1961: Stirling Moss’s greatest season?

David Phipps/Motorsport Images

1961: Stirling Moss’s greatest season?

Formula 1

1961: Stirling Moss’s greatest season?

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No other race driver in any time or sphere had so many “day of days” as Sir Stirling Craufurd Moss, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. From the first “big one,” winning the 1950 Dundrod TT as a privateer a day before his 21st birthday, Moss consistently and regularly banked “pinch-me” performances, usually at the most fearsome race tracks and often against the odds.

In both Formula 1 and sports cars, his career is liberally sprinkled with wins on the Nurburgring-Nordschleife, and great and dangerous road courses such as Pescara and, of course, the Mille Miglia’s epic lap of Italy. Most were victories that no other driver of his era — other than Juan Manuel Fangio, or perhaps Alberto Ascari — was capable of delivering.

The Mille Miglia in 1955 was the one that really stamped his special status, but Moss has always said he took the most satisfaction from his third win at the Monaco Grand Prix, in 1961. It was a season when once again he found himself cast as the underdog, against “those bloody red cars” of Ferrari. “Without a doubt, it was the hardest race of my life, and I consider it the best,” he said.

That day at Monaco, Moss lined up on pole position in Rob Walker’s privately entered and outdated Lotus 18, its side panels removed for cooling, against a trio of new Ferrari “Sharknose” 156s for the first grand prix of the 1.5-liter F1 era. At the start, he couldn’t stop American Richie Ginther’s Ferrari from taking the lead, but Moss hit the front on Lap 14 — and was still there on Lap 100 to take the checkered flag.

Moss at Monaco, 1961: “It was a subliminal, inch-perfect performance by a driver at the top of his game…” Motorsport Images

The trio of Ferraris had pressed and hounded, urged by a growing sense of exasperation and desperation from the pits. But Ginther, eventual world champion Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips couldn’t touch the boxy little Lotus on a day when Moss’s average lap speed was within a half second of his pole position time, while his fastest lap was three seconds — three seconds — quicker than his practice benchmark. It was a subliminal, inch-perfect performance by a driver at the top of his game; magical artistry, unrivaled skill, incredible focus and sheer cussedness by an all-time great.

Thereafter, Moss had no realistic chance to beat the Ferraris at most circuits. But at the Nurburgring, once again he had “one of those days.” On Dunlop’s “green spot” rain tires, and against said tire maker’s wishes, Stirling drove Walker’s Lotus, now in 18/21 hybrid form, to victory against the superior Sharknoses. Rain had helped, but it was not an all-wet race. The difference had been Moss himself, and team patron Rob Walker reckoned it a finer performance even than Monaco.

Another historic first from that ’61 season: Moss takes the Ferguson P99-Climax S4 to the first — and only — F1 win by a 4WD car at Oulton Park. Motorsport Images

That year, Moss would also win the usual mass of GT and non-championship F1 races, including victory in the Oulton Park Gold Cup in the Ferguson P99 — the only F1 victory for an all-wheel-drive car. But the following spring, his career would end violently against a grass bank at Goodwood during the non-championship Glover Trophy F1 race. Despite being in a coma for a month, Moss would recover, yet not in his own judgment to a degree that would allow him to reach the monumental heights behind the wheel that had become his trademark.

Moss before the start of the Goodwood Glover Trophy race in 1962, that would turn out to be his final F1 start. Motorsport Images

He’d finished runner-up in the F1 world championship in four consecutive seasons between 1955-’58, the last of which was only lost through a remarkable show of sportsmanship that all but handed the title to fellow Englishman Mike Hawthorn. But the title never really mattered. For Moss, winning individual motor races was what counted most, to be the best on a given day in whatever machinery he found himself. And in the final complete season of his career, he did so time and again — twice in the F1 world championship itself — in the best manner possible. When he slammed into that Goodwood bank on Easter Monday 1962, Stirling Moss was still absolutely at the very top of his phenomenal game.

• We’ll be remembering and celebrating more from Sir Stirling Moss’s extraordinary career and life in the next issue of RACER magazine. To enjoy RACER, America’s finest auto racing magazine, you can subscribe HERE.

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