Throughout the mid 1960’s, I witnessed some of the most intense rivalry every seen between two young racing drivers; On the inside was Stirling Moss, waving to the crowd as he carefully guided his British Racing Green Vanwall towards the starting line. To his right sat an impatient Italian called Fangio, wild at heart and desperate to launch his red Ferrari into the lead by the first corner.
It would be quite some time before I learned that the Ferrari was, in fact, a Lotus and that ‘El Maestro’ was an Argentine. But then and there, to two young boys with a new Scalextric set, all that mattered was that green and red would do battle, and that the best man should win. Of course, we both wanted to be Moss. Even though he was no longer racing, he was a national treasure – the mere mention of his name would cause men to raise their glass and women to swoon. But as the younger of the two participants, despite my protests both before and after, I was made to be Fangio, and Moss would always win.
Years later, I would be privileged to meet Sir Stirling, and called my father and brother on the journey home to share the news. At under 5’ 4” (on a good day), it might have been easy to miss him in any room or paddock, only it never was, because wherever he went, people would excitedly hurry to his side, hoping for just a word and a moment to treasure. It was at Goodwood one time, the scene of his horrific accident back in 1962, that I asked him about the challenges of his early years in Formula One, especially driving cars that were significantly under-powered compared to the mighty Italians that he was pitched against. At the time, I was racing in Europe, and on occasion was the only Brit on a grid of more powerful German cars. “It’s all in the braking” he told me. “If they can beat you on the straight, then you have to beat them in and out of the corners..” And then he laughed “..Or get yourself a better car!”
As the tributes pour in following the sad announcement of Sir Stirling’s death, there will be many who will applaud him as the greatest driver never to win a world championship. I’d rather applaud him for simply for being who he was; not only one of the most exceptional and versatile racers we have ever seen (from Formula One and Le Mans to the twisting roads of Italy in the punishing Mille Miglia), he was a true gentleman, an arresting raconteur, a skilful businessman, and most of all, a remarkable sporting ambassador. He was a true Brit; English through and through. He had that marvellous post-war spirit; pushing himself time and time again into the face of danger and only ever wanting to know how he could do better. He was an inspiration then and remains one now.
But it was whilst I was at Monza that I have my most abiding memory of him. A number of us were in a restaurant after qualifying on Saturday. Hearing our accents and (I presume) seeing the team wear, a waiter approached and asked if we knew anything about the history of the circuit and its importance to Italian sporting culture. “Well I know that you lot haven’t won here for decades” quipped one of the crew, “but then you never had Mansell, Hill, Herbert or Coulthard..“
“True,” came the reply, “but you never had Ascari, Farina or Moss.”
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Images: Jakob Ebrey (JEP)
Jakob describes the title image: “The last lap”, (Le Mans, France, 9th June 2011). Honoured to have worked with Sir Stirling Moss in my career. This pic is really special to me, it’s Sir Stirling’s last ever competitive lap. He parked the car at the end of this lap – never to race competitively ever again.