Sir Stirling Moss: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

Stirling Moss' knighthood goes to a driver who epitomised all that can be good about sport. A man who took a lot out of racing, and who gave a great deal back

A strange thing, the Honours List. Given poor behaviour is apparently something to be celebrated these days, perhaps we should not have been surprised to note the name of Mr Ian Wright among the recipients, presumably for services to loutishness and spitting.

It wasn’t all absurd, however, for Henry Cooper and Stirling Moss, two men who epitomised all that can be good about sport, received knighthoods, and one can only wonder why it took The Establishment nearly 30 years to conclude each did a pretty fair job for his country It was not, after all, as if either ever committed what used to be the cardinal sin, and skipped off abroad to avoid British taxes.

Almost 39 years have passed since the end of Moss’s career as a professional racing driver. The cliché that’s unfailingly trotted out is that he was “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”; but for me he was the greatest driver, period. Conjure a blend of the style and ease of Alain Prost and the passion and commitment of Ayrton Senna, and an image of Stirling at his zenith comes into focus.

Jenks said his boyhood hero was Bernd Rosemeyer, adding, “Of course everyone’s hero was Nuvolari”. It was that way in the ’50s, too: if Jean Behra was my hero, Stirling was everyone’s hero. It went without saying.

A clear memory from those days is listening to the radio coverage of the 1955 Tourist Trophy from Dundrod. Sharing a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, with John Fitch, Moss won, but it was a terrible day for racing, with three drivers losing their lives.

Perhaps, aged nine, I was callous, already inured to tragedy in this sport to which I was in thrall. Whatever, it was not, I’m sorry to say, the fatalities which made the biggest impression me; late in the race Behra crashed his Maserati, and while his injuries were not critical, he’d not race for a while. Next weekend was the Oulton Park Gold Cup: I’d be there, he would not.

Then the clouds began to lift. Mercedes were not entered for Oulton, and Maserati asked if Moss could take Behra’s place in a factory 250E In those civilised days, contracts were rarely broken, but often waived, and Alfred Neubauer raised no objection.

Stirling won, beating the Lancia D50s of Mike Hawthorn and Eugenio Castellotti, and my abiding memory is of the way he went through Old Hall immediately after taking the flag. His right arm waving in victory, halfway through the corner he poked the throttle so the lovely red car jinked sideways. It was gathered up in a trice, of course, right arm still in the air.

Moss adored the 250F. It wasn’t a machine efficient in the Teutonic manner, like the W196, but he loved it because it could be over-driven, allowing artistry in the cockpit to claim its own reward. In the same way, when rear-engined cars arrived, he enjoyed a Cooper more than a Lotus. Of course, if winning were all that mattered, Mercedes and Lotus would get the nod, but for Stirling it was racing which came before anything else.

Although his preference was always for F1, he raced sportscars with equal passion — it was the same, whatever he drove, which is why Mario Andretti, another consummate all-rounder, holds him in such regard.

For the same reason, Moss admired Andretti deeply. “It was very easy for me to understand how Mario went on racing as long as he did, however much he had in the bank. That man is a racer, like Gilles Villeneuve was a racer. And like I was, I think.

“I know the fashion these days is to quit when you have made your money, at 34 or something, but I couldn’t have done that — I’d never have been that smart! No, quite seriously, I couldn’t have quit. I loved it far too much.” “If Moss had put reason before passion,” Enzo Ferrari said, “he would have been World Champion many times.” Undeniably so — but he wouldn’t then have been Stirling Moss. The attraction of driving, in his last four seasons, for Rob Walker was not simply that he liked the man; there was the added frisson of beating the factory teams.

“I suppose if I were racing today as successfully as I did then,” he mused a while ago, “I’d be earning five million or something.” (And the rest, Stirling. And the rest.) “I don’t think that’s beneficial — I think it’s gone too far. A real racer shouldn’t need incentives to win. A driver, yes, a racer, no. To me, it was always a sport, not a technical exercise.”

Stirling was but 32 at the time of the Goodwood accident on Easter Monday in 1962. I watched the race on television, and began to tremble when they said he had crashed, that the situation was “serious”.

Today we have grown accustomed to drivers’ survival of huge accidents, but photographs of Moss’s Lotus are sobering even now. For 40 minutes they laboured to free him from the spaceframe car, which had folded like a penknife blade when it hit the bank.

He has always kept a diary, and many of the entries are nicely laconic. When his Lotus 18 lost a wheel, during practice for the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, he was very badly injured, yet the page for Saturday, June 18, simply reads thus: “Shunt Nose. Back. Legs. Bruises. Bugger!”

Just six weeks later, Stirling raced — and won — in a sportscar race in Sweden, but there was to be no such miraculous recovery from the Goodwood debacle. In his 1962 diary, we get to the Easter weekend, and he talks of practice, of the three cars he was to race on the Monday. “Cocktails at the Duke’s”, he noted, “then on to a party, bed at 3am”. Next day, Sunday, there was another cocktail party. “And the day after, of course,” he remarks, “there’s nothing…”

There would be nothing further until June 4, when a child-like scrawl records just this: “Feeling very tired. Later Innes (Ireland) came round for a while.”

The gaping white void in the pages strikes you like sudden silence at a race track. These were Moss’s days of coma, when bulletins from the Atkinson Morley Hospital were the first item on the news.

For almost a month he drifted in and out of consciousness, and was shocked when first coherent enough to take in the date. Little by little, however, he began to mend. The paralysis of his left side had been the consequence of bruising to the brain, and it would be six months before he regained full mobility. There were other injuries, fractures and severe wounds, but crucial, as Stirling says, was “the bang on the head”. To this day he has no recollection of the accident, or what led to it.

Twelve months after the accident, Moss had physically recovered almost completely, and felt he was able to try a racing car again. He went back to Goodwood and got back in a Lotus, this time a 19 sportscar. And, in the evening, that sad announcement on the news: “I have decided to retire; I won’t drive again.”

Once I told him how heartbroken I had been to learn of his decision. “You can imagine, then,” he said, “how I felt…” More than sad was that Stirling came to regret it. He decided to retire, not because the miraculous skills had gone away, but because he felt they had to be called up; it wasn’t automatic any more. If he wasn’t going to be Stirling Moss as was, he wasn’t going to race. It was as simple as that

In fact, he had grossly underestimated the time needed for complete recovery. If his limbs were intact, his eyesight OK, the injury to the brain was far from fully healed. At the time Stirling assumed his relative lack of concentration to be a permanent legacy of the accident. A couple of years later everything was back, and in full working order. But by then, though, life had moved on.

Had there been no accident that day in 1962, Stirling reckons he would have raced at least until the mid ’70s, and what a tantalising picture that calls to mind. Just as tragedy robbed us of a Senna-Schumacher era, so also we missed Moss, still very much in his pomp, against a fully matured Clark.

A cruel sport it is. “I took a lot out of this sport,” Moss said in 1962, “but I think that I put a great deal back, too. I feel I gave it all but my life.” Indeed so.