"Ben Oliver on the road race that created Italian automotive passion in its own imageYou are a driver in the Mille Miglia in the 1950s. You have been racing for fourteen hours now, stopping only to take on fuel "
Sir Stirling Moss: The Knight of the Road
It’s early summer 1955. A 26 year old Stirling Moss is in the middle of the final section of the iconic Mille Miglia road race. He and his co-driver, legendary Motorsport journalist Denis Jenkinson, have been travelling at an average of jusr under 100 Miles Per Hour on the byzantine roads of rural Italy for close to nine hours. Over the final 83 mile section the winning pair average a mind bending 165 MPH. This was in a car without disc brakes. On public roads. 54 years ago.
Getting your head around this incredible achievement is really quite difficult. Especially when you realise that the highest average speed recorded in a Formula One Grand Prix is to this day just a shade over 160 MPH (recorded at Monza in 2003).
Fast forward over half a century. I am sitting chatting with Sir Stirling in the living room of his Mayfair mews house, where he has lived since the early sixties. As soon as we meet it’s obvious. It’s not that the original Knight of the British Road doesn’t come across as an eighty year old – he almost looks his age in many ways. But the spark of racing passion that propelled him to global and enduring fame still burns bright in his soul. Despite the near death experiences a lifetime of motion, motion, motion has morphed into a wellspring of youthful energy.
“Movement is tranquillity.” He tells me – a Zen master introducing an acolyte to the riddle that might take him closer to enlightenment. “I would rather lose a race driving fast enough to win it than win a race driving slowly enough to lose it. Winning at any cost is not racing, that’s driving,” he goes on, fixing me with an intense gaze. “I would rather lose a race, in other words, by trying to drive too fast than win it whilst driving to slowly.”
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Having begun racing as a teenager in a Cooper 500, it wasn’t long before the talented youngster was taken under the wing of Ken Gregory, the world’s first professional racing driver manager. Over a career that lasted from 1948 until his retirement after a terrible crash at Goodwood in 1962, he raced in around 500 races, and won 212 of them, driving vehicles as diverse as the iconic Ferrari 250 SWB, the BRM GP cars, as well as the likes of the Maserati Birdcage and the works 250F with which Juan Miguel Fangio had forged his name in legend. Sir Stirling Moss’s heyday was an altogether different age of Motor Racing, one where regulation had not yet taken its throttling hold, and one where you could race across Formulae and for different manufacturers and different teams, sometimes in a single day.
“Our challenge was every bit as physical as today’s drivers face. We had to be fit, as so many of the races were endurance races on public roads,” It’s that physical prowess, that inherent athleticism manifest in the preternatural coordination of hand, mind and body that is so obviously vital in true racing. And driving cars wrought in steel and without mechanical, electronic or hydraulic driver aids, that athleticism was perhaps more important than it is today. “You not only had to be fit, you also had to be adaptable across different kinds of racing. Not only that, there weren’t the safety parameters that are built into the sport these days. There was real danger out there, especially at places like Spa. But, despite of and perhaps because of the danger, it was what we loved to do. As I’ve said often before that we had a much better time than the likes of Jenson and Lewis. We’d get out of the car and the end of a day’s racing and go straight out chasing crumpet. These guys have to go and talk to Vodaphone! There was a lot of excitement in motorsport, and young people were attracted to that. I liked to spread the happiness.”
Does he think that the excitement inherent in motorsport can ever be bought back into the scene? He smiles and takes a sip of tea.
“A lot of the danger has been taken out of the sport, which is at one level of course a very good thing. But the thing is that I find Motor Racing at the top level interesting, but not exciting. The tactics, the strategy can be fascinating. But, when one second of lap time can cover twenty drivers, then I believe the cars have got too good. But, you can’t go backwards.”
And for a man who raced at record-breaking speeds without seatbelts and with only a cork helmet for head protection, he remains philosophical about the accident that signalled, to him at least, the end of his professional racing career.
“I do and I don’t have regrets about quitting when I did. I quit because I thought my reactions had gone. If I had waited two years, then who knows? But that’s being clever in hindsight. At the time I had enormous pressure from the press, asking when I was going to race again, who I was going to race for etc. I did a few tests and even though my times were fair enough, I could feel that it wasn’t right. I was a professional racing driver from the age of 17 and 18, and engaging with the danger of it all was a very important part of things. But as you get older, that starts to become less appealing. So I made my decision.”
The one positive to emerge with Stirling Moss having retired from professional racing as early as he did, is that we have the benefit of the perspective of one of the true gentlemen of the sport and an enduring ambassador for a sport in which the British have always excelled. Many happy returns, Sir Stirling.
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