How I got to know the man behind the myth: Damon Hill on Stirling Moss

Sir Stirling Moss was at Damon Hill’s christening, and he would become an inspiration to the future F1 champion

A young Damon Hill in a toy car with Bruce McLaren Stirling Moss Tony Brooks Graham Hill Jo Bonnier and Wolfgang von Trips

All-star welcome: baby Damon surrounded by left to right: McLaren, Moss, Brooks, Hill, Bonnier, von Trips

A few years back, I was approached by a company to see if I wanted to endorse an erectile dysfunction product (designed to improve one’s prowess, not cause dysfunction!). Greatly offended by this slight to my masculinity, I declined. And it was for quite a lot of money too. I was amused, but also delighted, to discover that the man who eventually won the contract was none other than the great Sir Stirling Moss. He would have been in his late seventies but clearly more than happy to proclaim his continued and, no doubt, improved virility.

This was entirely in keeping with Stirling’s reputation as a man who loved his life and all the benefits that came the way of a winner and celebrity of his calibre. Unashamedly a man of his era, he still used the dreadfully incorrect term ‘crumpet’ to refer to members of the opposite sex he found attractive. But I feel he could be forgiven because he was after all a true gentleman in every other respect who I never knew to be lewd or ungentlemanly in any company. More than can be said of my father!

I must declare that I did not know Stirling well when I was younger, despite cherishing photos of him holding me as a baby together with a gallery of F1 stars of the early 1960s who my father had invited to my christening. Imagine that, Stirling Moss at your christening! Actually, it is a poignant photo. All but one of them had either fatal accidents or, as was the case with Stirling, career-ending ones. Actually, make that two who survived unscathed, me and Tony Brooks. Tragically, Wolfgang Von Trips would not survive the year. Sadly, we also know the fate of Bruce McLaren and my godfather, Jo Bonnier. But Stirling himself had only one more year left of his career. Doubly poignant would be the fact that he was passing my father at Goodwood when something went wrong.

In his book Life at the Limit Dad describes seeing Stirling flash past him at unabated speed as he slowed for St Mary’s bend. Indeed, there is an incredible photo taken by Peter Elinskas where you can see Dad looking across at Stirling already on the grass. What happened? We’ll never know. That was the end of the first chapter of Stirling’s life; the life
of a truly remarkable racing talent. But perhaps appropriately for Easter, it was also the start of his second life. In Sir Jackie Stewart’s words, he was already ‘a huge global star’. Now he would be spared the ignominy of a long slow decline. Stirling set the template for the coming wave of aspiring racing drivers to emulate, for both during and after their career.

Elsewhere in this journal they will be doing justice to all his great achievements; that he won 40 per cent of all the races he entered, that he was respected by Fangio, that he sacrificed a possible World Championship for the sake of fairness, that he would rather fly the flag for British makers than take the easy route to the top. But this is all the stuff of his racing legend. The Stirling I got to know when I was growing up was in the third person. People would refer to him, but you never actually saw him. There were two ‘third person’ names in my house when I was growing up; Bernie and Stirling. They had this all-pervading presence, always talked about but never seen. I never really got to know Stirling at that time, but I had this sense that he kept his distance for some reason. Maybe because he knew my dad so well? I don’t know.

When I eventually got to F1, it was slightly painful, therefore, to read that Stirling thought I was not as good as my dad. Maybe I wasn’t, but you didn’t want Stirling Moss to be telling everyone! So, I was very aware of his power within the sport. He had grown to become almost a demi-god, not as proactive as Jackie, but ‘there’, in the mix of motor sport life. Someone you did not dare to dispute. Of course, when you are racing, something happens to one’s skin. It gets very thin. Everyone is a bit ‘prickly’. But he seemed to be surrounded by a protective ring of journalists who eagerly repeated his utterances. The news would come out, but it was not so easy to get a word in. He was a protected legend within the sport, and maybe that’s the way he liked it. He was, after all, a living legend.

So, it was with great relief that I did eventually get to know him in later life, when I was President of the BRDC. Him and Susie, who is lovely and sharp and witty and clearly loved Stirling. I think he needed someone like her to deal with the problem of being famous.

There are too many people who want to use or just take up time from someone like him. It can be tiring being famous. Over time I seemed to get the job of looking after him at various public functions, a job I started to
jealously protect, because he was so lovely and kind and generous with his gratitude for small bits of help, be they ever so trivial. And he said nice things about me. Publicly! What a great shame he’s gone. I feel like I’ve lost a friend. We all do.

And every 17th of September, on the birthday we share, I’ll miss his card.