"I'd race anything"

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In this extract from his new book, Sir Stirling Moss explains how and why a world-class F1 star ended up driving all manner of cars during his varied career

As I’ve said before, all I ever wanted to do was race cars, at every possible opportunity. Anything to avoid an empty weekend. Early in my career I’d say, ‘Give me £50 and a share of the prize money’, and I’d race anything. Later on my rates may have gone up somewhat, but if I wasn’t committed to another car or another race, I’d be happy to get my bum into whatever was going. And it didn’t have to be a Ferrari or a Maserati – although I preferred it if it was something I thought I could turn into a winner. It wasn’t just for the money: it was because I loved racing. I always hoped that if anyone had a car that needed a driver, their first thought would be, “Let’s see if Moss is free.”

As a result I turned up in some surprising vehicles. You wouldn’t expect a Grand Prix driver to race an Austin-Healey Sprite, but I did because it was fun – especially as my team-mates were Innes Ireland, Pedro Rodriguez and Steve McQueen. This was in 1962 for a three-hour 1-litre GT race at Sebring, the day before the 12 Hours. Steve was a good guy: he fitted in well with the team and he wasn’t a bad driver either. It was the third time my friend Donald Healey had persuaded me to do this race – in 1960 and ’61 it was run over four hours – and it always got me nicely played in for the serious business of the 12 Hours the next day. But I never managed to beat the 1-litre Abarths, which were much more serious bits of kit.

Of all the sports-racers I drove, there are two that stand out. One was the Birdcage Maserati, so called because its chassis was made up of a latticework of tiny-diameter tubes, all meticulously triangulated to produce a rigid structure of low weight. It had excellent Dunlop disc brakes, and inelegant but functional bodywork made up of simple, skimpy aluminium panels. With a straightforward torquey four-cylinder engine it was a very effective race car.

Unfortunately when Maserati produced it they were in the middle of a financial collapse and couldn’t afford to run the cars themselves, so they sold a couple to an American called ‘Lucky’ Casner whose Camoradi team ran them with backing from Goodyear. They weren’t very well organised, but I won the Cuban Grand Prix, and the Nürburgring 1000Kms with Dan Gurney. That was my fourth win in the ’Ring 1000Kms, against pretty long odds because we had a lengthy stop to repair a broken oil pipe, and it remains one of the sports car victories I remember with most satisfaction.

Maserati then produced the prototype for a rear-engined version, which in theory should have been even better, but they didn’t have the funds to develop it properly. In its later form it had a V12 engine, a development of the V12 that was run in the 250F in 1957, but I never drove that.

The other car I really liked was the Porsche Spyder. I reckoned that, despite its little flat-four air-cooled engine and lowly power output, it was light enough and handled well enough to win the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring 1000Kms. I very nearly won the former, until the car broke five miles from the finish, while at the ’Ring I found we needed wet, slippery conditions to beat the big Ferraris. That’s what Graham Hill and I got in the 1961 race, and with several of the other cars running into trouble we were well-placed for a win – and then the engine blew up.

Until I had my 1962 accident I was all set to become a Ferrari Formula 1 driver, wearing Rob Walker’s blue colours, and there probably would also have been pale green sports and GT Ferraris under the UDT-Laystall banner. But strangely the first time I raced a Ferrari wasn’t until December 1957, when I won the Nassau Trophy in a borrowed 290S. Three months later I did the Cuban Grand Prix in a 4.1-litre 335S entered by NART. The North American Racing Team was run by the US Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, who was close to the factory and could usually get his hands on the latest tipi.

The story of that Cuban race bears telling in some detail. As at the previous year’s event, when I drove Maseratis, the Batista regime was still in power, but now Fidel Castro’s communist rebels were hiding in the hills. The track went around the city of Havana, with huge crowds and very little spectator control, and the organisation was completely chaotic: practice started four hours late. Fangio took pole in Jim Kimberley’s Maserati 300S, and my NART Ferrari was second-quickest.

The drivers were all staying in the smart downtown Hotel Lincoln. The night before the race Fangio, Katie [Molson, Stirling’s first wife] and I were in the lobby about to go out to dinner when two men sidled up to us with their hands obtrusively bulging in their pockets, and one of them said to me: “You must come with us.” It was immediately obvious that they were kidnappers, and at once Fangio said, “Don’t take him. They are on their honeymoon [which of course we weren’t] and his wife will be frightened. Take me.” It was a typical Fangio gesture. They bundled him out into a waiting car and drove off.

Fangio told me later that they took him to their hideout, looked after him courteously, fed him, and gave him a radio so that he could listen to the live broadcast of the race. After it was over the Argentine Embassy in Havana was told where he was, and embassy staff went to fetch him, by which time the rebels had disappeared back into the hills. Their aim was to get publicity for their cause, and they certainly succeeded, for the kidnap of the motor racing world champion made headlines around the globe.

The race itself was just as surreal. From the start I battled for the lead with Masten Gregory in John Edgar’s 4.9-litre 262S Ferrari on a track that quickly became very slippery because Roberto Mieres’ Porsche had split an oil line and sprayed lubricant around the entire lap. After only six laps a local guy, Armando Garcia Cifuentes, slid off the road in his 2-litre Ferrari and into the crowd, killing seven people and injuring dozens more. Masten was leading me at this point, and various people were frantically waving red flags all round the track. But I knew the rules: a red flag to stop the race can only be shown at the start/finish line. So I changed down into second, accelerated past Masten, crossed the finish line and stopped. I was declared the winner, and Masten was absolutely furious. I told him that I had done nothing wrong, I’d simply read the rule book. He said he’d protest, and I said, “Don’t do that – if they disqualify me that’ll give them an excuse not to pay one of us any money. Let’s pool our winnings for first and second, and split it.” So that’s what we did.

Surprisingly I did go back to Cuba for the 1960 race, and that gave me my first win in a Camoradi Birdcage Maser. By that time Batista had been overthrown and Castro was in power. After that the race was no longer held: no doubt the communist regime felt that motor racing was far too bourgeois.

I raced various other unlikely machines, from Brian Naylor’s one-off JBW-Maserati – Brian lent it to me to win two heats at a Roskilde meeting after my Maserati’s engine broke – to a later-type Sunbeam Alpine, which Rootes asked me to drive at Riverside with Jack Brabham in 1961. It was a long way from the sort of car I usually liked to take racing, and my memory is that we had lots of problems and finally the gearbox broke. But according to the official records Jack and I finished fourth overall behind two Porsches and a Lotus, and won our class.

So there you go.