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Stirling hits 80 not out

Submitted by on September 17, 2009

British champions may have come and gone, but still the policeman’s favourite opening line when stopping a speeding motorist remains: ‘Who do you think you are… Stirling Moss?’

This month Sir Stirling Moss reaches his 80th birthday and he is still going strong on the track and off it: one of the last living heroes from that era of unadulterated bravery in motor sport.  The celebrations will be many, the trumpeting of his achievements in a little more than 10 years of racing will abound – including 16 Grand Prix wins among 194 victories from 497 starts in every major category on earth.

To compare the sport as we know it today with that of Moss in his prime is fatuous.  International Grands Prix were still, in the main, road races lasting several hours and requiring the drivers to race on cobblestones and broken asphalt with telegraph poles, ditches and trees waiting to claim them if they put a wheel wrong.  As Moss’s contemporary Roy Salvadori recalled: “I just hoped when the accident happened it would be a big one: I didn’t want to linger.”

Yet for Sir Stirling it was this level of danger that was one of the most spellbinding attractions of the sport – to risk life and limb.  Only recently he launched one of his regular grumbles about today’s safety-conscious sport and said: “For me the fact that I had danger on my shoulder made it much more exciting.  It’s rather like if you flirt with a girl, it’s more exciting than paying for a prostitute, because while you know you’re going to get it, the other one you don’t.”

Ah yes, the other great advantage of Grand Prix racing to its competitors in the 1950s came in the form of shapely young ladies for whom such life-threatening activities proved to be a huge aphrosidiac.  The other great difference between then and now is that while the best of today’s drivers earn anything up to £2 million per race, Moss’s income peaked in 1961 at £32,600 for the year – £8,000 net after expenses.  But he doesn’t envy millionaires like Fernando Alonso.

“D’you know what we used to drive for in those days?  Crumpet.  Meeting crumpet all over the world…  Fantastic.  I wouldn’t swap the life we had then for the money any of them get these days.”

Not that the public would have known any of this at the time, of course.  Moss himself courted the press with alacrity and became one of the first sportsmen to establish a professional media presence.

At the end of 1955, for example, Moss took it upon himself to entertain Britain’s motoring journalists to lunch.  Here he told them, straight up, that for 1956 he had offers to drive with the all-British but unproven Vanwall team, the hitherto useless (but equally-British) BRM team or with the brilliant Italian squad of Maserati – and threw it open to journalists to give their feelings on the matter.

With a resounding majority they urged him to accept the Maserati.  At a stroke Moss had been given free reign to take the more competitive option without fear of sniping at his good name for not backing the British teams.

All this would have been grist to the mill of Moss’s great rival, Mike Hawthorn.  The Moss approach – virtually teetotal, courting good opinion and having a management team to help negotiate the best possible deals – was an anathema to Hawthorn, who felt motor sport to be the preserve of ‘gentlemen’ rather than ‘players’.

Their rivalry culminated in a thrilling 1958 season, the defining moment of which came when Hawthorn spun his Ferrari at the Portuguese GP and was disqualified for bump-starting the car against the flow of traffic – with the loss of seven points.  Famously, Moss went to the stewards and lobbied for Hawthorn’s reinstatement, who subsequently took the championship by just one point, although Moss had outgunned him in race victories by four to one.

Perhaps such sportsmanship has its rewards, though.  At the start of 1959 Moss was awarded the O.B.E. in the Queen’s New Year honours while champion Hawthorn received no such recognition.  As a result, the reigning champion renamed the honour: Order of the Bald ‘Ead!

It is a sobering thought to consider how few of the old tigers remain – Froilan Gonzales, Tony Brooks and Salvadori among them.  But only one is still racing… crumpet or not!

Fittingly Sir Stirling’s 80th birthday will fall on the Goodwood Revival weekend, and thus will be celebrated in fine style surrounded by the sights, sounds and action of his youth.  What’s more he will be at the wheel, the star of the show and undoubtedly the world’s greatest living racing driver.  On behalf of all those who love the sport, we say: Happy birthday, Sir Stirling!

Nick Garton

Images: StirlingMoss.com

Videos:  An interesting two part interview with Stirling conducted by Dave Despain from 2007.

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