Richard Nisley


Requiem for the world's greatest race car driver
Car Culture Released - May 16, 2020
Racing great Stirling Moss died in his London home on April 12, 2020, age 90, following a long illness. In the early 1960s, Stirling Moss was not only the best racing driver on the planet, but the best-known sports figure in the world, and the highest paid. In 1999, his native England bestowed upon him its highest honor: the Order of the British Empire (OBE), making him Sir Stirling Moss.

While never crowned world champion, it was often said that he was the best driver NEVER to win the world championship. An inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, he won 212 of the 529 races (a 40 per cent winning average). His best year was probably 1958, in which he won four Grands Prix (three more than that year's champion Mike Hawthorne), and missed the world title by a single point.

Moss broke just about every bone in his body, from a number of accidents. In early 1962, he nearly died from a particularly bad crash that ended his career. While recovering he wrote a controversial book entitled "All But My Life", in which he said he gave motor racing his absolute all, indeed, gave it all but his life. In the book he broke a number of taboos by writing frankly about death and motor racing's inherent danger, and about his sex life. He wrote: “Of course, racing is dangerous. I like it that way. Without danger there wouldn’t be any point to it, really.”

His greatest victory is often said to be the 1955 Mille Miglia, Italy's grueling thousand-mile race over the open roads of the Italian peninsula, from Brescia in the north down to Rome in the south, and back again. He was the first non-Italian to win the event, and set a record time never to be broken. However, in ex-motor cycle racer Dennis Jenkinson, he had a co-pilot who knew the roads intimately and who kept him informed of what lay ahead, through ingenious hand-signals the pair had perfected in the days leading up to the race. In the Mercedes Benz 300SLR, Moss had the fastest and most technically advanced sports racing car in the world. Driving an identical car, his teammate Juan Fangio of Argentina finished second, which means that if Moss had faltered, Italy's hold on the event would have been broken anyway.

My choice for Moss's greatest race is the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, where he beat the superior might of Team Ferrari, in a year-old underpowered car. His disadvantage was such that to win he had to drive absolutely flat-out for nearly every one of the race's 100 laps. The slightest mistake or let-up and he would have finished second or worse. What follows is my analysis of the race, and more about Moss.

Stirling Moss stood an athletically fit 5-foot 8-inches tall–the ideal height of tennis players, golfers. and NFL linebackers. He was not merely a great racing driver, but a superb athlete. He possessed boundless energy and an unflagging enthusiasm for life. Those who knew him well, couldn't recall ever seeing him tired. Moss made his home in London, but he was a citizen of the world, recognized wherever he went. He also was a promoters' dream. If you were holding a motor race in some far-off place, say down in New Zealand, or in South Africa, or in Brazil, and Stirling Moss was entered, you were guaranteed a sellout crowd. Moss was always good for one or two pithy quotes for the media, and he always made time to to sign autographs for racing fans. He was a true gentleman, and a never a poor loser. He often said, "I can lose a race, even lose the world championship, and the next day be out enjoying myself."

'61 MONACO GRAND PRIX

Wedged between the coastal mountain range of Southern France and the Mediterranean Sea, Monaco had no real roads to hold a motor race, merely “ledges on the face of a cliff” as some wag put it. That said, when the president and founder of the Automobile Club de Monaco, Anthony Noghes, was given the task of creating a Grand Prix circuit, he found a way. Possessed with a can-do attitude, he scouted the principality's narrow streets and alleyways, walked the harbor front, used his imagination, and came up with a circuit so ingenious that it has remained little changed since the first Monaco Grand Prix back in 1929. The Monaco circuit is 1.9 miles of hairpin curves, and two short straights. On such a tight circuit, a driver has no room to relax.

Every May, as if on cue, the dry scirocco winds blow in off the North African desert, into Southern Europe, signaling the arrival of summer–and the kickoff of the Grand Prix season, beginning at Monaco. Then the transporters arrive, from Italy and France, and from England, Germany, and the Netherlands. Temporary bleachers are erected, the streets are blocked off, and practice begins for the Monaco Grand Prix.

The biggest star by far at the '61 Monaco Grand Prix was Stirling Moss.
However, a Grand Prix wouldn't be a Grand Prix without Ferrari. With their blood-red paint scheme, and flashy wire wheels, Ferraris are candy for the eye. The three Ferraris F1s parked on pit row stand out from the herd of Lotuses, Coopers, BRMs and Porsches, that comprise the rest of the field. That said, Moss’s dark blue Lotus attracts lots of attention, but only because it’s Moss’s Lotus.

This is the first year of a rule change in Formula One. All the teams are faced with the same problems: new smaller displacement engines, new weight restrictions, new safety rules; in effect, having to start over. Cooper Cars, which has won the world championship the previous two seasons, finds itself in the same boat as Lotus, BRM and the independents: saddled with a four-cylinder Formula Two engine that puts out barely 150 horsepower. This anemic engine is merely a stop-gap measure, until English engine supplier Coventry Climax develops of a new more powerful V8 engine. Porsche likewise is behind schedule, running its flat-four F2 engine, while awaiting a new flat-eight engine. The only team truly prepared is Ferrari. The V6 beneath the Ferrari bonnet is jewel-like in appearance, and boasts a whopping 25-horsepower advantage over the competition.

Moss’s year-old Lotus is owned by Scotsman Rob Walker, of Johnny Walker Whiskey fame. If you’re Moss, it doesn’t matter that the rules have changed, or that you’re driving for an independent, or that Ferrari has a sizable horsepower advantage. Moss competes in all types of cars: in Formula 1s and 2s, in sports cars and in salons; in Coopers, Lotuses and Porsches; in Aston Martins and Maseratis, literally in anything with wheels, but rarely in Ferraris. With Moss the car is secondary. He usually wins in whatever he races, or breaks down trying.

Around one o’clock on race day, Moss leaves the sanctity of his hotel room and walks down to the harbor front, where the starting grid is located. People everywhere call out his name and wave to him: from hotel balconies, and from cordoned off side streets; from doorways and storefronts; and from the makeshift bleachers on the harbor quay, where 16 F1s await the start.

Moss is on pole, the number-one position on the starting grid, where logic and common sense says he doesn’t belong. His Lotus 18 is last year’s model, powered by the Coventry Climax Mark II, an updated version of the aging F2 motor. But Moss is Moss. He has made a career of beating Ferraris with lesser equipment. “I admit I like being the underdog,” he says, “coming from behind, doing things the hard way.”

Can he do it again? That’s the question on everyone’s mind as they await the 3 p.m. start. The Ferrari beside him on the front row is driven by American F1 rookie Richie Ginther. Next to Ginther, on the outside of row one, is Scotsman Jimmy Clark in the latest works Lotus 21. It’s slightly lower and better streamlined than Moss’s Lotus 18. This is Clark’s first Formula 1 race at Monaco. His front-row starting position has turned more than a few heads, but not Stirling’s; he knows talent when he sees it. Indeed, Clark will go on to win the 1963 and '65 world championships, and be heralded as his generation's greatest race car driver.

In row two are the cars of two drivers who are not related but share the same last name: the BRM of Englishman Graham Hill, and the Ferrari of American Phil Hill. Phil Hill is fast and experienced and favored to win the 1961 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship. He likes Monaco and usually does well here. In row three is the third Ferrari, driven by Wolfgang von Trips, a German Count no less, with an estate in the Rhineland. Next to him is the Cooper of young Bruce McLaren, and the BRM of veteran Tony Brooks. In row four are the Porsches of Swiss driver Jo Bonnier and Californian Dan Gurney. Behind them are a bevy of independents that fill out the grid, mostly aged Coopers and Lotuses that have no chance of winning.

As he does everywhere he goes, Moss stands out at the drivers’ meeting. Most drivers already have their helmets on, but not Moss. He is bald, and is one of those rare men who looks better bald. His white cotton coveralls are tailored to accentuate his muscular build, are pressed and clean, unlike other drivers’ coveralls which are baggy, wrinkled and grease smudged. Drivers fidget and appear bored, having heard similar pre-race instructions countless times before. Not Moss. He listens intently to what Race Director Louis Chiron has to say, lest he miss a vital bit of information that might give him a slight edge. The meeting ends and Moss, always in a hurry, walks briskly out to his car.

Moss slips on his helmet, and steps down into the narrow Lotus cockpit, checks both side mirrors, and grips the steering wheel. His crew chief Alf Francis hovers over him like a doting father. For this race, he has removed the panels from each side of the cockpit, to dissipate cockpit heat from the front-mounted water radiator, heat that broiled Moss last year when he won the race in this very car. Exposed are frame tubes and the aluminum fuel tank behind his seat. For spectators, today will be like having x-ray eyes. They will be able to peer inside the cockpit and see Moss at work.

Wearing a white summer suit, race starter Louis Chiron steps to the front of the grid, as starter motors whir and engines roar to life. Chiron counts off the final seconds, waves the Monegasque flag, and the field roars away in unison, and bottles up rounding the Gasworks Hairpin. Exiting, the field spreads out accelerating up Boulevard Albert I.

Moss is not first away, which is uncharacteristic of him. He is third, behind Ginther and Clark. Making the fast climb up the hill to the Casino, he checks his mirror and is surprised to see the silver Porsches of Bonnier and Gurney, trailing him. Somehow the two Porsches got away fast, overtook the cars ahead of them, and now snap at his tailpipe. Approaching the Casino, Ginther has opened a slight lead on Clark. The field funnels between the Hotel de Paris and the Casino, and in a rush of acceleration descends the downhill grade to the sharp right-hander in front of the Mirabeau Hotel.

Back and forth across the road, Moss presses Clark relentlessly. In tandem they round the hairpin in front of the railway station, and set up for the right-hander that takes them beneath the railway arch, and on to another right-hander that puts them on the waterfront. Moss can see wisps of smoke flare from Clark’s tires as he brakes, turns, and accelerates. The Scof is unruffled and precise, and will not yield to Moss’s pressure. By now, Moss detects a misfire coming from Clark’s engine, and decides he won’t have long to deal with the Scot.

Spreading out now, the field flows through a tunnel then slows for the chicane at the harbor front. At 140 m.p.h., the chicane looks impossibly small, a tiny opening in a line of hay bales. Ease on the brakes to, say 60 m.p.h., and the chicane is taken with a quick left-right-left flick of the wheel. On the harbor quay now, with a row of yachts on the left, and a rock wall on the right; Ginther's Ferrari leads strongly into the tight Tabac left-hander, on past the makeshift pits and over the start/finish line to complete lap one. His cockpit temperature is already nearing 140-degrees, and sweat begins to show on his cotton coveralls.

As Moss suspects, Clark is having engine trouble. At the end of lap two, he pulls off into the pits. With Clark out, Moss is now in second place. His work is cut out for him: Ginther is driving like a man possessed and has increased his lead to seven seconds. Phil Hill, meanwhile, having overcome a slow start, has passed both Bonnier and Gurney, to take over third place.

Laps tick off as Moss whittles away at Ginther’s lead. On lap 12, he sees Hill’s Ferrari closing in from behind. Two laps later, Moss catches and passes Ginther, to take the lead. A lap later he sees not Ginther's Ferrari in his mirror, but Hill's. The crowd rises to its feet. This is what they have been waiting for–can Moss in a year-old Lotus hold off Hill’s newer and more powerful Ferrari?

Moss derives special pleasure from beating Ferrari with less powerful British racing cars, but he has paid a price for it. He can’t do it consistently, and it has cost him at least one and perhaps as many three world championships. Moss’s life might be easier if he drove for Ferrari, but he refuses to do so. Early in his career, Enzo Ferrari offered the Englishman a seat in one of his cars for a race in Bari, Italy. When Moss arrived, he was told the offer was withdrawn: Il Commendatore, the mercurial patriarch of Italian racing, had a change of mind, and without so much as an explanation or an apology, assigned the car to someone else. Moss was incensed, believing that Ferrari had not only insulted him but England as well. Then and there he swore never to drive a Ferrari. With rare exception, he hasn’t.

Moss’s crew is well-trained and highly inventive; they have gutted the year-old Lotus to meet this year’s minimum weight limit of 980 pounds, making it one of the lightest and flimsiest cars in the race. The bungy cord holding down the engine bonnet is a nice touch. In Alf Francis, Moss has arguably the best mechanic in the business. And the Climax Mark II engine mounted behind him has the full-factory support of Coventry Climax. Climax engineers swear they supply engines of equal horsepower to all the British teams, but everyone knows Moss’s engine is more equal than the others. In fact, it is the Walker pit where most of the Climax engineers congregate on race weekend. Moss’s Climax engine is the only one in the race that doesn’t smoke, pop, or bang at low RPM. The R.R.C. Walker Racing Team, while classified among the independents, is in fact, the de facto Coventry Climax factory team.

Phil Hill should be leading the race. He is the ranking Ferrari driver, he knows Monaco like the back of his hand, and he has a 25-horsepower advantage over Moss. But all is not as it seems at Ferrari, where politics sometimes takes a back seat to winning races. Enzo Ferrari is a hard-headed, stubborn man, and for reasons unknown to all but him, often stands in the way of his team's progress. Ferrari was the last to adopt disc brakes, the last to switch to a rear-engine chassis, and in 1961, still prefers wire wheels over lighter and stronger magnesium wheels. Since joining the team in 1957, chief engineer Carlo Chiti has fought an uphill battle to bring Ferrari up to date. In the Ferrari 156 “Sharknose” he has finally succeeded. After a couple of down years in F1, Ferrari has once again regained the upper hand, thanks to Chiti's engineering brilliance and persistence.

There is yet another problem at Ferrari: Ill Commendatore refuses to name a number-one driver. Hill is the obvious choice. He has been with the team longest, is the fastest driver, and has won the most races. But he is not named number-one so enjoys no special status and must fight for everything he gets. He does not enjoy the advantages of working closely with the mechanics, as does Moss with Walker, and defending world champion Jack Brabham with Cooper, or Clark with Lotus. At Ferrari, you tell the team manager what is wrong with your car, and pray something is done before the race. At Monaco, Hill does not even have the fastest Ferrari. As Ferrari's newest driver, Ginther has the hot new Ferrari. Ginther's machine has the more powerful 120-degree V6 engine, which puts out 190 horsepower, 10 horses more than Hill’s Ferrari. The 120-degree V6 is lighter, sits lower in the chassis, and has been moved further forward slightly, which means Ginther’s Ferrari not only has more horsepower, but handles better, and so is better suited to Monaco’s demanding streets. The official word is the car is too new, too untested, to give to a driver of Hill’s veteran status. But Ginther’s Ferrari still sounds crisp at the half-way point of the race, while Hill’s machine still makes the same blubbering sound around corners that it made in practice. It’s a problem with the downdraft carburetors, that had yet to be fully resolved by race time.

Carburetor problems or not, Hill has the bit between his teeth, and gets within five seconds of Moss, only to fade as his carburetor troubles grow worse, and his overtaxed brakes begin to lock while slowing for a curve.

On lap 78, the Ferrari team manager gives Ginther the "faster" sign. Ginther passes Hill (who yields) and begins cutting into Moss’s lead.

The race is closing in on the three-hour mark, and Moss is nearing physical and mental exhaustion. To stay in front, he has had to concentrate all his energy and driving ability on driving absolutely flat-out since the start. Moss would later say, “Every corner, every lap, as far as I remember, I was trying to drive the fastest I possibly could, to within a hair’s breadth of the limit, for at least 92 of the 100 laps.”

The crowd has been on its feet since lap 15, when Hill moved up to challenge Moss. For 85 laps, the crowd has been transfixed, wondering how long Moss can stay in front. The suspense has become unbearable for team owner Rob Walker. He cannot bear to see Moss lose now, and turns away.

With three laps to go, Moss’s lead is down to three seconds. Ginther is driving the race of his life, sliding the Ferrari through the hairpin curves with abandon. Two laps to go and the gap still holding at three seconds. If Moss can just hold out a little longer. . . .

Louis Chiron steps onto the tarmac and waves the white flag, the signal there's one lap to go. There are no guarantees in this business, and should Moss falter on the final lap it wouldn’t be the first time.

The crews along pit row turn to see who arrives first–Moss or Ginther? The first car to appear is the Scottish blue of Rob Walker's Lotus: it’s Moss, waving one arm jubilantly as he crosses the finish line.

Moss has achieved a miracle again, beaten Ferrari, and added to his reputation as one of the sport’s all-time giant killers. He will beat Ferrari once more, later this season, at the daunting Nurburgring. Looking back, it will be today’s win that gives him the most satisfaction because he had to work so much harder for it.

It turned out that Enzo Ferrari had had enough of seeing Moss beat his beloved red cars. That winter, he invited the Englishman to join his team for the 1962 season, and to sweeten the deal offered to paint Moss's car British Racing Green.

Sadly, it was not to be, Moss crashed heavily the following Spring and was badly hurt. Indeed, his skull was fractured and his brain injured, and for a long time he was in a coma. After recovering, he tried his hand once more behind the wheel, and ultimately decided too much of his racing skill had diminished from the crash, and so retired without achieving his goal of winning the world championship. Still, he had no regrets. Scores of men have won the world championship, and after a few years the larger world forgets most of them, while Moss's name lived on.

It wasn't winning so much that mattered to him, but as with most great athletes, it was competing he loved most, and in showing off his remarkable talent, as he did at Monaco in 1961.

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