Petit theft

1958: Argentine Grand Prix

Fangio was the darling of the crowd, but it was Stirling Moss and his tiny Copper that stole the thunder. Tony Watson was there to see Formula One history made

On January 19, 1958, I arrived at the Autodromo Buenos Aires around midday. The race wasn’t due to start until some hours later, but my father and I wanted to bag a view from high in the grandstands at the end of the pit straight, with the daunting Curvon right-hand swerve at our feet

On the preceding days, however, I had been smuggled into the paddock aboard the family VW Beetle. It was then that I had first seen it: the incredibly small, Rob Walker-entered Cooper-Climax which Stirling Moss was to drive. The fact that he was so highly regarded by the locals was why there weren’t more ironic comments about his car’s presence among the meaty Ferraris and Maseratis. Even so, local wits christened it ‘Sputnik’ and ‘The Black Ant’. But Stirling would surprise everyone except perhaps himself, his faithful mechanics Alf Francis and Tim Wall — and Jack Forrest-Greene.

The latter had lived in Argentina most of his life and raced a vast array of machinery since the mid-Fifties. He worked closely with Moss during his South American sojourn: “As soon as he arrived with his

wife, I got in touch to assist in everything I could, for they did not speak Spanish. They spent a weekend on my boat exploring the River Plate’s delta.

“Everybody was impressed with his little Cooper, but most did not give it much of a hope. Stirling, though, believed he had a good chance. With its light weight and a very careful driver, it could perhaps do the race non-stop.”

The canny Fangio knew something was afoot. Alfredo Parga, one of Argentina’s most respected motor-racing journalists, spoke to him: “Sullen-faced after studying Saturday’s qualifying times [Moss was only nine-tenths slower], he expressed one of his classic sentences which meant so much: ‘Any enemy is never a small enemy’.

He was right Moss passed Luigi Musso’s Ferrari, then the Maserati of Jean Behra, and then Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari. By half-distance, only Fangio was ahead. And according to Dad’s chronograph, the Maserati couldn’t get away from the mid-engined car. The ‘Maestro’ upped his stakes and, boy, his car was at all angles through the Curvon, but he soon stopped for new tyres. With the stationary Maserati a red dot in our binoculars, the Tannoys erupted: Moss was leading!

Fangio’s engine was pulling 500rpm less after overheating during that pitstop, and so Musso was Moss’s closest pursuer.

Forrest-Greene: “Stirling had asked me to go to the hairpin, and watch his rear tyres carefully to see if the canvas would appear. We agreed on a sign, and when the small white spot appeared, he was given notice and nursed the car home.”

Nearing the end, Dad and I ran towards the finish, and there was the Cooper taking the flag. We had glimpsed F1’s future.