Stirling Moss at Le Mans: he knew he was fastest and so did everyone else

Le Mans News

Stirling Moss attempted to win Le Mans ten times, even though the restraint required for the 24 Hour enduro went against his racing instinct. He may never have claimed victory but, writes Damien Smith, his superlative performances meant that it never troubled him

Stirling Moss with Peter Collins at Le Mans in 1956

Stirling Moss and Peter Collins: second-place finishers for Aston Martin in 1956

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Three years. Where has that gone? When news filtered through that we’d lost Sir Stirling Moss at 90, on the Easter weekend of 2020, there was little surprise. But still there was shock. How could there not? To say ‘Ciao’ one final time to such a man – to many of us, the epitome of the racing driver breed – was a moment of deepest poignancy and sadness.

Three years on, and just ahead of the 80th Goodwood Members’ Meeting, the absence of The Boy remains a chasm. As he grew older and particular after he retired from historic racing, we cherished each time Stirling appeared behind the wheel of one of his old cars, wherever it might be. He was prolific at the Goodwoods and far beyond, and just as well. It allowed us to make the most of him while we still could. How lucky we were.

Personally, Moss is never too far from my thoughts today, largely because episodes from his incredible career crop up so regularly, often in contrast or parallel to matters of the moment. Lately the Le Mans 24 Hours is a recurring theme as we prepare for the 100th anniversary running, and here the Moss connection remains powerful – even if he never won the great race, and also admitted it was a track and an event he never loved.

Stirling Moss with Jaguar pit sign at Le Mans in 1951

A 22-year-old Moss on his Le Mans debut in 1951

ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Stirling made 10 attempts at the 24 Hours, during a decade in which he set an emphatic benchmark in sports car racing to an extent greater than he did in Formula 1, at least until Juan Manuel Fangio had retired. His Le Mans record – two runner-up finishes, seven retirements through car failures and one withdrawal from the lead – left an obvious hole in his astonishing roster of achievements, and yet it never bothered him. Why should it? On each occasion, even in his final appearance in a GT car that had no hope of contending for the overall win, he was either the fastest or as near as damn it around the Circuit de la Sarthe. He knew it, and so did everyone else.

Remember it was in a sports car that he first made his significant mark on the emerging post-war motor sport world, in that astonishing victory in the RAC Tourist Trophy on the Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland, in a privateer Jaguar XK120, on the eve of his 21st birthday. Most racing drivers then were older men, often war veterans looking for new kicks in life after surviving the bullets and shells of global conflict. Yet here was a callow youth showing them the way, and at a time when most Britons were still mired in the gloom of rationing, he was a beacon of hope towards a brighter, more optimistic future. Moss quickly became one of Britain’s best known and highly regarded sporting figures, as he would be for the rest of his life – and Jaguar was among the first to recognise his value when it signed him to a ‘works’ contract to lead its charge to win Le Mans.

Jaguar C type of Stirling Moss with Dunlop Bridge in background at Le Mans 24 Hours 1951

Moss’s Jaguar C type led for seven hours in 1951

John Reavenall/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

In his four appearances for Jaguar at the 24 Hours, Moss set the pace as he would throughout the decade. But while he recognised the status and value of winning Le Mans, he never loved it. “Probably the greatest show in European racing,” he once told me, “but it was a race I never liked because it was too long. I think if I was racing now I’d enjoy it because today they go flat out from the start. In my day I was told to watch my revs: ‘look, use six-one, six-two here, use five-six there’.”

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At his first Le Mans in 1951 Moss almost immediately made his mark and was in the lead after three laps. He broke the lap record repeatedly, eventually setting a new mark a full six seconds below Louis Rosier’s from a year earlier. By the end of the second hour he’d lapped the whole field; by hour four he was two laps ahead. But having broken his opposition, the race broke his car, as it so often would. Just before midnight, having led for seven hours, a conrod bust due to a lack of oil pressure. Still, his job was done: Jaguar went on to win Le Mans for the first time, thanks to the sister XK120 driven by Peters Walker and Whitehead.

Perhaps Moss’s ambition and impatience was unsuited to 24-hour endurance racing. The following year his drive to push for more performance arguably cost Jaguar the race before it had even arrived at La Sarthe. Following the Mille Miglia in which he had been impressed by the form of the new Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Moss impetuously sent a cable to Jaguar chief Sir Williams Lyons: ‘MUST HAVE MORE SPEED AT LE MANS’. In haste, Jaguar’s engineers modified the new C-type, fitting longer noses and tails with smaller air intakes for the radiators. All three promptly retired with over-heating problems as a pair of 300SLs swept to a German one-two – just seven years after the war had ended.

Stirling Moss and Peter Walker stand on the Le Mans pitwall in 1953

Moss (right) and Walker on the pitwall in 1953 with(left) Jaguar team manager Lofty England

Ronald Startup/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But Moss’s finest attributes were back on show at Le Mans in 1953 as the C-types returned, now fitted with disc brakes that helped give them a clear edge. Having led – naturally – Moss and Peter Walker were delayed by a misfire. Their recovery charge, one of the finest ever seen at Le Mans, carried them to fourth by morning and to a remarkable runner-up spot at the flag, behind Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton’s winning C.

“It was probably the nicest Jaguar ever built,” said Moss. “Wonderful because we developed the car and developed the disc brakes. It really did need them. The [drum] brakes were alright-ish on the XK120, but on the C-type they weren’t because the car was a lot faster. So from that development point of view it was my favourite Jaguar.”

Moss inevitably led again in 1954 as the svelte new D-type took its bow, only for unreliability to once again bite. But by 1955 Stirling’s career had taken an upward turn – even if it was a ‘foreign’ one. At Mercedes beside ‘El Maestro’ Fangio in a dual attack on grands prix and the World Sportscar Championship Moss had his chance. In F1, he reverentially and without complaint assumed the role of apprentice to the man he respected above all others – but in a sports car, Moss had Fangio’s number.

“Fangio, to my mind, was the best F1 driver in the world,” Moss would always say. “But I could beat him in sports cars, which is something I don’t understand. He didn’t like enclosed wheels, but in F1 he was very fast. He was braver than me too, actually. At a place like Spa he was exceptionally quick. It was a very daunting circuit.”

Stirling Moss at Le Mans in 1955

Moss in 1955, ahead of the tragedy that would unfold

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

Stirling Moss cuts bodywork watched over by Denis Jenkinson at Le Mans in 1957

Moss snips at bodywork in 1957, overlooked by Motor Sport's Denis Jenkinson

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

In May, Moss claimed his crowning glory on the Mille Miglia, then followed Fangio home at the Belgian GP. The pair were then paired together in a 300SLR for Le Mans, completing surely the greatest, most potent line-up in the race’s 100-year history. But their likely victory was whipped away by catastrophe. I’ve always thought Mercedes took the only decision it could have in the wake of the crash that killed Pierre ‘Levegh’, more than 80 spectators and left more than double that amount with injuries. In contrast, Jaguar’s call to race on and win hasn’t aged well – at all. But Mercedes’ perspective is not one that Moss ever shared.

“It struck me as a rather empty theatrical gesture, which came close to admitting some responsibility for what had happened…” Stirling maintained. “I was very frustrated when we were ordered to withdraw.” Insensitive, given the carnage – or just brutally honest? Perhaps both. But we can’t and shouldn’t try to judge his characteristic hard-nosed attitude by the values of today. He lived and raced in a different world.

Aston Martin Le Mans team reunion with Stirling Moss Carroll Shelby and David Brown

Aston Martin reunion at Laguna Seca in 1989. Paul Frere, Maurice Trintignant, Carroll Shelby, Roy Salvadori, David Brown Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman


A switch to Aston Martin following Mercedes’ motor sport withdrawal garnered another second place shared with Peter Collins at Le Mans in 1956, then a DNF with Maserati a year later. But his return to Aston in ’58 triggered more sports car feats, most notably at the Nürburgring and Goodwood. At Le Mans that first year in the DBR1 Moss had lapped everyone up to third place when he stopped with a broken conrod just after 6pm on the Saturday evening. “A beautifully balanced car, bad gearbox, difficult flat spot on the engine, but it did the job,” said Moss of the model. “It was never as nice to drive as the Maserati 300S, but it would beat it, and it was bigger. One of my favourite sports cars.”

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Celebrating Stirling

Celebrating Stirling

A racer of skill, dedication and adaptability, the likes of which will never be seen again. This collection of writing celebrates the life and career of Sir Stirling Moss

By Motor Sport

Back at Le Mans in 1959, Moss appeared to take his usual role as the ‘hare’, running at almost grand prix pace from the start to break the opposition. He retired from the lead in the night, leaving Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill with a healthy lead. But when the Ferrari wilted late on Sunday morning, Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby were there to pick up victory for Aston, despite both suffering with illness. Moss had played his part.

But he always denied the ‘hare’ analogy. “They always said they sent me out to break the other cars, but that wasn’t true,” he said. “They just let me have a go, although I never used more revs than we were allowed. But I was allowed to race, and if you raced at Le Mans in my era, you didn’t finish.”

Moss made his final Le Mans start in a North American Racing Team Ferrari in 1961, sharing with Graham Hill. In a GT with no realistic hope of overall victory, Moss ran as high as fifth before the car called enough in the 10th hour. And then, in April 1962, came the freak Goodwood accident that ended his career, but at least spared him to enjoy that long and celebrated life as our ultimate ‘Mr Motor Racing’. Le Mans was by no means the main chapter nor the most interesting in his competitive life, but it added to the legend. He’ll be in my thoughts once again when the flag drops on the 100th anniversary running on June 10.