What would it mean for an Englishman to drive a Mercedes, only 10 years after the end of a war that had killed so many millions? In 1937 Dick Seaman had signed up for the same team and watched as the shadow of war fell across Europe. He stood to attention when Adolf Hitler inspected the cars and their drivers in Berlin and made a reluctant Nazi salute on the victory podium at the Nürburgring. He had been killed, while leading a Grand Prix in one of the Silver Arrows, only weeks before Britain and Germany went to war. Now former foes were expressing unstinted admiration of Germany’s engineering prowess as applied to the science of motor racing – skills that had only recently been used to fashion Tiger tanks, V2 rockets and Messerschmitt engines. It was as if the two things had no connection.
Mercedes’ tentative return in 1951 with pre-war cars in Argentina – not exactly a hostile environment – proved only that reviving obsolete machinery was not the way to go. It was followed in 1952 by the development of new sports coupés which secured first and second places at Le Mans and in the Carrera Panamericana. That was more like the old Mercedes, and the company’s full-scale return to Grand Prix racing in 1954 saw them resuming the sort of dominance they had enjoyed between 1934 and 1939. For Stirling Moss, just as it had been for Seaman, the invitation to join this historic team was the greatest compliment that could be paid to a racing driver.
For his new team, the acquisition represented more than just the capture of an enormously gifted young driver: it also had a public-relations value. When Hitler endorsed Seaman’s inclusion in a team whose successes were intended to proclaim the superiority of German technology, he was still hoping that his country and Britain might form an alliance. Bringing Moss into the squad could have been seen as a friendly gesture to a recent enemy. It was also a hand outstretched towards a potentially lucrative market for road cars bearing the same three-pointed star.
The news drew a mixed reaction in the British press, but most understood why Moss was following Mike Hawthorn at Ferrari’s lead in signing for a foreign team. “If there is any blame to be laid,” an Autosport editorial declared, “then it will fall on the British motor industry, who by their continued apathy to the importance of full-scale Grand Prix racing have virtually forced our best drivers to seek their fortunes with foreign products. In the case of Moss, the foreign country is one whose cars are presenting a real challenge to the British industry, judging by the number of cars now to be seen in England.”
In the final weeks of 1954 there was an invitation to a special Mercedes test session at Hockenheim, arranged just for Moss. He arrived with his father and his manager. A single-seater was ready and waiting, and one incident impressed him early on: when he came into the pits with his face covered in dust from the inboard front brakes, a mechanic was standing by with a bowl of hot water, a cake of soap and a towel. At Mercedes, he discovered, you could have anything you needed. Or they’d give you a good reason for refusing. “If you asked for square wheels,” he told the journalist Maurice Hamilton, “they’d look in the book and say, ‘We tried that in 1928 and they vibrated too much.’ They used four-spoke steering wheels, but I liked three-spoke, so that’s what they made.”
With characteristic Mercedes thoroughness, the W196 was produced in short-, medium- and long-wheelbase configurations to suit individual circuits, and with dramatic fully streamlined bodies for use at high-speed tracks. It was a big car, unhandsome in a well-muscled way in its usual open-wheeled guise, quite heavy to drive and with an unusual arrangement in the footwell: the brake and the clutch pedals were separated by a very wide transmission housing, meaning that the driver’s legs were splayed apart. Moss found that easier to get used to than the gearshift pattern, which had first, third and fifth at the back of the gate and second and fourth at the top. It could also be tricky to handle in the wet, and even in the dry it was not a car that could be flung about in the same way as a 250F. But the power and torque of its engine and its all-round sturdiness made it superior to anything Ferrari or Maserati could produce. At a price, of course: it was estimated that each W196 cost the company around £50,000 to build, about 10 times what Maserati were asking their customers for a 250F.
Moss was engaged as Juan Manuel Fangio’s No 2, a position he was happy to accept since it enabled him to spend a year following closely in the wheel tracks of the man he respected above all others, measuring his own performance by the best possible yardstick. This was his finishing school: a clear hierarchy of master and pupil (although, as the season progressed, Moss would note with interest that Fangio was often happy to accept his suggestions on gear ratios and other mechanical settings). The bond between the two men was strong: neither spoke the other’s native language, so they conversed in basic Italian. Moss never wavered from his belief that Fangio, 18 years his senior, was the greatest of them all.
Their first race as teammates was in front of Fangio’s home fans, the temperature at the Buenos Aires autodrome topping 100 degrees at the start of the opening round of the 1955 world championship series. Fangio won, driving solo, but even he needed a pit stop lasting three minutes to cool himself down while drinking several litres of lemonade. As for Moss and his two other teammates, Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling, they made use of the rule allowing more than one driver to share a car. Moss was lying second, with Union Jack stickers on either side of his head fairing, as he had requested, and extra cooling vents cut into the bodywork, when a vapour lock in the fuel system stopped the car out on the circuit; he parked it, got out and lay down on a shaded patch of grass, seemingly exhausted. Suddenly, before he could make himself understood, he was being whisked off to the medical centre. Finally succeeding in getting himself discharged, he returned to the pits. With the race still under way, and seeing that he was fit and ready to resume, Neubauer sent him out in a car that had already been driven by Herrmann and Kling; together they were able to finish fourth, splitting the three championship points between them, as the rules then permitted.
At Aintree in July there was a twist to the narrative. After five consecutive races at Silverstone since the inauguration of the world championship, the British Grand Prix was held for the first time on the three-mile circuit laid out inside the Grand National steeplechase course, run clockwise – against the direction followed by the horses. He and Fangio had set the fastest times in practice, and Fangio led him off the line when the flag fell in front of a huge crowd. Within three laps Moss had gone past his team leader. When Fangio repassed him, he had to snatch the lead once more. But an adroit piece of work in lapping a backmarker under braking for a corner, forcing Fangio to fall back, allowed Moss to build a cushion; this was a trick he had learned from Luigi Villoresi at Monza a few years earlier, while trying to follow the Italian’s Ferrari in his HWM.
When Neubauer put out signs telling them both to ease up, Fangio crept closer. As the two silver cars crossed the finish line Moss was barely a length ahead, leading a clean sweep of the first four places for Mercedes. His shirt stained with sweat, his face black with oil, he accepted the victor’s laurel wreath and a kiss from the formidable Mrs Mirabel Topham, a former West End Gaiety Girl who had run Aintree since marrying its owner before the war. He had become the first British driver to win his home round of the world championship.
Moss always said that his teammate could have won the race with ease, had he been so minded. When questioned in later years, Fangio invariably called Moss a worthy winner. What was the truth? With only one round of the championship to go after Aintree, Fangio had already claimed his third world title. A win for the young English hero would be of great publicity value. A year earlier, Fangio’s Mercedes had finished half a second behind the car of his German teammate Karl Kling at the AVUS track in the non-championship Berlin Grand Prix, a popular home win for a veteran driver who, by any measure, was not in Fangio’s class. A conclusion might be drawn. But Fangio did nothing to suggest that either victory had been gift-wrapped. And Moss’s capture of the point for fastest lap gave evidence of his speed on the day.
By the time they reached Monza, Mercedes had dropped a bombshell by informing their drivers that the team would be withdrawing from Formula 1 racing at the end of the season. They were told that the lavish and highly expensive project was being terminated in order to concentrate the resources of the experimental department on the development of their road cars. Moss’s career as a Mercedes Grand Prix driver ended in the pits, alongside Kling, who had also retired, the pair looking on as Fangio let Piero Taruffi close up to within half a second by the time they swept past the chequered flag, the German team giving the Italian crowd something to cheer.
After that the W196s were taken home and packed away, their work done and their place in motor-racing history secure. In 2013 one of them became the most expensive car ever bought at auction. Donated by the factory to the Donington museum, it was sold to raise funds and was knocked down to a winning bid of £19,601,500.
The Boy: Stirling Moss: A Life in 60 Laps is published by Simon & Schuster