The 2002 Formula One season may have been largely desultory, for many reasons, but for me it had its moments. Take Monza. I as good as knew that I was boarding yet another flight to witness yet another Ferrari victory, but John Prescott will be on nodding terms with his mother tongue before Monza loses its appeal for me. Denis Jenkinson always said that if he were allowed to attend only one race a year, it would be the Italian Grand Prix, and I feel the same way.
In September, we duly witnessed another Maranello 1-2, or rather, 2-1 in this case, for Rubens Barrichello was allowed to finish in front of Michael Schumacher — but if the race itself were of little interest, my Monza weekend was already a success, for on the Saturday I spent the best part of an hour with Froilan Gonzalez. Gonzalez, of course, was the first man to win a world championship grand prix in a Ferrari, at Silverstone in 1951, and his face cracked into a beam when I told him that I had been there. It was the first race to which I was ever taken and, being but five at the time, I don’t remember a lot about it. Therefore, when recently someone asked me which was the first grand prix I had been to, I told a white lie, because the ’55 race, at Aintree, is the first of which I have clear memories.
In point of fact, the result of this particular British GP was every bit as predictable as any in the 2002 season, in that, barring an Act of God, a Mercedes victory was guaranteed, almost certainly with Juan Manuel Fangio in the winning car.
My father, though, had a suspicion that, this being Britain, Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer might prefer to see Stirling Moss first over the line, pointing out that the year before, in the non-championship race at Avus, Karl Kling had finished ahead of Fangio. My dad, resolutely unworldly in commercial matters, probably never gave a thought to marketing; simply put, a Moss win at Aintree would be popular with the home crowd, just as Kling’s victory at Avus had gone down well with Berliners. That was his theory, anyway.
So off we went to Aintree, early on a scorching Saturday morning in July, and on the old East Lancashire Road we were passed, I remember, by an HWM-Jaguar, driven at considerable speed by George Abecassis, wearing goggles, but no helmet. I always loved to see a racing car on the road. This was going to be some day…
Strange the things from childhood that stick in the mind. In those days, you could park dose to the fence, and the idea was that the space in front of the car was then yours for the day.
Remarkably enough, it was respected, too. You put down a rug, with your picnic stuff on it, and knew it would not be trampled underfoot.
The first race, due to start at 11, was the 500cc F3 event, and as we waited in the sun, protesters against capital punishment moved among us with their placards: a few days before, Ruth Ellis had been hanged for the murder of a playboy racing driver, David Blakely. There was little commotion among the spectators, though; this was England in the ’50s, after all.
After the F3 race (won by Jim Russell), we had the sportscars (Roy Salvadori heading an Aston Martin 1-2-3-4), and then, at 2.30, the British Grand Prix. The man responsible for the programme notes was clearly not one to stick his neck out. “Motor races seldom run to form,” he wrote, “but logically the silver-grey Mercedes should win.”
Mercedes had returned to racing the previous year, and any doubts about their ability to be competitive, after a very lengthy absence, were dispelled at the first race, at Reims: Fangio and Kling finished 1-2, a tenth of a second apart, with no-one else on the same lap. Thereafter, Fangio won the German, Swiss and Italian grands prix, and went on to the second of his five world championships. Only at Silverstone — the open-wheel W196 had not yet appeared, and the ‘streamliner’ proved unsuitable for the hack — and in Spain, where Juan Manuel finished third (engine overheating after a spectator’s newspaper had got jammed in the radiator), did Mercedes fail to win.
What the Barcelona race revealed, though, was that if Fangio had a problem of any kind, the team lacked another driver capable of stepping up to the plate. Thus Neubauer signed young Moss for 1955, while Kling was also retained, now the third driver.
Following the dreadful accident at Le Mans in 1955, several grands prix were cancelled, and that left the British as one of only three races to take place after June. Already Fangio had won at Buenos Aires, Spa and Zandvoort, and was comfortably on course for another title. Only at Monte Carlo had Mercedes contrived to lose, Fangio and Moss both retiring.
As a besotted fan of Jean Behra, at Aintree I was praying for divine intervention, and only he, indeed, had been able to disturb the Mercedes symmetry in qualifying—or ‘practice’, as it was called in those days. At the last minute, Mercedes entered a fourth car, for Piero Taruffi, and they lined up 1-2-4-5, with Behra third, joining Moss and Fangio on the front row. Stirling led from the start, but his Argentine master moved by him after a couple of laps, and here before us, yet again, was the story of the 1955 grand prix season: Fangio leading, Moss on his tail. Interestingly, though, Moss noted in his diary that day: ‘Took lead at start, due to Behra’s proximity. Let Fangio lead later, and at 18 laps took lead to the end’. Let Fangio lead.
No-one could get near the two Mercedes. Behra kept his Maserati in vague touch for 10 laps, but when he retired, with a broken oil pipe, the only hint of a challenge to the Mercedes quartet was gone. If Kling and Taruffi were unable to keep the leading pair anywhere in sight, they were beyond threat from any red, green or blue interlopers.
For the Mercedes mechanics, it was the usual quiet afternoon. Indeed, one of them took himself, and his tools, to the Vanwall pit, and there repaired a broken oil pipe on Ken Wharton’s car!
If, as a race, it was largely uneventful, for the spectators there was at least the excitement — and the novelty — of an Englishman in the lead. Could Moss win? Towards the end Fangio speeded up, cutting back Stirling’s lead, which at one point went out to 12sec. And Moss, ever the professional, obeyed ‘slow’ pit signals from Neubauer, although he did cut loose briefly towards the end, equalling his pole time on the 88th of 90 laps.
On the last lap the leading W196 slowed right down, almost to a crawl, allowing the Fangio car to close — but then, out of Tatts, the last corner, the pair of them floored it, crossing the line half a length apart. Kling, third, was well over a minute behind, and Taruffi, fourth, was lapped.
“I backed off on the last lap,” Moss says, “because I wasn’t sure of what we were supposed to do — but when the Old Man was still behind me at the final corner, I can tell you I gave it everything on the run up to the line! “Don’t ask me if he let me win that day, because in all honesty I don’t know, and it was something we never discussed subsequently. I can tell you that there were no prearranged tactics between us, no team orders from Neubauer. Perhaps it was suggested to Fangio that he should let me win, because it was the British GP. It’s quite possible. But he wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever have let me know it, unlike some drivers of the recent past. He had too much class for that”
So did the great Juan Manuel ‘allow’ his young team-mate to win that afternoon? Moss was an Englishman in England, and Fangio, the only man who knew, took the truth to the grave.
It is entirely possible, as Moss says, that Neubauer whispered in Fangio’s car before the start, that Stirling was permitted to win, but he seemed to have an edge throughout that particular weekend, and had beaten Fangio to pole position. In the race, his fastest lap was almost two seconds faster.
I only ever interviewed Fangio at length on one occasion, and of course I asked him about that race. His response was typically enigmatic: “I don’t think I could have won, even if I’d wanted to. Stirling was really pushing that day, and his car had a higher final drive than mine. It was quicker.”
Whatever, Moss had scored his first GP victory, and at the same time became the first Englishman ever to win his home race. Just a few weeks before, he had won the Mille Miglia, but even that, he once told me, was not comparable with winning a grand prix before your own people.
Whatever else, it had little to do with money. The first prize in the British Grand Prix, apart from the Daily Telegraph Trophy, was £500. ‘That was the total for the team,” Moss smiles. “I mean, I didn’t get all of it”
Already he was very firmly in the national consciousness. As we drove home that night, it looked as though we were going to be done for speeding, but the motorcycle cop merely drew alongside, and signalled for my father to lower his window. “Drop it to 30, Stirling,” he said.