Stirling Moss died in bed.
The legendary British racing driver, who ran in over 500 races, racing all types of cars from F1 to sports cars, and was one of the most decorated and honored race car drivers of all time passed away in London on Sunday, 12 April 2020, after a long illness at the age of 90
No one who knew Moss in his racing years—that would be from 5 to about 80 (he participated in his last racing meet at age 81 at Le Mans in a special event)—would believe such a thing could be true. He had just exposed himself too often, in too many different types of circuits, in too dangerous conditions (he was very, very good in rain and on ice), at too many different times of the day (late night endurance racing), to make it through to a very ripe old age. But, defying the odds (one of his specialties) he did spend a lot of time in harm’s way, and he walked away from it in one piece. His destiny was not to go out in a ball of fire.
Moss himself endorsed the idea he was going to be one of racing’s casualties in a biography written by the brilliant Ken W. Purdy, called “All But My Life”. The book, which is a very great read and was based on Purdy’s extensive interviews with Moss, details a life of living at the edge of everything he liked, from beautiful girls to race cars to equestrian competitions. We’ll leave it to Purdy and other sources to detail that side of his life. Moss, however, proved adept at escaping the fate that became so many of his contemporaries.
A committed prodigy in a race car, Moss entered 529 races and won 212 of them. He was not a specialist, like today’s F1 or sports car drivers are, who only drive one type of car on one type of track in one type of competition. Moss drove everything, from the Monte Carlo Rallye to the 12 Hours of Sebring to the F1 Grand Prix of Germany. He ran F1, sports cars, rally cars, hill climbs, endurance racers. He is one of only three drivers to win a Coupe d’Or for three consecutive penalty free runs in the Alpine Rally. He was second in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rallye, with driver Desmond Scannell and a magazine editor, John Cooper, as co-drivers. He was the first non-American to win the 12 Hours of Sebring and won the 1000KM of Nurburging endurance race three times in sports cars. It was said that Moss would drive anything with four wheels and a place to sit and it was said that he had driven 107 different types of cars He drove cars from Aston Martin (in Aston’s glory years), Vanwall, Ferrari, Maserati, Lotus, Cooper, Porsche; he drove for factory teams and private teams (his partnership with private team owner Rob Walker was particular effective). His attraction to racing was deep and passionate.
Moss has been described as the greatest driver to “never win an F1 Championship”; from 1955 to 1961, he was runner up to the Championship 4 times and placed third three times. There are writers (Purdy among them) who believe that Moss’ failure to win an F1 Championship was because of his patriotic affinity for racing English cars at a time when the very best F1 cars were produced by Mercedes or Ferrari or Maserati. Enzo Ferrari believe that Moss would have won multiple F1 Championships if he had been “more reasonable and less passionate” and driven F1 cars produced by other manufacturers, not just English ones. Moss believed he could win in anything and actually he was right; He literally gave away the F1 Championship in one year through an act of sportsmanship, on behalf of fellow English driver Mike Hawthorne in 1958. If the near misses of the F1 Championship bothered Moss, he never mentioned it, saying that it was the respect of his fellow drivers that meant the most to him; he spent zero time of his life in the shade of not winning an F1 title.
Moss was exquisitely gifted as a race car driver, with a terrific sense of balance, great eyesight, superb reflexes and instincts honed from starting to drive at age 5. It was said that he was the fittest man to ever race in F1 and that, combined with his extreme versatility, helped to created his legend. Moss was the ultimate natural racer, extremely precise in “setting up” car for a race. Once, he was racing in an F1 off-season series held in Australia and had just set the lap record when, walking past another driver, the driver commented “good run, Stirling, but that new Lotus is a big help”. Realizing that the other driver was not having a good session, Stirling Moss then graciously asked the other driver if he might take a few laps around the course, just to check out the car.
The driver consented.
Moss did a few laps, broke the record he had just set, and then pulled back up to his fellow competitor. Getting out of the car, he casually noted that “nothing’s wrong with the car” and walked off. He was just that good.
Purdy noted that Moss also had exceptional eyesight, often picking out a particularly attractive girl from a crowd during a race and setting up a dinner date for later; he was a gifted equestrian and no doubt would have been a world class competitor had he continued in that sport. His sister, Pat, was also a terrific rider and eventually ended being a world-class rally driver as well (she married world rally champion Erik Carlsson). Moss’ ability to drive any car was unique and because he loved racing so much, he raced a lot. Check out this link to Moss’ driving record on WikiPedia to get an idea of the range of the man’s career.
Moss raced in the era, from the 1940s to the 1960s, also known as the “killer years”, when the sport was at its most lethal. The line “when sex was safe and racing was dangerous” has been applied without irony to that period. Everything was hazardous then: the cars, the circuits, the helmets, the partying, the safety regulations; an incredible number of drivers died in racing accidents. Twenty-nine F1 drivers died in the sixties alone. The rule of the sport then was “everyone has one big accident; if it doesn’t kill you, you’ll be fine” but no one wanted to test that rule, which proved to be uneven. Lots didn’t get a second chance. Lots of drivers had multiple crashes with the last one killing them(this holds true in stock car racing as well as F1 and sports cars).
Moss was not impervious to the hazards of the sport. After all, there are three ways to have a wreck in a race car: you can make a mistake, the other driver(s) can make a mistake, or the car can break. It doesn’t have to be your fault, but you are just as dead if someone else causes the accident or if the car breaks. It can happen and mishaps play no favorites, everyone will get their share. He ran into dirt embankments, had brakes fail and wheels roll off, suffered flat tires. But he raced on, seemingly bulletproof. Moss had his first serious wreck in an F1 Grand Prix car in 1960 and it made him miss three races on the F1 calendar that year, but he recovered and finished his year by winning the U.S. Grand Prix.
It all came to an end two years later. In 1962, he suffered another racing crash, this one severe enough to put him into a coma for a month; he had eye and head injuries and Moss was partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. A difficult recovery followed and later that same year, after recuperation from the accident, he had a private test in a Lotus 19 on a closed track. After his session, he checked his times, found he was off by a few tenths of a second vs. his previous best and announced his retirement from professional racing. In Moss’s mind, Stirling Moss not-at-his-best—even by a tenth of a second– was not Stirling Moss. It was time to go. He was 33.
After racing, Stirling Moss was a major sports hero in Great Britain, a world wide sports celebrity, and always a fixture on the automobile and racing scene. In many ways, the living legend was the patriarch of the sport; his appearance brought out the best aspects of racing: a legend with easy good manners, innate kindness, a sporting outlook on competition and impeccable etiquette. While racing, he was the highest paid driver in the sport, making a million dollars a year in an era when a million dollars was a very, very significant sum. He invested well, lived a very active (and decorated life) and avoided conflict and scandal; He remained someone to look up to, not just for his racing achievements, but for the way he conducted his life out of racing.
Stirling Moss won so many memorable races, it’s hard to pick one out for special recognition, but the general consensus is that his win in the 1955 Mille Miglia (also known as Rome-Brescia-Rome), a race staged over a 1000 mile course of public roads in Italy. The race over very deadly open roads (ever driven in Italy?) was a timed event: fastest car from start to finish wins. Moss was driving the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300SLR and for a navigator he took motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson, who had mapped the route and turned the map into a scroll which could be advanced as they drove on. The map was precise enough—and Moss had enough confidence in Jenkinson’s work—that Moss would enter uphill blind corners at over 170 MPH, the car would fly through the air at the crest of the hill, and then land and move on. Moss and Jenkinson won the event, averaging 99MPH.
Second in the event was another legend, Moss’s friend, Juan Manual Fangio, also in a Mercedes 300SLR; he was Moss’s Mercedes team mate for the race and finished an astounding thirty-two minutes behind Stirling. Racing historian Doug Nye considered Mille Miglia win to be “the most iconic single-day’s drive in motor racing history”. For others, it just confirmed that Moss was simply the most gifted race driver of his era, or perhaps any era, because of his ability to win in so many different types of competition. Fangio, a gracious, fierce competitor, was five times F1 champion and a competitor of Moss’ on the F1 circuit. But in matched cars on that historic day,, he was half-an-hour behind Moss in the Mille Miglia.
To escape alive from over 500 races is a bit of a miracle, but Moss did it and lived a very full life over the next 65 years.
So now, as the motor racing press writes the appreciations, the racing teams send their regrets, the great drivers acknowledge the passing of a contemporary, the newspapers fine tune their obituaries, you will have ample opportunity to read about the man who is debatably the best race car driver of all time, a true legend in a dangerous and deadly sport, and who added one more unthinkable thing to his incredible list of achievements in this life.
Stirling Moss died in bed.