“My quality of life was far higher than Jenson Button’s or Lewis Hamilton’s. All I had to do was turn up to drive the car and then go off and chase crumpet.”
Sir Stirling Moss was the epitome of everything that a British racing driver from the golden age of motorsport – “when sex was safe and racing was dangerous” – should be. Charming, polite, fearless…and yes, a womaniser.
Sir Stirling, who died on Easter Day aged 90 – exactly 58 years after the accident that effectively ended his career at Goodwood – belonged to a different era. Political correctness hadn’t yet been invented, and society was far more accepting of risk and intolerance.
It was in some ways a more innocent age, yet at the same time one that held countless terrors. Drivers were often burned alive, for example, and not only drivers: Sir Stirling raced at the infamous 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours where 83 spectators lost their lives after Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes went flying into the main grandstand, on fire.
It seems hard to understand how drivers like Moss accepted those risks, but he recently explained it with characteristic lucidity. You just had to have an unshakeable faith in your own ability, believing that you were driving within the limits of your own capabilities. Those who died in accidents, for the most part, weren’t – so it would never happen to you.
That’s not entirely true though, as there were two things that Moss feared: oil on the track, and mechanical failure. It was almost certainly an unexplained failure that caused the 1962 accident on Easter Monday at Goodwood: spectators reported seeing a flash of flame from the back of Moss’s Lotus before it slammed into the bank. Moss would be left in a coma for 38 days, and when he tested a Lotus 19 the following year, he realised that he was just a little bit slower, a little less sharp than before. Something had gone missing. And so for somebody who thrived on winning, there was no point in continuing.
Moss always set far more store by winning races than championships. Which is why he will always be saddled with the label of having been the most successful driver in Formula 1 never to win a title. There were other reasons too: he was a consummate sportsman, sacrificing his own chances on more than one occasion to help his team mates. He also preferred driving British cars when he could, commenting famously that it was better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign one. And so he was often found at the wheel of an ERA, a Connaught, a Vanwall, Cooper, Jaguar, or Aston Martin – although he was equally well-known for his achievements in a Mercedes or Maserati.
He came so close so many times: he was second in the Formula 1 world championship in 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1958 – then third in the championship in 1959, 1960, and 1961. In total, he led 1181 laps.
But for Moss, it wasn’t just about Formula 1. He competed in everything: Le Mans, sports cars, rallies, hillclimbs, and other races. And to some extent, it was a similar story: he was twice runner-up at Le Mans and was leading the tragic 1955 race before Mercedes withdrew. He was also second on the Monte-Carlo Rally, in 1952. But what most people don’t realise is that in total he won 212 races of all descriptions – having only declared himself officially retired in 2011, after he took part in the Le Mans Legends race at the age of 81.
Possibly the greatest of those victories was the 1955 Mille Miglia race, in which he set a new record over the 1000-mile Italian classic in a Mercedes 300 SLR, accompanied by the legendary Motor Sport journalist Denis Jenkinson (who had come up with an innovative way of reading the pace notes, on a long scroll of paper a bit like a toilet roll).
They covered the total distance in 10h07m48s: an average of 157 kilometres per hour, non-stop. Jenkinson’s write-up of the experience is possibly the most famous piece of motorsport journalism in history, and you can still read all of it right here.
Nothing we can write will ever pay as adequate a tribute to the man as the words you will read in this article, so set aside some time. It’s an epic read.
But to give you a taste, here’s what Jenkinson recalled immediately after the unforgettable win: “It was with a justified feeling of elation that I lay in a hot bath, for I had had the unique experience of being with Stirling Moss throughout his epic drive, sitting beside him while he worked as I have never seen anyone work before in my life, and harder and longer than I ever thought it possible for a human being to do. It was indeed a unique experience, the greatest experience in the whole of the 22 years during which I have been interested in motor-racing, an experience that was beyond my wildest imagination, with a result that even now I find it extremely hard to believe.”
Moss stayed relatively fit and healthy right up to 2010, when a fall down a lift shaft at his futuristic home in London broke both his ankles. In 2016 he then developed a chest infection that he never really recovered from, having been poorly in recent years.
“It was one lap too many,” said his wife Susie, who was with him when he passed away. “He died as he lived, looking wonderful.”
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