02.05.20 Liveryman Chris Mann

Stirling Moss: an appreciation

Pictured above: Stirling Moss and his navigator, the journalist Denis Jenkinson, in their Mercedes-Benz 300SLR en route to an epic victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia courtesy of Chris Mann

Sir Stirling Moss, whose death was announced on 12th April, was rightly regarded as one of the very greatest racing drivers in the history of motor racing and one of the handful of protagonists in any sport to transcend their chosen field to become a universal icon.

Stirling’s sporting career started on four legs rather than four wheels. He and his sister Pat (who later became a formidable rally driver) both excelled at show jumping, Stirling using his prize money to buy his first car. By 1948, whilst training as a hotel manager, Moss was racing and winning in Formula III, the start-up series for single seater race cars powered by 500cc motor-bike engines. His relaxed style and stunning speed soon attracted the attention of the motor racing establishment as well as the media and in 1950, on the eve of his 21st birthday, he scored a remarkable victory at a rain-lashed RAC Tourist Trophy road-race driving a borrowed Jaguar XK120, the inexperienced youngster beating a world class international field, including the works Jaguar team which had turned down Moss as a driver, deeming him too inexperienced!

Realising its error, Jaguar swiftly recruited Moss to lead its works team for 1951 and the same year he competed in his first World Championship Grand Prix. Showing an impressive turn of speed in second rate machinery, Stirling soon established himself as a rising star. Despite this, Mercedes-Benz, which had dominated the tracks in the 1930s, declined an approach by the Moss family for ‘the boy wonder’ to join its Formula 1 team for its much-heralded return to the sport in 1954. Mercedes’ view was that whilst Moss was clearly fast, he had not yet demonstrated that he could deliver in a top-line car. Undeterred, Stirling’s family purchased, for £5,000, a new Maserati 250F Formula 1 single seater for the 1954 season and by mid-year the private Moss Maserati was regularly outperforming the works team drivers. The Maserati team management soon got the message, bringing Moss’s car under the works team wing and in September Stirling came within an ace of winning the Italian GP, having outdriven established stars such as Fangio, Ascari, Villoresi and Gonzalez, only for an oil leak to bring the young Brit’s car to a halt towards the end of the race.

By now it was obvious to all, including Mercedes-Benz, that Stirling Moss was the real deal and he was swiftly signed by the team for the 1955 season as number two to reigning World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio. That year Moss beat Fangio to win the British Grand Prix at Aintree and drove to victory in the legendary Mille Miglia, covering the thousand-mile road course round Italy in a record-smashing 10 hours and seven minutes.

In 1958 Stirling Moss, driving for the British Vanwall team, won four of that year’s 10 Formula One Grands Prix but, due to the somewhat arcane points system operating that year, lost out on the World Driver’s Championship by a single point to fellow Brit Mike Hawthorn, winner of just one GP in his works Ferrari. Earlier in the season Moss had successfully pleaded with the race stewards to reinstate Hawthorn’s six points for second place in the Portuguese Grand Prix after the latter was disqualified for allegedly reversing on the track. Imagine that happening today!

Having lost out in the World Championship to Mike Hawthorn who, although a superb driver, was not in the same league as Moss, he lost interest in the Championship as a goal in itself and for the rest of his Grand Prix career declined the chance to lead any of the works F1 teams desperate for his services. He drove instead for the British ‘gentleman privateer’ entrant Rob Walker but despite this self-imposed handicap continued to be a regular race winner. In 1961 Stirling’s genius was underlined when his underpowered Rob Walker Lotus beat the might of the all-powerful Ferrari works team at both Monaco and the German Grands Prix.

A near fatal crash at Goodwood the following year led to Moss’s retirement from top-line motor racing and his reinvention as a ‘personality for hire’ in which role he excelled for the next 50 years and is how I got to know him. We had launched Bodyshop Magazine’s annual industry event and awards programme in 1997 and two years on decided we needed a ‘personality’ to present the awards at our new venue in Birmingham. Taken aback by the charges mooted by speaker agencies for so-called celebrities, most of whom I had never heard of, I had a brainwave and decided to call Stirling Moss.

He was not difficult to get hold of as, unlike his modern-day counterparts, Moss was not surrounded by PR men, agents or minders and his number was in the phone book. I duly dialled and, to my surprise, got straight through to the great man himself. I explained who I was and what I wanted. ‘No problem, old boy’ he replied, quoting a fee considerably less than some of the so-called celebs that had been proposed by the agencies. A deal, which included the request that we cover his first-class rail fare, was swiftly settled. Stirling insisted on forwarding his Senior Rail Card to us so we could benefit from the reduced fare – a nice touch.

On the day of the event Stirling arrived on the dot and spent the afternoon showing (or brilliantly feigning) keen interest in all our sponsor stands, chatting to our guests and patiently signing colour prints of a painting I had commissioned to celebrate his victory drive in the 1955 Mille Miglia, generating several thousand pounds for the motor industry charity BEN.

Stirling and I worked together on several more occasions and he was invariably charming, professional and 100% committed to the task in hand. After Jo Ramirez and I competed in the 2014 Mille Miglia retrospective in my Jaguar XK120 (the same model with which Moss had won the Tourist Trophy in 1951) I told Stirling how incredibly gruelling we had found the four-day marathon and that I could not begin to imagine how, in 1955, he had covered the course in a fraction over 10 hours. (Incredibly he completed the race 37 minutes ahead of second place finisher, the great Juan Manuel Fangio in a similar car). Stirling subsequently wrote me a delightful letter saying that he thought my four-day odyssey with Jo was no less challenging than his 1955 race. ‘After all’ he said ‘in 1955 I did not have to cope with a hailstorm (as Jo and I had done) or worry about all those daft timed sections’. He didn’t really mean it, I’m sure, but it was nice of him to say it! For anyone wishing to see how it really should be done I recommend the YouTube video: 60 Years on: Sir Stirling Moss on Victory at the 1955 Mille Miglia.

Stirling Moss was a true great of motor sport, the man who was the benchmark for his peers, a consummate professional in everything he did. He was modest in stature but a giant of a man.