Juan Manuel Fangio
Maserati 250F 1957
Born in 1911 to an Italian immigrant family of modest means, Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio was originally a mechanic. In 1934 he began racing himself, and the very fact that he survived marked him as as an eventual champion. Pre-War Argentine circuits were killing grounds, dangerous and archaic tracks that gave crowds a thrilling spectacle at the cost of many drivers’ lives. But Fangio emerged as the gladiator to beat, and a two-time Argentine National Champion (1940-41). He had high hopes of going to Europe to achieve even greater things, but World War II put those dreams on hold, while his passion for soccer at home earned him the nickname, which stuck throughout his racing career, of “El Chueco” (bandy-legs).
Finally sent to Europe to race in 1947 with the monetary backing of Juan Peron, Fangio quickly proved his ability. He would later say that “great drivers can do their best times after just two to three laps of a circuit, while others take 10, 20 or 30.” But Fangio was a puzzling figure — very unlike the kind of prima donna driver that Europeans had come to expect — bashful, even timid and with a small, reedy voice. None of this conformed with what happened when he was behind the wheel, where Fangio possessed some of the greatest innate driving abilities that his or any other age had seen. Fangio was dedicated to motor racing both as a science that had to be mastered by long study and as a fine art that had to be caressed as such — he likened it to painting.
By 1950 and the start of the modern Grand Prix era with the debut of Formula One, Fangio was driving for Alfa Romeo, finishing second to Farina but winning his own World Championship in 1951. After a severe accident in a non-championship race at Monza that broke his neck and kept him out of a car for nearly two seasons, in 1954 he had made a mid-season switch from Maserati to Mercedes, a move which helped him clinch his second world title — the first of four straight — by capturing every pole position and winning six of eight championship races. He repeated for Mercedes the next year, winning his third World Championship driving the famous “Silver Arrows” cars of
It was a great race. No one got killed.
— Juan Manuel Fangio (Monza 1958) —
storied Mercedes manager Alfred Neubauer and teamed again with Englishman Sterling Moss. The young Sterling idolized his elder mentor, and won the British GP at Aintree in 1955 — the first Briton to capture his home Grand Prix — in a race that Moss has to this day suggested “the Maestro” may have allowed him to win by the scant margin of 0.2 seconds.
But then came Le Mans. Fangio was only indirectly involved in the accident that led to the death of 81 spectators in the 1955 24 Heurs du Mans, yet it marked a turning point in his career nonetheless. Mercedes withdrew from auto racing, and there was a real danger of European governments shutting down F1 in the wake of the tragedy. Moving on to Ferrari (racing Lancias), Fangio restored Maranello and F1 to its glory after the death of former champion Alberto Ascari by posting six poles in seven races, and winning three of them (with four 2nds) to claim his 4th — and many feel greatest — World Championship.
Much like today’s mercenary F1 drivers, Fangio had a knack for spotting the best cars. He bolted Ferrari in 1957 to rejoin Maserati, winning a 5th title with such sublime performances as the German GP at the 187-turn Nürburgring — pictured above — where Fangio lost 56 seconds and the lead in a pit stop, but returned to win by letting loose the most spectacular pursuit of his life, bettering the track record for the 14.2 mile Nordschleife (“North Ring”) by an amazing 12 seconds on three consecutive laps. Fangio said, “I believe that on that day in 1957 I finally managed to master the Nürburgring, making those leaps in the dark on those curves where I had never before had the courage to push things so far.” Years later The Maestro recalled that “The victory ceremony was something else, but even so I never imagined that so many years afterward people would remember this race so clearly. And somewhere deep inside me, I told myself that never, never again was I going to drive like I did that day.” After a few races in 1958 he abruptly retired following the French GP at Reims, having nothing more to prove to anyone, saying only “It is finished.” Fangio’s Maserati was uncompetitive that day and near the end of the race, championship-leading Mike Hawthorn was about to lap him. But the Englishman had so much respect for “the old man” that he simply followed him home to the flag. Fangio returned to his garage — having saved F1 after Le Mans and setting a standard for excellence and domination that will never be matched — and died peacefully on 17 July 1995 at age 84. Of all those that have followed him, the legendary Fangio said that only Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna, both of whom ironically died in their race cars, came close to matching his driving skills.
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