The ’58 Portuguese GP and a Bit About Sportsmanship.

Immanuel KantIn his Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant held that it is our duty to cultivate our predispositions to greater perfection.  Let us break this down a bit further.  Kant is not arguing that we should be the best version of ourselves.  Rather, he is arguing that we have a moral obligation to rise up and be our best selves.

Whether you agree or disagree with Kant’s bold proposition, the great drivers seem to have embodied this belief.  These men seem to have had a deep conviction that it was their duty to go fastest.  From Fangio to Senna, dare I say Vettel, they have driven with conviction.  Through their machinery and through their craft, they bare their souls.

But I am locked in divide.  In short, I need to investigate further.  Are we obligated to develop only our gifts, or must we constantly improve all parts of ourselves?  In the context of GP evolved, is the driver great because he is ultimately quickest or is he great because of who he is and how he acts, as a matter of habit (on and off the track)?  I am not prepared to answer this question.  However, it is clear to me, there is more to being than greatest driver than solely the number of points they represent.  In other words, I suggest that we are judged not by what we are best at, but by the totality of our habits.

If true, this factor weighs heavily in favor of Stirling Moss.  Moss was the consummate gentleman.  In this race, he exhibited sportsmanship beyond what is expected.  And, that seems to elevate his “greatness,” but I cannot put my finger on why I feel that way.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me summarize the race so you can have a sense for what happened…

The 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix.

The Portuguese GP took place at a street circuit, entitled Circuito Boavista Oportu.  A street circuit in the oldest sense, the driver was tasked with avoiding streetlamps while navigating the tires over slick cobblestones.  Stirling Moss hurled his lightweight Vanwall around the circuit quickest in practice and took pole position.

Stirling Moss goggles no backgroundIt had rained earlier in the day, but the moisture was receding as the race got underway.  Stirling Moss, always a strong starter, took the lead after the first lap.  He quickly lost it to an up and coming Wolfgang von Trips.  Von Trips led laps two through seven.  Stirling Moss regained the lead on the eighth lap and retained it until the checkered flag.  The race, itself, was forgettable.  Rather, it is Moss’ actions once he took the goggles off that stood the test of time.

A protest was launched against Mike Hawthorn, Moss’ arch-nemesis.  It was alleged he had been facing the wrong direction at the wrong time, or some such thing (I haven’t found much in a way of a reliable account of the alleged violation).  Moss intervened with the race stewards on Hawthorn’s behalf.  He asserted that he saw the whole thing and that Hawthorn had not been afoul of the rules.  The accuracy of this contention is unclear.  In any event, the stewards were persuaded and Hawthorn’s six points for second place were reinstated.

The Concept of Sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship. “Conduct worthy of a sportsman,” 1745, from sportsman + -ship.

Sportsman.  “A person who exhibits qualities especially esteemed in those who engage in sports, as fairness, courtesy, good temper, etc,” 1707, from sports + man (n.).

The concept of sportsmanship is not new.  As illustrated, for centuries people have admired individuals for approaching games in a “sporting” manner.  I believe this begs a deeper question: why are character and games inextricably linked?

To be honest, I’ve looked into this and haven’t an actual clue.  But, I have something I would like to be true.  So, I’ll substitute that for actual knowledge.  First, we need to define “Games.”  For these purposes, a sport involves the deliberate obfuscation of a goal by obstacles and other rules.  For the driver, these are the confines of the track and the rules governing his machine and tactics.

So, when one cuts a corner, or otherwise cheats, they lower the bar to that which they are trying to achieve.  So, to be the greatest, one must maintain that bar at it’s highest point.  To cheat, lowers the bar, and cheapens the entire exercise.  So, to be the greatest, one must respect the rules of the game.

From this, it follows that the character of the driver impacts the legitimacy of their respective wins.  Thus, greatness involves some external components.  It is not just one’s on-track performance that matters.  It is also about how they carry themselves as a matter of habit.

Stirling Moss certainly embodied the core qualities of a sportsman.  He got Hawthorn reinstated.  In doing so, he gave his opponent the benefit of doubt.  Ultimately, Moss loses the championship due to Hawthorn’s reinstatement.  However, how great would’ve the championship been if Hawthorn had lost on a technicality?