Stirling Moss: Nigel Roebuck's legends

Dispelling myths with Sir Stirling. The British legend says that he doesn't reckon bravery played much of a role in his success, and that his impetuous nature may well have saved his life

Probably there is no one in motor racing with whom I enjoy talking more than Sir Stirling Moss. His memory is not what it was before, as he puts it, “I got that bang on the head at Goodwood”, but anecdotes are easily triggered, related with good humour and healthy irreverence.

In childhood my two heroes were Moss and Jean Behra, his Maserati team-mate in the 1956 season. At that time I had certain youthful preconceptions about both of them — indeed about all racing drivers. For a start, I assumed that, from the cradle, they had dreamed of a life in motor racing, and none more so than Moss. Even five years before he was born, after all, his father had driven in the Indianapolis 500.

“A lot of people,” Stirling said, “believe that the reason I was in racing was to do with my mum and dad, but that wasn’t the case. When I was a kid, I had a pretty beaten-up pedal car, and I was pretty adept in in that thing — going round trees in the pavement, and so on. My father always had quite nice, quick, cars, and my mother had done trials at which she was very good, but I never thought about racing until I was at least 16. I’d been driving on the farm since I was about six. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be a racing driver. Not at all.

“In fact when I was a kid, I can’t say I was really aware of racing. My father took me to Brooklands — once, when I was six. And I leant over a car, and burned my stomach. Bloody painful at the time, I remember — I think they put butter on it. We never went again.

“If I’d been dead keen I’d have been at Donington in 1937 and ’38 to see the Mercedes and Auto Unions. But I wasn’t. In truth, I don’t think I had any great interest in cars, other than driving them. My interest was kindled when I began doing it myself, really.”

Alfred Moss — according to Stirling, “The biggest dentist in England” was very keen that his son should follow the same trade, but that was received with little enthusiasm. “We had to rethink what I was going to do. I was 17 by this time, and I started to do sprints in my father’s BMW 328, realised I enjoyed it, and — for the first time — decided I wanted to go racing. There were no karts back then, nothing for a kid to get started on, so it meant getting a ‘500’. I did reasonably well with that, and then John Heath came along and said he was going to build this car, the HWM, and would I like to come and race abroad? My father said I couldn’t possibly make a living out of it, but he said he’d give me a couple of years…”

That was one childhood assumption out of the window, then: S Moss had not grown up with dreams of a racing career, but had drifted into it as an alternative to dentistry. Another supposition was that he had been uncommonly brave in a racing car, but, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, Stirling said no, that wasn’t the case.

“I believe the art of driving a car is learning the language the car is speaking. It’s that compatibility that builds up your confidence. And you get days like that, too. I can remember times going round the ‘Ring, with my adrenalin up… you build up a fantastic relationship with the car and get it to do things you couldn’t do the next day.”

Only at certain places could Moss get into that state of mind: an ‘ordinary’ circuit would never do it for him: “I mean, Silverstone was quite a good circuit, but you’d never get like that there, whereas at the Nürburgring you did, and Monaco, too.

“Berne was also wonderful in that respect, but Spa? No, Spa was fast — it used to frighten the hell out of me, really. Spa was exhilarating, but I didn’t find it as rewarding as the Nürburgring. And if you were going to have a shunt at Spa, boy, you were going bloody quickly…”

True enough, but it wasn’t as if Moss’s driving at Spa suggested he was frightened. He agreed, but said that, more than anything else, what a driver needed was to be in control of himself and his concentration.

“In those days we used to lose wheels quite often, for example, and when you went to a circuit like Oporto, where the corners were very fast and lined with trees, it would have been easy going through a corner at 120mph or whatever, to think, ‘Christ, if a wheel came off here, boy, this’d be real trouble…’ Now, the thing is, there’s no way you’d allow yourself to think about that, because it was too much of a strain, so therefore you put it out of your mind.”

In just the same way, Moss said, you had to deal with the aftermath of an accident. It wasn’t a matter of bravery, he insisted again, as much as closing your mind: “You’d see a car off the road, maybe on fire or something, and you’d know who was involved, probably well. You couldn’t allow that to affect you — I mean, it wasn’t going to help them so you just had to carry on. That’s showbiz, you know. It was an awful thing. And when it was a car similar to your own… what broke?

“Motor racing builds a certain character in a person which I know is very difficult for others to live with. I know how difficult I must be to live with — I’m very impetuous. I say things I don’t really mean because I don’t think beforehand — but I think the reason I do that may very well have saved my life. There’s no point in thinking, ‘Christ, I’m going to have a shunt!’ — you’ve got be doing something before you realise it’s going to be a shunt.”

One of Moss’s greatest days was at the 1959 Niirburgring 1000Kms, in which he shared an Aston Martin DBR1 with Jack Fairman. After building up a sizeable lead, Stirling pitted on lap 14 and handed over to his much slower team-mate who promptly spun into a bank on his third lap. Into the pits came the battered Aston, now far behind the factory Ferraris, and Moss leapt aboard once more.

That he caught the Ferraris — and won — almost goes without saying. In its way even more remarkable was that he stayed in the car to the flag, having driven 41 of the 44 laps: seven hours at the wheel.

“One becomes terribly demanding of oneself,” Stirling said. “I can’t tell you how much stamina you — or I — have. Until you come to a life or death thing, you don’t know how strong you are, you have no idea. I was absolutely shot at the end of that race — much more so than after the Mille Miglia — but I couldn’t have judged in advance what I was capable of. I couldn’t have said, ‘I can do 41 laps…”

Could anyone else have done it? I have my doubts.