Stirling Moss

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His fervent desire was to win a GP in a British car. His wish was about to be granted

This arch patriot had almost given up hope. His patience had been sorely tried. He called a press conference to explain that he had looked high and low, driven some dogs in the process, and come to the conclusion that if he was to win a grand prix it would not yet be at the wheel of a British racing car. Which is why a private Maserati 250F was on its way for the new 2.5-litre formula of 1954.

“There was nothing around,” bemoans Moss. “John Heath’s HWM, the team I had started with in 1950, had done some commendable things but it never had the budget to go to the next level. BRM had ruined everything. It had got British industry and the public very excited, and had then let them all down. They had spent a fortune and got nowhere. There really was a feeling that a British car would never win a grand prix.”

Three years later, however, a dark green car did just that. And Moss was at its wheel.

“That Aintree win was very, very special. It was big news worldwide; my scrapbooks prove that. Nobody on the Continent expected us to win. We’d finally shown them.”

Moss’s first run in a Vanwall had come when he sampled the Cooper-designed car at Oulton Park and Silverstone in November, 1955. He hadn’t given up; his eyes were still open. He was not sufficiently impressed, however, to pass up the chance to drive a works Maserati in ’56. But he had seen enough to wangle a drive in Vanwall’s new car at the International Trophy of May that year. He plonked it on pole, too. And won. Going away. In his wake lay the Lancia-Ferraris of Fangio and Collins, and Britain’s other great green hopes — BRM and Connaught

‘That victory was a tremendous surprise,” admits Moss. “It was a striking car and very well engineered, and it was clear that, at last, here was a British car capable of beating the best in the world.”

Moss was further convinced by Harry Schell’s performances over the remainder of that year. “He was a competent driver, but not of the top rank, yet on occasions he and the Vanwall were a threat for victory.”

Maserati was keen to keep Moss on for 1957 to create a supertearn alongside Fangio. It was a tempting offer: “I had no problems with having the world’s greatest driver as my team-mate. It was not that which swung my decision to join Vanwall, it was the fact that the Vanwall was British.” Arch patriot Tony Vandervell had landed his home-grown ace.

Moss’s decision was not without sacrifice: “Winning races in a British car was a huge thrill. But I did not take much pleasure from driving the car itself. It was dramatic to look at, quick, and I had faith in the team, but it was difficult to drive. It would basically understeer but could snap to oversteer. That was a typical Chapman design trait — until about 1962.

“And it was difficult to set up, too. For its day it was very sensitive to small changes in tyres pressures and spring rates. You had to concentrate all the time if you wanted to get the most out of it. There were areas where it was better than the Maserati and Ferrari – the brakes [Goodyear-derived discs] for instance but there were areas where they were better than us.

“The Vanwall is a very important car in the history of British motorsport, but I tend to think that the team that ran it, and the drivers who drove it, were perhaps better than the car itself.”

So how good were his team-mates?

“I always think of Tony [Brooks] as the best driver that only the enthusiasts know about. Michael Schumacher is clearly the benchmark of today, but whoever you personally consider to be the next best would be doing very well indeed to be better than Tony.

“Stuart [Lewis-Evans] was very quick, too, but seemed to lack the stamina for a race. On occasion I think he went quicker than was necessary. Of course, every driver goes as fast as he can, but to improve you need to learn how to slow the processes down without reducing your speed. I don’t think poor Stuart ever learnt how to do that.”

And the team?

“It was a nice squad to be part of, and it had some very good people involved, but I don’t think l am being derogatory when I say that we were simply less amateurish than Ferrari. Vanwall wasn’t a patch on Mercedes, which was far more organised and efficient. But that’s to be expected, because there’s a big difference between an industrialist doing his own thing and doing his best and a car manufacturer going motor racing.

‘As a driver with Mercedes you never had to worry. If there was a problem it would be fixed overnight – even ones requiring lots of engineering. It was all very daunting for the opposition. Even before the race had started they would be talking about how best to finish second. Vanwall was good, but I don’t think Ferrari ever felt like that when it was racing against us.”

Early Moss/Vanwall progress in 1957 was hindered by niggling mechanical problems, a crash at Monaco and illness. But that Aintree victory opened the floodgates, Stirling upstaging Maserati and Ferrari on home ground at Pescara and Monza. Surely 1958 would be the year in which he finally became the world champion.

It wasn’t to be, of course, although his three wins – Holland, Portugal and Morocco – were vital in Vanwall’s successful bid for the first constructors’ championship. Mike Hawthorn, had pipped him by a point to the drivers’ title. Bitterly disappointed and aggrieved initially, this near-miss proved to be a turning point for Moss. Happy-go-quickly `privateerdom’ Rob Walker-style beckoned.

“I had enjoyed my time at Vanwall but I never got the same pleasure from it as I did driving for Rob Walker. That was a different thing altogether.”

Moss had come to terms with his four consecutive runner-up slots in the championship. He had realised that he didn’t need to win the championship for the world to know that he was the best driver around.

If this was a mellowing (it was far from a slowing-down) of the super-professional Moss, it was perhaps only possible because Vanwall had given him the opportunity to shake that winning-Brit-car monkey from his back. And it was certainly only possible because Vanwall had proved to the likes of Cooper and Lotus that the overseas team were distinctly beatable.