Avant garda

1949: Circuito del Garda

Once upon a time, Sir Stirling Moss was just a young talent trying to establish his name in Europe. The day he did it, he did it for Cooper, too, as David Malsher describes

Contrary to popular belief, Grand Prix racing’s post-war rear-engined revolution did not start at Buenos Aires in 1958, courtesy of Stirling Moss and Cooper. There, this combination were underlining the writing they had first put on the wall nine years earlier, in Italy.

The ninth Circuito del Garda held on this amazing 10-mile course attracted 50,000 spectators, all expecting to see the home element dominate. And in numerical terms, they did. There were Villoresi and Bonetto in works F2 Ferraris; Tadini, Bracco, Bianchetti and Sterzi in privateer Ferraris; Biondetti, Carini and Romano in Maseratis ; Taruffi and Macchieraldo in Cisitalias; Serafini in an OSCA.

But mixing it with the local stars was a 19-year-old Inglese, who just two months earlier had won the 500cc race supporting the British GP in a Cooper-JAP. At Silverstone, though, he had taken on, and beaten, similar machines. Here, the 1000cc version, though entered in the 1100cc class, would humble the front-engined, front-rank beauties.

“It was a ‘Moss Equipe’ affair,” remembers Sir Stirling of his first overseas race. “My father was my mechanic, my mother did all the timing and we travelled down to Italy in our 1929 Rolls-Royce with its station-wagon body, towing the horsebox containing the Cooper.

“And so there I was at a real road-course, my first, in fact. It was fantastic, though the layout took a fair bit of learning.”

Learn it he did, though, startling everyone by qualifying third overall for his heat — and then hassling Clemente Biondetti’s Maserati in the race. Unable to shake the little Cooper from his tail, the Italian was forced to pit with fuel-pump problems, conceding third place to its British rival. Both, though, were comfortably into the Final, along with winner Villoresi and second-placed Tadini.

Logically, Count Sterzi, winner of the second heat, should have proved the man most likely to challenge Villoresi in the final. But instead, he suffered a huge shunt in which he struck a post carrying a tram-cable and was taken to hospital. No-one else from Heat Two figured, and so Stirling found himself once more dicing with Biondetti, this time for fourth. When the Maser pitted with a ball-race problem on its rear wheel, the pressure was off. When Serafini’s OSCA blew its engine, Moss was promoted to third. A truly amazing result.

“Well, it was an extremely quick car for what it was,” he says modestly. “It could reach over 140mph on a long enough straight, though there weren’t any that long at Garda. A 1000cc JAP had about 80bhp running on alcohol, but in a car with such a small frontal area and weighing just 600lb, that was enough to be quick. The lightness meant its brakes were deceptively good, too. Coopers were always very user-friendly.

“Even so, finishing third overall at Garda was not something I set out to achieve,” concludes Moss. “I certainly didn’t expect it”

Nor did the poor fellow who was second in the 1100cc class — 4min behind.