THE 300SLR CRASHED SPEC­TAC­U­LARLY INTO THE CROWD AT LE MANS, AND CLOSE TO 100 PEO­PLE PER­ISHED

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motorsport Flashback -

Leg­endary Mercedes rac­ing man­ager, Al­fred Neubauer, cast his eye around for a more wor­thy team­mate for his distin­guished num­ber one, and con­cluded that he couldn’t do bet­ter than hir­ing a diminu­tive English­man who had spent much of 1954 driv­ing his pri­va­teer Maserati — Stir­ling Moss.

The age gap be­tween Fan­gio and his new team­mate was over 16 years, and Moss has al­ways said he re­garded it as a ‘master/pupil’ re­la­tion­ship, as he was learn­ing from a bona fide rac­ing mae­stro.

Their first one-two fin­ish came at round three of the 1955 world cham­pi­onship at Spa — Fan­gio lead­ing his ap­pren­tice home by 8.1 sec­onds af­ter nearly 160 min­utes of mo­tor­ing.

A week later Mercedes was back on the front pages, but for all the wrong rea­sons, when a 300SLR crashed spec­tac­u­larly into the crowd at Le Mans, and close to 100 peo­ple per­ished. Some na­tions took a deep breath and con­sid­ered flag­ging their Grand Prix away, but it was all a bit im­me­di­ate for the Dutch who had their GP the next week­end — again it was one-two, with Moss once more fin­ish­ing in the wheel tracks of the mae­stro.

France can­celled its Grand Prix a fort­night af­ter the Nether­lands race, mean­ing that there was a month to wait un­til the Bri­tish GP. Ger­many also chose to can­cel its race, and that meant the mid-july race in Eng­land would not only be round six of the 1955 cham­pi­onship, it would also be the penul­ti­mate GP. There would then be nearly two months to wait to un­til the fi­nale in Italy.

Sil­ver­stone had been the home of the Bri­tish Grand Prix since 1948, but for 1955 the race was mov­ing some 260km north-west to Ain­tree, on the out­skirts of Liver­pool. A non-cham­pi­onship For­mula 1 race had been held there in 1954, shortly af­ter it opened, and was won by Moss, so the pa­tri­otic crowd had ev­ery rea­son to hope that July 16 might be ‘the day.’ Mercedes rolled up with two ex­tra race cars — one for Kling and the other for Ital­ian all-rounder Piero Taruffi. Moss, with his Union Flag proudly planted on his car’s sil­ver body, picked the per­fect place for his first pole po­si­tion in a cham­pi­onship race. Fan­gio, pre­dictably, was sec­ond quick­est. Moss won the start, but Fan­gio passed him be­fore the Brit pre­vailed again on lap three. The huge crowd loved it — Fan­gio re­took the lead but a roar went up when Moss swept by again. This time he stayed there, but his team leader was right up his chuff the en­tire way — at the end, Moss won by a mere two-tenths of a sec­ond, and for years won­dered if Fan­gio, the over­all ti­tle al­ready sewn up, had let him win. Fan­gio kept quiet while Mercedes cel­e­brated a one-two-three­four. The crowd mean­while was ec­static. The win didn’t launch the ‘Moss magic’ — that was al­ready well es­tab­lished even be­fore his epic drive around Italy in the Mille Miglia in May of that same year — but the na­tion’s mo­tor-rac­ing hero was well on the way to be­com­ing a house­hold name.

like this — “In Novem­ber 1974 a fa­mous mo­tor-rac­ing per­son­al­ity ap­peared with and in­tro­duced a se­ries of three con­certs by a pro­gres­sive rock group. Name the mo­tor-rac­ing per­son­al­ity and the rock group.”

Ever had one of those mo­ments in time when you can barely be­lieve that what is hap­pen­ing is for real? It’s Septem­ber 22, 2008 — a Mon­day — and we’re in May­fair. The in­vi­ta­tion was for ‘around seven’, but hav­ing read of our host’s in­sis­tence on punc­tu­al­ity I had no in­ten­tion of let­ting New Zealand down by be­ing late to din­ner with Sir Stir­ling Moss! We waited at the front door un­til the ex­act time, knocked, and were greeted by Lady Susie, who took us through the nar­row lobby to the stair­well — be­yond I spied the of­fice with the de­ranged steer­ing wheel on the wall that I as­sumed was off the Lo­tus from the 1960 Bel­gian Grand Prix crash.

As we ar­rived at the first floor we heard the un­mis­take­able sound of a hu­man im­per­son­at­ing a re­vers­ing ve­hi­cle — ‘beep, beep’ and looked over to a spi­ral stair­case where the great man him­self was re­vers­ing down from the top level. He turned around and re­vealed that the rea­son why he was ‘re­vers­ing’ was the mag­num of cham­pagne he’d fetched to kick the party off. This was the Mon­day af­ter the Good­wood Re­vival, where he was in such de­mand that even Susie barely had time to catch up with him. I’d been at the meet­ing, and saw the pres­sures he was un­der to jump from this car to that, pose for pho­to­graphs, make pre­sen­ta­tions, and of course the in­evitable bump­ing into old friends. De­spite all of that, and be­ing only a few days away from his 79th birth­day, he was fir­ing on all cylin­ders as we sipped the cham­pagne.

We walked to a nearby Ital­ian res­tau­rant, and whereas I imag­ined a night talk­ing about the Mille Miglia, Fan­gio, Van­walls, Rob Walker etc, he seemed more in­ter­ested in find­ing out how much my old For­mula Ford cost to run, and telling us how much af­fec­tion he has for New Zealand — “I tell you what boy, if I hadn’t set­tled here in Eng­land af­ter re­tir­ing, I’d have quite hap­pily gone to New Zealand — and I’m not just say­ing that, it’s in print.” And so it is. Susie men­tioned some up­com­ing com­mit­ment re­quir­ing her hus­band’s pres­ence to cut the rib­bon on a new build­ing. I sensed an open­ing and asked him, “What’s the most un­usual event you’ve ever been paid to at­tend?” As quick as a flash he asked, “Have you ever heard of Jethro Tull?” My wife and I nod­ded — they were of my era, and nearly of hers. “Well,” he con­tin­ued, “I re­ceived this in­vi­ta­tion to in­tro­duce them at some place here in Lon­don where they were per­form­ing. I’d never heard of them, but as­sumed the man­ager must have got the wrong man, how­ever, I was as­sured they wanted me, so I told them my

Jethro Tull’s leader, Ian An­der­son, poses with Pan’s Peo­ple prior to the con­cert where the group were in­tro­duced by Stir­ling Moss Sir Stir­ling poses on his bal­cony of his Lon­don apart­ment – note the side-pro­file im­ages of rac­ing cars etched into the glass

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