One of the greatest and most versatile drivers of all time has left a legacy of brilliance and indomitability that may never be matched, writes David Malsher-Lopez.
Renowned for being a driver who could take a car way past its ‘natural’ limits but contain its wayward behavior due to his own vast skillset, Moss paid the price for such pace in an era when mechanical reliability could never be taken for granted.
But when the car stayed together, his efforts were rewarded with many wins – 212 of 529 entered – and some of those victories are truly legendary.
The 1955 Mille Miglia is one such. If you haven’t read journalist (and navigator) Denis Jenkinson’s account of sitting alongside the young master at work in the Mercedes 300 SLR, find a copy. Moss covered the 992-mile course – comprised of public roads around Italy – in just 10hrs 7mins and 48 seconds, an average speed of 98.53mph. Of course, Jenks’ account is a fabulous trip back into an utterly different era, for the Mille Miglia was a perilous event that seems completely unfathomable these days, but tales about going over blind crests somewhere north of 150mph still have the power to move any reader.
The words ‘young master’ are not written tritely or with 60 years of hindsight. At the time of his Mille Miglia triumph, Moss had yet to score his first Formula 1 win, yet at the age of 25 he was already the greatest sportscar driver in the world, and would remain so throughout his sadly abbreviated career.
As a teenager, Stirling had been winning Formula 3 races back in 1948, but his early forays into sportscar racing proved his versatility, his adaptation seemingly instant. For the next dozen years, sportscar team managers knew that whether they ran a Jaguar, HWM, Frazer-Nash, Porsche, OSCA, Maserati, Cooper, Aston Martin, Lister or Ferrari, what could ultimately decide the race in their favor was having Stirling in their lineup.
In light of this, further success in touring cars was to be expected; he could make the lumbering Jaguar Mk VIIs dance to his tune as sweetly as the Ferrari 250 GT SWB, which became his favorite GT machine. Perhaps more of a surprise was his ability to chalk up rally success in a little Sunbeam Talbot – three straight Coupe Des Alpes wins, and a second place overall in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally.
In Formula 1 terms, at the start of his career, Moss was quite obviously the fastest driver ever to pedal an HWM or Connaught, and he chalked up some strong non-championship F1 results in these cars, which had as much chance of beating the Alfa Romeos, Maseratis and Ferraris of the time as a current-era F1 Williams has of challenging a Mercedes F1 car. But when Stirling and his father Alfred purchased a Maserati 250F for 1954, suddenly the prodigy’s talent started to be seen at the sharp end of the field, and the official Maserati team had to take notice. ‘Equipe Moss’ was third in the Belgian Grand Prix, qualified fourth and set fastest lap at Silverstone and qualified third at the fearsome Nurburgring.
A late-season offer to switch to the works Maserati squadra saw Moss join Alberto Ascari and Jose Froilan Gonzalez as the biggest threats to Fangio’s Mercedes W196 which was trampling the opposition. The Briton qualified third at Bremgarten and Monza, while in non-championship races he made his mark with second at the Caen GP and victory in the International Gold Cup at Oulton Park, one of Britain’s greatest circuits.
That latter triumph would be a win Moss repeated the following year, again for the works Maserati team, but only after completing the championship season with Mercedes-Benz. Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann had been worthy but never sparkling teammates to Fangio in ’54, and Alfred Neubauer wanted a young and promising full-timer to partner the Argentine legend. Moss fit the bill perfectly, and he sat in the wheeltracks of his teammate for much of the season. He took his first championship pole and first victory at the British Grand Prix – Stirling was fairly certain that Fangio allowed that to happen – and scored enough points elsewhere to complete a Mercedes 1-2 in the championship.
Due to the Le Mans disaster, M-B pulled out of racing at season’s end, leaving both drivers to find new roles, and while Fangio went to Ferrari, Moss was eagerly snapped up by Maserati once more. Victories at Monaco and Monza left him just three points short of defeating Fangio in the title hunt, and had his car not capitulated during the British GP – he had taken pole and led more than half the race – Moss would have been champion.
In 1957 it was again Fangio (now at Maserati) who clinched the crown, his fifth, and for the third straight year, it was Moss who was his nearest challenger. Stirling had joined the British Vanwall team (for whom he had won the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone the previous May). At Aintree in ’57, after taking pole and having his engine fail on race day, he took over the car of his injured and fatigued teammate, Tony Brooks. Moss carved through the field to win when Jean Behra’s Maserati retired, recording the first F1 championship victory for a British-built car.
Two weeks later, Fangio would score his 24th, final and greatest victory with a legendary drive at the Nurburgring, yet two weeks after that, Moss would score one of his greatest. For the one and only time, the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara – at 16 miles, the longest track to ever feature on the F1 calendar – became part of the World Championship. ‘Old man’ Fangio took pole but, was passed by both Luigi Musso’s Ferrari and Moss’ Vanwall on the opening lap, and Moss passed Musso for the lead on lap two. Almost three hours later, Moss’s fastest lap had matched Fangio’s pole time and he defeated the new World Champion by well over three minutes. A third win, at Monza in September, sealed Moss’ third straight runner-up finish in the title race.
Staying on at Vanwall for a second term proved a smart decision, except that changing fuel regulations for ’58 left the team unready for the mid-January season-opener in Argentina, and it temporarily withdrew. Briefly without a drive then, Stirling struck a one-off deal with Rob Walker to race his year-old Cooper T43. He qualified behind most of the vastly more powerful Ferraris and Maseratis, but the little rear-engined Cooper and its driver were very gentle on tires despite the crippling heat, allowing Moss to forego the pitstops of the front-engined machines. He held on to beat Musso by a mere 2.7sec and score the first Grand Prix win in 20 years for a driver positioned in front of his engine.
Three more victories in 1958 (in Vanwalls) saw Moss fall just one point short of the total accumulated by Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn at year’s end. Hawthorn was initially going to be disqualified from his second place in the season finale at Casablanca, Morocco, for bump-starting his spun car against the direction of the oncoming racecars, but Moss nobly assured race organizers that Hawthorn had been off the racing surface while doing this and his evidence proved pivotal. The results were allowed to stand, meaning Mike rather than Stirling became Britain’s first F1 World Champion.
While Moss and Brooks helped Vanwall win the very first Constructors’ Championship, team owner Tony Vandervell withdrew from racing at the start of 1959, heartbroken that their teammate Stuart Lewis-Evans had died as a result of burns from an accident in Casablanca caused by engine seizure. Therefore Moss, whose victory for Rob Walker in Argentina had been backed up by two other non-championship F1 triumphs, elected to commit himself to Walker’s Cooper for 1959 – although he would also race a few times for the British Racing Partnership team, co-founded by his father Alfred Moss.
By this point in his career, it appeared Stirling could do no wrong: If his car lasted, he tended to win. Since Fangio had retired from full-time racing at the end of ’57, there was no question that Moss was now the best driver in Formula 1. He could make magic happen, he flattered any car he was given to drive, he was Mr. Motor Racing. Two more Grand Prix wins in ’59, which produced third in the F1 championship, were backed up by countless triumphs in non-championship events. RRC Walker’s little blue Coopers – T43, T45 and T51, powered by Borgward or Climax engines – were the scourge of racetracks all around the world.
Walker’s switch to Lotus 18s for 1960 had pluses and minuses. The car was faster than a Cooper but also more fragile, and during practice at Spa, Stirling’s left-rear wheel came off at the 140mph Burnenville corner. In the subsequent accident, he broke ribs, vertebrae and both legs – and yet could consider himself lucky: two separate crashes at the same spot on raceday would claim the lives of his compatriots Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey.
Nonetheless, Moss was out of action for a couple of months and missed three Grands Prix… then returned to action as brilliant as ever, as versatile as ever. There were multiple victories in a Lotus 19 sportscar, a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, a Porsche 718 and, most importantly to Moss, the Lotus 18 F1 car, in which he won the only U.S. Grand Prix to be held at Riverside, Calif.
With F1 switching from 2.5- to 1.5-liter engines for 1961, the Climax engines in Rob Walker’s Lotus 18 and 21 were producing barely more than 150hp, and so maintaining momentum, the art of not scrubbing off speed, became vital. This played beautifully into Stirling’s hands, given his genius for piloting 500cc Formula 3 cars. Despite a 35-40hp deficit to the season’s dominant car, the Ferrari 156 ‘Sharknose’, he defeated all of the Italian machines to win at both Monaco and the Nurburgring.
Watch Moss talk about his 1961 Monaco GP victory in this Duke Archive video...
At the age of 32, Moss’s talent and dedication had put him so clearly head-and-shoulders above his rivals that in early 1962, Enzo Ferrari invited him to Maranello and agreed to build and prepare a works Ferrari F1 car to be entered and maintained by Walker’s team – a truly astounding offer. Just three weeks later, on April 23, that dream shattered. A huge accident in a Lotus at Goodwood left Moss in critical condition, drifting in and out of consciousness for a month, and temporarily paralyzed down the left side of his body.
A year later, Moss decided to assess himself in a Lotus 19 at Goodwood. He was fast, only a few tenths off his record around there, but he felt his concentration had gone, that his lap times were no longer coming naturally, and so he decided to retire. If he couldn’t be as good as he once was, he had no interest in continuing.
Moss would soon regret that he hadn’t delayed that comeback test; a further 18 months on, he realized his mental aptitude had returned. But now, some two-and-a-half years after the accident, he elected to stick with his decision.
A few touring car races in the 1970s – including the ’76 Bathurst 1000 – showed he still had some competitive fire, and this may have indirectly led to him racing Audi 80s for two years in the British Saloon Car championship. However, in his early 50s and piloting an underpowered front-wheel-drive sedan running on slicks, Stirling had finally found a car to which he couldn’t fully adapt. The irony, of course, was that it was surely the least intimidating car he’d ever raced!
Nico Rosberg’s F1 title in 2016 ensured that Moss, who was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, and was knighted in 2000 to become Sir Stirling Moss, is once more the most successful Formula 1 driver to never have won the World Championship. His 16 Grand Prix wins helped him to finish four times a runner-up, three times in third place. But most expert historians on such matters feel that to label Moss as ‘the greatest F1 driver never to win the world title’ does him a grave disservice, and that he was better than most champs, even those with multiple championships.
Enzo Ferrari, who died in 1988 but whose judgment remained as sharp as anyone’s, believed Moss’s only equal in racing history had been Tazio Nuvolari. And in those all-time rankings with which media folks and experts like to wrestle occasionally, Moss is usually firmly in the Top 10.
But it’s the accumulation of so many top-level triumphs across such a wide variety of disciplines in such a short space of time – often in inferior equipment – that made Moss famous around the world and iconic in his home country.
Sir Stirling Moss dies aged 90
Sir Stirling Moss death: Motorsport world pays tribute