Sir Stirling Moss: Recollections of a longtime fan

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Stirling Moss, who died on Easter Sunday at age 90, was one of the fastest racing drivers of all time. At his peak, after the retirement of Juan Manuel Fangio in 1958 and before his career ended against one of Goodwood’s unforgiving banks in 1962, he was surely the best racing driver in the world. This fact is not reflected in the list of Formula 1 World Championship drivers because, fierce patriot that Moss was, he chose to race British cars wherever possible, even though they let him down relentlessly. But dig deeper and you discover this: he won 56 percent of all the races he finished. Which means that if you were a driver on the same grid as Moss, regardless of all other factors, if Stirling’s car held together, second place was usually the best outcome available.

But here’s the thing: none of this is why Stirling Moss was my hero from my earliest recollections, nor explains why I came to so cherish the friendship of perhaps the most remarkable man I have ever met.

How fast Moss drove is as nothing to me compared to how he drove fast. His style seemed effortless because it was. For his speed, he never appeared to be trying that hard, a fact that must have eaten away at the minds of those who tried to beat him. His competitors must have tried to convince themselves that it was a conjuring trick, that Moss only looked that relaxed when in fact his knuckles were as white beneath his gloves as his pupils were dilated behind those goggles. But they weren’t: Stirling may have driven right on the limit of the cars he drove, but such was his talent he rarely chose to go near his own. “I always tried to keep something up my sleeve, boy,” he once told me. “Found I lived much longer that way.”

Sir Stirling Moss Racing Action

It was at best a flawed prospectus because it took no account of the fragility of the machinery he so sorely tested, and when a wheel came off your car at 140 mph—as it did on his Lotus 18 at Spa in 1960—even Stirling Moss became a passenger. But looking back over his career and the many accidents contained therein, I can find none where Moss simply overdid it. Had he done so, regardless of consequence, that would have truly spooked him. He could rationalize a failed wheel bearing: running out of talent he could not.

For Stirling, racing was a thing of beauty, a noble quest for which the dangers were known and entirely acceptable. It’s why in later life he was so critical of the safety measures that emasculated the circuits he loved, or simply drove them off the calendar. His solution would have been far simpler: if you don’t like the risk, don’t get in the car.

And yet he drove with great respect not only for his own life, but for those of others, too. Even back then there were dirty drivers but in all the volumes I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with his rivals over the years, not once has anyone suggested that Stirling’s on-track behavior was ever less than scrupulously correct. He was, I think, much like his American peer Dan Gurney in that respect.

stirling moss lotus cortina goodwood alfa
Mark Connaughton

I had the privilege of driving alongside Stirling Moss several times, not as young men in the white heat of front-line contemporary racing, but still in historic racing cars at proper old racing circuits like Spa in Belgium and Goodwood in southern England. I only went properly wheel-to-wheel with him once, at the Goodwood Revival in 2006, when I was able to match his pace only because I was in an Alfa Romeo GTA, an inherently quicker car than his Lotus Cortina. I knew my car inside out, Stirling knew his not at all; I was 40, he nearly 77.

If I drove as fast as I could, I was able to stay with him and watch the balletic precision of his driving. He was never lurid, but always at an angle, adopting the precise degree of slip required to make his Dunlop cross-ply tires do their best work, and no more. I tried a few moves, got alongside once or twice, but he always positioned himself where I needed to be. Besides, I was genuinely torn: did I really want to get past and remove myself from the masterclass in my windshield?

In the end, doubtless spotting the ever more extravagant slides of the Alfa-borne idiot in his mirrors, he let me past. And when the flag had fallen, he drove up beside me on the straight. I glanced across, terrified that I had in some way offended my hero but was greeted by a raised thumb and an enormous grin under his open-face, Herbert Johnson helmet. It is to date the only time I have wept with joy in a racing car.

Afterward he came to find me but for reasons I no longer recall, I was elsewhere. So he sat on a pile of tires, chatting away to my mechanic until I returned. That’s another thing not enough people know about Stirling Moss: he was a man without ego who’d happily talk racing to anyone not too star-struck to reply. Through the height of his fame, when he was Britain’s best known, most loved, and highly revered sports man, his telephone number remained in the public directory. Anyone who so chose could just ring him up.

Amar Kakad/Creative Commons

But my fondest memory of Stirling and Susie, the gloriously kind, warm, and funny woman to whom he was married for the last 40 years of his life, came at another time and place. It was 2014 and I was in Monaco to race in the Historic Grand Prix. Sir Stirling and Lady Moss were the guests of a large bank, but they had insisted on one night off from the endless round of interviews and public appearances over the long weekend. My brother and I dined with them in the Café de Paris in Casino Square, right next to the track on which in 1961, driving an outclassed private Lotus 18, he’d humbled the might of Scuderia Ferrari to win his third Monaco Grand Prix.

Yet I remember neither the wonderful food we ate nor the glorious wines we drank (all paid for by Stirling), nor even the sumptuous setting in which we found ourselves. I just remember laughing. Stirling could seem quite gruff, even rude at times when confronted in public because he was also a rather shy man. But in private when he was relaxed in his surroundings and with the company he kept, he was effortlessly entertaining and at times utterly hilarious.

In short, Stirling Craufurd Moss was everything I wanted a racing driver to be: professionally the fastest yet the most gentlemanly of all, personally the man of whose company I could never tire. The fact I was able to call him my friend is something of which I will remain proud for the rest of my days.

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