Stirling Moss interview: the F1 king they never crowned
Life, for Stirling Moss, continues at 150 mph, a series of bends and obstacles to be taken at maximum throttle. But instead of balancing a Maserati 250F, a Vanwall, a Cooper or a Lotus in a delicate four-wheel drift, now he balances the rigours of a hectic schedule of business activities with the same commitment that he brought to his racing.
In his heyday he was the ultimate racer, and today precisely the same philosophy applies. Only the tools for expression have changed for the man who is undoubtedly the greatest uncrowned champion in motorsport history.
Despite his failure to win the World Championship, Stirling Crauford Moss became – and will likely remain – one of those peculiarly British icons who has attained that highly unusual state of grace that falls to only a handful of men. Where the national media might help to build up stars such as Nigel Mansell only, as is its wont, to destroy the creation when trouble raises its head, Moss has retained the public affection and the popularity that still prompts police officers who stop speeding motorists to enquire with what passes for humour in such circles: ‘Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?’ The name is etched on the public psyche as indelibly as Stanley Matthews and Henry Cooper. He’s still news, whatever he does, whether it’s historic racing and rallying, being knocked off his scooter, or failing his driving test, as he did recently shortly after reaching his 65th birthday. It’s particularly ironic, for a man who moves at full bore, that one of the reasons cited for the latter failure is that he was too slow on a dual carriageway.
“I still run up the stairs, rather than use the lift,” he said the day we met at his Mayfair home. “But look at it.” He was excited, and as a hospitable host was keen that you should share that excitement. The two-person lift sits in the corner of a small office redolent of motor racing history, and was made for him courtesy of Williams in carbon fibre. . .
Without question, Moss should have won at least one World Championship. That he did not is as inconceivable as it is that a driver of Chris Amon’s talent never won a Grand Prix the more so when you look at some whom Fate treated more benignly. Stirling started 66 Grands Prix, 16 times from pole position, 37 times from the front row of the grid. He won 16 times, should have won at least as many times again, and set fastest lap on 20 occasions. In the years from 1955 to 1958 he was second in the World Championship, from 1959 to 1961 third. None of the disappointments was worse than 1958.
That season Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari Dino 246 was inferior to Moss’ Vanwall on many points, but reliability wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t a tortoise and hare situation though. Moss won for Cooper in Argentina after a canny drive, then led Hawthorn at Monaco before his Vanwall dropped a valve. He then dominated at Zandvoort, but blew up while leading in Belgium, where Hawthorn was second. In France Mike defeated Stirling, but the latter was leading him as they chased Ferrari teamster Peter Collins at Silverstone when the Vanwall blew up. In Germany Moss was running away until his magneto failed, and in Portugal he was again dominant In Italy the two of them fought a titanic duel until the Vanwall’s gearbox succumbed, and in Morocco Stirling was again unbeatable. The record shows he won four races to Hawthorn’s one, but Mike had four poles to three, five fastest laps to three, and they both started from the front row eight times. By season’s end Hawthorn had 49 points from nine finishes, but that was corrected to 42 as drivers could only count their six best results, Stirling finished only six times, earning 41 points. He would never come closer to the crown.
For all that, the season effectively turned on one race, the Portuguese GP at Porto. Moss’ detractors could point to the error he made under pressure from team-mate Tony Brooks when he missed a gearshift on the first lap at Spa, but Hawthorn’s mistake in spinning on the final lap in Porto was that Belgian faux pas’ counterpoint. In Portugal two other key factors came into play.
At one stage during the race Moss had fastest lap, until Hawthorn, in distant pursuit, responded with a new record. Moss misinterpreted the pit signal that he was shown which said HAW-REC. He perceived it as HAW-REG, or Hawthorn regular, meaning that his rival was no threat. Thus he did not respond to set a quicker time, which would have won him the extra point that was then awarded for fastest lap.
“I normally got the fastest lap. The thing was that there are times when you can make a mistake and I just misunderstood, really, rather than misreading. I misunderstood what it meant. There’s no excuse for it; really and truly I should just have ignored it and just gone for it as I normally would. But the more important time was when Mike went up the escape road.”
This occurred when Hawthorn spun on the final tour as Moss was about to lap him. “He went up there and then he got a push back. And later the stewards said that wasn’t on.”
Actually, though Hawthorn pushed the car himself and didn’t have assistance, he was facing exclusion after bump-starting his engine and letting the Ferrari briefly mount a footpath going in the opposite direction to the circuit, an area not designated as race track. The situation was getting unpleasant, when Moss voluntarily stepped forward in his defence. At the time nobody could know how crucial this incident was to be, but in any case there would have been no pleasure to be gained from denying his rival points on a technicality.
“To me, Mike shouldn’t have been disqualified. Rather like this black flag thing with Schumacher, really. The sport was different then so one can’t compare it, but I just felt that it was quite wrong that he should be disqualified. And I put forward the idea that he was still on the track, albeit the escape road, which they accepted. And it turned out that it lost me the title. But it’s a case of what winning means to you.” ,
There was another point, too. Had Moss not allowed Hawthorn to unlap himself Mike would then have had another full lap to complete, with fading brakes, which itself might have allowed his own team-mate Stuart Lewis-Evans to pose a challenge for second, thus depriving Hawthorn of more points. Hindsight is the easy part, though, 20/20 vision. Far better to focus instead on Moss’s behaviour at that moment and in the race’s aftermath, which at the time and forever after would speak so eloquently of his nature and sportsmanship. When he’d lapped the Ferrari, Stirling had taken pity on Hawthorn’s dejected look and allowed him to go by again.
“My philosophy is that racing is what matters. I remember going to the American Grand Prix many years later when Emerson Fittipaldi was coming up for his world title at Watkins Glen. And he could have won the race. But he didn’t. He drove to be fourth. And I thought what a farce that is. To make a championship where the man who is the best — or one hopes is the best — isn’t trying to win. It’s quite wrong, but you can’t stop it.”
At the end of that turmoiled season Moss spent time analysing his feelings and coming to terms with the frustration of his greatest ambition. From then on, the world title would never be quite so important to him. His outlook began to mellow.
“My attitude did change. Because I really believed that year that I ought to be the champion. I felt that I had the ability, and so on, and I didn’t win. And it was against Mike Hawthorn, who was actually quite a good friend of mine, although we were obviously competitors and therefore we would keep the fuel going wherever possible rather like they do in boxing. I really felt that I could beat Mike, and he of course beat me by a point.
“And then I thought, well, Mike drinks, and he runs around, and he does everything that I would like to do, and still I’ve been punished for not doing it. What the hell, I’m going to go out and enjoy myself.”
One of the outer manifestations of his changing philosophy was that he smoked more, although his behavioural code had not previously denied him tobacco entirely.
“I’d always smoked a bit. I did an advert for Craven A, which used to say I don’t smoke often but when I do I’m choosy, I smoke Craven A. That was worth, probably, about 50 quid a year, I suppose. I can’t remember for sure, but I do know that my contract with Astons was £50 a year.
“So I’d always smoked a bit, not that much, but it wasn’t smoking I took up after 1958 and it wasn’t drinking either. But I did cut down on my strictness as far as crumpet and that sort of thing was concerned. . .”
Ask him if it made him any quicker and he laughs. “Well, I did fairly well after that, just as well as I’d done before, so there we are!
“But you see, my philosophy was that I would rather lose a race driving fast enough to win, than win a race driving slow enough to lose, if you follow. Because I am a racer, I’m not a driver. And I think that is not an intelligent thing to be; one should be a driver and a racer as well, but I enjoy racing. I enjoy dicing with other guys. To me that’s what it’s about.”
He expressed similar sentiments to those espoused by Steve Curtis last month, as far as driving artificially for championship points is concerned, rather than letting his natural style have its head in aiming for victory at all times.
“I had a lot of criticism as a car wrecker. At one time I had a lot of gearbox trouble, but the reason for that was that Lotus and Cooper always sold us a year-old chassis, they wouldn’t sell Rob Walker a new one. We could get an engine from Climax, but the gearbox was made by Cooper, and he wouldn’t sell it. The only place in the world then you could get a gearbox was Italy and we went to Colotti, who was a fantastic designer and did the gearbox for us. It was a wonderful gearbox, but made of crap, really.
“Actually, I finished as many races as Maurice Trintignant in the car, and he was pretty careful, but if you happen to be in the lead when you go out, or you set fastest lap, then you get a lot of flak. I seemed to get a lot more and eventually I said to Rob at the Dutch GP in 1960, ‘I’m fed up with this, they’re always having a go at me for leading, so I’m not going to take the lead.’ My biggest competitor was Jack Brabham, so I was just going to sit behind him and then take him later on.
“So I did that, and then he went over a paving stone, which flew up in the air and landed on my front tyre and burst it. I had to come in and change that and of course went out miles back and only managed to make it up to third. And after that I said to Rob, ‘What the hell’s the point? I do all this just because of this criticism, so sod what the press say.’ But it does get you down, you see. So that’s why when people ask me some things today, I say that you needed to be there at the time to appreciate why I did certain things in certain ways.”
A classic case in point was his comeback to racing after that final shunt during the Glover Trophy at Goodwood on April 23 1962. At Monza recently, Karl Wendlinger made his return to the public arena after his Monaco accident. Over breakfast one morning we discussed the sort of head injury he sustained with Prof Sid Watkins, and the conversation turned to Stirling’s accident. Prof made the interesting observation that he should have left more time before coming back to racing, and Moss himself was quick to take up the point when it arose. It’s the 20/20 vision thing again.
Though the specialist press by and large steered clear of bulletins and prominent stories about his health, while no doubt fretting off the page, the dailies had a field day which nonetheless revealed the depth of national feelings for the fallen hero. Everybody wanted Moss back — soon — as if his very return could somehow convince every man of the strength of human will as it triumphed over the odds. The Daily Express even had a photographer on regular standby at Goodwood in case Moss went testing in secret. There was tremendous, if benign, pressure upon him. As usual, however, the greatest pressure came from within.
“Now, in hindsight, I probably came back two years too early,” he conceded. “It was stupid, but the reason I came back was because every week the press was saying, ‘Are you going to race, are you going to drive?’ I of course was telling myself, ‘Yes, my God I’m going to, I want to.’”
In the past his recovery from physical injury, such as the broken leg he sustained at Spa in 1960, had stunned onlookers, but this was something of a different nature.
“Again, it’s the thing about being there at that time. We didn’t have people around like the Prof. They didn’t exist. When one looks back and one sees the whole picture, it’s very easy to say this and that. But at the time we didn’t have people like old Watkins. If there had been people like that in the sport, I’m sure that I would have listened to them. But there was nobody to listen to, really, except myself. The doctors said physically I was okay, and I knew that, but the concentration wasn’t there. And because the people that I was with were not racing people, it was very much a different situation.
“Because there were all of these articles and so on, I felt that I had to make a decision. There was the pressure on me to make one, really. In the nicest possible way. So I went down to Goodwood and my lap times were comparable with what I could do normally, but I could see mentally that I didn’t have the concentration to do it with the same sort of latitude for safety that I had. The thing was that I was going into corners and I had to force myself to concentrate. Right, I’m going down the straight now, that’s where you have to lift off. . . Everything was worked out, whereas normally when I’d race I’d get in the car and just drive. And I automatically would back off here and automatically do this to compensate that, and if it didn’t work I’d be really surprised. Well, now I had to think of all these things. The automation had gone, and it was now a conscious effort. And so that meant I had to get out.”
With a Prof Watkins to advise him, who knows where his career might finally have ended, had he been fit enough to return full-time by 1964, when he would only have been 34, coming up for 35?
To this day he has still never had any mental inkling, no recollection whatsoever, of the reason for the chilling moments his pale green UDT-Laystall Racing Team Lotus spent on the grass before crashing into the earth bank at St Mary’s. There has never been a shortage of theories, such as a repeat of the sticking throttle that had plagued him in a previous race at Snetterton.
“I have no idea. All I can do is surmise. I was coming up to pass Graham Hill and I think that if a marshal had put a flag out, which he might have done, Graham may have acknowledged him with a wave to say, ‘Okay’. And I may have seen that as a sign to say come past. Graham anyway had an unusual line there, and if I had seen him over to the right there and seen that happen. I might have thought, ‘He knows I’m not competing with him’ – Moss was running well back after pit stops to have the Colotti gearbox adjusted ‘so I’ll go past. And he thinking that nobody would go by there could have pulled over and I might have thought, ‘Crikey, I’d better get over,’ and pulled over and gone off. That’s the only construction I can make. Graham wasn’t the sort of guy who’d push you off. So it’s all just surmise.”
Today he enjoys his forays into historic racing, but admits that the value of the machinery militates against racing all-out. “And my threshold of fear is much closer. There are things that I know, if I was younger, I would be doing. Part of racing is the people, though, and that’s still there. But the races are so short that one can’t use the tactics I’d use in my day, when you got damper fade or oil surge and had to do things to compensate for them. But I do enjoy it.”
In his early years, driving British cars was almost a religion, but Moss demands accuracy when you raise the matter today. “When you read or hear about these things, you always see them out of context. At the time we’re talking not long after the war there were no established names or makes of cars. I wanted to drive a British car and we had nothing. John Heath was the first person, really, who started with the HWM. Ferrari had come out in 1949 and he was obviously so good, his was the car that one wanted to try to beat. And this was a thing I wanted to do. So I stuck with English cars while they were around. They dried up in ’53, so I was forced to go with Maserati in 1954. It meant an awful lot to me, but there just wasn’t an alternative.”
An entertaining raconteur with a slightly breathless style reminiscent of Leo Villa, he can rarely resist sidetracking a conversation with an anecdote, prefaced in a style that suggests he is not wholly sure that it will be of interest to his listener.
“When I bought the Maserati which cost I think 5.6 million lire which was the equivalent of 3700 odd pounds, a lot of money – they had agreed that they would give me a car that was the same as the factory’s. Alf Francis went down when they were building it and he said to the guy who was doing the bodywork that I like to drive with straight arms and they had it so you had to have them bent, and the chap wouldn’t alter it. He would not make the car like that! So Alf stayed on that night and cut the chassis and rewelded it! Next day the guy came in and just rolled the body panelling over it, and that’s how it was done. You could have your suit made as long as it didn’t fit, if you know What I mean!
“Then I had the car and I’m going down the straight, I forget where, possibly Reims, and Jean Behra in the works car came past me. So I said to Maserati, ‘Why haven’t I got the same as you’ve got?’ And they said, ‘Certainly you will have it, once we’ve proved it!”
The Maserati led to Mercedes-Benz, thence to British winners at last, in the form of Vanwall, Cooper and Lotus. Today, as then, he wears his nationality with the same badge of pride that made him for so long turn his face against Ferrari, and the world title that driving a red car might so easily have conferred upon him. “I am patriotic, and I’m very much a Royalist, I’m all for the Royal Family because I think they do a great job, even though they’re messing it up now. And if I were racing today, if I were big enough, important enough, I certainly would be driving British cars.”
Though he was the first true post-war professional, Moss primarily raced for the pleasure he derived rather than for the reward of dollars. Within a team he could be hard, arguing his point steadfastly and refusing to suffer fools, but he was a mechanic’s and team owner’s delight for as well as being able to extract the maximum from the car lap after lap, he also had that uncanny ability to relay detailed information corner by corner.
As a driver he was as hard to beat as they come, never having off days, never giving up even in utmost adversity. Dan Gurney once said of him that if you ever got close enough to really push him hard, he would let you overtake and immediately apply similar pressure to you. “That way,” said Dan, “he’d see what it took to make you come unglued, but you’d never see him getting unravelled so you never knew what it took. . .”
I asked Moss which team he had most enjoyed driving for. Mercedes-Benz, Vanwall, or Rob Walker, where he played the role of underdog that undoubtedly he relished.
“Pleasure comes in different ways. There is the pleasure of success, which obviously is important, very important, because there’s nothing better than hearing God Save the Queen played because you’ve won. I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is or how it is, that is what it’s all about. And various circuits obviously give you more pleasure than others to succeed on.
“And if one is talking about success, obviously Mercedes has to be the team because every race we went into with the exception of one, we being the Mercedes team, a Mercedes won it. And if you didn’t go off the road you knew you had a good chance of finishing second, to Fangio. And sportscars, for instance, I could win.
“The professionalism, and the humour of Neubauer, and the brilliance of the mechanics and the way the cars were put together. . . It wasn’t an easy car to drive, the Merc, not like the Maser 250F, because there was a lot of weight up front. The straight-eight wasn’t the engine Neubauer would have had chosen.” Mercedes did, indeed, have a V8 under development had it continued into 1956.
“It was an incredible company, particularly in those days. Neubauer had a terrific sense of humour and he was a man that you felt was almost like a father figure. He’d put his arm round you to sort of take care of you and look after you, and stop all these people worrying you. Reg Parnell at Aston Martin was a nice guy, and so was Ugolini, another nice guy, but you wouldn’t compare them with Neubauer. So from that point of view, that was great.
“Then driving for Masers was great because of the passion and the love that the mechanics had, they really did work their heart out. The Italians are lovable people. And that was one of the nicest cars.
“Above all, though, I would say racing for Rob Walker because of, I suppose, the cooperation and the teamwork. You’d go to Rob for the rubber stamp. If we’d been asked to go to a race and Alf Francis and l reckoned it was on, then Rob would say okay, let’s do it. He was there as a sort of guardian, more than anything, and it was really rewarding driving for him because you felt that you made quite a contribution. Because it was because Alf or I had wanted to go to this little race at Roskilde or whatever it was, that was why we were there. And when we went to Australasia, Alf said we ought to take the Cooper and the Lotus because. . . and there were no ifs and buts. We did.
“Vanwall doesn’t enter the frame for that. Vanwall does for the point of view that the greatest thing for me, the one thing that I wanted to do, was to have an English car. Tony Vandervell was a gruff old bugger, but he was a likable bloke. The car was not an easy car to drive; it didn’t give the pleasure of others other than the fact it was British green. The sole pleasures of the Vanwall were that it looked good and it was green. And, of course, it won. After that, it had a flat spot which got better on petrol, it had a gearbox which was a sod. Tony Vandervell might warm it up and ruin the clutch, or something. . . There were a lot of things about it which were not on the pleasure side, and remember, I raced for fun, really.”
It is extraordinary how candid Moss is. To many he can lay just claim to the title of greatest ever in the cauldron of Formula One something, quite clearly, to which he himself does not aspire while there has never been another driver so accomplished in all-round terms. In his time he has won Grands Prix, sportscar epics such as the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy in 1955, rallies and saloon car events. As those who saw the not-too-distant television documentary when Daily Mail sportswriter Ian Wooldridge accompanied him on a Mille Miglia retrospective in the Mercedes 300SLR, ego is a part of his make-up, yet when discussing his career it remains under precise control.
He did not spin a car for the first four years. and when I mentioned it he shot back immediately: “That’s because I’m not courageous,” in that curious manner he has of speaking as if yesterday’s events were still current. The comment was made with utmost candour, and takes a little getting used to. Then you begin to appreciate the depth of talent at his disposal if he really was driving just on, but not quite beyond, his limit the whole time. He settled his shoulders and rubbed his hands before continuing, keen to explain the point further.
“You see, danger was always on my shoulder. The problem before motor racing now is that the safety of the thing has given rise to a contempt of danger. And I never had that contempt. I was always really quite frightened of hurting myself. Of dying. And I would always drive sufficiently within my capabilities because I just didn’t want to spin. I was afraid that if I spun I might hit the kerb and turn over, and be seriously hurt. I didn’t actually spin until quite a long time after I’d started.
“That first spin didn’t change my outlook too much, because I could see the reason I’d spun and it was my own fault. I came round this corner and there was dust, so I had a reason for doing it. But I didn’t like it. The thing that would really worry me, mentally because motor racing is very much mental is if something happened and I didn’t know why. I mean, if I went off because a wheel fell off. I’d know why. I’d be pretty upset, naturally, but. . . You have to remember that in those days the cars weren’t built like they are now. But providing I knew what had happened, I wasn’t mentally upset about it, confidence-wise.”
Today, just turned 65. Moss is an occasional paradox. While the forward-looking nature with which he embraces his beloved gadgetry is at odds with the popular conception of one his age, in other areas he espouses attitudes that are a throwback to a more heroic sporting age. Today’s stars covet their telephone numbers as if they were safe codes, but Moss has always been listed in the phone book and remains there.
If he’s out, the answerphone prompts you to leave a message in a cheery manner. ‘You’ve got just over a minute to leave a message. Wait for the silly little bleep. Ciao, ciao!’
Naturally, there’s a degree of self-preservation involved, ‘polishing the faded image’ as he sometimes puts it, for he is a businessman, whose name remains his fortune. But there is a lot more to it than commercial expediency.
“If you take a book of any year since I’ve been old enough to pay for a ‘phone, I’ve been listed. I believe, and I always have done, that the moment you take accolades from the public you owe something. I’ve never been worried about being asked questions. If I didn’t live by what I believed in, then I would worry. I don’t think I’ve been a great person, or anything like that, but I do know that whenever I did whatever I did, I did it because I decided to do it, if you know what I mean. So there, I’m hopefully accessible to people if they want it. I get quite a few letters, and every letter that comes with a return address on it, I’ll answer.”
Nick Coozée, now Managing Director of Penske Cars in Poole, was an avid correspondent with Moss during his schoolboy years, and will readily attest to that.
Some drivers don’t give out their ‘phone numbers at all. Others, with whom one grew up, change address and then just ‘forget’ to update you. Times change and so do people.
“I don’t live by that code,” Moss said. “I mean, if people think I’m a creep, then fine. If they write me a letter. I’ll answer it. I got a lot saying that I shouldn’t drive for the Germans, which I could understand. And therefore I’d answer them, and explain my side. And if I was able to convert the person, all right. And if not, okay. I think it just depends on one’s philosophy and outlook.
“You see, I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve never won a World Championship, and it would now, I think, be detrimental to have won one. I’m better off never having won one. It does put people in difficult positions writing books on World Champions if they want to mention myself, but then it doesn’t matter. On the overall picture I’m better off with none. I’m the man that people say, ‘Gosh, he should have won.’ I think I had a fair innings, really. It’s now, what? Getting on for 35 years since I drove a car, and yet I’m still selling my name. I’ve just signed a thing to be the international adviser to the Melbourne Historic Grand Prix, a contract for two years. Well now, that is terrific, that’s selling my name now, 35 years later. Which is good, because I do an awful lot of things like that. And I do talks and things, for which I’m paid. And I have to be. That’s how I make my living, selling my time and my name. And I think a lot of that is because a) I have made myself accessible, and b) always had something to say if people ring me up and ask what do I think of something. It doesn’t matter what it is, I have opinions. They may not be right ones, but at least I have them and I’m not frightened of saying them.”
In his heyday, he loved nothing more than going into a corner and looking in his mirror and seeing another driver behind, and then seeing that same driver three or four feet further back when he looked again as he exited the corner. “That’s when I felt six feet tall. You know, beat that! It’s a very lonely place, leading a race on your own, not dicing, no two ways about it. But even when you’re on your own, you’re still dicing. You come out of a corner and look down and maybe you’ll see 6700 revs. And the next lap you try that little bit harder, just to try and see a little bit more. You’re dicing with yourself. And you are your own toughest critic.”
As Stirling Moss proved on the track, and continues to off it today, you don’t have to wear a crown to be a champion. DJT