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Moss vanquishes the Ferraris

The Mediterranean shimmered brightly on race day although by mid-morning clouds had built up from behind the Alpes Maritimes, as they had done on the previous two days. Eventually, the sun dispersed the clouds and the afternoon turned out to be a fine one. Race director Louis Chiron’s expectation for the attendance was around 30,000 spectators.

About half an hour before the 2.45pm start, one of the Rob Walker mechanics noticed a crack in a chassis tube next to the aluminium fuel tank. What happened next proved that it was not only the drivers who were the daring ones. The car was moved away from the pit area and Alf Francis, without hesitation, went to get oxy-acetylene welding equipment from the truck. The petrol tank was then wrapped in wet cloths and Alf, sleeves rolled up, set about welding the crack. 

Monaco Grand Prix, 14 May 1961

‘The people who were crowding around didn’t half pull back, because of all the fuel,’ recalled Stirling. ‘I can’t remember how much we had, but it was quite a lot!’

It was, wrote Walker himself, ‘a very brave thing and typical of Alf’. Walker watched for a while before retiring to a safe distance.

Meanwhile, Moss was getting warm himself as the day heated up, so there was one more area of attention for ‘912’. Four months earlier in Australia, on a sweltering day at Warwick Farm, Moss had raced another Lotus 18 (‘906’) with its side panels removed. That was Tony Cleverley’s idea and at Monaco he proposed that the tactic should be used again. Rob Walker, concerned that a regulation might be contravened, first sought out clerk of the course Jacques Taffe for advice. Taffe was happy as long as the race number remained visible, so a new one was applied to the back of the engine cover, in cut-out white numbers direct to the bodywork rather than the normal black on a white roundel. All that was then needed was to undo a few Zeus clips to remove the side panels and stretch a bungee cord over the front of the engine cover, attached on either side to the upper trailing arm of the suspension, just in case airflow should get under the cover and cause it to lift.

Moss in Monaco GP 1956

Well after the five-minute signal had been given for the start, ‘912’ was wheeled to the grid on the Quai d’Albert. Race director Chiron flapped around as if he owned the place and perhaps he did, the local man having won the Grand Prix here in 1931 driving a Bugatti. The sound of Eurovision’s helicopter threatened to drown out his drivers’ briefing but he waved his starter’s flag at the participants in an autocratic manner before addressing them in French. The multi-lingual Joakim Bonnier was the only one who seemed to take any real notice of what Chiron was saying. 

The arrival of the mayor of Monaco indicated that at last the race was about to begin. Moss lowered himself, left leg first, into ‘912’ on pole position.

When the flag came down, Ginther was off like the proverbial lightning and reached the Gasometer hairpin with a clear advantage. Everyone else behaved themselves around this potential point of conflict, with the British trio of Clark, Moss and Brooks leading the chase, in that order.

Moss leads at Monaco

By the end of the first lap Ginther’s advantage over the train led by Clark was a remarkable three seconds. The BBC’s TV commentator, perhaps having been asleep at the start, pointed out that a side panel had just ‘fallen off’ Moss’s Lotus.

Behind Ginther, there was now a trio in a group, with Porsche drivers Gurney and Bonnier on Moss’s tail.

With ten laps gone, Moss and Bonnier really were breathing down Ginther’s neck, and behind them Phil Hill seemed content to sit on Gurney’s tail. The significant moment of the race came on lap 14. Moss went through into the lead and proceeded to pull away.

Behind Moss there was a flurry of activity with Porsches changing places in both directions, Bonnier passing Ginther and Gurney falling behind Phil Hill. By lap 20, the Ferraris were line astern in pursuit of Bonnier, while Moss’s advantage over the Swede had stretched to eight seconds. 

At 41 laps the red menace intensified as Ginther took third place from Bonnier and caught up with team-mate Hill. By half distance, 50 laps, the Italian pressure was on but Moss was still controlling the race. The occasional puff of smoke from the rear of ‘912’ may have caused concern to those watching but there was nothing to worry about. 

A few laps later, Brooks attempted to overtake Gurney, having begun to anticipate the American’s every move after sitting on his tail for so long. However, for no obvious reason Gurney braked harder than usual and, as Brooks wrote in his memoir Poetry in Motion, ‘his substantial Porsche exhaust pipe thrust itself like a rapier into my radiator cowling’. In trying to disentangle himself, Brooks held on to the same gear for too long and exceeded his rev limit, with tappet failure as a consequence. 

Any remaining hopes for Porsche were dashed when fourth-placed Bonnier stopped outside the railway station on lap 60 with a defunct Kugelfischer injection pump. The sister Porsches were out of contention, with Gurney now a lap behind and Herrmann even further back. So much for Porsche’s pre-season promise.

Meanwhile, Phil Hill was trying his best to hunt down Moss and had cut the deficit to a mere four seconds. Ginther was also hinting that he now might be the best man for the job by pulling almost level with his team-mate before dropping back again. 

By 70 laps the race pace was getting ever faster as the Lotus/Ferrari duel continued in frenetic fashion, but by now Hill appeared to be tiring. In the Ferrari pit, team director Romolo Tavoni was becoming agitated: it really was time for Ginther to mount an assault and signals from the team resulted in Hill pulling over to let his compatriot past.

The despairing Tavoni’s order on the pit board was ‘Ginther Give All’. On seeing that, Walker later wrote, ‘I knew we would win’. He added the thought that it must have been ‘terribly demoralising for someone who had been driving his balls off for laps’, but Ginther did respond with a new fastest lap of 1 minute 36.9 seconds and then, on lap 84, bettered it with 1 minute 36.3 seconds. Now Ginther was just three seconds behind Moss, who was driving with ‘the utmost sang-froid’ and responded by equalling the American’s time on the following lap.

Only three cars were now on the same lap, von Trips having fallen back with an electrical fault. The crowd was obviously enthralled by what it was witnessing. Ginther tried everything. The Ferrari was certainly faster than ‘912’ but Stirling’s race craft continually ensured that he kept the upper hand. The Ferrari pit, observed Gregor Grant, was ‘almost going berserk’, and the vast British contingent in the crowd ‘prayed fervently’. The excitement on lap 99 was said to be so intense that ‘one could almost hear the ticking of countless stop-watches’.

Those in the tribune at Tabac stared at the exit of the tunnel on the last lap. After what must have seemed an age to his supporters, Moss emerged first into the sunlight and a cheer arose from the crowd. As Moss and a very tired Ginther crossed the line a mere 3.7 seconds apart, the Englishman raised his arm in salute, the first man to win the Monaco Grand Prix three times. 

At the end of the season, Autocourse looked back and stated: ‘Stirling Moss had given an exhibition of masterly driving such that few will be privileged to witness again, a drive that places him firmly amongst the most immortal exponents of the sport.’ Praise indeed.

As for the removal of those side panels, it certainly worked in giving him sufficient ventilation, as Stirling later recalled. ‘Remember, in those days, races were almost three hours long. At Monaco, I won the race in two and three quarter hours, which is a darned long time.’

Selected extracts from Chapter 5 of Lotus 18 – The autobiography of Stirling Moss’s ‘912’  by Ian Wagstaff. No. 10 in our Great Cars Series

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