Motor Racing: Long-term interest rate of Stirling

Britain's favourite racing driver is still cutting a dash at 69. Now he is recapturing the glories of Goodwood.
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The Independent Online
If, as he believes, movement is tranquility, Stirling Moss has been a lifetime resident of nirvana. Moss doesn't walk, he bustles, like a man in a permanent rush for the train, or the first corner. He has just returned from Italy, promoting the merger between Maserati, for whom he once drove, and Ferrari, for whom most of Italy wanted him to drive. Before that, he was in Monterey. Next week, Austria for an historic car race. If no letters thud on to the floor of his London apartment, he rings up the Post Office to see when the strike will be over. He still gets 30 requests for autographs every week, from correspondents of all ages, and a friend recently told him the Internet had recorded 120,000 mentions of his name. Christian name, mostly, one suspects. There is only one Stirling. Or Sterling, as the Americans have it.

For children of the post-war generation and motor racing's tifosi, Moss needs no introduction. Just in case, a black and white drawing of a McLaren on the wall of the hallway informs any visitor what sort of company awaits. The message on the top left of the deceptively simple outline reads: "To Stirling, with admiration, Ayrton Senna." Senna bestowed admiration on other drivers as he gave quarter on the track. But the Brazilian was a student of his craft and Moss, like Jimmy Clark, was a legend. Moss puts Senna in the same category as Fangio as a driver, but not as a sportsman. A matter of era, he says, not character.

"There is no one else I would accept as No 1 other than Fangio," he says. But the inheritance is historically neat. Moss was Fangio's team-mate, Clark was starting just as Moss's career was brutally cut short and if Jackie Stewart fits into the family tree, his span, give or take a decade, straddles the gap to Senna. In Moss's view, only the win-at- all-costs diktat of modern society stops Michael Schumacher from perpetuating the lineage.

"In terms of sheer ability, he's right up there, but if you're talking about a person of motor racing, not yet. I'm not sure a modern driver can. Senna was the only driver I would put more or less on a par with Fangio, but because of the ethics of driving, it would not be fair to him or to motor racing to compare them. If Senna and Schumacher were driving when we were, it would be different."

Had he ever deliberately run into another car? "No way, no way," he says. Pause. "Actually, that's not quite true. Once, in Denmark or somewhere, I did touch another car on purpose but he was driving really dirtily. I just nudged him to get past. As a normal principle of Formula One, no way. Motor racing has changed because of the money." Moss would not swap, though his maximum earnings of pounds 32,500 for a season with Mercedes would not keep Schumacher in pocket money. Formula One is a bewildering world these days, too full of lawyers and agents for his liking.

Moss's contract with the privateer Rob Walker did not require a signature, he adds without pomposity, just a handshake between gentlemen.

That era will be reconvened next month at Goodwood. A three-day orgy of nostalgia will mark the reopening of the track on its 50th anniversary and a rite of passage for Moss, whose fortunes were woven into this unremarkable patch of Sussex countryside. Victory in a Formula Three race in 1948 there first pushed the name of the 19-year-old S. Moss - as the Times always printed it - into the public eye; 14 years, and 16 grand prix victories later, Moss crashed his Lotus Climax into a grass bank at 140mph and was lucky to lose just a month of his life.

The Easter meeting at Goodwood back then provided a gentle introduction to the season. "Very good socially" as Moss, who retains a good eye for these things, recalls. The more competitive racing was at Pau in France, but the best parties and the prettier women could be found on the private estate of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. Goodwood was a typical aerodrome track, fast but not too taxing. Moss would race while listening to Raymond Baxter's commentary on the car radio.

A souvenir of the accident hangs from the wall of Moss's study, a grisly piece of modern sculpture just recognisable as a steering wheel. Along one of the struts is written, "Goodwood 1962". Next to it hangs a replica, "Spa 1960". But that is about the only memory Moss can summon from the wreck of his last competitive moment. Typically, he can remember a party the night before and scraping the bottom of his Lotus Elite as he backed out of the hotel car park either the morning of the race or the day before, he cannot be sure. But he is only just beginning to fit together the debris.

Bar reassuring himself that it was not a driver error, he has not felt inclined to enquire further, not least because Graham Hill, whose car Moss was overtaking at the time, can no longer be called as an eye witness.

"I did once consider hypnosis to see if I could recover my memory, but a friend warned me that it could trigger retrospective paralysis, so I didn't feel inclined to pursue the matter. I convinced myself it wasn't my mistake. It's quite acceptable to make a mistake on a 60mph corner, but not a 140mph one." He finds a map of the circuit and indicates with his pen.

"I was going past Graham on his left. He took a funny swooping line through the corner [St Mary's, a fast left-hander] and I might have mistaken his wave to a marshal to say he had seen the yellow flag for a signal to pass. Perhaps I started to pass and he didn't see me. I never talked to Graham about it, so it's only conjecture." Moss was in a coma for a month while the country waited for the daily medical bulletins. No less than Senna to the Brazilians, Moss was a symbol, of hope, courage, immortality. He was a dashing cavalier who emerged from an age of post-war austerity, of petrol rationing and bread queues, to translate wartime virtues into peacetime victories across the motor racing tracks of Europe.

The British people wanted to forget yesterday and they were still suspicious of tomorrow, so Moss's "live for the day" philosophy caught the public imagination. Much of the flying scarf image was romantic nonsense, a creation of the media. Moss likes the company of women and has three marriages to prove it, but he was a ruthless opponent on the track, quite aware of his own worth off it.

On his comeback, Moss tested a Lotus at Goodwood in a very public show of defiance. To most observers, the currency of Stirling was the same. Only Moss knew the real value. "I found I had to use too much concentration just to go reasonably quickly. On reflection, I probably retired a couple of years too soon. But I couldn't have taken losing." Still cannot, for that matter. Returning to race again at Goodwood for the first time next month in a one-hour race for 1960-1964 vintage sports cars, his one reservation stems not from a fear of mental fallibility but from the irksome certainty of defeat.

Moss is driving the old short wheelbase Ferrari, dark blue with the white stripe across the bonnet, in which he won the Tourist Trophy, against quicker, more modern, models. He doesn't like the idea of running with the pack, though authenticity, of livery, style, even of dress code - jacket and tie in the enclosure - is the key to the weekend (18-20 September) as Goodwood celebrates its own renaissance after decades of silence. "I would like to be in there having a go and trying to win it," he says.

Having a go. Moss has applied the phrase with equal gusto to his life after racing. "Lectures, talks, opening things, closing things. I'm an international whore," he laughs. "My father would particularly like the idea that I charge people to give me dinner."

His only visits to Formula One races these days are corporate sponsored, though his passion for race-driving has endured and his scooter is still ridden round London with panache at the age of 69. He had been tickled that morning to read of a man stopped by police for driving at 1mph. "I suppose if it ever got to that, I might have to stop." Movement and tranquility. And to think his mother wanted to call him Hamish.