Stirling Moss at the 24 Heures du Mans


With the sad passing of Stirling Moss, the motorsport world has lost one of its great heroes; a man who alongside Fangio epitomised racing in the 1950s. Although best remembered as a Grand Prix pilot, Moss raced in a time when sportscar and single-seater racing were conjoined to an extent not seen since, and consequently Moss claimed a host of endurance victories, including a win on debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1954, and a sensational triumph at the Mille Miglia in 1955. Yet just as a World Championship so famously evaded him, Moss was never victorious at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Despite ten attempts across five different marques, Le Mans was destined to be the one that got away. And yet, it was a race that showcased his glittering talents more than almost any other. Moss debuted at the Vingt-Quatre Heures in 1951. His steed was a debutante too; the C-Type Jaguar; a state-of-the-art prototype built to fly the flag for Britain on the continent. Partnering the young Englishman was journeyman Jack Fairman. As the tricolore dropped, Moss charged to the fore, knowing the job he had to do. He was to be the hare; to drive furiously from the off and set a pace that all others must match, forcing every entrant in the field with pretensions towards the overall victory to push their machinery to its limit. In this role he was superb, taking the lead in the first few laps and charging ahead, thrilling the crowd and lapping the field. The Jaguar was going faster at Le Mans than any racing car had before, and as its average speed rose the lap record fell. Moss retained the lead into the night, until a loss of oil pressure brought his race to an abrupt end. Victory on debut was not to be, but Moss’ intimidating pace had left its mark, and the fancied Talbots of Fangio/Rosier and Marimón/González broke down in quick succession. While overall honours went to the Jaguar of Walker/Whitehead, Moss’ lap record at over 105mph went unbeaten. Not bad for a first-timer. Horrendous cooling issues for the Jaguar cars scuppered Moss’ second attempt at the endurance classic in 1952, with the team forced to take hammers to their bonnets in an undignified attempt at retro-fitting the previous year’s radiators to their streamlined machines. The embarrassment of being out of the running by night-fall must have galvanized the Coventry marque, for their return the next year was a mighty one. The ageing C-Types were not immediate favourites for the 1953 race, but the outwardly familiar cars had a secret weapon. The Jaguars had adopted disc brakes, which were fearsomely effective in the hard braking zones of the Sarthe circuit, and made them easily the match of their newer rivals. At the fall of the flag Moss surged to the front, and led the first hour. But again mechanical gremlins would afflict the lead Jaguar, and a clogged fuel filter put his #17 far down the field. A lesser driver would have considered the race lost at this point, but not Stirling Moss. With renewed purpose, he began to make up for lost time. Without heed to the darkness, Moss urged the sleek Jag forward, seconds a lap faster than his record from two years prior. Throughout the night the #17 made up ground, as rivals fell by the wayside. Moss took second place from the fuel-thirsty Cunningham at breakfast, and held on to complete a 1-2 finish for the triumphant Jaguar team. The 1954 race was an unhappy one for Moss. He was characteristically quick and led for a short while early on, but his Jaguar again suffered fuel system issues and was later put completely out of contention by failing brakes. Moss switched to Mercedes for the 1955 season, piloting their fuel-injected cars in both Grands Prix and sportscar races. He was paired with Juan Manuel Fangio for Le Mans in what could well be the strongest driver partnership in the history of the race. Fangio took the start, and by the third hour was locked in a fierce lead battle with Mike Hawthorn. Tragedy struck, however, when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh crashed into the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and was launched into the crowd. Levegh and 83 spectators lost their lives. The race was not stopped and Moss, taking over from Fangio, drove admirably into the night. He was leading the Jaguar of Hawthorn/Bueb by over a lap when the team withdrew their cars in the early hours of Sunday morning. Mercedes ceased their involvement in motorsport at the end of the season. For 1956, Moss was back where he was most comfortable – at a British team. He was to partner Peter Collins in a works Aston Martin. Not for the first time, the crowds were treated to the sight of Stirling Moss streaking into the lead as the race got underway. Hawthorn in the 5 litre Jaguar powered past Moss on the Mulsanne, but lost time with a misfire some laps later, shortly after a pileup at the Esses eliminated most of the other serious contenders. Moss and Collins raced valiantly, but their Aston’s high fuel consumption could not compete with the frugal Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar, and they finished a lap down in second. The next year, Moss joined yet another team; this time the Maserati factory. It would not be a successful partnership; Moss and Schell retired their 450S just 4 hours into the race. In 1957, Moss was back at Aston Martin, piloting a gorgeous DBR1/300 alongside Jack Brabham. The meet started in promising fashion, with Moss setting the fastest time in practice, and leaping away from pole on Saturday. His pace was tremendous and soon the Aston was but a speck in the distance to its rivals. Yet just as Brabham was preparing to take over the lead machine, reliability woes befell it, and the Aston’s engine failed catastrophically leaving its forlorn driver to retire at the Mulsanne corner. A similar story would play out in 1959 – Moss, reunited with Jack Fairman and again in an Aston Martin, battled at the head of the field in the opening hours, but retired from third as night fell. Whether by design or chance, the fast pace that Moss had set early on in the race took its toll on the faster Jaguars and Ferraris, leaving his teammates in the more reliable Astons to take a 1-2 victory. One must imagine that the modest and quietly patriotic Moss took satisfaction from this result. Due to injuries sustained in an F1 crash, Moss would not return to Le Mans until 1961, this time alongside Graham Hill in a privately entered Ferrari. As always, he delighted the spectators, battling with the factory prototypes in his production-based 250 GT. Remarkably, as the race entered the early hours of Sunday morning, he was placed third overall, ahead of many theoretically faster cars. As ever, though, it wasn’t to last – his engine overheated and lost oil pressure, and the garage door came down on the blue Ferrari. It was to be Moss’ last ever appearance at the legendary race; for he would suffer a horrific crash at Goodwood in April the following year that would put an end to his international career. It could be argued that Moss was not well suited to Le Mans. In the days when cars had a considerably higher chance of retiring from the race than finishing it, he was perhaps too quick; too prone to driving at ten-tenths. And yet, it would be wrong to say that Moss was not mechanically sensitive, and his win at the Mille Miglia proves that he was an exceptionally capable endurance driver. In truth, the most likely reason that Moss never stood on the top step at Le Mans was his willingness to sacrifice his own chances at victory for those of his team and even his country, in a manner that was unusual in his own era and unheard of in ours. If we can conclude anything at all, it is that in Moss we have lost not only a spectacular driver, but a truly great sportsman. Rest in peace, Sir Stirling.
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