Peter Windsor on Stirling Moss
As illnesses go, it was classic Stirling. One minute he was in pre-Christmas London, dining with friends at the Royal Autombile Club and rushing around in his Renault Twizy, the next he was in Singapore, prior to a cruise, and feeling a bit off-colour. At the time of writing, he’s still there, which is a worry, but hopefully there’s light on the horizon. It was only last week that he and his wife, Susie, were reminding me that Chardonnay is Chardonnay, wherever you drink it…
Which made me think that I’ve always been a Stirling fan, but it’s only over the past few months that I’ve come to realise exactly how big a role he has played in my life – and how much of a treasure he is to motorsport in general.
He was amazingly helpful to me when I was starting out as a journalist in the 1970s, and I was struck then by the intensity of his everyday life. He was motor racing personied, yet for Stirling there was nothing more urgent than beating the trafc and attending to the water pipe that needed to be re-tted in one of his Little Venice ats. He’d zip over to the plumbers, buy the new part, race over to Elgin Mansions and do the work himself. Mario Andretti would be winning somewhere with a Lotus 78; Stirling would be ratcheting a boxspanner in a tiny North London bathroom.
We’d chat about motor racing, of course, but not at any great length: there wasn’t time. I’d ask him about Fon de Portago, Peter Collins or Tony Brooks, but the answers would be short and to the point. Of far greater import was the impending trafc build-up around Hyde Park or the cost of the new parking meters on Curzon Street.
Stirling bought his house as a bomb-site in 1963 and designed it to what would then have been called ‘space-age’ standards. The TV that rose from the foot of the bed; the heated toilet seat; the shaft that runs vertically from living room to kitchen, facilitating the supply and departure of TV dinners; the closet with its remote-controlled hangers; the hidden speakers. That was Stirling, way ahead of his time. He was also one of the rst men in London to buy a video tape recorder; I remember staring at it while he showed me the reverse, pause and fast-forward functions.
I was so impressed that I spent everything I had on a similar unit (a Philips). I couldn’t wait to try it but suddenly realised that Stirling had a colour TV, while I was still using my black-and-white Sony. I rang him with trepidation:
“Stirl, do you think the video recorder will work with a black-and-white TV?”
“What?” he cried in disbelief. “Only a **** would have a black-and-white TV!”
I drove up to Silverstone with Stirl when he was due to test his BTCC Akai Audi in 1980. He took the country roads from the A40, up near Aylesbury and his old family home near Tring. We were in a manual Audi and so I spent most of the time watching his perfect hand-foot co-ordination as he heel-and-toed down for the roundabouts and slower corners. He sat with his arms slightly bent, shoulders relaxed, both hands holding the wheel.
Later, during the lunch break at Silverstone, Stirl took me for a run in the BTCC car. There was no excess steering wheel movement; there was no tension. Everything was calm and very, very precise, even when he was balancing a slide. We accelerated out of Becketts and down Hangar Straight.
“Blast!” he said suddenly. “There’s a barrier up in the middle of Stowe,” (which in those days was a very fast right-hander).
“Hang on. Should be okay. I think we can just squeeze through…”
At 190km/h, positioned on the left-handside of the road, the barrier appeared to be solid. Then, as the corner approached and Stirl began to nesse the car to the centre of the track, I could see a gap starting to emerge by the left-centre of the barrier – or between the two barriers as they obviously now stood. He then braked hard, icked the steering a little, changed down to third and straight-lined it through the gap… The tiny gap. We were probably doing 150km/h. Many great drivers would have done this; many drivers today would be able to do it. This was Stirling Moss in retirement, though,
supposedly well past his prime. On the following lap, he slowed for Stowe and I was able to measure the clearance: half an inch either side of the mirrors.
I asked him during the drive back to London about his thoughts on the art of driving – about what he considers to be the factors that distinguish the best from the very best.
“Oh, it’s all in the braking and the setting-up for the corner, old boy. Anyone can balance a slide from apex to exit. The skill is in shortening the corner with your entry, but keeping the car absolutely balanced and stable as you do so. I saw few drivers who could do that. Fangio obviously. And Brooks.
“Of course, it all comes down to the tightrope – walking the tightrope. It’s all about balance and feel. And what’s the point, old boy, if the tightrope’s only three feet from the ground? There has to be a penalty if it’s going to mean anything to anyone.”
In time, and thanks largely to Goodwood’s Lord March, the motor racing world rediscovered Stirling Moss. In 2000, he was made a Knight. He backed off (perhaps by about ve per cent) from his full-throttle life. Then, one day in 2010, by accident, he fell down the lift shaft in his house.
I visited him in hospital a couple of days later. Sir Stirling conrmed that this had indeed been one of the biggest shunts of his career – bigger than Spa, 1960, and not too far away from Goodwood in 1962.
I looked at the plaster and the splints – but then noticed the bruises on his arms.
“What happened there?” I asked. “Did your arms catch something as you fell?”
“Oh no, old boy. I realised that if I was to have any chance at all I would have to put my elbows out and rub them against the side of the shaft and try to slow things down that way. Bit like a parachute. Seems to have worked. Doc says I was very lucky to survive…”
Cheers, Stirl. And yes. Chardonnay, please.
WHAT’S THE POINT, OLD BOY, IF THE TIGHTROPE’S ONLY THREE FEET FROM THE GROUND?
Ever the pacesetter – on track and at home – here, Stirling adds the win and the fastest lap to pole position at the 1955 British Grand Prix