The Schmuck and the Sterling Moss: A Lesson on Sportsmanship From the Late Racing Legend
My morning ritual during these days of social distancing is to stop at my local cafe, where I order a great cappuccino and what you could call a gourmet pop pie. A herd of masked customers usually walks outside, so I order online in my car and wait for the text telling me to pick up my stuff. In the meantime, I often read or listen to things on my phone. A few weeks ago, I read strange news about Audi Formula E driver Daniel Abt, who was caught in a bizarre virtual racing deception. The next day, I listened to a podcast that was the last long interview with motorsport legend Sterling Moss (directed by family friend Mia Forbes Pirie) in which he spoke about his epic sporting act in 1958. When I finally got my cappuccino, it was lukewarm. I couldn’t hit the pause button.
After listening to Moss – in 2016 and very much like his 86 years – the antenna of my writer trembled. You are constantly on the alert for random threads that might like to be linked together. Like these: Moss and Abt, two actors in the motor racing scene playing opposite roles in human behavior across two different eras. Moss, who was 28 in 1958, came from a more noble age where Formula 1 drivers looked like knights around the table of King Arthur. Abt, 27, apparently of a culture of shortcut which is measured by its number of followers. (Her? Instagram: 288K, Facebook: 47K, YouTube: 372K.)
It is also a delightfully easy story to tell. Abt, the presumably wealthy son of the founder of the racing team Abt Sportsline, conspired to have his driving replaced at one of the Race at Home Challenge events by Lorenz Hoerzing, 18, a ringing professional sim-racing. There is said to be a camera on Abt, apparently driving in Germany, while Hoerzing is actually remotely controlled from Austria. Abt, uh, Hoerzing, was third (at one point, even in the lead). Since Abt had never done so well before, everyone felt that something was going on. The scam quickly disappeared and, after being fined $ 11,000, he was fired by his Audi Formula E team. In a twist, when Formula E racing finally resumes … he can watch it on a TV screen. Pleasant.
And then there is Moss, who was legitimately celebrated at his death on April 12 for a life of nine decades of charm, style, sportiness and epic courage.
Moss is best known for his epic 1955 Mille Miglia victory in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, covering 992 miles on closed public roads at an average speed of 99 mph. His face, photographed immediately after, was that of a gladiator after the battle. The negative of a raccoon – completely black with dirt, except for two white ovals where his glasses were sitting. His eyes wore the distance from watching at 10 hours of almost non-stop streaming speed.
He was the first Englishman to win the British Grand Prix in a British-built car, a Don Quixote at the wheel of the Vanwall, fast but fragile. He would likely have won the 1955 and 56 driving world championships in the Mercedes-Benz W196 Silver Arrow Grand Prix cars if his teammate had not been the man many consider to be the greatest driver in history, Juan Manual Fangio. But even after Fangio’s retirement, Moss was never able to win the championship himself. Ridiculous, when you think of the British who have, like Jenson Button, Nigel Mansell or Damon Hill. The very tall Lewis Hamilton won it six times. It’s a lot of times.
Thus, Moss found himself as the king of the race without crown. The closest he came in 1958 at the Portuguese Grand Prix when his only title rival, Mike Hawthorne in a Ferrari, spun in the last lap. When it was reported that Hawthorne had restarted his car in the wrong direction, he was disqualified for breaking the rules. Moss won this race, and given Hawthorne’s disqualification, he also ultimately had a chance in the points battle.
But in fact, Moss had seen exactly what had happened with Hawthorne. After taking the checkered flag, Moss was slowing down when he ran into Hawthorne’s stalled car. With Hawthorne, he shouted to the commissioners not to push him, because that would disqualify him. And then Moss saw how Hawthorne started again.
When the commissioners announced the disqualification, Moss went to them and explained that they were wrong. Hawthorne never took the wrong direction on the track, he pushed and started it smoothly on an adjacent trail, which doesn’t count. At 11:00 p.m., the commissioners finally awarded Hawthorne six points for second place; he ended up winning the championship by one.
In the podcast, Forbes Pirie asked, “Do you want to start over?” He responded in the same way as for 62 years.
“Yes, because I think it’s true.”
Is there anything to know that you have won fairly and squarely? “If I were to win a race because of someone else’s woes, it would be unfortunate,” he said. “We have our own principles, and you know when you are right and when you are wrong.”
He did not win the championship. But he won a better title, even though it took four decades to finally become Sir Sterling Moss.
So here we are. The schmuck and the sportsman. I could stop here. But the problem with tidy stories may be their order.
In this brief tale, Moss does not think twice, nobly presenting his crown to Hawthorne out of a sense of fair play, while Abt devised a selfish deception to advance his career. Everyone deserves their obvious destiny: glory and infamy, respect and repulsion. It’s black and white.
This last paragraph is the number of characters in the tweets that now compress world events into chicken nugget sizes with a little left for the sauce to add a flavor of good or bad guys. Let’s finish the stories of Moss and Abt.
Moss has done all the things I described earlier, and our inclination to his sportsmanship is no less deep.
But the Portuguese Grand Prix was by no means the end of the season. There were two more for 56 more days. The next race at Monza, Moss took pole but retired, allowing Hawthorne to gain another six points from another second place. During the final, the Grand Prix of Morocco in Casablanca, Hawthorne started on pole with Moss next to him, but he came back in third position. Towards the end, another Scuderia Ferrari driver, Phil Hill, was second hopeless to catch Moss. The team ordered him to withdraw, allowing Hawthorne to pass and take over the championship – by that one point. Hawthorne immediately withdrew from the race. He only enjoyed his glory for 83 more days before dying in a car accident in England while driving a Jaguar sedan. Moss, who had sacrificed a points advantage in Portugal, lost the championship due to orders from Ferrari in Morocco.
Daniel Abt? He posted a video on his YouTube channel after his dismissal from Audi. I truncate it and modify it a lot because it is quite long and translated from German (click here to see it in full with subtitles).
Looking directly at the camera, he says: “I am approaching you with a very important, very serious and very personal video today because I think there is a lot to say about the incidents of last weekend. I will start at the beginning.
“This home race saw five races last Saturday. Everyone drives from home with the simulator. It’s not the real Formula E championship, not the cash prize – just to have fun and collect donations for UNICEF at the same time, a good cause for the kids. We had a live broadcast on Twitch with more viewers in our first broadcast than the official Formula E broadcast – they enjoyed the interaction of my conversation with the fans during the race. There were drivers who took this seriously, and there were drivers – and I’m one of them – who focused on the current.
“When we were training for this Race at Home challenge, we were talking to other simulation runners and the idea came up that it would be funny if a simulation runner basically drove for me to show real drivers what he can do . We wanted to document it and create a funny story.
“Saturday, I wanted to pretend I was driving, to relax her (the joke) afterwards. We openly communicated this live on the feed; there were 1000 people watching us talking about it, and we even sent SMS in WhatsApp groups and I gave some clues.
“After the race, it went in a direction that I could not have imagined. I was advised to donate € 10,000 to a good cause, which I did immediately. Then it happened to the media. They immediately introduced me as a cheater without giving me the chance to talk about it. I’m glad the guys from sim racing didn’t get involved and were relatively left alone compared to me.
“I can understand that we have gone too far. There is only to say: I made a huge mistake. I hope you can forgive me. I feel like I couldn’t fall deeper.
The video has been watched 904,020 times. Abt could have sneaked into the shadows like so many similar stories do. Instead, he faced his supporters, explained it, and took responsibility. He is not a schmuck; I think he is just a practical deaf and clever little joker. His stuffing went through our social media nervous system in his chicken nugget size – already dipped in bad guy sauce – and on my phone in a California parking lot.
We still have questions: are we supposed to take this interim sim race seriously? Do we understand the world better by streamlining stories beyond recognition?
During his interview, Forbes Pirie put pressure on Moss over Portugal in 1958.
“Are these principles (yours) more important than winning?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied in a tired, calm voice “because you have to live with them.”
Moss would live with him for another four years. Abt is still a young man.
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