Throughout my professional life, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to work with some of the world’s most famous racing drivers, Formula 1 world champions and motorsport legends, such as Jacky Ickx, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton.
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But it never once occurred to me to ask any of them for an autograph, partly because I was too shy, partly because I believe memories don’t require a signature to be everlasting. I am sure I will probably regret this one day. However, when I was given the chance to meet Sir Stirling Moss, I knew immediately I needed a photo and an autograph of this incredible man.
Admittedly, I was slightly nervous when I first wrote to him and despite an acceptable level of English, I struggled with the wording and it took me more than half an hour and several clumsy attempts with the dictionary until I had finished my email to him. He replied within a matter of minutes, using capital letters only and ending his email with CIAO, STIRLING. The inevitable happened: I immediately fell in love with him, just like countless „crumpets“ (as Sir Stirling famously likes to call a beautiful lady) before me. When I finally met him and his charming wife Susie at the Geneva Motor Show, I was surprised by the impression he made on me and everyone around. There is an 85-year old Englishman who drove his last race in Formula 1 many decades before I was even born and who I – despite being a fond motorsport lover – have far too little knowledge about to truly appreciate his achievements. But I was absolutely intrigued. When I was a child, I recall my father mentioning his name „Stirling Moss“ in a very solemn tone, as if he was speaking of a Saint or some figure from a fairytale. He spoke of him as the man who triggered his love for British racing cars and motorsport that would last forever: „I always wanted to be like him“. Just like many other fans of his era, my dad felt that this man was different. Both a gentleman and a fast liver in its truest sense, competitive, yet honourable, bold and precise, he became a role model and the icon of a whole generation of drivers and racing enthusiasts far beyond England’s borders. An overused word, especially in motorsport, but as a sportsman who still manages to inspire fans over half a century after his last race in a Formula 1 car, Sir Stirling Moss truly deserves to be called a LEGEND. In capital letters.
I was a racer, not a driver. That’s an enormous difference in personality.
Sir Stirling, how does it feel to be a legend?
It is very honouring to receive that accolade and it is a thing I am proud of. It’s very gratifying to have people recognize you, particularly since it was so long ago.
You’ve stopped racing 53 years ago. Many things have changed since then, two generations of fans have come and gone, but petrolheads all over the world still recall your successes and hold you in high esteem, not just in the UK. What is your secret?
I think quite a lot of it comes from my name. My mother wanted to call me Hamish, but my father said, we don’t want Hamish, we want Stirling. Stirling and Moss go together quite well, so I think part of the reason people still remember my name is that Stirling Moss is quite an easy name to roll off. But I think the biggest point is that I wouldn’t give up. Just because I’d have trouble and go into the pits and I’d have something done, I’d come back and I’d still try to win, I’d still go for the fastest lap. I was a racer, not a driver. That’s an enormous difference in personality.
You’ve played a big part in promoting the Brits’ love for racing. In your era, you were the first to prove that a British car can win a Grand Prix, and you proved that a British driver can do so. How does it feel to know that a lot of your home country’s legacy in motor racing is down to you?
Well, I’ve been around a long time (laughs). I mean my first race was in 1948. It is very different now. The drivers back then were far more friendly with each other. We’d go out shopping together in my era, it was a far more relaxed situation. Because we were more accessible, it made it a lot easier for the fans to get to the drivers. Now it’s nearly impossible. It has just moved on, it’s a much more important and bigger situation I guess.
Did you go shopping with your teammates?
Yes. Say one of us found a shop with good overalls or good shoes or whatever because we were such a close group of drivers, a jug of 15 or 20, we’d go along and go to shops and things, and say to people, “How much is one pair of those? What about when we buy ten pairs?” So we had much more power because of that.
Did you consider them your friends or were they your competitors?
We were friends before the flag fell. Once the flag fell, then you were really and truly trying everything you can to get in front of the other driver. The other thing you must remember is that in my era the Grand Prix were a minimum of three hours, which is a very long time. I won Monaco in 1961 and it took me three and three-quarters of an hour. I mean it’s nothing like the Mille Miglia but it is a long time to concentrate.
How did you practice for this physical strain? What workouts did you do, because at the time I imagine it wasn’t like today, where the drivers have personal training and high tech gyms …
I never did any training at all because I was racing every week. So that’s three or four days at the circuit, and then we’d have to do testing, new shock absorbers or other things like that, and that’s how it went.
I find this hard to believe.
No training at all. Look, if you’re a footballer and you are playing football every week, then you’re not gonna need to get fit. If anything, you learn things, you go out and practice and try to improve your lap times. That sort of stuff.
But what about the G-forces? I imagine at the time the impact on the neck muscles must have been equally high?
No, they were not so high. Today, there is an enormous lateral G. In my days, the cornering force of a racing vehicle was a lot better than a public vehicle, but nothing like the gap there is now. That was the benefit really.
Back in the days of your career, racing drivers often competed in more than one series. In fact, they drove single-seaters, sports cars, rallies and often, several cars in one week.
Absolutely, I would go to Italy or South America or Australasia during the offseason here. You know, I was doing 52 races a year, which may sound like a tremendous amount, but now it is just totally different. The trouble is, motor racing is always expensive, but now it has become unrealistically so. It takes a tremendous amount of money which wasn’t the case then. You’d get a really good lightweight wheel for forty, fifty pounds, a percentage of what they cost now. But obviously, the building of a car, the design of a car, the development of a car, all those things were done by a much smaller group of people. I mean, we had Mercedes, an enormous outfit, but we had very few compared with today. Now they have a group of mechanics, which go with the car, and then they have another group for another race a.s.o.
I never did any training at all, because I was racing four days of every week.
Were there any races you didn’t enjoy?
The one thing I didn’t like was Le Mans because Le Mans was 24 hours, and you weren’t allowed to race it, they said “take it easy, don’t do this, don’t do that”, and to me, that’s not a race. Now it is, of course, they go flat out the whole way, which makes a wonderful event. But in my days, it wasn’t like that. You weren’t allowed to race really. The cars wouldn’t stand it. I would always demand extra money to race Le Mans because I just didn’t enjoy it. Now, we have got materials that we didn’t even know exist. In my career, I have had seven wheels come off, I have had five brake failures, I have had twice the steering sheer – none of these things would happen now, that’s the benefit. It really was a very dangerous business. We would lose two or three drivers every year. That’s the downside, you know what I mean because obviously, you knew them pretty well.
Out of personal interest, did you know Bruce McLaren?
Yes, I did and I can tell you, apart from being a good driver, he was a very nice person, actually. I remember when he came over here, he was really wet behind the ears, and he came here being sent by New Zealand as “this is our answer” and I remember saying to him “Look, if you like, get behind me. Follow me, I’ll take you around on the line for Monaco” or something like that because he was a really nice person.
Formula 1’s situation today is rather challenging. More and more fans turn their back on the series and the current leaders have been suggesting measures to overcome the crisis. Lately, they have envisaged the comeback of more powerful engines, harder-to-drive cars and wider tyres in order to recreate that excitement and spirit of the early days. If you were to rule F1, what would you do?
I mean, obviously, they are doing everything they can to improve the road holding. If they did away with downforce that would make an enormous difference. If they allow more horsepower that makes the cars more difficult to drive and that would sort the drivers out to some extent. But the top drivers now, people like Lewis Hamilton, are extremely expert. Then again, I suppose in my days, the leading drivers were anyway.
Do you think the high tech has helped Formula 1?
Yes, it has in some ways, and in other ways, it has reduced it. I mean one of the things, which they have today is, you can speak to the driver and the driver can speak to his mechanics, which of course you couldn’t in my era. The only information you’d get was from the dashboard readings to look at your instruments to make sure you are not getting oil surge and things like that, whereas now of course they can speak to them and say “now do this or do that”. There is also a downside to it. I mean on my side, I would only come in to change the tyres when they’d start to break a strip…
So you were racing for more than three hours and had to rely purely on yourself and your own senses. I imagine you must have developed an incredible feel for the car’s behaviour?
The cars then were nothing like the sophistication of today. I mean you look at the steering wheel and they have 32 buttons on them and I presume every one of those buttons does something when you push them. They do things, but I don’t know how often the driver pushes them or when he pushes them, or if he knows which ones to push. In my era, of course, it was you who had to do what the buttons are doing now. So of course that’s another place where I enjoyed that sort of challenge. I was very lucky because the times I drove, the cars were very much more the way I would want them to be when the driver had quite a lot of control over the car because of the way it was put together.
Do you still follow Formula 1?
I am still very interested. I watch it out of interest, rather than anything else. I mean, you don’t often get the excitement that you would in the old days, but time moves on and obviously, the cars are much more sophisticated. They are better for what they are demanded to do. The road-holding that they get now is at least twice as much as in my era. That isn’t necessarily a good thing though. Downforce wasn’t even heard of in my career.
Have you ever driven a modern Formula 1 car?
I drove a car at the time of the turbos, so that was 30 years ago. But that was just to literally get in and do one lap and feel what it was like. I was just staggered at the heat you got with these enormous tyres. I never raced cars with tyres of the modern type. I never raced on a slick, for instance, ever. They were all treaded and towards the latter part of my career, if it rained, you’d get a rain tyre, but that was just a different compound, which was softer than the other one. That’s all it was really.
What else has changed, from your point of view?
I don’t think the drivers are as friendly as they were to each other, understandably, I suppose. I am sure of one thing: Lewis [Hamilton] doesn’t get anything like the fun that I had. He is a tremendous driver, certainly one of the fastest out there, but I don’t think he gets fun. I think he gets the feeling of success, but that’s quite different. To enjoy driving a car, going neck and neck with another driver, trying to be smarter… there is a tremendous amount of exhilaration. If you go around a hairpin and you see you are catching the car in front of you every lap, that’s extremely rewarding.
Didn’t you have as many commitments, aside from the racing?
As long as I got out there and drove as fast I could, fast enough for the team to want me to drive for them and for signing me up, then it finished. Then you got in the car and as an organisation, you and your chief mechanic and so on, you worked on the car as good as you possibly could, and then you’d go out and fight for three hours. There is a tremendous difference between racing for an hour and ten minutes and three hours plus. It isn’t just physical, it is mental as well. Because when you are putting your life on the line and fight as hard as you can, obviously, that’s slightly frightening, which in its own thing is a nice contribution. If motor-racing were made completely safe, it would be really, really boring.
Do you miss racing?
I miss the enjoyment of getting in a car and trying to beat somebody else. Even at school, I was good at running and things, because I am of a competitive nature. And so it suits my personality.
You’ve had a reputation of being a playboy and having lived your life to the fullest. Today’s generation of F1 drivers are mostly married to their first girlfriends, well-behaved family fathers at a very young age and seem to be rather reserved when it comes to parties, alcohol and women. Niki Lauda claimed the lack of personalities of today’s sponsor-pleasing drivers is part of the reason for the downfall of F1’s popularity. Do you agree?
I think they are very good at what they do. The standard of driving is exceptionally high across the board, but then you get the difference of cars, the difference of organisations, the difference of personalities of the mechanics, drivers, team owners a.s.o. All of these things were there but in a much more liberal way. I mean there is no doubt that we had an enormous amount more fun than they do now. They get paid for it, so that’s okay, but the fun is very important. Nowadays, there isn’t fun. It is a really well-run business. But in no way could you say it is fun. Not in the way we had it.
The thing is, now motor-racing is on the back page usually, in the sports area. In my time, racing was on the front page if somebody got killed, or it was just listed at the back. It wasn’t nearly as big a sport as it is today. I think because of that, our lives were really enjoyable, you’d go out and chase girls, all those sorts of things were very much more part of the package. Today, I don’t think it is anything as risky as it was. That brings a certain prestige with it if you like.
Have you heard that the FIA have now eliminated grid girls from the WEC?
No. That is so stupid! If the drivers put in a petition to the FIA saying, “well, we want the crumpet back”, I think they’d do it but nobody’s going to rally them around, are they?
Maybe they’ll introduce grid boys, who knows…
Grid boys??? That would be awful (laughs).
How important has money been for you?
We used to get start money. And I remember, once I was negotiating with the organiser of the race, I can’t remember which one it was, and I said, I want a thousand pounds, and they said, “well, we can get Jack Brabham for that”, and I said, “I am afraid he’s gonna cost you 1,200 Pounds because you could have somebody to try and beat him”. It was much more driver negotiated than organisation. I drove 108 different types of cars because I love racing. That’s why I’d go off to Australasia and South America out of season. If a driver wanted to today, I am sure he could probably do as many races as I did but it would be hard work and I don’t think the sport will support that.
You drove 108 different types of cars! Do you still remember them all?
I can still remember the bad ones (laughs). I remember going around the top at Monza once at 175mph in a thing called Eldorado Special and suddenly my arms crossed, and I am not stupid – I knew something was wrong. And of course, something had broken, the steering. So all I could do was close my eyes, put my foot down and hit the brake and hope. And luckily, it just spun down the bottom, and that was it. That was the most frightening accident.
If you could relive a single race of your life, which one would it be?
The Mille Miglia was the most satisfying race I’ve ever done because of what it stood for. There were over 600 entries and the first cars went at 9 o’clock at night at half-minute intervals. I went at 7.22 in the morning and I wasn’t the last car to go. That gives you an idea of the enormity of it. They couldn’t close the roads but people kept off because they were so keen. But if you wanted to move from where you were to somewhere else, you would have to go on the road in the direction of the race. Today, the Mille Miglia takes four days. Back then, it took me ten hours, so it was a little bit quicker. Those sort of events could happen then, they couldn’t now, it’s impossible. The cars are so good, that’s one of the problems with it, they are so good that it’s difficult to see how magic they are.
One of my favourite quotes from you is „Movement is tranquillity “. What did you mean by that?
My quote is movement is tranquillity, but they got it wrong. They sometimes quote me with “motion is tranquillity”. It is not terribly wrong, but the movement is more important than motion. What I mean is, if I had to lay on the beach I’d be bored stiff. If you go out into a racing car, the faster you go, the more exhilarated you become. The movement, therefore, is tranquillity to me.
I saw a scene of you running to the cars at the start of a race. You were so quick!
The only one thing that made me laugh was, in the old days, before you had stupid seat belts and that crap, you had a Le Mans start, you were on one side of the road, and had the car on the other side and you ran across and got in. And once the bloke dropped the flag and I was obviously about three or four cars away from my course or something, but he went just before the man dropped the flag, and I shouted “You bastard of all sorts!” and he went too early, and they didn’t break up. People would say to me, why do you drive so hard at the start, it is a 24-hour race!” Well, the first corner, if I get through it, then at least I haven’t caused the accident, whereas if somebody else does, then I have problems.
What’s your favourite circuit?
The spa is a great one. Silverstone, they ruined now, they really have. They are doing it for safety, but one of the reasons we are doing it is because it is dangerous. So why try and make it safe? The circuits matter so much. Take Monaco. Monaco couldn’t exist now. Because it’s been there for so long, it’s accepted and loved by all. When they build a circuit now, they build one which is pretty boring. When I started racing, remember, every week I’d be racing on a road in a town. You know from one town to another town, they’d just close the roads, we arrived, raced and got out of it. It was a wonderful living.
It sounds like it was a blast.
It was a blast. I must say, I was racing every week. Every week you go to one country or another and you take part in all types of racing sports, and touring cars and race Formula 1 and everything else. It was a wonderful life. I mean, I can’t tell you, I can’t think of any better life that would be as nice for a young man to do as motor racing.