For me, as well as for many motor racing fanatics, the passing of Sir Stirling Moss OBE is a very sad one. When I think about Sir Stirling, I don’t linger too much on his Herbert Johnson white helmet, or his arms-out-straight driving position, but I remember the way he went about his motor racing.
Like many, I’ve been fascinated about Stirling Moss from a very early age. I’ll never forget the time my father took me to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and I managed to get the autograph of this titan of Grand Prix racing.
For me, as a carefree six-year-old, the sight of a large throng of people huddled around what I presumed was a racing car in the Festival’s make shift paddock, didn’t interest me that much. But my father dragged me over to the back of scrum, opened his rucksack and took out a large leather bound black portfolio. He quickly pulled out a black and white photograph on glossy A4 paper, thrust a marker pen into my hand and pushed me through the legs of the people all scuffling to get somewhere.
Completely bewildered, I remember falling through the group and ending up at the front. Before me was a brilliant silver car. Two men sat in it on checked fabric seats. There was a sharp smell of exhaust fumes and a team of immaculately dressed mechanics were preventing the throng of people from touching the gleaming paintwork. Quite how I managed to catch the attention of one of these mechanics I’ll never know, but one of them, with enormous oily hands and a bushy moustache, caught sight of me, grabbed me by the arm and pushed me to the side of what I presumed was the driver.
An old man wearing a pristine set of blue overalls and a polished white helmet leant over the side of the car, took my photograph, smiled and squiggled a neat little signature. He passed the photograph to the other man sat alongside him who did the same, but his was rather more ornate. I was then pushed away and spat out from the crowd.
He’d driven the whole way peddling a Nash Metropolitan – a minuscule two-seater that had all the luxuries of a coal shed.
It was only when I was older did I understand how special those few minutes were. Among the celebrations at the then-fledgling 1995 Goodwood Festival of Speed was the 40th anniversary of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson’s amazing win at the 1955 Mille Miglia. The signatures had come from those two men and the car I tried hard not to rest my hands on was ‘722’ – the famous Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.
This was the beginning of my fascination with Stirling Moss. I read as much as could about him and a VHS tape that included various recordings of him racing was always shoved into the video player at any moment.
Moss: The pro
Over the years I’ve read a lot about motoring racing in Moss’s day, but the book I always find myself picking up is Richard Williams’s The Last Road Race. It’s a thin book and tells the story of the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix – a race that, while not quite the very last race held on public roads ever organised, marked the moment when motor racing – specifically Formula 1 – made the leap from being ad hoc to professional.
The Gran Premio di Pescara was a points-scoring round of the 1957 Formula 1 World Championship (the first and last time it would be) and Moss was racing for the relatively new Vanwall team. Along with his father, he took a flight to Rome and then rented a Fiat 1100 and drove north-eastwards to Pescara. His team-mate, the mightily talented dentistry student Tony Brooks, drove all the way to Pescara from England in a brand new Hillman Minx. He was sharing with Cooper team driver Roy Salvadori who was testing the car for Autocourse magazine, and along the way the pair picked up Brooks’s fiancé. That was all rather jolly compared to way the Vanwall team’s third driver, Stuart Lewis-Evans, got to the race. He’d driven the whole way peddling a Nash Metropolitan – a minuscule two-seater that had all the luxuries of a coal shed.
While those journeys would raise the eyebrows of modern F1 drivers, Jack Brabham’s ticket to Pescara would give the same drivers a heart attack. Brabham was due to drive for the Cooper team alongside Salvadori that weekend, but instead of taking a similar trip like his peers, he drove the team’s car transporter.
On the surface, at least, Moss’s arrival at Pescara was in keeping with his team-mates and fellow competitors. However, the night before his arrival at the town, Moss had had an appointment with a journalist and had also appeared on BBC TV’s mid-week sports programme Sportsview. He’d only got to bed at 2.15am before being up again at 7am to catch the flight to Rome.
In this regard, Moss was different to his peers. Fellow Brits Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins were rather more old school in their approach to racing – both in appearance and in prep. Not only did Moss’s arms-out-straight driving position and polished white helmet look different to Hawthorn’s bowtie-wearing, hunched-over-the-wheel persona, but the fact Moss was working the night before the Pescara race and sticking to work-related engagements was different, too. Moss was a pro while Hawthorn and Collins had that hint of amateur racer that had personified the sport until the 1950s.
Moss would famously travel to races with his father and stay in different accommodation to the rest of the Vanwall team (or whichever team he was racing for). ‘Any hotel that I would have gone to anywhere would have been one of the cheaper ones,’ Moss once said. His friend, the journalist Bernard Cahier, also said of Moss: ‘Moss was always thrifty in his choice of food, and his father was worse. When he got married to Katie Molson, she liked to have wine with a meal. His father objected: too expensive.’
Moss loved to chase ‘crumpet’ almost as much as he loved to win
Moss was frequently early to bed and fanatical about treating his work as business. In his Vanwall contract, for instance, he was the number one driver and he reserved the right have the team’s best machinery. So if that involved trying Brooks’s Vanwall and then discovering his team-mate’s car was the better one, Moss would take it.
In Williams’s book, Brooks says: ‘The team spirit at Vanwall was very good, very strong, an Stirling was quite clearly number one. He had the choice of cars and he had the choice of engines. The only thing is that David Yorke (the team manager) tended to limit my practice once I’d got a respectable time, because if I did a quicker time that Stirling, which did happen, Stirling would grind round until he’d beaten it. He’d try my car. Sometimes he’d have my chassis and engine, or vice versa. I was messed about a bit in that respect, and it did make life difficult on occasion.’
Brooks added: ‘But I never had a cross word with Stirling because I knew he was entitled to do what he did. I never, ever complained because if I didn’t like it, I shouldn’t have signed on.’
Nowadays that kind of approach seems bizarre, but it was commonplace, and it epitomised Moss’s focus on getting the best car for the best result. To him, motor racing was a profession, not a game. He was prudent with money, keen on physical fitness, fastidiously organised and a tee-total. It was little surprise he was the best paid driver of his era.
But there was another side too Moss. Asked by journalist Rob McGibbon which book resonates the most with him, Moss said: ‘Road Star Hat Trick by Prince Chula. It’s about his cousin’s life as a racing driver in the 1930s. I read it at 15 and I was amazed by his stories of racing and chasing crumpet. That’s when I decided to be a racing driver.’ Married three times, Moss loved to chase ‘crumpet’ almost as much as he loved to win.
Crumpet aside, Moss’s attitude to his work was the catalyst to the world of motor racing changing forever. After Moss and after the Pescara Grand Prix, motor racing became professional.
Richard Williams, The Last Motor Race – The 1957 Pescara Grand Prix, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004
Rob McGibbon, Motor Racing Legend Sir Stirling Moss, 27 Dec 2014, robmcgibbon.com