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Stirling Moss on Lewis Hamilton
Perhaps it slipped out of your consciousness, but Formula One isn’t exactly a haven for the altruistic. Case in point, last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix: our good friend Kimi Raikkonen suffered an ignominious exit from qualifying after a dramatic spin which beached his Lotus. Upon further questioning, he did in fact confirm that - quite simply - “I spun”.
But what about the yellow flags his spin brought out for the others? “I don’t care what happened to the others.”
This, in simple, brutal fashion, is the mind of an F1 driver. And, fittingly, gives us a fascinating insight into the sharp end of a weekend’s racing. Because of course, this weekend’s racing was all consumed with the almost Athenian drama that has become The Lewis Hamilton Moves To Mercedes story. Some of you might liken it to a Greek tragedy; McLaren’s prodigal son ‘not caring about the others’, abandoning his generous parents and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, forever doomed to mid-table obscurity in a team many believe don’t have a chance of winning a championship.
But not Sir Stirling Moss. Yes, forget what you’ve read elsewhere, because speaking to TopGear.com, the ‘greatest driver to never win a Formula One world championship’, Mille Miglia legend and the last British driver to race for Mercedes believes that young Jedi Hamilton has in fact done something very good indeed by switching allegiance to Benz. “Obviously Mercedes isn’t quite the same nowadays - in my day Mercedes were absolutely the very, very top - but they’ve got fantastic people working there. And they’ve got a very good reputation, don’t forget.”
Ah yes, reputation. For Formula One wears its history in a way like no other. Names like Fangio and Moss, despite their near 60-year gap from today, still ring with a significance that’s hard to countenance. “I think there are two things that prompted Lewis’ move to Mercedes. The first is money, but the second is history. He must also have considered that Ross Brawn is head there, and of course, he’s worked with the top people at Mercedes before - back when it was McLaren Mercedes.”
It’s clear for all mind - painfully clear for some - that McLaren has been more of a contender in the last three years than Mercedes has, making Lewis’ move all the more baffling. “It’s very difficult to decide whether he should have stayed at McLaren or not, I must say, because McLaren run such a good outfit. But, I do think McLaren has contributed to, if you like, his not being in a better position in the championship.”
Certainly the gearbox failure - “which was just misfortune really” - the sometimes questionable dynamics of his car and those pit-stop errors have certainly made Hamilton’s job of clinching the title less than peachy, but then if anyone can do it, it’s Lewis, reckons Sir Stirling.
“Lewis is absolutely top of the pile,” he says. “He’s a really exciting driver to watch, with all his late braking heroics and so forth. When you see his helmet go around it’s just thrilling - more so than many others, perhaps. He’s a real racer, not just a driver. He has a go even when it’s not strictly necessary. He’ll definitely win world championships with Mercedes.”
But for many, raw driving talent isn’t enough. It’s working with different teams, different outfits, different setups that define the Great Ones. And working with Ross Brawn - the architect of several world championship wins - can only benefit Lewis. “I would think he and Ross are going to work out incredibly well - Ross is an incredible engineer, and Lewis is smart enough to know that he is a very special person to be with. Emotionally too, I think it will be much better for him. Plus, Lewis has got the necessary force of will to help push Mercedes forward.”
But what about the man he will replace - the seven-time world champion, who rewrote all the record books? “Michael is a fantastic driver,” admits Sir Stirling, whose views on Schumacher have been very well documented. “You don’t win that many titles without being bloody good. But I don’t think returning was beneficial to his career. It’s tarnished his reputation from my point of view.” He thinks for a moment, sagely. “But then of course, if I was driving today and you realise how safe the cars are now, and somebody comes along and offers you millions, it’s a pretty big bit of bait, isn’t it?” He laughs. “I’m not so sure I couldn’t have been tempted out of retirement, though I’m a little too old now.”
Sir Stirling however, just hopes Lewis keeps his head screwed on. “I hope what makes Lewis go down in history as one of the greats is his performance, and not something outside our sport. I mean that is the problem.” Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Twitter will have understood at least that much.
“Mind you,” he quickly interjects, “it was the same in my day. ‘They’ were always more interested in what crumpet I went out with than what races I won.” That, and the fact that in Sir Stirling’s day, Formula One cars had a propensity to… break. Spectacularly.
“If you go back to when I was racing you’d be bloody lucky to finish at all!” Puts complaining about tyre degradation into perspective, somewhat, doesn’t it? But if we go back to when Sir Stirling was racing, we find a motorsport triumvirate many at the time thought invincible and one which helped cement the company’s status in motor racing: the Silver Arrows of the mid ‘50s.
“In my mind at that time, Mercedes were the greatest team in motor racing. They had everything they needed: they had [Juan Manuel] Fangio as world champion, they had team manager Alfred Neubauer, and designer Rudolf Uhlenhaut (who, incidentally, used to drive one of these as his company car). Having the offer of going to join Fangio was something that I certainly wouldn’t have turned down. Whatever.”
Lewis then, joins a very distinguished list of luminaries to have raced for the three-pointed-star. And from one Briton to another, Sir Stirling has this to say. “I would say to Lewis, be proud of the company you’re about to drive for, for they probably have the potential to become the greatest racing team again. If you ask me who I would back to have a top package when the new rules come in, Mercedes would be my top gamble.”
And with three-time world champion Niki Lauda coming on board in the future too, would Sir Stirling come out of retirement to give Mercedes that extra push? “If I’m given the offer from Mercedes to help them I’ll certainly consider it.” As they say, once a racing driver…