How Stirling Moss conquered Monaco in a car he didn't like – Thank Frankel it's Friday

29th May 2020
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Sixty years ago today – at least if you’re reading this on Friday 29th May  – Stirling Moss won the Monaco Grand Prix in a Lotus 18. And right now just a few of you may be scratching your heads and thinking, ‘hang on, 60 years ago was 1960, and surely it was in 1961 when Stirling and his Rob Walker Lotus 18 so famously duffed up the Ferraris on the streets of the Principality?’ And so it was.


But he also won it in 1960 and in terms of significance if not quite spectacle, it was the more important race, because it was the very first World Championship Formula 1 race won by a Lotus. Just as he had for Cooper in 1958, Stirling had delivered another maiden win for a marque not to its constructor, but a private customer. True Monaco was not quite the first time the 18 had raced, nor even its first F1 win, yet the significance of that victory is not to be underestimated.

The 18 came into being because Colin Chapman could see the front engine Lotus 12 and 16 with which he’d been struggling since 1958 were never going to win anything. They understeered and the nimble mid-engined Coopers – often driven by Stirling – would just run rings around them. So he designed the simplest mid-engined car he could: a spaceframe made up of 18 and 16 gauge steel tubes capable of carrying a range of engines so it could compete as a Junior, in Formula 2 and Formula 1. It had conventional double wishbone front suspension and brand new double transverse link rear suspension in place of the Chapman struts used on the 16. It had a low frontal area, a low centre of gravity and a phenomenally low weight, as little as 435kg even in 2.5-litre F1 trim.

The only unconventional thing about it was its sequential five speed ‘queerbox’ which as Stirling once put it was “like all things Lotus back then: quick and fragile”.


Its speed was clear from the start, the factory car qualifying second on debut in Argentina in 1960 with Innes Ireland at the wheel, a fine driver no doubt, but not Stirling who would go on to win in his Cooper. Monaco was the next round of the championship. But if Stirling needed further convincing he was in the wrong car it was provided in letters ten feet tall on Easter Monday at Goodwood where Ireland drove 18s in both F2 and F1 guises, won both races with Stirling in Walker’s Porsche and Cooper powerless to do anything about it. They had seen enough and an order for a new 18 was duly placed.

The new 18 arrived one week before Monaco allowing Stirling only the briefest of tests at Goodwood before heading for the sun, lapping in 1min 23.7sec, almost a full second faster than Ireland’s race lap record in the works car. Even so the team loaded both the Cooper and Lotus before turning south so Stirling would have the choice. And when in the little Lotus he lapped the circuit fully four seconds inside the existing lap record, his choice was made.


Pole was duly secured with Ireland no better than seventh in the factory car, but Moss didn’t have the race entirely to himself. He let Jo Bonnier in the new mid-engined BRM head the opening laps, took the lead on lap 16, gave it up to Jack Brabham when it started to rain who duly clouted the wall on lap 41 gifting the lead back to Moss. But then the Lotus’s Climax motor went off and Stirling headed for the pits gloomily presuming his work to be done. Not so: a flailing plug lead was quickly reattached, and he rejoined, re-taking the lead from Bonnier on lap 68 and holding on to the flag.

I never got the sense that Stirling ever really loved the 18 and, given that he’d smash this one to bits when a wheel came off at Spa at 140mph resulting in numerous serious injuries, and that his career-ending accident came in a Lotus 18/21, I’m not surprised at that. He always talked about it being an incredibly quick car, but not one you could hurl around with abandon like the Coopers he enjoyed so much. It was an inherently unforgiving car that required you to be on top of your game which, happily, he always was. And as he said in ‘My Cars, My Career’ written with Doug Nye, it was ‘a curious mixture of simplicity and sophistication which brought me quite a lot of success; when it wasn’t trying to kill me!’

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Andrew Frankel

  • Stirling Moss

  • Monaco

  • Monaco Grand Prix

  • 1960

  • Lotus

  • 18

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