couldn’t do that, but he’d get the law changed. I’m still waiting.”
In May he was at Monaco, of course – at the historics, racing (until its transmission broke) the unique four-wheel-drive Ferguson with which he won the 1961 Oulton Park Gold Cup, and flying back for the F1 race the following weekend. What does he think of the Schumacher Affair?
“I couldn’t believe a professional could cheat like that. Terrible. I think it’s a tragedy. The man has spent years building up a wonderful reputation, and now he’s thrown it away. He’s not the best driver ever, of course – he’s won seven world titles, but he’s racing in the Safe Era, you see. His greatest contribution to racing has been putting Ferrari back on top, but for me only Senna, in the modern era, really had the passion. Prost was like Stewart – an exceptional driver, but not a real racer. I was more a Gilles Villeneuve man: he never made it to the top, but he was unbelievable to watch. In my day, Jean Behra was the same. Nowadays I think Alonso is bloody brilliant. I think Kimi would be up there too, if only McLaren could give him the right equipment.”
Was there ever an equivalent to the Schumacher ruse in Stirling’s day? “Absolutely not – the other drivers wouldn’t have let anyone get away with something like that. I’ve raced against lots of tough drivers who would stake their claim to a piece of road. Jack used to like putting a wheel on the grass when you were close behind, to try to throw stones in your face. But Schumacher was so blatant: with TV and telemetry nowadays, he must have known everybody would work out what he was doing.”
Before flying to Vienna, Stirling was at Goodwood to test the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage road car. His Aston and Goodwood connections are strong: his TT victory in 1959, which clinched the World Sports Car Championship for Aston over Ferrari, was achieved after his DBR1 caught fire during a refuelling stop. He took over another Aston and drove for 4hrs 36mins of the six-hour race, caught up the lost time and won by half a minute. But for Stirling the interesting comparison was between the new V8 and the short-wheelbase 250GT Ferrari, with which he scored his sixth and seventh TT wins at Goodwood. “D’you know, boy, I was doing the same lap times in the Vantage as I did back then in the Ferrari. Didn’t half feel quick. Surface is a bit better now, of course, but I was just about flat through Fordwater.”
Throughout his career, Moss exuded confidence. Racing was very dangerous then, and many of Stirling’s friends were killed in the heat of battle. Was he ever frightened? “Yes. You were always aware of the consequences of something happening. I was nervous for my own well-being, I suppose. But I can’t remember ever having an accident because of driver error. My Spa accident” – when his Lotus lost a rear wheel at 140mph, and he broke both legs and crushed three vertebrae – “if that had been my fault I would have given up there and then. But it was a Chapman failure, so it was acceptable.
“The Mille Miglia was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. In a way it was like driving through the Monaco tunnel, where you can’t see the exit of the corner until you’re past the apex, but all the time, for 10 hours.
“But when I was racing I was never scared that I wouldn’t give my best. I always felt confident in my own ability. I don’t think I was big-headed – I would have hated to be that – but I just felt I could beat the others. I always rather liked starting from the back of the grid and coming through, I liked being the underdog. I loved to drive English cars, because you felt like a green gladiator fighting the red lions. Patriotism doesn’t matter nowadays, but it mattered to me.”
We talk of team managers, and Stirling remembers Rob Walker with huge affection – a good friend and a wonderful patron. Tony Vandervell was “a tough old bugger, but his heart was in the right place”, and Stirling grins at the memory of the ferocious Aston Martin boss John Wyer. “He would never praise anybody. So when he said something like, ‘Maybe under the circumstances, Moss, you didn’t do too bad a job’, you really felt good!”
A year and a week after the Easter Monday accident, he went back to an empty Goodwood and tested a Lotus 19. His times, on a damp track, were competitive, but he felt that the automatic flow of driving a racing car on the limit had gone – he was having to think consciously about each command to steering and pedals. “With hindsight, I did that test too early. My accident and the aftermath had stirred up a lot of interest, and I felt I owed it to the press and the public to make up my mind. After my previous accidents I’d always come back to racing very quickly” – unbelievably, after that horrifying Spa accident, he won a race seven weeks later – “but after Goodwood I didn’t give myself enough time to heal myself mentally, get my concentration back.”
Other regrets? “I never raced in the Indy 500. I would have loved all that bullshit. And I’m sorry we could never go flat out at Le Mans, like they can now. A really hard race for 24 hours would be something: but in my day you had to cruise to preserve the car. Actually, with the Mercedes 300SLRs in 1955, Neubauer didn’t set us any limits: it was down to us. I’m certain Fangio and I would have won. We had a big lead when the call came from Stuttgart at 1.45am to withdraw because of poor Levegh’s accident.”
Stirling also wishes he hadn’t been persuaded, at the age of 52, to take up touring car racing. He signed a two-year contract to drive for Audi alongside Martin Brundle. “It was the biggest mistake of my life. I’d never raced a front-drive car before. I’d never raced on slicks before. And the standard of driving was appalling. If you finished a race without damage to all four corners of your car, you weren’t trying hard enough. It wasn’t my style, and I didn’t enjoy it.”
So, out of those 496 races, which ones stay with him? “The Mille Miglia win was the most important to my career, I suppose. But I think my best race was probably Monaco 1961. The shark-nosed Ferraris were dominant that year, and I was in my old four-cylinder Rob Walker Lotus. I put it on pole, but at the start the Ferraris got ahead on sheer power into St Devote, and it took me 14 laps to get past them. I just had to go flat out everywhere the whole way, precision all the time, no errors. I won by 3.6 seconds.” What he modestly doesn’t mention is that his race time for the 100 laps was exactly 40 seconds more than his pole lap, multiplied by 100. In other words, including getting past the Ferraris, he averaged 0.4sec slower than pole, on every lap, round Monaco, for nearly three hours….
He was also quietly pleased with the 1961 Silverstone International Trophy. Run in driving rain, it had a full field including Brabham, Clark, Hill, McLaren, Surtees and the rest, and provided a good opportunity for Moss gamesmanship. “I always liked racing in the wet, reading the road, and I discovered a patch of slightly grippier surface, off-line, on one of the corners. So while Brabham and Co were on my tail I deliberately got it wildly sideways on that corner, and then caught it on the grippier stuff and motored on. I was kind of selling them a dummy. In my mirrors I saw they’d backed off, thinking: if he’s having that much trouble I’d better take it easy here.” By the end of the 233-mile race Stirling had lapped the entire field.
He dislikes today’s emphasis on championships and points. To him it was always the race that mattered. “I felt, the most important race I can ever do is the race I’m doing now. Today, I can win. Today, I can lose my reputation. Today, I can die. Big race, small race, that was what I was going for. I’d rather lose a race driving fast enough to win it, than win a race driving slow enough to lose it.”
When he had his Goodwood accident, it was in a minor race. He’d lost time with a long pitstop, and had no hope of catching the leaders. But he was racing flat-out, as usual – trying to lose that race fast enough to win it.
Stirling’s life is different today, but he’s still flat out. The philosophies that made him a great racer, and a fine sportsman, still govern his life. Between 1948 and 1962, he made motor racing better by taking part. And, in his way, he’s still doing that.