Legendary race driver Sir Stirling Moss passed away Sunday, April 12, 2020 in London at the age of 90 after a long illness. He is survived by his third wife, Susie, and two children. We’ve resurfaced one of our favorite stories we’ve published about him in his memory.
Six decades ago, Sir Stirling Moss risked life and limb racing here at Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza, and now the driver—85 years old and as feisty as you’d expect a legendary ex-racer to be—asks reigning Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton how he makes sense of the 30-some buttons on the steering wheel of his Mercedes-AMG Petronas W06 Hybrid. Later, the exchange reverses: After lapping the high-speed banked oval in formation with Moss, Hamilton is so enraptured with a raucous, bullet-shaped 1955 Mercedes-Benz W196 that he begs for one more lap in the car. Without a helmet.
This curious generational mash-up has been orchestrated by Mercedes-Benz on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Moss’ heroic win at the 1955 Mille Miglia, the 1,000-mile road race during which Moss averaged 97.96 mph over 10 hours, 7 minutes, and 48 seconds, driving his No. 722 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR on closed public roads.
“The whole idea of racing is to be unsafe and get away with it.” — Stirling Moss
While Hamilton refers to his F1 ancestors respectfully and says things such as, “It’s nice to know where we’ve been,” racing history doesn’t seem to occupy much of the bandwidth of 30-year-old driver’s brain. Hamilton does, however, admit to having a healthy respect for the days when “it was just raw balls of steel,” tipping his hat to an era when drivers didn’t strap their safety belts so they could be thrown from burning wreckage—a far cry from the safety-obsessed and sanitized world of modern-day F1.
Though racing history might be more of a curiosity for Hamilton, he has a well-documented reverence for the late, great Ayrton Senna. “It’s how he drove, his style, his charisma,” he says of the Brazilian who lost his life at Imola (a 2.5-hour drive from Monza) more than 20 years ago. “When I was young,” Hamilton says, “I either wanted to be Superman or Ayrton Senna. I felt I had a lot in common with him.”
Whereas Senna is a sort of long-lost muse for Hamilton, Moss leapfrogs the epochal gap with his connection to Grand Prix racing’s earlier age. “How was [passing] in your day? Now you have to plan overtaking because aero plays such an important role,” Hamilton asks the blue-eyed Moss, who exclaims, “We slipstreamed enormously!”
The two carry on, trading anecdotes as Roscoe, Hamilton’s bulldog, snores away loudly in the background. “He’s a real racer, a very fast driver,” Moss says later, an honest assessment of Hamilton that he tempers with some observations on what it means to be a top-tier driver in 2015. “My quality of life was much better than his,” he says of the decades preceding television and big money, which he believes stole much of the fun from racing.
The risks used to be great and the rewards little, a model that has since become reversed. Moss barely had time to chase girls (or “crumpets,” as he affectionately calls them), racing every weekend for relatively modest pay. Hamilton, however, does 20 or so races per season and earned $32 million just last year. For Moss, occupational hazards were real, up to and including a career-ending crash at Goodwood in 1962 that left him in a coma for a month. “The whole idea of racing is to be unsafe and get away with it,” Moss says. “From my point of view, I enjoy the ingredient of potentially being a bit scared.”
Hamilton, who drives a car with a slew of electronic nannies (and seat belts), echoes the sentiment: “I love the speed, the feeling that you’re flying but you’re on the ground,” he says. “All the unknown limitations of the vehicle—I love the challenge of finding and defying those limitations.”
This story was originally published June 30, 2015.