Never before have I worked myself into such a frenzy over committing words to paper. Each word would have to be the right one and together they’d have to create the perfect tribute to someone who quite simply, in my opinion, is the greatest and – I unashamedly admit – my favourite racing driver of all time; Sir Stirling Moss.
To write a short biographical piece would be silly; there are plenty of descriptions of Stirling’s life out there and they’re probably all far better pieces than I could produce. There are three reasons why I believe Stirling to be the greatest and my unrivalled favourite driver of all time; two races and a very special birthday card – and they would be much better to write about.
Throughout his career, Stirling demonstrated undeniable pace, remarkable stamina and dedication as well as an ability to uphold an astonishing level of sportsmanship. As far as I’m aware he never greatly upset anyone, neither on the track or off it and the fact that he never won the world championship, le man 24 hours* or the indy 500 – the three crowns of motor racing – only serves to undermine all three’s importance.
(*Stirling of course would have won at Le Mans in 1955 – quite comfortably in fact – if it wasn’t for Mercedes decision to withdraw their cars – of which Stirling was leading in one by a number of laps – following the disastrous crash that killed Stirling’s team-mate Pierre Levegh and almost 90 spectators.)
Stirling’s performance at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix was an expression of Stirling the man as much as it was about Stirling the driver. The headline was that Stirling had won the Monaco Grand Prix for the third time, while the rest of the story would describe Stirling’s unyielding determination to hold off the entire Ferrari team – all three cars that were driven to the maximum to no avail – and how he drove at ‘ten-tenths’ for the entire 100 laps beneath the sun-lit terraces of Monte Carlo. Other drivers have achieved similar feats but never with the style and class that Stirling displayed; he didn’t just beat his rivals, he rather playfully toyed with them. He didn’t just win a race in front of thousands of fans, he entertained and thrilled the world of motor racing with his personality as well as his supreme racing ability.
The track around the principality consists of tight, twisting corners, providing Stirling with the opportunity to play mind games with his pursuers; when exiting a hairpin for example, Stirling would wave cheerily to Phil Hill, Ritchie Ginther and Wolfgang Von Trips who were entering the corner and being left, not only in Stirling’s wake, but in wonderment at how he was going so quickly yet seemingly not trying at all. In truth, Stirling was pushing harder than ever – his Lotus 18 was outdated and, on paper, out-classed by the Ferraris – but Stirling wouldn’t let that bother him.
The Ferrari drivers weren’t the only ones on the receiving end of Stirling’s cheeky charm; at Monaco the crowd can get closer to the action than at any other circuit, allowing on-lookers to admire their racing heroes up close and allowing Stirling to admire the ‘crumpet’ whilst going about his business. Countless times while racing around Monaco’s streets Stirling would wave, wink and blow kisses to the attractive woman in the crowd; at no other event has a driver’s personality been so entertainingly exposed whilst driving absolutely ‘Harry Flatters’ to victory.
Stirling had to work very hard during his Grand Prix career; his determination to win in a British built car meant more often than not he’d have to drive uncompetitive and unreliable machinery, so when Stirling was presented a gift to aid his title bid of 1958, you wouldn’t begrudge him for accepting it.
It was the Portuguese Grand Prix and the title battle was intensifying; for the first time, it would be a British driver crowned champion and it was between Stirling and Mike Hawthorn. Mike made a mistake during the race – out-braking himself and shooting up an escape road. Stirling went on to win while Hawthorn – who had been pushed by track workers and spectators back to the circuit following his mistake – crossed the line in second, but faced disqualification for the outside assistance. Hawthorn’s removal from the results would give Stirling a relatively comfortable run-in to the title. Stirling remarkably refused to accept this gift and jumped to Hawthorn’s defence, declaring that outside assistance on the race track is not allowed but by being up the escape road Hawthorn was not on the race track therefore, nothing wrong was done.
Thanks to Stirling, Hawthorn’s second place was confirmed and he would become Britain’s first world champion by a single point over Moss. Stirling had demonstrated an astonishing degree of gentlemanly sportsmanship – the likes of which are lost in modern-day sport – and never once expressed regret for defending his friend Hawthorn, who would die just a few months later in a car crash on the Guildford Bypass.
Before my 22nd birthday Stirling Moss, in my mind, was vying for top spot in terms of my favourite racing driver with the late James Hunt. I admired James’ flamboyant lifestyle and his ability to win races – as well as the 1976 World Championship – despite the fitness programme of a darts player coupled with his unhealthy appetite for alcohol, drugs and women. James didn’t conform; he wore a t-shirt and no shoes to formal functions and I thought that was pretty cool. Stirling however, launched himself firmly into top spot with an incredibly generous gesture; he sent me a birthday card. It is by far the greatest gift I’ve ever received and it came entirely out of the blue, for me at least. Unbeknown to me, my girlfriend had sent a short letter to Sir Stirling, along with a blank birthday card – the front cover of which was emblazoned with the Union Flag and six classic Mini Coopers – terribly British; Stirling would approve. She had explained to Sir Stirling that I was a fan and that it would mean the world to me if he could simply sign the birthday card and post it back. He did more than simply sign and send; the card reads:
22! Fantastic, all that time to enjoy life!
The card is without doubt my prized possession and serves as a testament to how remarkable Sir Stirling is; the same man who held off an army of Ferraris around Monaco, jumped to the defence of a rival, finished runner-up in the F1 World Championship four times and took hundreds of racing victories including his record-breaking Mille Miglia win also has the heart to write and send a birthday card to a young fan.
James Hunt never sent me a birthday card.