Sir Stirling Moss was one of motorsport's greatest drivers. Despite 16 Formula One GP wins he never became World Champion. But he triumphed in all the big sports car races, several times driving a Ferrari. He passed away recently at 90 years of age. We honour the British racer's life and extraordinary career by re-publishing this exclusive interview from issue 5 of The Official Ferrari Magazine, in 2009
Sir Stirling Moss embodies all that I love about cars and motor racing. As a driver he is without doubt one of the greatest the sport has ever produced, but he also has the deserved reputation of being a terrific sportsman too.
that’s just the start. if Sir Stirling wasn’t winning in some of my favourite cars, he was overtaking them. It’s difficult to hear his name without conjuring up one of those iconic images of the Ferrari 250 SWB in rob Walker’s famous blue colour, the lotus 18 finishing ahead of the Ferraris at Monaco in 1961, and of course the legendary drive with Denis Jenkinson to win the 1955 Mille Miglia driving a Mercedes 300 Slr in a time that will remain forever unbeaten.
But for me there’s a lot more than that. In the same way that the music you discover in your teens usually stays with you for life, Sir Stirling is my touchstone to a bygone world that still remains the most important motorsport era of all for me. the evidence sits on my bookshelves, in pictures on the walls, the model cabinets… oh, and on my garage floor, of course. As a childhood hero, Sir Stirling represented a new breed of the totally professional driver. He was the Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa of his day; but such a different day. The conversation we had at his home in the heart of London’s Mayfair was illuminating in that it raised a number of differences I had not considered. For example, Lewis or Felipe will do 17 races a year, and the rest of the time they’re working towards those events, be it training in the gym, or maybe working on the Formula One simulator.
Sir Stirling didn’t need the gym – he was in a car racing every weekend, Saturday and Sunday. And when the European season was over they all set off for the Americas to do another season there. And then there were the saloon car races, Formula two, the le Mans 24 hour race and the odd Mille Miglia to keep the interest up. The chance to listen to Sir Stirling describe scenes that I saw as a spectator in the ’50s when I was taken to Silverstone by my father was my idea of the perfect morning. And there was the opportunity to ask all those questions about cars I now drive, under the pretext of gleaning information for this magazine.
Would the Obi-Wan Kenobi of motorsport reveal the secrets that would enable me to gain two seconds a lap on my rivals while racing in my Maserati 250F? I had tried this same strategy some years ago when I was a passenger in one of my cars with Roy Salvadori at a Goodwood test day. ‘Yes, we used to lock the inside front wheel over the edge of the inside raised curb at Lavant and then power through as though it was a slot car.’ I was hoping for something a little less alarming than that…
Sadly, Sir Stirling’s answer was rather as might be expected – there was very little to adjust or tweak, so most of it was down to the driving. Set up the gearing and suspension and then play with the tyre pressures. no computer wings or wind tunnels here. Just that cork helmet and a pair of string-back gloves. And not much space for sponsors’ logos either. We also talked a bit about preferences of leading or chasing on track. Unfortunately it was clear that at this point Sir Stirling and I inhabit different worlds. Sir Stirling reflected on the fact that he would normally expect to come out of any corner and check his mirror to see how much ground he’s made on anyone behind. if they were still the same distance behind, there was probably something wrong with the car. it seems I still have a considerable amount of work to do to achieve this mindset.
Sir Stirling’s enthusiasm for the camaraderie of the period is still evident, and he clearly feels lucky to have raced in a time when the social and business elements of motor racing were entirely different to the way they are now. the two hours we spent in conversation zipped by, and for some days after I was remembering snippets that I wished I had allowed him to develop. Mostly, though, we reflected on the bravery and the apparent fearlessness of that golden racing era. Which is where we begin…
Nick Mason: Did you think of yourself as brave back then, Sir Stirling?
Sir Stirling Moss: If a driver has to call on bravery then he is in the wrong business. The strain on the individual would be enormous if you felt that you needed courage to get through every corner.
The Official Ferrari Magazine: But looking back now, there’s little doubt that you needed bravery to race in the ’50s…
SM: In those days, racing and death went hand-in-hand. There wasn’t any way to avoid it. One of the reasons I went into racing was because it was dangerous. And it was. We lost three or four drivers every year. You’ve just got to have the confidence to believe that it isn’t going to happen to you. it may be a foolhardy attitude, but you’re not going to be able to live with it otherwise. You’re either a person who relishes the thrills and risks of what you’re doing, or you’re not. in which case you should be a librarian or a chef. Stuart Lewis-Evans [Sir Stirling’s team-mate at Vanwall, who died in an accident in 1958] was terribly fast and very brave too, but bravery and stupidity are very closely related, you know, and if you’re too brave, well that could lead you into doing something stupid.
NM: But you must have thought about the risks.
SM: We all knew what the dangers were. You could get killed. For me the most important race of my life was always the one today, because I could win it or get killed trying to. there was nobody else in the car holding your foot down. if you backed off too much or drove too slowly, you wouldn’t get signed up, so of course it affected your reputation and your pride. it was a very different mindset. What mattered to me was the respect of the other drivers and that when the practice times were published, I was at the top.
NM: Is there any comparison with today’s drivers?
SM: You can try to make comparisons but in the end these are all just words. Are the drivers today brave? [Pause] I tell you, a brave man to me is that driver with the Mercedes whose car went over backwards. [Peter Dumbreck, whose Mercedes Clr-lM somersaulted off the Mulsanne straight at around 300km/h during practice for le Mans in 1999.] Now, to get back into that car, well that would take bravery… And that chap Robert Kubica, who had that awful shunt [at the Canadian grand Prix in 2007]…
FM: So, in other words, bravery is dusting yourself down and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to put myself right back in the same position as I was just before I had an enormous accident.’
SM: Yes, that’s what you have to do. there are a few things I did in my life, where the onlooker might say, ‘My god that was brave’, but I know that inside me it wasn’t done intentionally as a brave move. I mean, it was fairly brave, I suppose, to race in Argentina when the tyres were worn right through to the canvas and had started to break up, but then the adrenaline I had going through my system at the time because I was leading… I didn’t race because I was brave. in fact I think bravery, in racing, is actually a stumbling block. if you’re too brave, it’s not a good thing.
FM: I remember watching Kimi Räikkönen during qualifying for the Belgian GP a few years ago, keeping his foot in at Eau rouge even though the crest of it was wreathed in oil smoke. He could have backed off but he didn’t. And I couldn’t decide whether it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen or the most stupid.
SM: Well, you can’t see too much when you come over the top of Eau rouge anyway. I would like to hope that if it had been me in that situation, I would have backed off. Self-preservation. in my era, self-preservation was very important. I don’t think that exists too much now.
NM: That’s mainly because if today’s Formula One drivers get it wrong they’re unlikely to seriously hurt themselves.
SM: It’s amazing how good F1 cars are now. incredible, really. the only way to get killed in Formula One now is if somebody else’s wheel comes off and hits you, or something like that. I don’t think you would genuinely get killed in it other than driving straight over the wall, but I don’t think it would matter what speed you were doing which is fantastic really. But it does change what it’s all about.
FM: So what you’re saying is that, there were intimations of mortality every time you got into that car and you went out.
SM: I gave it a bit more thought, yes.
FM: We have all these adrenaline sports these days, people bungee jumping and BASE jumping and all that.
SM: Yes, and it doesn’t interest me at all. I wouldn’t want to jump out of an aeroplane with a parachute strapped to my back, unless there was no alternative. [Pause] I wouldn’t look at that as a jolly good weekend.
NM: It’s about making a conscious decision. A conscious decision that in today’s language would be called a risk assessment. And also sensitivity to the car – that seems to me to be one of the things that unites modern racing and racing in a previous era. Michael Schumacher and Sir Stirling both have this uncanny ability to feel what the car is capable of doing. And that is the thing that is impressive about great drivers.
SM: One has to be able to speak the language of a car, and that certainly makes a difference between one driver and another. Some drivers can speak to cars. I could speak to cars and get what they were saying fairly easily and I drove a lot of different cars so I became very experienced at it. [Pause] You know, the most difficult thing in motor racing isn’t going quickly, it’s braking. Lewis Hamilton, for one, is terrifically good on the brakes. I’ve got an Osca now, that I race, and it’s a really nice stable little car. But the best thing about it is how deeply you can brake without the car becoming unravelled. Some cars come apart much earlier than others.
NM: There’s no doubt that the sheer element of danger that you faced is less prevalent now.
SM: [Pause] Sitting on a start line when you’re going out on a circuit like Spa, which I always found very frightening, and you know that if you make a mistake you’re quite likely to die, well it is different to today, I think. I mean, I was scared to death of dying, I didn’t want to die, I had no death wish. I thought I would drive as fast as I feel safe and that was my limit, and I stuck with that all the time. Now, things could alter that limit, for instance if you came round a corner and suddenly there’s oil. Obviously you’re well within your limits until you come to bloody oil, then you’re really in trouble, or if a wheel comes off or somebody else gets in the way. there are so many different things and that’s a pretty daunting thought. Now, when Peter Collins was killed at what, 60 or 70mph [95-115km/h], it seems so unfair. Still, there was a very different mindset.
FM: But we’ve talked before and you have been critical of the safety changes that were introduced.
SM: It’s a very difficult thing to say, because I never want to see people killed. And I lost a lot of friends. But having said that, I still wanted racing to be dangerous, because I think danger is a very important ingredient. it’s a bit like cooking without salt. it’s still a lovely meal, but my god, salt would have jazzed it up a bit more. It’s difficult to campaign on a thing like that when what you’re doing is advocating it being dangerous. I suppose from my point of view, purely personally, that was obviously an important ingredient to the excitement and the thrill. I mean, when you’re young, you do crazy things, and one of the reasons that I enjoyed racing was because it was dangerous.
FM: You’ve raced extensively, Nick, including five times at the 24 Hours of le Mans. How was the start line moment for you?
NM: Well, I’m thinking, this is brilliant and really frightening at the same time.
SM: One doesn’t kill the other, does it?
NM: the most annoying thing in the whole world is when you’re on the start line and someone comes up and taps you on the helmet and says, ‘Have fun!’ I’m thinking, ‘Fun? Fucking fun!? this isn’t fun, I want to go home!’ Mind you, your mindset can change very quickly, particularly once the race is going.
SM: Once the flag has dropped, it makes a big difference.
NM: Sir Stirling, what do you remember of the famous Ferrari 250 gt you raced so successfully? the most famous image is of the rob Walker car with the stripe across the front.
SM: Yes. And it’s just had an 18-month restoration at the factory. that was a fantastic car. [Pause] I had a radio in it! When I switched it on, I could listen to Raymond Baxter’s race commentary and I knew where all the other guys were. We had very simple crash hats and no earplugs, so I could hear the commentary perfectly well. I liked sports car racing very much. then there were those famous le Mans starts of course. I was very quick at those.
NM: Now, I’ve always wondered what they were like to do?
SM: Oh, great fun. I remember one race where Mike Hawthorn was there as well, and he started to run before the flag fell. I shouted, ‘You bastard, Hawthorn!’ and he burst out laughing. those starts were very important – no one was going to hit you if you got away in front, whereas you can be back a few places and some other idiot will do something and suddenly you’re in the middle of the accident. So a good run was very important.
NM: So you practised the running start? Did you have a specific set-up for jumping in the car? Was the ignition left on, was the car left in gear?
SM: I’d leave it in gear with the ignition on, if I remember correctly. I tried all sorts of things, including putting the starter button underneath the front wing. I’d practice those starts 30, 40, 50 times. Oh god yes, I was a fast sprinter, I could run the 100m in 10 seconds which was quite quick for my era.
NM: In a way it’s doing your qualifying by just doing the sprint. it’s part of that old ‘gentlemen start your engines’ thing, isn’t it? When you see the old archive shots of all the cars lined up, it’s wonderful. But, I suppose, too dangerous, it couldn’t happen now.
SM: All these damn seatbelts and all that…
FM: Why do you think the Ferrari 250 GT was so good and is so revered now, almost 50 years later?
SM: It was just so beautifully executed. You see, the Italians have a thing where they managed to build a fabulous feel into their cars. I remember the Fiat 1100 in 1952, it was a sensational car, terrific handling for an ordinary little car. I remember the Lancia Aurelia and Aprilia too. Italian cars just had that flavour, and when you start talking Ferrari GTO and the SWB, well it’s the absolute pinnacle of what they could do.
FM: What about your relationship with Enzo Ferrari then? A little turbulent?
SM: Well, we made up.
FM: Talk us through it then.
SM: I had a real row with him because he invited me to drive his new four-cylinder car at Bari. So I went along and they said, ‘No, sorry, Mr Taruffi is driving it’, and I was really pissed off, and I said, ‘I won’t drive for somebody I can’t trust’. And I never did up until… the tragedy from my point of
view is that if they’d managed to get my car here for Goodwood when I had the crash, I don’t think I would have crashed, but it wasn’t quite ready. I was going to be driving for Ferrari in 1962.
FM: Did Ferrari try to court you?
SM: He wanted me to go and join the team in 1960 or something, I can’t remember when exactly, and I turned it down because I was with rob Walker at the time. Then I went to see him at the end of 1961. they were struggling a bit at the time, the English cars were in the ascendancy.
NM: Ferrari was late joining the mid-engined revolution. there’s a famous Enzo Ferrari quote about it: ‘i’ve never seen a cart pull the ox.’
SM: So we made up, had a meal together and so on, then he told me, ‘You tell me what you want and i’ll build it – will you drive for me?’ I said, ‘no, but I would like to drive your cars. they need to be rob Walker blue, and you can look after them, whatever you would like, but I will certainly drive them.’ Because I wanted to, then try and really help Ferrari come back, just like Michael Schumacher did in the 1990s. And he said, ‘OK.’ Everything was organised. I was going to have a sports car and a Formula One car, and he was going to maintain them and we had anything we wanted, we would have been an extension of the factory team, really. it was just bad luck and damn awful that he didn’t get them ready quickly enough. [Moss had his fateful career-ending accident while racing at Goodwood in 1962, which left him in a coma and partly paralysed for many months.]
FM: So what are your memories of Enzo Ferrari?
SM: I had great admiration for him. I can’t think of one driver who died because of car problems. the wheels didn’t come off Ferraris! I had a great respect for the man and what he had achieved.
FM: Would you fancy racing now, if you could have your time again?
SM: Oh, I wouldn’t swap my era, no, oh god no. there’s no comparison. to start with, there isn’t the same sort of crumpet around! One’s private social life was… All I had to do was arrive to drive, practice and race, that’s all, nothing else. The quality of life now is so poor compared to the one I had. the enjoyment I derived from the racing, which was tremendous, but also in the social life.
NM: It’s an interesting one, because I suspect, given that Lewis and Kimi are both racers, if you said to them, what would you rather do, spend your day in the gym or race 50 times a year…
FM: I think we know what they’d say.
SM: Oh, I’m sure. Mind you, I know damn well that if they got into a car like the ones that I used to race they would say, ‘god, I can’t believe anyone would ever race these!’ Modern drivers, when they get into our cars, can’t believe quite how awful they are – you’ve got no seatbelts, the cars handled completely differently and the brakes were dreadful by modern standards… that was the life, you see.
My life in racing was fantastic, I mean the places you would go to and the girls you would meet. I remember very well going down to Sebring and even managing to pick up this girl with National Airlines on the flight down. I said to her, ‘Come on, I’ll help you in the galley…’
FM: You helped her in the galley? What sort of help are we talking about here?