More than 40 years on from his retirement from racing, the name Stirling Moss still resonates across the world, even with people who have never been to a grand prix, nor wished to. Thus it is always a surprise to be reminded that here is essentially a very shy man.
“These days, I’m far more extrovert,” he says. “But fundamentally I am shy. That’s why I always like to go places with my wife Susie — I find it so much easier if there are two of us. Even now I hate walking into a crowded room. People say that’s silly, that most people would know who I was. And I know that’s probably true, but still I don’t find it easy to conquer.
“It’s difficult to know why. I mean, in a car I was as confident as hell. The race was no problem and, actually, neither was going up to get an award at prize-giving — but I would be very worried if I had to say something.
“The first speech I gave was to the Harrow Car Club. I wrote it out, got started, then made the mistake of looking up — and lost my place. Since then I’ve just had headings, and that’s helped a lot. And I am getting better, I think.”
He sells himself short, as anyone can attest who heard him speak at the memorial services for ‘Jenks’ and Rob Walker. On such occasions it is not easy to get the blend right, to be funny and affectionate, moving and reflective, but Stirling did it perfectly.
In a car, as he says, he had absolute confidence in himself, believing throughout his career that he was driving with sufficient ‘margin’ that he could make a mistake without it becoming a disaster. For all his commitment, his passion for racing, Moss was never the type to think in terms of, ‘Here goes — let’s hope for the best’.
“I’d been driving in competition for a couple of years before I even spun a car — because I was frightened that if I spun, the thing would turn over and I’d get hurt. But as I began to understand what the car was going to do, it got better. If I got to the point where I knew I was going through a corner faster anyone, that was great, but it took time to build up to it.
“I can remember one occasion in Syracuse, which was a pretty unforgiving place. There was a particular corner I’d go through with a slight lift, and I’d find that, if I needed it, I had a foot to spare. I thought, ‘I’m sure that corner’s flat’, but every time I’d come to it, I just couldn’t do it.
“Then, on one lap, just before I went into the corner, I glanced at the instruments — and when I looked up, it was too late to back off. I got through okay, and after that it was easy!”
For a natural talent like Stirling, it was always a matter of responding to messages the car was sending: the better the car, the better the compatibility.
“You get the messages through the steering wheel, and through the seat of your pants. When I went into a corner, I could feel when the back of the car was absolutely on the limit of adhesion and, of course, I knew from experience certain things that could lessen that, or take it over the top. Mostly that was done with the throttle, which was why, the more sophisticated you got, the more you drove on the throttle.
“To me, braking was a difficult manoeuvre. To brake really late — to the point I was happy with it — took me years. It wasn’t simply a matter of putting your foot on the pedal: when you were on the brakes, you could use them to alter the car’s position — take it too far and, of course, you’d spin. “The more I began to understand these things, to feel the messages the car was giving me, the more likely I was to have the answer to its question. Once you got understeer, for example, you knew that giving it more throttle was just going to make it worse, so you didn’t do that. You’d say, ‘Okay, if that’s the way you feel, I’ll do it a different way — sod you, I’ll back off and bring the arse end round.’
“I believe the art of driving a car is learning the car’s language. It’s like English and American — it sounds like the same language, but when you get to the nitty-gritty, it isn’t “To me, it’s very much like an affair with a woman. You know, you don’t go in and say, ‘How about it?’ — or, in my day, you didn’t! You’d whisper quietly in her car, and see how she responded… You’d put one brick on another, and hope you’d build up to it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t Well, to me, driving a car was just like that…”
Certain cars, in other words, were more receptive than others. And a paradox of racing in Moss’s era, he says, was the better a car felt, in terms of enjoyment for the driver, the less effective it tended to be.
“The Mercedes W196, for example, was never as nice a car to drive as the Maserati 250F — and the Vanwall was not nice at all! The Merc didn’t have anything particularly wrong with it, other than the back-to-front gearbox, but you couldn’t have the love affair with it you could with the Maser, because you couldn’t play with it in the same way — it never flowed as easily. On the other hand, because it would never break, it was a great car.
“Later on, it was the same with the Cooper and the Lotus. A Cooper — I won’t say it made for bad driving, but it was so forgiving that you could get the back end way out, all sorts of things, and it wasn’t difficult A Lotus was very much harder to enjoy. A Cooper was so easy-going, but in a Lotus, by Christ, you needed to be a lot more careful. A Lotus could be a really snappy sod! You had to be absolutely precise with it — but if you were, boy, it really paid you back.”
Not surprisingly, Stirling isn’t a fan of the electronic gizmos that proliferate on the grand prix car of today. He can understand why Ayrton Senna, whom he greatly admired, railed against ‘driver aids’ which detracted from the craft of driving a racing car.
“I think it requires great skill to drive the cars of today, I really do — but I also think the messages that the drivers get must have been dampened by technology. And the exhilaration, too.”
In 2004, there are not many racing people who will tell you they believe risk is not only intrinsic to the sport, but essential. And, in light of the circumstances that ended his own career, Stirling knows whereof he speaks.
“Obviously, it’s very difficult to propose a lessening of safety. But to my mind, it has to be unsafe — otherwise you’re lessening the challenge. I mean, I’d try to walk on a wire two feet from the ground, but I wouldn’t try to walk across the Grand Canyon on it. The skill required is exactly the same thing in both cases, but the challenge is not
“I was never one of those guys who thought of themselves as fearless. When I was racing, in my mind the most important thing was not to hurt myself, and I think that’s what governed my speed. At a corner I’d back off, and if! could gradually, by confidence and by knowledge, build up to backing off less, and then not backing off at all, that was fine, but the survival instinct was always strong. I always left some margin for reasons of self-preservation.”
Moss finds it ironic that one or two of the early safety crusaders were drivers not averse to pulling stunts on the track that he personally found unacceptable — wholly unnecessary risks, in other words. In the same way, he finds some of today’s ethics unspeakable, and reckons it merely supports his contention that the drivers have come to feel too safe.
Phil Hill put it this way: “It was just unthinkable to touch another car, because of the potential consequences.”
Stirling goes along with that. For all his respect for Senna, he declines to bracket him with Fangio — in his mind the best — because of Ayrton’s intimidatory tactics on the track.
“Things like that would never even cross Fangio’s mind. ‘Dirty driving’, we used to call it, and it was always around. There were people who wouldn’t think twice about taking your bit of road and putting you in trouble, but it was much less prevalent than now — not least because if you touched wheels with someone, the chances were you’d buy it. You learned who to be wary of: the worst of all was Farina, who was just plain dangerous, completely ruthless. On the other hand, you had a guy like Jean Behra, who was a tough competitor but would never do anything underhand. Exactly my idea of what a professional racing driver should be.”
Actually, I’d say that of S Moss.