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Stirling Moss – a challenger Kiwis rose to meet
By Richard Bosselman
This British great snared the New Zealand Grand Prix three times and became a huge favourite here. Today an eminent local expert explains why.
“He was definitely an ace of aces – a real hero.
“And he had terrific charisma … he was very complimentary about the New Zealand drivers he raced against here.”
In discussing Sir Stirling Moss, who died at 90 years old at his London home yesterday, New Zealand motorsport expert Scott Thomson (below) can speak with particular authority.
The renowned Masterton motor-racing historian whose works include a biography of Ron Roycroft, one of the drivers Moss competed against in this country, interviewed the Formula One icon on several occasions.
Their last meeting was when Moss came out to open a new wing of Wellington’s Scot’s College, about 30 years ago, where in an interview about the post-war racing cars the retired racer’s acute memory for detail shone through.
Thomson also witnessed Moss race here almost annually from 1956 to 1962, a period when he claimed the country’s most significant track racing prize, the New Zealand Grand Prix.
The NZGP title went to Moss on three occasions – in 1956 with a Maserati 250F (below) – the same kind of car in which our own Chris Amon’s talent would shine so bright a few years later – then in 1959 and 1962, respectively in a Cooper Climax T45 then a Lotus 2, always with the racing number 7.
The latter victory, on January 6, was one his last big one – three months later came the dreadful accident in his homeland that forced Moss into retirement.
A massive crash whose cause remains a mystery to this day left him trapped in wreckage for 40 minutes, in a coma for a month and kept him out of racing for a year. When he finally returned to a race car, he determined he lacked the edge needed to win, so decided to retire at just 32.
Thomson notes wryly that the smash that ended what had been a hugely promising international motor-racing career was also on Easter weekend.
Moss enjoyed a halcyon ascendancy that delivered 16 wins from 66 F1 GP starts and numerous other stunning victories, including his famous drive for Mercedes in the Mille Miglia, an endurance road race in Italy renowned for being particularly tough and lethal.
That third NZGP win provided another fabulous example of his ability – contested in hugely challenging conditions, with rain so heavy it flooded sections of the Ardmore airfield circuit south of Auckland, and against a stellar field including the cream of early 1960s’ F1 talent.
Yet the entire field was lapped with what seemed such an easy mastery fellow racer John Surtees told reporters in an immediate post-race comment “he’s just not normal.”
It was no disparaging put-down. Simply, as a subsequent history of that day would relate, an expression of awestruck admiration from a man, relegated to second that day, who two years later would become F1 world champion, the only man to win world titles on motorbikes and in Grand Prix cars.
As the history of that day related: “… while others were slithering and sliding and spinning, Moss was imperturbable. He had only one mishap, when the Lotus aquaplaned in the corner on to Pit Straight.“At one point he had slid his goggles down and shielded his eyes with his hand, steering the Lotus with the other hand and at undiminished pace.”
It’s because of occasions such as this that mean history merely recalling Moss as one of the best drivers of all time to have never won a Formula 1 World Championship doesn’t tell the full story.
Thomson certainly says that’s almost an unfair assessment, and not simply because it overlooks that the Briton did achieve two world championships, a manufacturers’ title for Vanwall in 1958 and a sports car title for Aston Martin the next year.
With deference to Jim Clark, who might – if they had ever gone head-to-head when each was at the height of their abilities – proven the better Formula One racer overall, Thomson considers Moss was probably the best British driver in all-round ability “and one of the greatest overall.” (On that scale, he notes Moss always whenever asked about rankings always reckoned Juan Manual Fangio was the best ever).
Like the Scotsman, Moss would drive almost anything, but perhaps had better skills as an all-rounder as “he was a good rally driver, obviously very good sports cars and in endurance races – where he was just so fast he generally became the hare they sent out to lure the opposition into breaking their machinery into trying to catch him – and, of course, he was very good in Grand Prix cars.
Thomson admits his views might seem a little coloured as he was always an unabashed Moss fan, starting from the days when, as a teenaged fan, he received a personal reply to a letter sent to the Englishman prior to that 1956 New Zealand debut expressing hope Dunedin’s street race would be included in his itinerary (it wasn’t). The letter Moss penned in reply, and the autographed photograph included with it, remain especially treasured.
Thomson missed seeing Moss run the NZGPs, but did see him perform at the now defunct Levin circuit and also at Invercargill’s Teretonga.
Happening across a weekday low-key test session at the Southland track provided insight into why the Brit had the measure of six current or recent Formula 1 drivers – Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Surtees, Lorenzo Bandini, Roy Salvadori and Ron Flockhart – in 1962.
Drawn to the track by the sound of racing engines on a day when it would normally still be deserted, he found Moss, Brabham and McLaren. The first two were pounding ceaselessly around the track, perfecting their lines, being watched by the New Zealander, who sat up in the sandhills and was carefully noting their turn in and braking points.
That session, says Thomson, provided good example of the perfectionism and competitive spirit that the top drivers had in common, but was especially evident from Moss.
“He was very competitive and very well-organised. This was a day when you’d might have thought you’d only see someone running in an engine but there they, were, going round and round and round refining their lines. And there was Bruce, picking up what they were doing.”
To good benefit. The Kiwi won the race ahead of the visitors.
Yet it was a good example of the Brit’s attitude (and Brabham’s too). “There was no question that, when he came to race, he came to do exactly that. Race. It wasn’t a case of ‘we’d better let Bruce win at Teretonga’. That racer instinct was there all the time.”
Moss came from good motorsport stock; his dad, Alfred, also raced and managed a feat that eluded the son – contesting and finishing the Indianapolis 500 – and his sister, Pat, was a renowned figure in rally sport.
His upbringing was tough; the family grew up during World War II and, because of his Jewish background, he was picked on at school – the taunting led him to take boxing, at which he excelled.
Post-war Britain when he began racing was a very grey place. His first mechanic, Guy Muller, was a German prisoner of war serving out his time. His early career was forged in Europe, where he found he could backpack around Europe and survive as a profession driver on his small share of the starting money he got for fronting up in a HWM. “He found he could make it work providing he didn’t eat too generously between the racing.”
Being spotted by Lofty England was his big break. Jaguar’s team manager knew talent when he saw it. “He quickly became the Jaguar team leader.”
England recognised in Moss the same special abilities and winning attitude he’d seen in the two big name drivers he’d run of the 1930s’, Prince Bira and Dick Seaman. And from thereon he was on the way.
As Thomson puts it: “Britain was looking for a hero at the time and they sure got it.”
By the time Moss came to New Zealand, he was not only a motor-racing star on the back of successes including being the current British national champion but a social scene celebrity. He knew how to play the scene but was never big headed, Thomson says.
An example. Prior to the 1956 NZGP, the Northern Sports Car Club laid on a dance to which all the drivers were invited.
“Stirling was the one who turned up and he didn’t just go to talk to people and sit at the bar.
“He went and danced. He danced with every girl in the room, I was told, starting with the not-so-pretty ones, so all the girls thought he was absolutely marvellous.”
He looked it in the big race, too. Having been untouchable in qualifying, his battleship grey Maserati was on pole and had ascended to the lead of the 320km enduro within half a lap. By his 15th circumnavigation of Ardmore, he’d lapped all but the fastest half dozen cars and soon after established a new circuit record.
At lap 85, with 15 to go, he felt rain on his goggles. Only it wasn’t. A fuel lead had broken; petrol was spraying into his face. Half-blinded, choked by fumes, he had to reduce speed as fuel sprayed directly into the cockpit. But he kept pressing on until, with eight to go, so little was left in the tank he had to pit. Thirty-six litres were dumped into the tank, the leak fixed as best it could be and he was off again.
With Australia’s Tony Gaze right behind in a Ferrari that, having been converted to methanol, was the most powerful car in the field, Moss was forced go as hard as he could. Another lap record was clocked. Two laps on, he took the chequered flag, WWII Spitfire ace Gaze right behind.
The 1959 return was more comfortable, Moss being a lap up on closest competitor Brabham at flag fall and, of course, 1962 was better still.
Yet he was never big-headed about it. Indeed, when it came to summing up his competitors, he was always quick to praise when it was deserved.
Thomson says Moss certainly held genuine respect not just for his fellow internationals but also earnest in suggesting local heroes Roycroft and Syd Jenson especially were genuinely good adversaries who would have done well anywhere. The Kiwi talent pool, in turn, learned a lot from competing against the best from overseas.
“Those races certainly did help our guys. Moss was certainly complimentary about our best and, in time, Bruce (McLaren) and Denny (Hulme, our only F1 world champion) proved Moss right.”
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