One year ago today, Sir Stirling Moss died at the ripe old age of 90 following a long illness. Here we recap his incredible life and long list of achievements as the greatest driver never to win a World Title.
On September 17, 1929, Aileen Moss gave birth to Stirling in London, England. Little did they know he would become one of the greatest racing drivers of the post-war era of motorsport.
Stirling’s father Alfred was an accomplished racing driver in his own right. A dentist by profession and a gentleman driver, who in 1924 took 16th place in the Indianapolis 500. Aileen Moss, then Aileen Craufurd, also raced for fun. In fact, the two met at the Brooklands racetrack in the 1920s. Stirling had a younger sister, Patricia, better known as Pat, who also achieved great things behind the wheel. Talent ran in the family it seems. In his early years, Stirling and Pat proved competent at a different type of racing – horse riding – but neither thought one horse was enough power for them.
As was customary for the time for upper-class families, Stirling was educated in several independent, private schools. He didn’t do very well, as he was subjected to bullying and anti-Semitism due to his paternal Jewish roots. In fact, his birth name was Stirling Moses, but his father changed it to try and avoid the growing anti-Jewish movement taking over Europe in the 1930s.
Entry to racing
At the tender age of nine, Stirling got his first car, an Austin 7 from his father. One interesting fact is that it was also an Austin 7 that Lotus founder Colin Chapman first toyed with before founding the brand that gave Moss great success in the 1960s. Moss was lucky in the sense that he was not allowed to serve in World War II due to a recurring kidney inflammation, which meant he may not have been reliable on the battlefield. This gave him time to master his craft in fields and on public roads in the English countryside while Europe ripped itself to pieces.
Once WWII was over and done with, Moss had had enough practicing and wanted to race. Using his horse-riding skills almost as a day job, he used the prize money from that to fund his early racing career. His first few races were in his fathers’ pre-war BMW 328, but the car was off the pace performance-wise. Despite this, Moss generally placed well considering the deficit.
Moss’s father didn’t support his racing endeavors early on in his career. He wanted his son to become a dentist and join the family business. However, Stirling managed to persuade his father to buy him a Cooper Mk. IV in 1948, making him one of the first customers of the Cooper Car Company. Using the more competitive package, he demonstrated his mastery of a racing car, winning 11 races on his way to the British Formula 3 title that year, taking out the Auclum Hillclimb on his way to it.
Moss’s talent caught the eye of Mr. John Cooper himself, who gave him the new Cooper Mk. IX chassis for 1949. He only participated in six races that year, two of which he won. He came third in the British Formula 3 series despite only entering four races, of which he won one and was on the podium on two other occasions. He won his first international race that year too, at the Circuito del Garda in northern Italy. The big achievement that year though, was mixing it with the big boys at the 1949 Formula 2 support race for the French Grand Prix. Unfortunately, he finished last, which was mostly down to him being a debutant in an F3 Cooper running against the experienced names of Fangio and Ascari in Formula 2 material.
The beginnings of greatness
1950 was a big year in Moss’s career. With the new Cooper T11, he crushed the opposition in the British Formula 3 championship, winning 11 of the 14 races and coming second the other three times. Alongside this, he traveled to France for their F3 championship. He entered four races, winning once. All this lead up to a breakthrough performance at the Monaco Grand Prix support race. He won it, taking pole and the fastest lap too, and beating the likes of Harry Schell and Elie Bayol, both accomplished F1 drivers. Add to this his first win at the RAC Tourist Trophy in a Jaguar XK120, he got a drive in the HWM team for a few non-championship F1 races.
What followed were two giant-killing performances. Firstly at the 1950 Bari Grand Prix, he comfortably took “best of the rest” honors behind the all-conquering Alfa Romeo’s. Outperforming the likes of Pierre Levegh, Clemente Biondetti, and Johnny Claes, all Grand Prix winners. This then led to an outing at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, where he came in a respectable sixth position, one lap down on the Alfa Romeo’s, and ahead of racing legend Louis Chiron.
The early years of Formula 1
These performances earned him offers at HWM, Gilby, Cooper, and Jaguar for 1951, all of whom he drove for. He won all there was to win in the UK that year. In his XK120 he took out the Tourist Trophy for the second year running. He won the British Empire Trophy in a Gilby, and he took a myriad of F3 wins in a privately engineered Kieft car, using a Norton motorcycle engine. In Formula 2 he ran competitively for HWM, and he made his world championship debut at the 1951 Swiss Grand Prix, finishing ninth. He found non-championship success at the Dutch and Marseille Grands Prix, finishing third in both. He also participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the factory Jaguar operation in an XK-120C, taking the fastest lap but retiring early.
In 1952, Formula 1 switched to F2 rules for two seasons. Moss signed up for the failing ERA team, which had been a racing stalwart in the 1930s but by 1952, was in ruin. He didn’t finish any of the championship races he started in the ERA, nor the HWM or Connaught, which he raced in sporadically. He did win the 500cc British Grand Prix again though, and the Silverstone International in a Jaguar C-type. He also came second in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally in a Talbot, but he retired from the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the second year running.
In 1953, things began to go right for Moss. He won the Reims 12 Hour in the C-type and took out the Alpine Rally and the 500cc British Grand Prix, the latter for the third time. His big achievement though was at Le Mans. Jaguar had found reliability in the C-type and Moss used it to take the car to second in a Jaguar 1-2-3, headed by the (drunk) Hamilton/Rolt entry. He came third in the Tourist Trophy, for the first time being beaten. In single-seaters though, things didn’t go quite as well, he moved to Cooper, driving the new T24, but couldn’t manage points in the smaller-engined car.
Mercedes and Maserati
In 1954, Moss was still more of a sportscar name than an open wheeler name, and rightly so, having won so many races in Jaguars. Though, in 1954 things would change. He would miss out on many endurance wins thanks to the unreliability of the new D-type. He retired from Le Mans and came 14th in the Tourist Trophy, but did win the 12 Hours of Sebring in America in an OSCA. His performances of the previous few years caught the eye of Maserati who put him in the seat of their works 250F cars, and he quickly showed why. He won the Aintree 200, Oulton Park Cup, Goodwood, and the Daily Telegraph Trophy in his 250F, and, after 11 previous appearances over three years, finally took a World Championship podium at the 1954 Belgian Grand Prix. He backed that up by taking the fastest lap at the British round but retired from all other races.
This raised the eyebrows of a certain Alfred Neubauer, one of the greatest team bosses of all time and the force behind Mercedes-Benz in the 1950s. He offered Moss the second works drive as a backup driver to Juan Manuel Fangio, which Moss accepted. This caused outrage in both Germany and the UK. Germany didn’t want their car driven by an enemy nationality, and the UK didn’t want their driver in an enemy car. Moss didn’t care one iota. He shut everybody up by propelling the Mercedes 300 SLR to victories in the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, and Tourist Trophy. Then he became the second Brit to win a World Championship round when he brought his Mercedes W196 over the line in front of his home fans at Aintree. Moss was on the map as one of the greats by now. He came second in the 1955 World Championship as the perfect wingman to Fangio, but the pair split after Mercedes withdrew from motorsport following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, where 83 people died.
In 1956, Moss went back to Maserati, where he and Fangio, now driving for Ferrari, became title foes. Over the year, Moss won more than 15 races in various machinery, including two F1 races, where he missed out on the title by a mere three points. Some of the highlights included a win at the illustrious Monaco Grand Prix, a domination display at the 1000km of Nurburgring, and a win at the BRDC International Trophy for the new Vanwall team. Le Mans eluded him once more though. Driving an Aston Martin DB3S, he came in a close second to the Jaguar D-type, losing by only a lap.
Racing for Britain again
In 1957, Moss decided he’d had enough of racing for foreign countries and signed up for Tony Vandervell’s promising Vanwall team. The results immediately followed, he picked up three race wins on his way to second in the title for the third year running, again just behind that pesky Fangio. 1957 was special, however. The British revolution was beginning, Maserati was to pull out at the end of the year and Fangio would retire, with Lotus, BRM, and Cooper now making serious efforts. The 1957 season was special in that Moss, along with Tony Brooks, won the British Grand Prix. Two British drivers in a British car winning the British Grand Prix set the scene for 17 years of British domination in Formula 1.
The fuel regulations changed in 1958. Alcohol fuels were no longer allowed, so Vanwall let Moss drive for Rob Walker’s private Cooper team for the first round while they grappled with making Avgas work. Cooper was the only team running rear-mid engine cars at that stage, and the 2.0L Coventry-Climax was thought to be no match for the Ferrari and BRM cars. Then Moss won. Dominated the event, well and truly kickstarting the rear-engine revolution when Walker’s Cooper won again in Monaco with Maurice Trintignant at the wheel. Moss returned to Vanwall for that round and retired. He came second in the title yet again but probably would’ve won if the car finished more rounds. It was a gentlemanly gesture though, that likely lost him the title. His main rival Mike Hawthorn was disqualified from the Portuguese Grand Prix for getting a push start, but Moss protested the ruling and Hawthorn got his finish back. Those points made the difference to swing the title in the Ferrari driver’s favor, and Moss missed out again.
Among his other wins in 1958 were the 1000km Nurburgring again, the Tourist Trophy again and the British Empire Trophy… Again.
Rob Walker and the career-ending crash
By 1959, Vandervell was in ill health and closed Vanwall down. Moss made the move to the Rob Walker stable full time. It was a reasonably disappointing year for Moss’s standards though. The Cooper T51 had some issues which meant he retired from four races. Those he didn’t retire from though, he won. Including the Italian Grand Prix, showing that the Climax engine now had the power of the big Ferraris too. He took second place in the British Grand Prix for BRM while Walker tried to fix the T51, which gave him enough points for third in the title. Outside of F1, he won the Tourist Trophy for the umpteenth time, won the 1000km Nurburgring once more, and took out the Watkins Glen International race.
In 1960 Rob Walker Racing switched from Cooper to Lotus, winning Monaco for the second time. He took out the Nurburgring enduro and Tourist Trophy yet again and won races at Oulton Park and Goodwood. It all came to a sudden halt at the Belgian Grand Prix though. In practice he whittled off the track at Burnenville Curve, demolishing his car and putting him out of racing for the next 6 months as he recovered. Had he not had that accident, he likely would have been champion, as he returned to racing at the United States Grand Prix, and comfortably won.
The engine rules changed in 1961, which put British teams at a massive disadvantage as they had been blindsided by the news. Ferrari was dominant, with 30 more horsepower than the Climax engine in the Lotus Moss was driving. Nonetheless, he won Monaco for the third time and took out the German Grand Prix too, both at twisty tracks with hungry Ferraris snapping at his heels. He took out the Tourist Trophy again, this time in a Ferrari, and went off to Australia to win all the single-seater races there too. Moss was in his prime, winning over 60% of the races he started in 1961, and 1962 seemed like it could finally be his year.
1962 started off well, Moss won the Tasman Series in Australia and took out New Zealand Grand Prix too. Then, tragedy struck. All hope of him being a World Champion was dashed when he crashed heavily in the Glover Trophy at Goodwood. He almost died, being in a coma for a month and paralyzed for a further six. He did make a full recovery, but after testing a Lotus sports car in 1963, he believed he had lost his instinctive control of the car and thought it was best to retire from full-time motorsport.
Of course, a man as passionate for fast things as Moss was, he wasn’t away from a car for long. He participated in rally events for years afterward, but without the success, he found in Formula 1. It wasn’t until 1976 when he got behind the wheel of a racing car again. Australia’s Seven Sport co-ordinator and commentator Mike Raymond convinced he and Sir Jack Brabham to drive a Holden Torana in the 1976 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst. Moss said he loved the racetrack after practice, but his race didn’t last long, after Brabham was rammed from behind in a start line crash, the damage caused Moss to retire with engine failure on lap 37.
By 1980, Moss was 51, but he was invited by Audi to do a one-off round in the British Touring Car Championship. Moss loved it and returned full-time to motorsport in 1980 and 1981 for Audi driving the type 80 GLE for the works Tom Walkinshaw team. Despite his age, he took four podiums in his class over the two seasons to finish 16th outright in 1980 and 6th in class in 1981. After 1981 he finally retired from competitive racing, only demonstrating cars from then until 2011 when he announced on Radio Le Mans he was hanging up the helmet at the age of 82.
Other ventures and legacy
Aside from racing, Moss was also a pretty good commentator, joining the likes of Jackie Stewart and Chris Economaki in calling races like the Indianapolis and Daytona 500’s in the United States. He also narrated the children’s series “Roary the Racing Car”, and was the subject of many movies, books and he is alluded to in many a song as well.
Stirling Moss is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers in the history of motor racing, and as such, was knighted by Prince Charles in 2000 for his services to motor racing. We are unlikely to see a driver as talented and diverse as Moss, who won over 200 races in his 14-year professional career.