Risk Assessor - Blackbourn 453

By: Rob Blackbourn, Photography by: Getty Images

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stirling moss stirling moss

Debate about how far society should go with risk-reduction measures isn't confined to dealing with the pandemic

Recent reports of Murray Walker’s death at age 97 caught my eye and brought back happy memories of both his appealing F1 commentary style and an interesting personal conversation with him about 10 years ago. To me the way our paths crossed was quite bizarre. The setting for my chat with "Mr Formula 1" was of all places, in the pits at a motorcycle event – the Isle of Man TT. And I spotted him among the crowd as he was being interviewed for Australian TV by, wait for it, "Mr V8 Supercars", Mark Skaife. I loved the contradictions packed into that moment. Anyway a memorable takeaway from my conversation with "Mr Formula 1" (who I soon learned had history with bike racing) was this surprising comment: "In my opinion the Isle of Man TT meeting is the greatest motorsport event in the world."

Not long after reading Walker’s obituary I watched a short doco from a few years back called The Racers that Stopped the World. It surfaced in a discussion on the Shannons Club site led by Unique Cars contributor Dr John Wright, about the transformative effect of disc brakes on motor racing in the 1950s. Among many motor-racing luminaries taking part in the documentary was Murray Walker. The initial focus was on Jaguar’s pioneering role with disc brakes that first won it victory in the 1952 Grand Prix de Reims with an XK120, before similarly equipped C-Types dominated the 1953 Le Mans 24-hour event. Given that Stirling Moss, the British ‘Boy Wonder’ at the time, was chosen by Jaguar to spearhead its on-track efforts with cars featuring the innovative braking technology, it’s no surprise that the documentary focused heavily on Moss, a process that incidentally filled in some gaps in my knowledge of the man.


Circuit safety-check, Manx-style

One particular comment about Moss from Walker made me prick up my ears, as he took the conversation down an unexpected but interesting sidetrack: "Stirling is practically a voice in the wilderness these days (circa 2012) because Stirling feels, as do I, that there ought still to be an element of danger in motor racing because that is part of the attraction. That is what gets the adrenaline going in the drivers, the competitors, and the spectators."

Included file footage produced direct comments on the subject from Moss:
"One of the reasons I raced was because it was dangerous, because danger to me is something exciting. It’s something I’m frightened of – of course I’m frightened of hurting myself. But it gives you a tremendous kick.

"When a young man gets into a car and realizes that he could get killed, it makes it more meaningful.

"I went into motor racing wanting the danger and enjoying the danger."


Spot the F1 driver if you can

It’s no doubt relevant that Moss came to the sport just after World War II, a time when people had become accustomed to danger and death being part of everyday life. It was a time when typically four or five motorsport competitors died in race crashes each year in Europe. Martin Brundle observed that even as late as the 1970s racing drivers expected one in seven of their number to be killed during a season.

Then came the strong contrary voice, defending the numerous measures that have reduced the risks in motor sport – it was the voice of Jackie Stewart lamenting the regrettable and unnecessary loss of life in motor racing, explaining that he has 25 separate wooden benches at his property in Buckinghamshire, each dedicated to the memory of a close friend among his competitors who died. Stewart said clearly and unambiguously: "That was wrong. That had to stop."

It’s obvious that safety-focused improvements to circuit layouts, vehicle design, driver restraints and driver protective-gear have significantly reduced motorsport’s "danger" to an extent that meets the expectations of our increasingly risk-averse societies. Clearly there are those who suspect it has gone too far. Has it, I wonder? And whose opinion on the subject really matters?

As I look back to that day at the Isle of Man, at an event considered unacceptably dangerous by some of today’s more safety-conscious motorsport observers, I’m beginning to understand more fully what prompted Murray Walker to offer such high praise for the event, given what I now know about his support for Stirling Moss’s attitude.


From Unique Cars #453, May 2021

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