How doing the right thing cost Sir Stirling Moss his greatest victory

·Managing Editor
Stirling Moss talks to Mike Hawthorn in his Ferrari, 1958.
Stirling Moss talks to Mike Hawthorn in his Ferrari, 1958.

Today marks the 85th birthday of Sir Stirling Moss, the British driver generally considered one of the greatest racers of any era. Moss not only survived the open-car era of post-World War II that claimed the lives of so many others, he thrived in competition with other greats like Juan Manuel Fangio. And unlike modern drivers, Moss raced and won in a panoply of cars and series, from sprints and hill climbs to Formula 1 and Italy's grueling Mille Miglia, a race so dangerous it's no longer run.

Yet one title eluded Moss in his professional career: the overall F1 driver's championship. Moss himself answers to the title of the greatest driver to never win the championship. Yet on this day, it's worth noting that Moss lost not because he was slow, but because in one race he chose sportsmanship over competition.

The 1958 F1 season began with Moss as the favorite; after the retirement of Fangio, Moss was the most talented driver in the field, with a wickedly fast Vanwall car. His chief competition was another Brit, Mike Hawthorn, who wore a bow tie while racing and whose James Hunt-like playboy lifestyle on Saturdays occasionally interfered with his racing on Sundays.

Stirling Moss, left and Mike Hawthorn at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, July 1958.
Stirling Moss, left and Mike Hawthorn at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, July 1958.

Entering the Portuguese Grand Prix in August 1958, Moss had won two of the eight previous races to Hawthorn's one, but Hawthorne had finished better overall, giving him 30 points to Moss' 24 with three races to go. Moss won the pole position on the rough Porto street circuit, and during a race interrupted by rain and slick conditions, the two battled back and forth for the lead throughout until Hawthorn ran into mechanical trouble, forcing him to stop his car on the track and then restart.

By the end, Moss had solidly outpaced Hawthorn's misfiring Ferrari for the win, scoring 8 championship points to Hawthorn's 7 in second place. But the race stewards soon received a complaint that Hawthorn had driven a few yards in the wrong direction downhill while trying to bump-start his Ferrari — a move that Moss had shouted as a suggestion when he raced past. Upon hearing of the protests, Moss went to the stewards and fought on Hawthorn's behalf, saying he shouldn't be penalized because he wasn't on the official course when he restarted. Ultimately, the stewards decided Moss was correct and let Hawthorn keep his points.

Over the next two races, Moss won again, but Hawthorn stayed close enough that with a second in the final race, he won the championship over Moss by one point. Hawthorn immediately retired from F1 racing — the season had claimed the life of four drivers, including Hawthorn's best friend Peter Collins — but his own celebration was short lived; he died in a road crash just three months later.

In modern F1 racing, the complicated rules have become yet another weapon teams deploy in their battles, and camaraderie on track often gives way to vicious, sometimes personal, grudges. It's all but impossible to imagine another racer doing today what Moss did in 1958, despite that time has made it a singular point of pride for him. "It gives me my exclusivity," Moss told The Telegraph in 2012, "and makes me different, so it's been a bonus. When I lost it to Mike I did feel bad, because I reckon I was quicker. By the second year, though, I thought it doesn't really matter, provided I had the respect of other drivers."

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