Racing Retrospective: Sir Stirling Moss’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR – The Greatest Car, Driver and Race?

Moss continued in Grand Prix racing until the end of the 1961 season, driving Maserati, Vanwall, Cooper, BRM and Lotus cars. He won a total of 16 Grand Prix from 66 starts, more than any other non-world champion and including 4 of 11 Grands Prix in 1958, and was second or third in the Championship every year from 1955 to 1961.

At the 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix, his witness statement on the restart by Mike Hawthorn (in the car, Moss standing), driving a Ferrari, after Hawthorn took an escape road and was disqualified was crucial. Although Moss won the race, the stewards’ enquiry and Hawthorn’s subsequent re-instatement into second effectively cost Moss the championship, but he never expressed any regret.

The last Grand Prix highlight is probably the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix. Moss was driving a privately entered Lotus, and held off Richie Ginther and Phil Hill in more powerful Ferraris for 60 laps to claim the victory.

Rally driving was in Moss’s repertoire, though less prominently than circuit racing. He won a Coupe d’Or on the Alpine Rally for three successful penalty free runs (1952-54) and came second in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1952, driving for Sunbeam-Talbot.

You can just imagine the use Billy Rootes made of Stirling Moss and such victories.

I noted earlier that Moss was signed by Mercedes-Benz for sports car racing in 1955, as well as Grand Prix. The highlight of this was to be the Mille Miglia, a ferocious and notorious race across northern and central Italy, starting at Brescia in north, cutting across to the Adriatic coast, south to Rimini,  west across the Apennines to Rome and then north, through Siena, Florence, Bologna and back across the mountains to Brescia. 1000 miles and completed in a day, on public roads nominally closed for the occasion. Prior to 1955, all winners bar one (Rudolf Caracciola) were Italian. Mercedes-Benz determined to mount a strong challenge, using four cars driven by Moss, Fangio, Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling. The car chosen for, and essentially designed specifically for, this challenge was the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, based not on a sportscar but on a Grand Prix car.

Mercedes-Benz had come back to Grand Prix racing in 1954 with the W196R (R for Rennen or Racing), one of the most significant Grand Prix cars of the era. It had a 2.5 litre straight 8 cylinder engine, with desmodromic valves and direct fuel injection derived from aircraft experience giving almost 260bhp. The engine front mid mounted, in that it was behind not over the front axle line, and the power was taken from the centre, not the end of the crankshaft.

This was built into an aluminium tube spaceframe chassis with magnesium alloy panels, inboard drum brakes, wishbone front suspension, with the torsion bars operating within the spaceframe tubes. At the rear were more torsion bars and a swing axle.

In the hands of Fangio and Moss, it won 9 of the 12 Grands Prix it competed in 1954 and 1955. This included wins at Monza and Reims in streamlined Type Monza form – the only time a closed wheel car has won a Grand Prix.

The Mercedes-Benz 300SLR (SLR is Sport Leicht-Rennen – Sport Light Racing) was a close relative, with the engine was stretched to 3 litres and 310 bhp at 7400rpm. It carried a similar but different body to the W196 Monza, adapted with two seats, headlights and the practicalities required for long distance racing.

Moss and Herrmann elected also to take co-drivers, to look after the navigation. All the drivers had opportunities for reconnaissance laps of the route, and Moss took as his co-driver motor racing journalist Denis Jenkinson.  Jenkinson, or Jenks as he was known, was the Continental correspondent for Motor Sport magazine, spending his summer travelling across Europe reporting on Grands Prix and other key races for Motor Sport. He was also an experienced motorcycle sidecar racer.

Between them, Moss and Jenks devised a system of hand signals to be used to indicate upcoming route and hazards – the tightness of bends, routing, bridges and so on. Even so, Moss was relying a lot on his observation and judgement. Jenks had captured all the information on a roll of paper and Mercedes-Benz had made a waterproof case with rollers and a viewing window for Jenks to use. This shot is from Mercedes-Benz and shows the last kilometre to the finish line in Brescia.

The reconnaissance trips included some accidents, writing off a prototype 300SLR and then a 300SL Gullwing coupe. They completed the reconnaissance using a 220S saloon. Moss and Jenks also practiced wheel changing (the 300SLR carried two spares under the rear deck) and changing spark plugs, as well as trying to gain some mechanical familiarity. Mercedes-Benz set up pits at Ravenna, Pescara, Rome, Florence and Bologna, around 150 miles apart, to refuel the cars and drivers.

Cars left Brescia at one minute intervals, with the starting time being denoted by the race number. Moss and Jenks left at 7.22am on 1 May, one of the last cars to leave. The range of cars competing seems staggering now – from the 300SLR, Ferrari 376S and Maserati A6GCS/53 that were realistically in with any chance of the win, the entries included privateers driving a wide of range cars, down to modest Fiat saloons and Alfa Romeo sports cars.

You can read Jenks’ contemporaneous account starting on the next page, written on the night of the event. Moss went on to win by over 30 minutes from Fangio, in a record time that was unbeaten when the race was banned two years later, covering 992 miles in 10 hour 7 minutes 48 seconds, at an average speed of just over 98mph. Moss had a couple of moments, hitting a straw bale in Padua and literally taking off over a humpback bridge that Jenks’ notes or signals had missed. Get yourself a latte or an americano, and enjoy Jenks’ immediate account in full, as re-published in 2005.

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