Sir Stirling Moss: F1 legend 'still resonates in motorsport world'

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Stirling Moss with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone ahead of the British Grand Prix in 2013
Stirling Moss with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone ahead of the British Grand Prix in 2013

Sir Stirling Moss, who has died aged 90, personified motorsport to at least two generations of his countrymen after establishing himself as the greatest racing driver of his era in a short but stellar career.

Moss raced in Formula 1 in the sport's romantic age of the 1950s and early 1960s, winning 16 grands prix. Yet despite his rivals at the time acknowledging he was the best, he never won the World Championship.

Partly, that was to do with bad luck - poor reliability certainly hurt him in the two seasons he should have won the title, in 1958-59.

Partly, it was because of his determination to drive for English, privateer teams, particularly the one run by his friend Rob Walker.

And partly because of a racing driver's determination to put victory before all else.

'I woke up and I'd broken my back' - Moss recalls two huge crashes

But to those who know motorsport, Moss' failure to win the drivers' World Championship reflects not at all on his ability, and only on the fact that the sport's greatest prize depends at least as much on a driver's machinery as it does his talent, and therefore can never be the only gauge of their ability.

In Moss' case, there was never any doubt how good he was. From 1948 to his enforced retirement in 1962, Moss won 212 of the 529 races he entered across all motorsport categories. Of those who raced against him, only the greats Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark were comparable, and the careers of Moss and Clark only briefly coincided.

Fangio was different - for the two were rivals for six years in the 1950s, and team-mates for one.

Some observers claim Moss was better even than Fangio. Like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Tazio Nuvolari, each man has advocates who believe he was the greatest racing driver of all time.

Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks win the British Grand Prix
Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks both won the 1957 British Grand Prix after sharing driving duties in a Vanwall

For his part, Moss always insisted Fangio was his superior, and the record backs him up. Quite apart from the Argentine's five F1 world titles and 24 wins from 51 grands prix, the older man was demonstrably the superior driver when they were team-mates at Mercedes in 1955, winning four races to Moss' one.

Moss believed Fangio let him win that sole trophy - it was, after all, in the British Grand Prix, and Moss won by only 0.2 seconds. If it was a gift, though, Fangio, a man with as much class as he had talent, never admitted it.

Once Fangio had retired early in the 1958 season, there was no doubt about Moss' standing - he was head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

He should have walked the World Championship that year but four wins and a second place in his Vanwall were counter-balanced by five retirements. That enabled the less talented Mike Hawthorn, who won only once in the more reliable Ferrari, to snatch the title by just one point.

In losing, though, Moss made as much a name for himself as he did in winning.

There was the obvious injustice of the faster man, with four times as many victories, missing out. Beyond that, though, there was Moss' sportsmanship.

At the Portuguese Grand Prix, three races from the end of the season, Hawthorn was under threat of disqualification after being accused of reversing on the track.

Moss' impassioned defence of his friend and rival allowed Hawthorn to keep his second place.

In the final race of the season, in Casablanca, Moss needed to win to give himself a chance of the title and, if he did, Hawthorn needed to be second to fend him off.

As Moss dominated at the front, Hawthorn drove a tactical race to ensure he was ahead of Moss' Vanwall team-mates, and was then let through into second place in the closing stages by Ferrari partner Phil Hill.

It was a similar story in 1959, when Moss drove a Cooper for Walker's team, apart from two grands prix for BRM. Moss and his team were generally by far the fastest combination, but the car finished only three of the nine races, of which he won two and finished second to Australian Jack Brabham's Cooper in the other.

But despite his car's poor reliability, Moss went into the final round in Sebring, Florida, still in with a chance of the championship. Again he led - from pole position - only for the car to fail once more. Brabham benefited to claim the first of three world titles.

Badly injured in a crash at the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix, Moss missed most of that year, recovering to win the season-ending US Grand Prix.

The following season, his last in F1, was probably his greatest. His Lotus was under-powered compared to the dominant Ferraris, but at certain tracks Moss' skill could make the difference.

He took brilliant victories at Monaco, where the Climax engine's power deficit was somewhat cancelled out by the tight and twisty nature of the track, and at the daunting Nurburgring, where a gamble on fitting rain tyres after a pre-race shower paid off thanks to further rain in the race.

The win in Germany was arguably the greatest of Moss' F1 career, but it was to be his last.

He retired from the final race of the season in the USA and never made it to the start of the next.

Modern F1 drivers rarely compete in anything else but, like all his contemporaries, Moss raced all the time, in all sorts of cars. It was to be many years before a career in F1 meant a fortune, and racers supplemented their earnings by driving in other categories.

Stirling Moss
The wreckage of Sir Stirling Moss's car at Goodwood in 1962

Over Easter weekend in 1962, he was driving at Goodwood when he was badly injured in a crash, the cause of which is unknown to this day.

He was in a coma for a month, the left-hand side of his body partially paralysed for six, and it was a year before he tried a comeback.

In a private test session, also at Goodwood, he discovered that while he could still produce the lap times, his concentration had gone and he sadly announced his retirement.

Moss will be remembered for far more than his F1 career. There were many great victories in races elsewhere, but none as impressive as one that has come to define his career as much as any of his grand prix wins.

Stirling Moss wins the Mille Miglia
Stirling Moss wins the 1955 Mille Miglia setting a new record in the process

In 1955, Moss competed in the Mille Miglia, a race over 1,000 miles on public roads in Italy in the fastest sports cars of the time.

Moss' drive on the event has passed into legend. With his co-driver, the journalist Denis Jenkinson, reading pace notes from a roller map, Moss was in a position to compete on level terms with drivers who knew the route much better than he did.

Driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, he won in a new record time, beating team-mate Fangio by nearly half an hour.

In later years, Moss came to believe he had tried to return to racing too soon after his Goodwood crash, given the extent of his injuries. Had he given it another six months to a year, he felt it might have been different.

The idea provides a tantalising glimpse of what might have been - Moss, still only in his mid-30s, racing against his natural successor, the great Clark, through the mid-1960s would have been one of the great showdowns.

Stirling Moss
Moss made numerous appearances well in to his 80s, as here at The Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2015

Moss set about making a career out of being Stirling Moss, and hugely successful he was at it, too.

Moss lived to the end of his life in his house in Mayfair, fitted with any number of innovations that befitted a James Bond movie of the 1970s.

Even into his 80s, 50 years after his enforced retirement, he remained a public figure, his view regularly sought on matters of the day in Formula 1.

In 2016, Moss suffered a chest infection while in hospital in Singapore and spent 134 days in hospital. He was eventually able to return home, but his slow recovery from the illness forced him to withdraw from public life.

Moss' name continued to resonate, those two words conjuring up the idea of motorsport like almost nothing else, a measure of the impact he made.

He is survived by his third wife, Susie, their son Elliot, and daughter Allison from an earlier marriage.