17 April 2020
17 April 2020
They called him ‘Mr Motor Racing’. He could win any race on any day in almost any machinery, but Sir Stirling Moss OBE saved his best for the brand that became his life’s love, Mercedes-Benz.
After a career spanning 15 years and hundreds of races across dozens of different categories, plus several decades in close association with Mercedes-Benz, Moss passed away peacefully in April 2020, aged 90. The world champion Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1® racing team hailed him as “a true icon of the motor racing world”.
Perhaps his finest victory of all was the 1955 Mille Miglia road race, alongside navigator Denis Jenkinson in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Described as “the most iconic single day’s drive in motor racing history” by English motoring journalist Doug Nye, the win was an exclamation point on an extraordinary season for Moss and Mercedes-Benz, in which he won the Targa Florio to seal the World Sportscar Championship, plus the RAC Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland, and finished second in the Formula 1 World Championship.
Roaring away from the starting line in Brescia at 7.22am – hence the number 722 emblazoning the stunning 300 SLR – Moss and Jenkinson drove 1000 miles on a circular course to Rome and back to Brescia at an incredible average of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) for 10 hours.
In the process they shattered every race record as they crossed the line 32 minutes ahead of one of the era’s most dominant drivers, Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio, also in a 300 SLR.
The Formula 1 website characterises Moss’s performance that day as “an astonishing feat of intelligence, meticulous preparation, bravery, skill and concentration”. For his own part, Moss later admitted it was the only time in his career he had actually been frightened in the cockpit – a telling admission from an era of racing where extreme risk was considered an occupational hazard.
Moss was also the recipient of another moniker, one which stuck and he later embraced: the greatest driver never to win a world championship. He finished second in the driver standings four consecutive times (1955-58), and third in the next three seasons (1959-61).
Ironically, it was a gesture of great sportsmanship that arguably cost him the World Championship in 1958, when he spoke in favour of rival and friend Mike Hawthorn to orchestrate the reversal of a race penalty that would have cost the latter six championship points. At the end of the season, Hawthorn defeated Moss by a solitary point to be awarded the world title.
Responding to criticism from Ferrari scion Enzo Ferrari that he ought to have kept his mouth shut earlier in the season, Moss replied that he was “a racer, not a driver” – a pointed reference, no doubt, to the cherished ideal among the racing elite of sportsmanship at any cost.
But nothing can tarnish the wonderful tale of 1955, in which Moss and Mercedes-Benz not only won the Mille Miglia but he also became the first British driver to win the British Grand Prix (in a Mercedes-Benz W 196 Monoposto).
Across the balance of his career he drove – and won – for dozens of other marques, including a total of 16 Grand Prix victories, plus three consecutive wins in the Nurburgring 1000km race and victory at the Sebring 12-Hour Race. He also set several official speed records over the course of his career.
Moss continued to work closely alongside the Mercedes-Benz brand well into his retirement. He collected several notable models, competed in historic races and drove in many exhibitions such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and was honoured by the company in 2009 when it released the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren ‘Stirling Moss’, a limited edition model inspired by his 1955-era 300 SLR racing car.
Though he was forced to retire from Formula 1 in 1962 by injuries sustained in a racing crash, he later said of his racing days: “It was a wonderful life. I can’t think of any life, for any young man, that’s better than being a professional race driver.”
By Steve Colquhoun