Stirling's day of days

It was, by his own admission, the race of his life. Moss and the Lotus 18 earned their plaudits when they took on the might of Ferrari at Monaco 50 years ago
By Nigel Roebuck

Sunday, May 14 1961, and the mellifluous tones of Raymond Baxter on my ‘transistor’, a bunch of schoolboys huddled around it, willing Stirling on…

The BBC did not broadcast the entire race, and most of the afternoon we had been listening to a scratchy French station. For the closing laps, though, Baxter was back on the air.

“Undoubtedly,” he said, when it was all over, “the race must go down as one of Stirling Moss’s finest victories – and also one of the finest victories ever seen on surely the most historic, hazardous and beautiful circuit in the world. Any motor race won by three and a half seconds – after two and three-quarter hours – has obviously had its moments, and it is easy to see why the tension was such that at times it became positively difficult to breathe. Only one man stood in the way of complete Ferrari domination…”

Going into that Monaco weekend, the auguries for Moss and Rob Walker’s private team were anything but bright. True, Stirling and the boxy Lotus 18 had won there the year before, but once Jack Brabham and Jo Bonnier had accounted for themselves Moss was unchallenged, winning by almost a minute. While by no means a classic Monaco Grand Prix, the race was notable, however, for a first victory for the marque Lotus – and for the debut of a car Enzo Ferrari had long said he would never build: Richie Ginther was the driver, and he sat in front of the engine.

For 1961, however, the 2.5-litre Formula 1 was dropped, and F2 effectively became F1. The change (to 1.5 litres) was highly unpopular, but while the British teams moaned about it Ferrari got on with preparing for it. A prototype of its car had raced in the F2 Solitude GP the year before, and won it, too, in the hands of Wolfgang von Trips. Although the V6 engine had an obvious power advantage over the ‘fours’ from Climax and Porsche, still it was south of 200 horsepower, and it was hardly surprising that the drivers had little enthusiasm for the new F1. In Motor Racing magazine an interview with Moss was entitled, ‘I Hate This Formula’.

“It was supposedly about safety,” said Stirling. “They were trying to say it was safer to have less power, which was bloody ridiculous. This was supposed to be Grand Prix racing – we weren’t kids, playing about…

“They also introduced rollover bars at the same time – I remember we had the breather for the fuel tanks taped to it, so at least there was one benefit from the stupid thing! The regulation said you had to have one, but there was no rule about the actual rollbar itself. And they were worse than useless – made of half-inch tube that you could bend with your hands!”

Ironic, then, that the very first Grande Epreuve run to the new, hated rules produced what Stirling himself acknowledges as the best drive of his life.

His season, by Moss standards, had not started well. There had been a couple of victories in ‘Intercontinental’ events (run to the outgoing F1 rules) at Goodwood and Silverstone, but his Maserati ‘Birdcage’ had retired at Sebring, his Porsche RS60 at the Targa Florio, and in the non-championship F1 races he had been hampered by a chronic misfire.

Three weeks before Monaco, at the Syracuse GP, the blue Lotus popped and banged its way to eighth place, prompting Denis Jenkinson to write in Motor Sport that it was ‘high time Rob Walker stopped producing starting money specials for Stirling Moss to drive’. This so upset Walker that he sued the magazine, eventually receiving an out-of-court settlement of £1000, which – Rob being Rob – inevitably went to charity. The misfire problem, as we shall see, was eventually resolved in Monaco.

More of a worry in Syracuse was that the 1961 Ferrari 156 – to be known for all time as the ‘Sharknose’ – made its debut, and, in the hands of Giancarlo Baghetti, comfortably won. If a rookie could do this, how quick was this car?

As the Monaco weekend approached, Moss did not fly to Nice, but rather took a plane to Paris on the Tuesday. “God knows why,” he said. “Can’t remember now. At the time I was with an American girl – Shirlee Adams. She was a stewardess on American Airlines, which was how I met her – very good-looking girl, bit tall, but still… I said, ‘Would you like to come to the Monaco Grand Prix?’ and every time I’d go by the pits she’d clap me! I remember my mother saying, ‘What a nice girl that is.’ She later married Henry Fonda. Anyway…”

The following day Stirling drove down to Monaco, checking in to his hotel at 10.30pm. “According to the diary I then called in at the Ali Baba, and went to bed at 2.15am… Then up early-ish for practice on Thursday morning, when apparently the gear ratios were too high and the engine still wasn’t right.”

The precocious Jim Clark set fastest lap that day in the new Lotus 21, but at the end of the session went off at Ste Devote, damaging the car so severely that it was not seen again until race morning! Jimmy’s time would, however, hold up for a place on the front row.

In Friday’s early-morning session it was the turn of Ginther to head the times – and again Moss’s Climax engine declined to run cleanly, at which point Alf Francis, mechanic of legend, decided enough was enough.

“The night before final practice,” Rob Walker recounted, “Alf collared the Weber representative and made him bring a brand-new carburettor to our garage in Eze-sur-Mer. There they stripped it – and ours – down completely, and compared the two. And they found a small groove in the float chamber of the new carburettor that hadn’t been machined in ours. Once that had been done, the engine ran perfectly the next day, and we never had any more problems. I don’t think Alf ever bothered to tell Stirling that he’d spent the whole night working on the Webers, and I don’t think Stirling was particularly surprised to find that the car was running properly for the first time for months – he’d just naturally assumed that Alf would fix it in the end.”

Perfectly true, as Moss concedes. “I don’t think I ever knew about all that at the time – in the diary I just said the car was better, and I got pole position…”

Stirling’s time, 1min 39.1sec, was half a second faster than anyone else, and he reckoned his next lap would have been quicker yet, had it not been interrupted by a serious accident to Innes Ireland in the tunnel.

“Lotus had their new 21s at that time, and Rob had tried to buy one for me, but Esso – who sponsored Team Lotus – wouldn’t let [Colin] Chapman sell him one. It had a ‘wrong way round’ gearbox, and when Innes went to change up to fourth he got second, locked up the back wheels and hit the barrier backwards.”

No seat belts in those days, of course, and on impact Ireland was thrown – a considerable distance – from the car, being very nearly run over by Lucien Bianchi’s Emeryson as he lay in the road. Stumbling to his feet, he made it to the relative safety of the pavement and lay down, bleeding profusely from a badly gashed leg. Moss stopped at the scene.

“Innes was pretty knocked about. I got him a cigarette from one of the marshals while we were waiting for the medical people to arrive, and the only other thing he asked me was, ‘Is my wedding tackle all right?’ Dear old Innes… Later on that year he won at Watkins Glen – the first GP victory for Team Lotus – and then got dropped. Chapman was pretty horrible to him.”

On Sunday afternoon they lined up like this: Moss, Clark and Ginther on the front row, with the Hills – Graham (BRM) and Phil (Ferrari) – on the second, then von Trips (Ferrari), McLaren (Cooper) and Brooks (BRM) on row three, followed by the Porsches of Bonnier and Gurney. As was the tradition in those days, only 16 cars went to the grid, the last of them being the Cooper of World Champion Jack Brabham.

It was hardly surprising that Brabham was back there, for he had arrived from Indianapolis on Thursday morning, taken part in the first practice session, then dashed back to America again to qualify for his first 500. By Sunday lunchtime Jack was back in the Principality once more, and admitting to feeling a touch jaded.

On the grid Moss, too, had his concerns, for he’d noticed what looked like a cracked tube in his car’s spaceframe chassis. “I called Alf over and said, ‘Is that a crack?’ He said yes, it was, and off he went to get an oxyacetylene torch. The crack was right next to the fuel tank – which was full, of course. He covered the tank with wet cloths and started welding…”

Francis was indeed made of stern stuff. “It was a very brave thing to do,” Walker observed. “I watched him for a bit, but after a while discretion overcame valour, and I retired to a safe distance…”

“Everyone was leaning over,” said Stirling, “watching what he was doing – and then when he lay down on the road and lit this thing, everyone ran for it – including me! Rather doubt anyone’d be allowed to do anything like that now…

“Alf was an amazing bloke. He could be bloody irascible – every now and again he’d get pissed off about something and throw his tools in the air, and at times like that you just kept your distance until he’d simmered down again. But if he was in a good mood, he was quite amusing. He knew nothing about designing a car – as he proved when he tried it! – but as a mechanic, particularly as an improviser, he was a genius. I trusted him absolutely – when he finished welding the tube that day, I never gave it another thought.”

The day was hot, and for the first time Moss had a drinks bottle in his car: “Actually it was a Thermos flask, mounted in a bracket to the left of the seat. Races were long in those days…”

In the same vein there was one more thing to be done: Stirling decided that in the interests of ventilation he would like his car’s side panels removed. “It was only a bit of glassfibre, but we had to get permission from the Clerk of the Course. He said it would be OK so long as there were still legible numbers on the car, so we put a new one on the back.”

The rules decreed that every car had to be in position on the grid five minutes before the start, but although the Walker Lotus didn’t make it, there was a greater… flexibility in those days, and anyway Stirling was Stirling.

At the fall of the flag Ginther burst away into the lead, followed by Clark and Moss, but Jimmy – in his bogey race, the Grand Prix he was never to win – was in trouble almost immediately, pitting for five minutes at the end of lap two with a fuel pump problem.

Ginther apart, the Ferraris had got away poorly, Hill running seventh and von Trips ninth, and in the early laps it was the Porsches of Bonnier and Gurney which sat behind Ginther and Moss. “Richie was going well,” said Stirling, “but I knew Phil would come into the picture, and I needed to get into the lead, and try and make a break.” On lap 14 he overtook the Ferrari, and Bonnier nipped by at the same time.

A dozen laps later a pitboard from Alf Francis advised Moss that Hill was now up to second, and gaining slightly. The game was on.

And on. On some laps the Ferraris – Ginther close in behind Hill – would narrow the gap, on others the Lotus would pull away again, but as Moss resolutely stuck to his task, at the back of his mind was the thought that it was only a matter of time. “I felt that because I could never get clear of them. I’d pull away a bit, but then they’d close up again – I really felt they were playing with me…”

In the Ferrari pit, however, they knew otherwise: Hill and Ginther were driving as fast as they could. Some idea of the pace at which the race was being run may be judged by the fact that on lap 40 Hill went round in 1min 38.8sec, some three-tenths faster than Moss’s pole. Seven laps later Stirling himself got under it, with 1min 38.5sec, and the pattern for the second half of the Monaco Grand Prix was set. It was now Moss against Hill and Ginther, plain and simple, for although Bonnier’s retirement allowed von Trips into fourth, the third Ferrari was way behind.

Between laps 50 and 60 it began to look as though Moss’s fears were justified, for Hill closed the gap from seven seconds to three – but he got no closer, and in fact Stirling then began to go away from him again, extending his lead to five seconds, and maintaining it.

On lap 75 it was Ginther who came by in second place: “I was wiped out by that stage,” Hill said, “and when they held a board out to me, saying I should let Richie through, it made sense – I wasn’t getting anywhere, so let him have a go. And it made sense in another way, too, because only he had the latest 120-degree V6 in his car – Trips and I had the 60-degree engines – and I knew, from running with Richie, that he had the edge on power…”

Moss, though, still believed he was at their mercy. From his pitboard he knew that now Ginther was ahead of Hill once more, but he suspected the Ferraris were simply taking it in turns, peloton-like, to keep the pressure on. At odd moments he could see red behind him, predatory as the Sharknose cars always looked…

Through the last 25 laps the battle – now purely Moss versus Ginther, for Hill was fading – moved to another level, into the realms of legend. As Ginther – in only the fourth Grand Prix of his life – took up the chase, he went round in 1min 37.7sec, whereupon Moss, too, went under the 1-38 mark. For every thrust there was an instant parry, it seemed, and in the Ferrari pit they were becoming desperate.

Ginther wasn’t done, though. On lap 84 he took a full second from Moss, lapping in a scarcely believable 1min 36.3sec, but on the next lap Stirling turned in an identical time, and that, as Richie admitted, “Just broke my heart. I was running at the limit and a bit more – and he instantly responded! I had no idea of the times we were doing – all I knew, every time past the pits, was the gap… Then, finally, I got a board saying, ‘Ginther – Give All’! Jesus Christ, did they think I’d been stroking…?”

At the flag Moss was 3.6sec to the good, after two and three-quarter hours of racing. ‘Drove flat out all race’, he wrote that night, underlining ‘all’. “That was the only time in my career I put something like that in the diary – I really was flat out the whole way, and that’s why I think it was the best drive of my life.”

Over the 100 laps Moss’s average lap time was 1min 39.5sec, only four-tenths shy of his pole lap, and that beggars belief, as does the fact that ultimately he – and Ginther – lapped in 1min 36.3sec, almost three seconds faster than in qualifying. How – where – had it been possible to find that extra pace?

“Honestly,” Stirling said, “I don’t know that I’m able to tell you. I wasn’t really aware of going a lot quicker than in practice – I knew I was trying as hard as I could, that’s all. I remember getting into the lead and thinking, ‘Right, I’ll hold on for as long as I can…’

“It wasn’t a race I ever thought I’d win – honestly, I thought the Ferraris were biding their time. I’d look in the mirror one lap, and there was Phil behind me – and a lap later it would be Richie! I thought they were just buggering about, swapping places for the sake of it – no way did I realise they were getting frantic pit signals, because of course I couldn’t see them. I really believed they were waiting until towards the end – I thought they’d get me on power, on the hill up to Casino Square…

“The thing was, I knew I was going as hard as I could – and yet I was never able to get away from them, so I figured they were coping with my pace without too much trouble. As it turned out, they were on the limit too, but I didn’t know that at the time.

“What I kept doing, through the race, was saying to myself, going into Casino Square or Tabac or wherever, ‘OK, you’re going to do a perfect lap from here…’ Of course you never can do a lap that’s perfect, but it was a test I kept setting myself to keep my concentration where it needed to be. It’s a lot more difficult to maintain concentration when you’re in the lead – much easier when you’re chasing someone, when you’ve got a goal to go for.

“I don’t think I had a single problem with the car, which is surprising, because cars – other than Ferraris! – were pretty unreliable in those days. Thing is, if I’d had a problem, I wouldn’t have won, simple as that.”

Thinking back to that day, 50 years ago, does Stirling recall any major mistake, any moment when he just caught it?

“No, honestly not.”

When, years after Ginther’s retirement, I asked him which had been his best drive, he didn’t hesitate. “Monaco ’61, no question. The race lasted going on three hours, and I was right on the limit all the way – and I think Stirling was, too. That son of a gun… Believe me, any time you did well against him, you knew you’d really done something. People have said that was his greatest drive… Well, if I was within three and a half seconds of his greatest drive, I’ll take that any day!”

Was Moss the greatest driver Ginther ever encountered? “Oh yes,” he said, as if the question didn’t need asking. “And by a long way…”

The day after the race Stirling went off to Como for a few days, and thence to Zandvoort, where the Dutch Grand Prix was run the following weekend. Here the Ferraris were well able to flex their V6 muscle, and von Trips won from Hill, with Moss fourth. Because it rained at Aintree Stirling was again able to threaten them, but the car let him down, and it wasn’t until August, at the Nürburgring, that he was able to beat the Ferraris again. No one else beat them all season.

“I was always in two minds,” said Rob Walker, “about which of those wins was Stirling’s best, but in the end I think it was Monaco – and if that was his greatest drive, for me that means it was the greatest drive by anyone. There was no one like Stirling. He was the perfect racing driver. When he was driving for me, I always felt that anything was possible, because he was so much better than all the others. It wasn’t fair, really…”

Watching a master at work
As his neat and detailed notes show (right), Denis Jenkinson was glued to the drama of his friend Stirling’s greatest Grand Prix win

The start was perfect and all 16 cars rushed down to the Gasworks Hairpin with Ginther’s Ferrari leading. The little American was first out of the hairpin and the Ferrari fairly streaked away past the pits and up the hill towards the Casino, with Clark and Moss following…

Ginther’s meteoric start had really shaken everybody and it took Moss five laps to recover and get into his stride. Gradually he whittled down the gap and Bonnier, in the new Porsche, kept with him, these two leaving the rest of the field. After Bonnier came a fast and furious pack led by Gurney in the old Porsche and comprising Brooks, McLaren, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, von Trips and Surtees, these seven doing some hectic pushing and shoving… By lap eight Moss was only 1.5 seconds from Ginther and Bonnier was still close to the tail of the Lotus…

On lap 12 Moss was right on Ginther’s tail and still there on lap 13, and Bonnier had closed up again, and on lap 14 both the Lotus and the Porsche nipped by the Ferrari. Meanwhile Phil Hill had caught and passed Gurney… Moss now began to pull away slowly but surely, Ginther dropping back a bit. After a struggle von Trips got past Gurney so now the three Ferraris were holding third, fourth and fifth positions. At 20 laps Moss had pulled out a 6sec lead over Bonnier and the three Ferraris were beginning to hustle each other along and close up on the Porsche… Moss was out on his own, but ominously not gaining any more ground. The foursome battling for second were keeping a level 10sec behind Moss, and in view of the cutting and thrusting going on this was not much lead to have but he obviously couldn’t increase it without stretching the Lotus a bit. At 32 laps the order was Moss, Phil Hill, Bonnier, Ginther, von Trips and the rest some way back…

At 40 laps it looked as though stalemate had set in for Moss was still 10sec ahead of Hill who was no longer being challenged by Bonnier, the Swede having given up trying to do anything about the leading Ferrari. But one man who had not given up was Ginther. He closed up behind Bonnier and on lap 41 did the well-known “dive-to-the-inside” at the hairpin, ran a bit wide coming out so that Bonnier was able to get across to the inside and then the cars went up the road absolutely side-by-side. However, the power of the Ferrari told and Ginther got ahead and rapidly closed on Hill… Ginther was clearly forcing the pace now, pushing Hill along and towing Bonnier and the three of them slowly began to gain on Moss. At 45 laps his 10sec lead had been reduced to 8sec and by 50 laps, half distance, it was 7sec and they were all lapping below 1min 38sec, already faster than anyone had gone in practice. Bonnier was beginning to pant with the effort of keeping up and he lost his “tow”, while von Trips had been left quite a way behind…

Ginther now had the look of a very determined man and by 55 laps had forced Hill on so much that Moss had only a 4.5sec lead… By lap 58 Moss could see the two Ferraris in his rear view mirrors and was driving really hard, for the two red cars had a relentless look about them. Using the Lotus to its fullest extent Moss was able to hold the gap at 5sec, but he was really scrabbling into the Gasworks turn, using all the brakes at his disposal and staying in front by sheer driving virtuosity, never wasting a fraction of a second anywhere, especially when lapping slower cars… Fastest practice lap now seemed slow in comparison to the pace at which Moss and the Ferraris were going. Every time the two Maranello cars gained a little ground Moss would nip by a slower car and the slight baulking would put the Ferraris back to 5sec. This sort of “traffic driving” was the saviour for Moss, for there is no one to match him at lapping slower cars and taking every opportunity with an uncanny foresight. Hill was certainly no match and Ginther could hardly hope to compete with his limited experience. It was rather like a fighter plane being chased by a superior enemy and being saved by dodging into clouds. It had been obvious for some time that though Ginther was setting the Ferrari pace from third, he was being held up by Hill, for whereas Hill was looking hot and breathless, Ginther was looking cool and calculating, chewing his gum and driving with a set expression on his face.

At 70 laps the gap was still 5sec but Moss was looking in his mirrors as much as he was looking ahead, driving as only Moss knows how, holding off the inevitable by sheer skill and brilliance. Only two weeks before we had seen Moss driving at nine and a half tenths in Sicily and now he was doing it again in Monte Carlo, not for a fleeting moment but continually, lap after lap. So great was the excitement that the rest of the runners were forgotten…

On lap 72 the gap enlarged to 6.5sec and this made Ginther get rough with his team-mate, who was out of his depth at this speed, and had been for some time. As they started lap 75 Ginther was alongside and elbowing him out of the way, and by lap 77 he had closed the gap to 5.5sec… On lap 81 the gap was 4sec, only half a second gain, but how the wiry little American was working to gain those few yards on a superb Moss who was watching his mirror all the time. They were now lapping below 1min 37sec and the tension was terrific, Ginther was looking so determined that a lesser man than Moss would have given up, but not the ‘Golden Boy’, he was enjoying every minute of the battle, even if he was sweating a bit. Most people, especially a new driver to Grand Prix racing, would have settled for a safe second place behind the master driver, but not Ginther – he pushed harder than ever, doing his 84th lap in 1min 36.3sec, only a tenth of a second off the absolute lap record set last year by a 2.5-litre car…

At 5sec the gap stayed, Moss having got the measure of the Ferrari by sheer driving skill, for he was giving away over 25bhp. On lap 89 they lapped von Trips and on lap 91 Ginther threw away his chewing gum and determined to have one last desperate attempt. He had no great hope of getting the lead, for even if he caught Moss he would still have to get by, but he kept the pressure on in the hope that something would happen. It was too much to hope that Moss would make a mistake, for even on the limit this rarely happens to the master, but there was always the hope that the Lotus-Climax would break if pressed continuously; equally there was the risk that the Ferrari would break, but as Ginther showed last year at Modena he is a great believer in “If you are going to race, then race to the bitter end”. On lap 96 the gap was down to 4.5sec, on lap 97 he had gained a yard or two, on lap 98 it was 4sec and the same as they started their last lap.

Not for a long while now had we seen such a race, where it was not going to be won until the flag fell. All round that last lap Moss was watching his mirrors, and Ginther was just as determined and they crossed the line 3.6sec apart. The vast crowd sank back in exhaustion saying, “What a race, and this new Formula 1 has only just started.” A relieved and happy Moss went to receive the winner’s cup, his third Monaco GP win, and a happy and smiling Ginther said, “Couldn’t try any harder, but it wasn’t enough”… Moss had taken the MkII Climax engine well up to its limit of nearly 8000rpm, using every one of its 152bhp, and it had responded nobly, as had the Lotus chassis, Colotti gearbox, Dunlop tyres and Girling disc brakes.

Denis Jenkinson was our famous Continental Correspondent for more than 40 years.