An evening driving lesson with Sir Stirling Moss

Last Sunday’s news of Sir Stirling Moss’s death at the age of 90 elicited a flood of anecdote from friends and admirers around the world. David Malsher-Lopez could only count himself in the latter category, but shares a few personal memories of speaking with the great man.

An evening driving lesson with Sir Stirling Moss

I’ve always been ambivalent about the historic racing scene, because while it’s wonderful to see a gathering of legendary cars and drivers, and to see them in action, I worry about the competition side – that both the mechanical and the human are being put at unnecessary risk, each past their respective prime.

The old masters and other drivers long practiced in the art of racing exotica are rarely the problem. They know how to drive all day at 90-95 percent without letting competitive instincts override commonsense, and their cars are often prepared and/or modified (let’s leave that can of worms unopened) in such a manner that they’re safer now than in their heyday. My anxiety stems from the other sort of participant, the less well-trained former car dealer, realtor or surgeon who recently decided to blow his 401K on a 911S and cannot resist a 50/50 maneuver, skittering up the inside of a legend gently steering a GTO. It takes only one overambitious clown with an underdeveloped talent to ruin the day for others, and while generally these types are given their marching orders quite rapidly, my prejudice is less easy to expunge.

So rather than spend a day endlessly cringing and wincing, I attend historic events to drool over the cars in the paddock and maybe catch an interview with a star driver or two. Once I know the track action has ended with everything and everyone safe and well, I’m more than happy to watch it online, because the racing is often enthralling.

ABOVE: The most popular addition at any historic meeting, here Moss demonstrates his 1955 Mille Miglia-winning Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. TOP: Winning the 1956 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in his personal favorite – a Maserati 250F.

ABOVE: The most popular addition at any historic meeting, here Moss demonstrates his 1955 Mille Miglia-winning Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. TOP: Winning the 1956 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in his personal favorite – a Maserati 250F.

Photo by: Andy Smerdon. Top photo: Motorsport Images

However, a couple of decades ago, I simply had to make an exception to my ‘rule’, while attending a historic festival at Silverstone, UK. One of the races featured Sir Stirling Moss in a Maserati T61 ‘Birdcage’, the type of machine in which he and Dan Gurney had smoked the opposition at the Nurburging 1000km in 1960. Now, few would argue that this very distinctive machine is truly beautiful, but it does hold one major attraction for the trackside aficionado: its extraordinarily deep and recessed windshield allows a fantastic view inside the cockpit of the driver at work. If that driver is Moss… well, it’s time to watch and learn.

I stood on the inside of the course at the magnificent Maggotts-Becketts complex, and was left in awe of an ace who, while on the threshold of 70, seemed to have retained all his skills. Absolute mastery of this rare and hyper-valuable 170mph machine appeared to come so easy to Moss, who still used his trademark straight-arm style. His turn-in was precise, and the Maserati’s trajectory from apex to exit was governed almost entirely by throttle control. The contrast with the amateurs, sawing away at steering wheels of fairly similar machines, was profound.

Moss was quick, too. I’m not sure what had occurred in qualifying to leave him starting from outside the top 40, but in an admittedly mixed-class field, he made scintillating progress and was into the Top 10 by Lap 4.

A few years later, I traveled to London to interview the four-time Formula 1 championship runner-up at his home, but since he didn’t know me at all, it felt comfortable to be accompanied by one of his longtime media friends, the writer and broadcaster Simon Taylor, who has since penned a fine biography with Moss. We spent a couple of hours there, and despite Mr. Motor Racing’s professional ease with strangers, Simon’s calming presence and the smiling hospitality of Sir Stirling’s wife, Lady Susie Moss, I was unquestionably intimidated. How could I not be? The scale of this man’s achievements, the breadth of his résumé in a remarkably compressed time frame, still leaves me awestruck. The willingness and ability shown by Moss and a few others  –Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Jimmy Clark, Gurney, John Surtees and Parnelli Jones – to climb into (and onto, in Surtees’ case!) any type of machine and take it to its limit is something we will never see in racing again.

I think it was a year or two after that, in 2004, when I wrote a piece for Autosport magazine about the sport’s greatest all-’rounders. Naturally, there were honorable mentions for Clark, Foyt, Gurney, Surtees and Jones, but the story distilled to weighing up the credentials of Andretti and Moss in order to decide who was the versatile king of kings. Eventually, I came down marginally in favor of Mario, on the basis that Stirling never tried his hand at Indy car racing. I feel sure the Briton would have excelled at ovals, but just as we don’t know if the greatest cricket batsman of all time, Don Bradman, could have matched Babe Ruth’s ability in baseball, we should not just assume Moss would have shone on left-turn-only tracks.

One of the greatest drives in a great career. Moss's Vanwall won the 1957 Pescara GP by over three minutes!

One of the greatest drives in a great career. Moss's Vanwall won the 1957 Pescara GP by over three minutes!

Photo by: Motorsport Images

I was fortunate enough to sit next to Moss at the Autosport Awards in the December of that year – just before said article was published – and awkwardly forewarned him of my verdict. Far from being offended, he nodded earnestly, commenting: “Mario was remarkable, wasn’t he? You can see why he was in demand by all the best teams of the day. He was an aggressive racer on the track – I liked that – but he was also very good at analyzing what his car was doing, and it was actually quite rare to find a driver – a top driver – who could do both. I’m sure that’s why [Colin] Chapman [Lotus founder] valued Mario so much.”

Inevitably, the evening was a delight. Anyone who thinks a huge ego is a necessity for top echelon racers was never fortunate enough to engage with Moss. Like Rick Mears, Mario and Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr or Gurney, Stirling tended only to mention his own experiences when questioned about them – which admittedly I did rather a lot on this occasion! He seemed more interested in discussing the current F1 scene, why no manufacturers were taking on Audi at Le Mans, and the relative merits and faults of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League. I, by contrast, would be desperate to ask him how the hell he beat the mighty Juan Manuel Fangio by well over three minutes in F1’s only Grand Prix at Pescara. No way I was going to waste an opportunity to pick the brain of a legend, to try and figure out what made him one of the fastest racers of all time.

The true greats in racing possess the confidence in their own abilities to push a car to its ‘natural’ limit and then keep probing beyond that limit to a realm where their talent becomes the defining factor and resets the outer limit. Moss described doing exactly that in his Lotus 18 during the 1961 Monaco GP as he conducted research while fending off the pursuing Ferrari 156s, but I dare say he did it on a regular basis. Any driver who takes that inquisitive approach throughout his career will find new limits more frequently, so that what he previously regarded as driving on the ragged edge now becomes a whole lot less ragged – becomes his new normal – and puts him beyond the reach of his rivals.

Moss, I felt, would know better than anyone whether this was a valid way of describing what separated him from the herd, since he had reached that stage of mastery long before his career was brought to its untimely end, at Goodwood in 1962, when he was only 32.

Winning the only U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held at Riverside, California, in 1960 driving a Lotus 18.

Winning the only U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held at Riverside, California, in 1960 driving a Lotus 18.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Well, you’re right in that the idea is to always try to make your limit higher than the others’,” he said thoughtfully, “but I would say there are different ways to do that. These days you could study the data that the team collects and see where you had room for improvement in certain corners. It’s marvelous what’s available now to help refine your performance.

“With regard to your point… [There was a pause, as he searched for the right words to explain to the layman] The way I would put it is this: For me, one of the most important things was to be at ease when I was running on the limit. The more natural it becomes to run flat-out, the better, because that frees up your brain for other things, if you know what I mean. The drivers who use all their mental powers just to drive on the limit tend to make more mistakes, and I think that’s true in every era. Fangio was really super at driving fast while also using his brain, and it was the same with Jimmy Clark. More recently, I’d say [Alain] Prost was a good example of someone who could think and drive: he’d be looking after his tires, deciding tactics, processing messages he received from his team on the radio, and at the same time going as fast as the others. That’s why he didn’t make many mistakes, did he?

“Of course, in our day we didn’t have radios to distract us, but we still had to do a lot of thinking. The little Coopers and Lotuses I raced towards the end of my career were really quite kind to their tires, so they could take a lot of punishment. That meant you could drive very hard in some corners – especially slow ones where you could afford to take a risk or two – and experiment a little. And if you discovered something that earned you a bit of speed… boy, you wanted to keep that. The reliability of the cars back then wasn’t a patch on what you see these days, so putting less strain on the mechanicals was really worth trying if you had the chance. If you were gaining time on your opponent in the corners, then that could allow you to be a little more careful when you reached the straights, you see? You could be extra gentle with the gearchange and the clutch, and maybe you could shift up a little sooner so you weren’t pushing the engine quite so hard.

“Mind you,” he added, “you couldn’t take it too easy because there wasn’t a lot of power to play with in those cars. You had to keep up your momentum.”

That, of course, only explains one aspect of Moss’s genius, and I remain baffled as to how he could recalibrate his brain so regularly, so swiftly, to become a competitive force in everything he raced. Read Doug Nye’s superb book with Moss entitled My Cars, My Career, to comprehend the fantastically diverse range of cars that our hero mastered, but you’ll know the obvious ones already and will therefore appreciate there were extraordinary differences even between his Formula 1 cars – the front-engined Mercedes W196, Maserati 250F and Vanwall, followed by the dainty rear-engined Coopers and Lotuses. On top of that, he mastered with ease sportscars such as the Mercedes 300SLR, Jaguar C-Type, Aston Martin DB3S and Maserati 300, as well as GT cars such as the Ferrari 250GT SWB and Aston DB4GT. Heck, he even made the teeter-tottering Jaguar MkVII sedans dance – or at least tilt – to his tune.

Having won the 1950 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in a Jaguar XK120, Moss repeated the following year in the glorious Jag C-Type.

Having won the 1950 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in a Jaguar XK120, Moss repeated the following year in the glorious Jag C-Type.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Yes, well, the switch from front- to rear-engined [Formula 1 cars] was considerable, of course,” he commented, “but you have to remember that I had already raced a lot of rear-engined cars before that in Formula 3 – those little 500cc Coopers – and had then gone to front-engined cars like the HWMs and Jags. So I’m sure that, along with all the different types we raced back then between different championships anyway, gave us a lot of useful experience for adapting. Over the years, several of us got used to going back and forth between very different cars and even quite different types.”

Several got used to it, yes, but in his era, there were none so adept at adapting as Moss. Tony Brooks excelled, Phil Hill and Jack Brabham on their best days could also be quite outstanding, but these were the exceptions. For example, Hill’s regular sportscar partner Olivier Gendebien, while superb at striking that happy balance between speed and conservation when it came to endurance racing, was definitely not in the top tier as a Formula 1 driver.

As you’d expect of a genius for whom so much appeared to come ‘naturally’, Moss couldn’t explain how he developed the requisite talent for exceptional versatility. He could, however, explain how it worked.

“I can’t speak for others, of course, but I think the tires were a factor,” he said. “You get a lot of ‘feel’ for where the grip limit is with tall crossply [bias-ply] tires. You’d feel, through your backside and your hands on the steering wheel, some warning when the car was about to break away; a decent car wouldn’t suddenly snap at you. Then the trick was to know how far was too far if you were oversteering, understeering or in a four-wheel drift. You developed an instinct for how much sliding was too much, where you started to lose time. Those sorts of things vary from car to car, but the basic principle is the same and you have to figure it out, which fortunately I could do quite well.”

A charmingly modest final clause, that. There was nothing fortunate about it, and he could do it exceptionally well.

His explanation appeared to back up a theory that most of us racing fans choose to believe: that while it’s hard to compare drivers from generation to generation, so too – paradoxically, perhaps – we can say that the greats in one era would have excelled in another.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely. If you put [Tazio] Nuvolari in Fangio’s car, or Fangio in one of Jimmy’s Lotuses, or Jimmy or Jackie Stewart in [Michael] Schumacher’s Ferrari, they would have been enormously successful. And I think it works the other way, too: whatever era he had raced in, Ayrton Senna would have been a champion, for example, and the same is true of Prost and Schumacher. I think as a driver you adapt to circumstances, and to whatever you’re given.

“Take the boys at Indy, for example. The top drivers in front-engined cars had no problem switching to rear-engined, did they?”

Indeed not, I replied. Foyt won the 1964 Indy 500 in a roadster, then took pole in a Lotus in ’65. And Parnelli made the switch to Lotus in ’64 and immediately started winning poles and races.

“Exactly,” said Moss. “The best drivers are the best drivers, and you’ll always see the cream rise to the top.”

And so, in under 20 minutes, I learned more about driving dynamics and racing in the ’50s and ’60s – and from an absolute master – than I had ever done before. It was only out of politeness to Stirling, Lady Moss, and our other dinner companions that I clicked off my dictaphone and stopped monopolizing the legend’s time. Of course, being who he was, Moss’s dinner was interrupted several times that evening by well-wishers who wished to shake his hand, and friends who wanted a chat. He handled all of them with warmth and grace.

Stirling graciously shares the winning laurels with local hero Wolfgang von Trips at the Nurburgring after the 1961 German GP, but his Lotus 18-Climax has just defeated the mighty Ferraris for the second time that year, despite a 35hp power deficit.

Stirling graciously shares the winning laurels with local hero Wolfgang von Trips at the Nurburgring after the 1961 German GP, but his Lotus 18-Climax has just defeated the mighty Ferraris for the second time that year, despite a 35hp power deficit.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Last Sunday, at 3am Pacific Time, I was woken by the news that Stirling had died aged 90, and after the adrenaline rush of pushing out a tribute to Britain's first racing superstar, I spent much of the day immersed in various books about him. It was a relief to find on an old PC laptop the transcript used in this piece – but on reflection, it’s obvious that I focused so much on his technique and mental approach to racing, that I neglected to quiz him on the other things for which he had a unique perspective. How he would compare Fangio – and himself – to Alberto Ascari? Could Vanwall have stayed a competitive force in F1? On which tracks did he leave himself the largest margin for error? What age would he likely have chosen to retire – and therefore which racecars from the mid- late ’60s would he most have liked to try?

Ah well…

A few weeks after the publication of the Autosport article on versatile drivers, I received a letter from Moss, thanking me for the story and for rating him among so many great drivers. Next time I spoke to Mario, he thanked me, too, saying it was an honor to have even been compared to Moss, one of his two heroes (the other is Ascari). So that’s something else that united them: class.

The third and final time I would speak to Stirling was by phone in 2008, following the death of one of his later rivals and America’s first Formula 1 World Champion, Phil Hill.

“I hope you can hear me OK,” he started the conversation, “I’m on the train and it’s a bit noisy.” Then, after paying generous tribute to an old sparring partner and, off-the-record, lamenting at how Parkinson’s had made Phil’s final years such a dreadful trial, he poked fun at his own abrupt career-end and coma. I had just pointed out that Hill won his final ever pro race – the 1967 BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch in the Chaparral 2F.

“Gosh, that’s the way to do it, isn’t it?” responded Stirling. “Not having a big shunt and then sleeping for a month!”

As we signed off, I wished him luck with the remainder of his train journey.

“Thank you, old boy,” he responded. “It’s alright, actually: handles like it’s on rails!”

He chuckled at his silly joke.

“Ciao-ciao!”

Ciao-ciao, Legend.

The author keeps his mouth firmly closed as a legend speaks.

The author keeps his mouth firmly closed as a legend speaks.

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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