Moss was content to defer to Juan Manuel Fangio, a team-mate for one season at Mercedes in 1955, as the greatest racer in Formula One’s formative years. In all other classes Moss had no equal. Reflecting on his career in his 2015 memoir My Racing Life, Moss passed this judgment: “What I always say is this: Lots of people have won the World Championship once. That’s not so special. I’m happy to be thought of as the best driver who never won the World Championship. Special pleading maybe, but that’s how I feel about it.”
Moss did not have to plead too hard. The world was all ears and utterly smitten with the lightning-quick son of a Surrey dentist who charged headfirst at life, full of impish mischief. Moss was at large in a sport alien to today’s pilots. The F1 cars were always on the edge, essentially four-wheeled death traps as likely to fall apart as take a man to victory in the most dangerous of times.
Mercedes, with its vast corporate backing and manufacturing base, was the car to be in, but Fangio had that gig, and besides Moss was fiercely patriotic, hopelessly attached to the idea of winning in any jalopy painted in the traditional British livery of racing green.
He took his first win in F1 at Aintree in 1955 at the wheel of a Silver Arrow. The idea that Fangio might have held off to allow Moss his maiden victory on home turf was put to the great man himself by the victor. No, signor, said Fangio, you were the better man today. In any other form of racing, he was, as demonstrated six weeks earlier in the world’s most prestigious road race, the Mille Miglia, all 1,000 miles of it from Brescia to Rome and back.
Driving a Mercedes 300 SLR with journalist Denis Jenkinson (aka dear, old Jenks) at his side, Moss navigated the country roads of Italy from Lombardy to Lazio and return at an average of almost 100mph, coming home in a record time of ten hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds. Moss covered the final 83 miles into Brescia as if his feet were on fire, averaging a ridiculous 165mph. Fangio trailed home second half an hour later. “It was undoubtedly the race of my life,” Moss said with characteristic understatement.
He celebrated the win by driving through the night to Cologne and, after a breakfast meeting with his Mercedes bosses, on to London, partnered this time by a girlfriend, which brings us neatly to that other dimension of Moss’s racing life to which he gave enthusiastic, youthful expression, the insatiable pursuit of women, or rather “crumpet” as he preferred to classify the species in those unreconstructed, pre-PC days. This, a year later at Le Mans, is how he met his first wife, Katie Molson of the Canadian brewing dynasty.
“I was in the pits with a pair of binoculars scanning the crowd in the public enclosure on the other side of the road for crumpet, and I saw her. I waved her to come over; she signalled that she had no pass. I took off my driver’s armband and waggled it at her. I met her at the barrier to the pits.”
The marriage 12 months later was short-lived. “She was lovely but to my regret and sadness we turned out to be incompatible.”
A visit to the Mayfair home of Moss was a rite of passage for any F1 correspondent. A genial companion and marvellous host alongside wife of 40 years, Lady Moss, Sir Stirling would present newcomers with a brief tour, which included a glance back at his life through two albums of cuttings, one relating to his career, the other, referenced with a twinkle in his eye, to “crumpet”. Cue eye roll from Susie, who was too secure in their marriage to pay any attention to his past.
In a 14-year period from 1948 to 1962, when a serious accident at Goodwood ended his career, Moss contested 529 races, winning 212 in all manner of motors. His F1 career extended over a decade from 1951 comprising 66 starts and 16 wins. The closest he came to the championship was 1958, losing by a point to Britain’s first world champion Mike Hawthorn, and that was entirely down to his own sense of fair play.
Accused of reversing on the track at the Portuguese Grand Prix after spinning and stalling his Ferrari, Hawthorn, pictured left, was facing expulsion. Moss not only screamed advice to Hawthorn to refire the car by bump starting it down the hill, he defended him in front of the stewards afterwards.
This preserved the six points that went with finishing second to Moss in the Vanwall, a result that would be repeated at the final race in Morocco to secure the title for Hawthorn.