The celestial talent of Sir Stirling Moss is crystallised in his record of winning 40 per cent of the races he ever entered. It is reflected, too, in the fact that Enzo Ferrari once offered him a works car to run in his own colours, hoping to find the machine that could truly do justice to his gifts.
For others, a failure to win a Formula One world title would mark them in history as also-rans. For Moss, it was simply a strange blemish, akin to the 99.94 Test average with which Sir Donald Bradman hung up his bat, serving only to enrich his mystique.
To those ushered into his Mayfair lair in Shepherd Market, Moss was the closest approximation to James Bond that existed. The décor read like the inventory of Q Branch: there was a TV hidden behind the wood panelling, a dial that would run his baths to precisely the right height, even a tray that would magically descend from his secretary’s office with letters for him to sign.
Then, of course, came the veritable museum of trophies. The place was both the playground of a lovable eccentric and a portal into the lost era of perhaps the greatest racer of them all.
Moss drove as he lived, always seeking to extend technology website design jacksonville FL to improbable limits. For all that he achieved 16 victories from his 66 grand prix starts – a win ratio superior to Sebastian Vettel’s – his body of work was distorted by his loyalty to British privateer teams, however unreliable the car. The sentimental attachment was one he never regretted. As he once put it: “Better to lose honourably in a British car than to win in a foreign one.”
Plus, it was his feats beyond F1 that propelled him into popular folklore. In 1955, he won the Mille Miglia, Italy’s fabled 1,000-mile open-road race, against opponents with infinitely more local knowledge of the route, and with journalist Denis Jenkinson barking directions from a rolled-up scroll. Two years later, he shared driving duties with Surrey dentist Tony Brooks to win his home grand prix in a Vanwall, the first such triumph for a British car in over three decades.
In Moss’ judgment, Juan Manuel Fangio, with whose zenith his career coincided, was the finest driver of the age. After the Argentine’s retirement in 1958, his claims to inherit that accolade were difficult to dispute.
Who else could have withstood the might of Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1961, in a Lotus as out-of-date as it was under-powered? And has there even been a more timeless masterclass than the one he delivered in Monaco that same summer, fending off his hard-charging pursuers in red for the best part of three hours?
Throughout a period when drivers had to moonlight in other categories to accrue any wealth, Moss won everywhere from Morocco to New Zealand. He prevailed in rallies, hill climbs, endurance tests, record attempts, his pure racing acumen rendering him all but invincible in any format. At every stage, his skill was matched by his sportsmanship.
Nowhere was this better exemplified than on the streets of Porto, where his win in 1958 should have marked a giant leap towards that season’s crown. Instead, he diverted to the stewards’ office to plead for the reinstatement of his chief rival, Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn, after a dubious disqualification. Hawthorn would go on to become the champion, while Moss uttered not one word of ruefulness about the act of solidarity that cost him his most coveted prize.
Then again, he was born with the racing gene in his blood. His father, Alfred, an eminent dentist, had in wilder days competed in the Indianapolis 500, finishing 16th, while mother Aileen, a successful equestrienne, entered races in her three-wheeled Morgan.
There was seldom much danger of the young Stirling picking up the paternal trade. As the descendant of an Ashkenazi Jewish family, he suffered anti-Semitic abuse while at school, growing unhappy and listless towards his studies.
It was behind the wheel that his passions took wing, as he thrashed around Berkshire fields in the Austin Seven that Alfred had bought when he was nine. At 18, this present was upgraded to a Cooper, powered by a 500cc motorcycle engine, that he could use to accelerate his progress through the junior series. For his own sake, it helped that he was such a natural in his chosen craft. As a trainee waiter in London, his performances had been anything but stellar. There was not to be any military calling, either, with a kidney disorder ruling him out of national service.
Courtesy of his inspired racing in Italy, Moss soon found himself courted by Enzo Ferrari, who made overtures in 1951 about a full Formula Two contract. But having arranged a meeting in Puglia to finalise the deal, he discovered that his seat had already been taken by veteran Piero Taruffi. His indignation at this rebuff has been widely cited as an explanation for his persistence with British machinery in F1, and his particular satisfaction at results that came at the Italians’ expense.
We will never know, ultimately, how far Moss’ greatness could have extended. On Easter Monday 58 years ago, he took the fateful decision to race at Goodwood in a Lotus, crashing into an earth bank with such force that he displaced an eye socket, fractured his leg, and suffered bruising to the brain that put him in a coma. Paralysed on his left side for six months, he had no option but to retire at 32.
To lesser mortals, it could have represented a confounding crossroads. And yet, for the next half-century and more, he developed an extraordinary business out of just being Stirling Moss. He celebrated his 82nd birthday alongside Playboy Bunnies, while a parade of star drivers beat a path to his door for advice.
For Lewis Hamilton, a few hours’ driving with Moss at Monza in 2015 counted among the most memorable experiences of his life. It was a day when even a multiple world champion could recognise the spectacle of greatness in action, and the need to cherish it while it lasted.