Sir Stirling Moss obituary: the Boy Wonder who defined his era

F1

Sir Stirling Moss obituary: the racer who spearheaded Britain's emergence as a force in international racing

Stirling Moss 1955 British Grand Prix

Moss at Aintree ahead of the 1955 British Grand Prix

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Sir Stirling Moss 1929-2020

One of the legends upon which the whole sport rests has now left us, but Stirling Moss’ deeds never will. He was one of those very special ones who could seemingly transcend the accepted definition of ‘possible’ and that directly translated into his public standing as he became a ‘name’ reaching beyond the sport in much the same way as did Muhammad Ali in boxing or Pele in football. Although he last took part in a grand prix 59 years ago, this magician of the wheel’s reputation has rung through the generations. The fact that the list of F1 world champions does not feature his name is more an indictment of the championship than of him. Between the time of Fangio’s retirement in 1958 and Moss’ career-ending accident early 1962 he towered above his contemporaries, arguably to an extent never seen before or since. Even the competition would occasionally acknowledge that his skills were of a different order to theirs.

His victories over the vastly more powerful Ferraris at Monaco and the Nürburgring in ’61 were among the greatest displays of virtuosity the sport has ever seen.

Some idea of the intensity of Moss the competitor in his pomp can be gained from the Ken Purdy biography All But My Life, written with Moss’ co-operation and largely completed just before the Goodwood crash that left him in a coma for several weeks. At one point Purdy asks him about self-belief and Moss gives the earnest reply that if he devoted his entire life to it, to the exclusion of all else, he firmly believes he would be able to walk on water… Some felt that he already could.

He was more than just a very great racing driver though. He was the embodiment of Britain’s emergence, post-World War Two, as a force that would soon come to dominate international racing for the first time. He and the Formula 500 movement from which he sprang were the seeds of a revolution and it was perfectly apposite that it was Moss who would take the mid-engined Cooper to its first grand prix victory, Argentina ’58. He was already into his fifth year as a competitive F1 force by then, the ‘Boy Wonder’ having built upon his F2 outings with HWM and Alta to be in consideration for a Mercedes seat alongside Fangio in the German manufacturer’s comeback season of 1954.

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Ultimately, they considered him still a little too inexperienced for such a responsibility but urged that should he get F1 experience for future consideration there. A privately purchased 250F Maserati in ’54 established him firmly among the elite, only unreliability keeping him from victory at Monza – where he was leading Fangio’s Mercedes and Ascari’s Ferrari. A ’55 place at Mercedes duly came his way, the basis for not only his first Grand Prix victory – at Aintree – but also his legendary triumph in the Millie Miglia sports car race (with pace notes supplied by Motor Sport’s partnering Denis Jenkinson), a performance since described as ‘the most epic drive ever’.

Moss remained uncertain about whether he really had defeated Fangio at Aintree ‘55 or whether it had been a gift, despite the Argentinean champion’s assurances to the contrary and that Moss had beaten him fair and square. But generally Moss was the pupil, Fangio the master (in F1, at least), the pair separated by 20 years and different languages, though united by total mutual respect. In a sports car, there was little question Moss was the faster of the pair and his career would include major sports car victories in Jaguar and Aston Martin machinery, not to mention innumerable successes in GT and touring cars, even rallying.

Stirling Moss in a Mercedes

Moss during the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix with Mercedes

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After Mercedes’ withdrawal from the sport at the end of ’55, Moss reunited with Maserati, this time as a works driver. Patriotism figured heavily in his transference to Vanwall where he would win extensively in ’57 (including a sublime victory at Pescara, where he beat Fangio’s Maserati by three minutes) and ’58, contributing in the latter year towards the team’s victory in the inaugural world constructors championship even though the driver’s world title remained tantalisingly out of reach. The closest he came was in ’58 when, with four victories, he lost out by a single point to Mike Hawthorn, who’d won just once. A measure of Moss’ sportsmanship, though, came when he appeared as a supporting witness for Hawthorn’s appeal against disqualification at Oporto. Had it stood, Moss would have taken the title. Thanks in part to Moss’ testimony it didn’t stand and Hawthorn became Britain’s first world champion.

Moss later claimed that losing the ‘58 title cured him of worrying too much about whether he was world champion or not. Winning races, preferably as the underdog, carried much more meaning for him. As such, driving for Rob Walker’s privateer team, going up against the works Coopers, Lotuses and Ferraris 1959-61, gave him great satisfaction and probably saw him at his absolute peak. Missing three races through injury probably cost him the title to Jack Brabham in 1960. His victories over the vastly more powerful Ferraris at Monaco and the Nürburgring in ’61 were among the greatest displays of virtuosity the sport has ever seen. I asked him once if the Moss of ‘55 that had partnered Fangio was performing at the level he was at in ’61 and he replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think I did improve as I got more experience.” Might the Moss of ’61 have given Fangio a harder time at Mercedes? It’s one of the sport’s great imponderables, just like the epic battles that were surely to come with Jim Clark, whom he had already identified as his future challenger.

StirlingMoss1

Moss in the Formula 1 paddock before the 2011 British Grand Prix

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Moss thankfully did make a recovery from his Goodwood injuries and while the indefinable neurological magic may have been lost during that sleep – upon trying a car a year or so later, he claimed that much of his previous unconscious actions now had to be deliberate – the world and he got to enjoy each other for almost another six decades. He defined his era of racing as much as it defined him and that time was a very special and formative one. Moss is a name that is woven indelibly into the sport’s very fabric. We will not see his like again.

Motor Sport extends its condolences to the family, friends and fans of Stirling Moss


1959 Tourist Trophy

Sir Stirling Moss

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