Formula 1,  History,  Racing drivers,  Single seaters,  The Pantheon

The Pantheon: Juan Manuel Fangio – the greatest

There’ll never be another driver like Juan Manuel Fangio. In the year that the Formula 1 World Championship is marking its 70th anniversary, when the sport’s current master driver stands on the cusp of breaking all of its proudest records, Fangio’s position remains unassailable. It is possible that Fangio is the greatest racing driver who has ever lived; at the very least he was as great as any who have a realistic competing claim.

San José de Balcarce is a small town 260 miles to the south of Buenos Aires. It’s the kind of place that nothing much ever happens, nor is it ever expected to. It was here that Juan Manuel Fangio was born, on Saturday June 24th 1911, two days after the Coronation of King George V at Westminster Abbey. Grasped by a passion for cars and mechanical engineering, Fangio would leave school at the age of 13 to work in the local garage of Miguel Angel Casas as an assistant mechanic.

Following his compulsory military service – as well as a severe bout of pneumonia at age 16 which proved almost fatal and left him bedridden for two months – Fangio would open his own automotive garage in Balcarce. Initially keen to pursue a career as a professional footballer, his skill as a driver was first noted during his time in the Argentinian army. In 1936, aged 25, he entered his first motor race, driving a 1929 Ford Model A which he had rebuilt himself.

Early years and city-to-city races

Motor racing in South America at the time was unrecognisable from the kind of closed-circuit racing that had become the norm in Europe. It had more in common with the epic city-to-city races from the dawn of the motorised horseless carriage.

The events in which Fangio would cut his teeth were unimaginably perilous trails of tens of thousands of kilometres; across rutted, unpaved dirt roads, through overgrown malarial swamps and narrow tracks teetering high on mountain passes, in cars without even the most basic safety precautions.

One such event, the Gran Premio del Norte of 1940, started in Buenos Aires before running across the Andes, through Bolivia and Peru, before returning to the Argentinian capital. It would take 15 days to complete and would prove to be Fangio’s first major victory.

However, the winning driver was never under any illusions, describing the entire event afterwards as “a terrible ordeal”. It was his grounding in these kind of mortally dangerous inter-city events in unspeakably hostile conditions that would lead to his avowed tactical decision to always try to win at the slowest possible speed.

In 1948, competing in a 20-day trial between Buenos Aires and the Venezuelan capital Caracas, Fangio lost control on a left hand bend in heavy fog. The Maestro would injure his neck in the resultant crash, but his co-driver Daniel Urrutia sustained a basilar skull fracture and would die shortly afterwards in a Peruvian hospital.

Deeply affected by the loss, Fangio declared that he would never race again. However, his successes had alerted the Peron government, who convinced him to continue for the pride of Argentina. They bought him a Maserati race car and sponsored his move to Europe.

The dawn of Formula 1

Arriving in Italy – his family’s ancestral home – for the 1949 season, Fangio did not cut a particularly stereotypical racing driver’s figure. Already 38 years old, he cut a balding, paunchy and slightly stooped figure. Often, he would be one of the oldest drivers on the grid. However, his skill was undeniable: having returned home to win the 1949 Argentinian Grand Prix, he would go back to Europe to enter six more Grands Prix, winning 4. For the inaugural season of the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, he would secure a seat in the crushingly dominant Alfa Romeo team.

Mere statistics rarely tell the whole story of any great sportsman’s career. Fangio’s time in Formula 1 took place at a time when a season would be comprised of between six and eight events, at a time when the life expectancy for competitors was also drastically lower than it is today.

Fangio’s entire Formula 1 career encompassed 51 races, while Lewis Hamilton has recently recorded his 90th Grand Prix win. Nevertheless, the bare numbers are still able to speak volumes for the kind of dominance that Fangio brought to his chosen discipline. From those 51 Grand Prix starts, he recorded 24 victories, 29 pole positions and 23 fastest laps. Contesting eight seasons, Fangio won five World Championships.

The first of these came in 1951 with Alfa Romeo, having only missed out to his teammate Giuseppe Farina in the 1950 series due to bad luck with mechanical reliability. By the end of 1951, Fangio had started 13 Grands Prix, winning six and finishing second on a further two occasions. He held the sport in an iron grip. However, his genial manner and scrupulous ethics had endeared him to his fellow practitioners to such an extent that, to a man, they cheerfully conceded that their Argentinian rival was in another class.

1952, however, proved a complete washout. Fatigued from contesting the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod the day before, Fangio arrived for a non-Championship race at Monza and on the second lap made a rare mistake, at a time when mistakes were almost always extremely costly. Fangio’s car rolled over at the super-fast Curva Grande and threw its driver into the trees: he was lucky to escape with a broken neck. He would miss the entirety of the 1952 Formula 1 season recouperating in Argentina.

Fangio rules the world

Upon his return in 1953, Fangio was thrust into a new world. In 1952 and 1953, with competitive Formula 1 machinery still scarce and Europe still rebuilding from the horrors of the Second World War, the sport was run to Formula 2 regulations and was dominated by Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari. Fangio, racing for Maserati, would win just a single race that year – fittingly enough, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza – to secure second place in the overall standings. It would prove to be the last time Fangio would not end the year as World Champion until 1958.

With the return to Formula 1 regulations in 1954 came the re-entry of Mercedes-Benz, a company with a hard-won reputation for excellence and dominance of top line motor racing. Fangio, of course, was the team’s first choice to lead their driving strength. The magnificent Mercedes W196 car wouldn’t be ready until the French Grand Prix, the season’s fourth round. No matter: Fangio contested the opening rounds in the new Maserati 250F, winning both of the events that he entered. When he finally got his hands on his new Silver Arrow, his rivals would have been just as well advised to not bother turning up, Fangio winning 4 of the season’s remaining 6 races.

Four more wins from six events secured the title for Mercedes again in 1955, but it proved to be a trying and tragic year in motor racing. On June 11th, a Mercedes-Benz driven by Pierre Levegh was launched into the main grandstand in an accident at the Le Mans 24 Hours, killing its driver and 81 spectators.

It was, and remains, the worst accident in the history of motor racing and had far-reaching consequences. Racing was banned in a number of countries and was almost curtailed in many more. The existential threat to the sport would fade away with time, but Mercedes-Benz withdrew from the sport at the end of the season. They would not return for 55 years. Fangio, who had been just yards behind Levegh when his 300SL contacted the back of Lance Macklin’s car, would later credit a warning hand raised by his late teammate in his final moments with saving his life.

This was a characteristically generous tribute from Fangio, and there’s no reason to doubt that it was genuine. But a warning sign is only any good to someone with the capacity to react to it, and Fangio frequently proved to have a preternatural ability to avoid trouble. Despite being involved in a furious battle for supremacy with Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar, he was awake enough to the broader picture to spot Levegh’s desperate signal, just as he was able to avoid the multi-car pile up on the second lap that would retire 8 of the 19 competitors at the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix.

Fangio later recounted that a change in the colour of the grandstand ahead made him slow down before he arrived at the affected corner. This, it transpired, had been caused by the spectators all turning around to watch the carnage. The backs of their heads created a darker mosaic than the one Fangio was accustomed to, a subtle change but one that he was able to assimilate and adjust to, at racing speed.

With Mercedes gone for 1956, Fangio accepted a drive with Ferrari. The Lancia-Ferrari D50 car would prove to be significantly less dominant that the machinery to which he had become accustomed, but nevertheless Fangio was able to secure three Grand Prix wins from seven entries.

The teams arrived at Monza for the season’s final race with the Argentinian leading his English teammate Peter Collins by 8 points in the standings. However, on race day, Fangio’s car succumbed to a broken steering arm. Collins, then leading the race and on course for his first title, spotted Fangio in the pits and stopped to hand his own car over to his team leader. Collins would later explain that the thought of doing differently never crossed his mind: as long as Fangio was in the field, he considered it absurd for anyone else to be World Champion.

Juan Manuel Fangio (1911-1995), five-time Formula 1 World Champion
Juan Manuel Fangio and Maserati 250F: an irresistible combination

The Immortal

Fangio’s fifth and final World Championship would be secured in 1957, having left Ferrari and returned to Maserati and his favourite car, the 250F. The 1957 season would prove to be his masterpiece. The 250F was never the overall class of the field, but a car that was forgiving and rewarding to its drivers in equal measure. In 1957, against competition from Ferrari and the nascent challenge of the British Vanwall cars, Fangio would win four out of the first five races he entered. Job done.

Statistics, though, are again inadequate to describe what Fangio was doing in his red Maserati. The photographs of him four-wheel drifting the 250F at any number of lurid angles into the terrifying, top gear downhill first corner at Rouen-les-Essarts on his way to winning the French Grand Prix are some indication. But then came his immortal race at the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on 4th August.

The 1957 German Grand Prix is perhaps one of the most famous of the Formula 1 World Championship’s 1000-plus races, but it is solely Fangio’s performance on that day that made it so. Fangio qualified his Maserati on pole position, 2.8 seconds ahead of the second-placed Ferrari of Mike Hawthorn. However, Fangio reckoned that the Ferrari car would prove kinder to its tyres in the race, meaning his best chance of victory would be to start with half a tank of fuel and stop to refill and replace its rubber at the race’s mid point.

Fangio was spot on in his assessment. On race day, the Ferraris would run non-stop. Everything had been forseen, except for the disastrous cock-up the Maserati team would make of the pit stop. Having led for the opening 13 laps, Fangio entered the pit lane 30 seconds ahead of the chasing Ferraris of Hawthorn and Peter Collins. Alas, the mechanic changing his rear left tyre dropped the wheel nut and it rolled under the car. Fangio’s entire margin was gobbled up by the time they found it again. When he eventually rejoined the race, he was 48 seconds in arrears to the now second-placed Collins.

So began the most legendary charge in Formula 1 history. Taking advantage of the long lap at the Nürburgring – each circuit was 14 miles in length – Fangio spent the first couple of laps after his stop holding position, figuring that the Ferrari drivers would receive the signal that his Maserati was now out of the running and that they could comfortably control the pace.

Again, his thinking proved to be quite correct. On lap 15, he pounced, beginning to run a series of laps the likes of which the Nürburgring had never seen. For seven successive laps he would break the lap record, carving up to 15 seconds per lap out of the cars ahead. Fangio’s pole position time, itself a track record, had been 9m25.6s. In the race, he would ultimately record a time of 9m17.4, 8.2 seconds faster than anyone had ever gone around Formula 1’s most difficult, daunting and dangerous track.

On the 21st and penultimate lap, Fangio carved his way past both of the Ferraris. He would win the race by 3.6 seconds from Hawthorn, with Collins already fully 35 seconds in arrears. It was a drive worthy of any World Champion, and fittingly it secured him his fifth title. It would also prove to be his 24th and final Grand Prix win. Apt, as no other drive could possibly have ever topped it.

Fangio would later acknowledge to British journalist Nigel Roebuck that he had never driven like it before and he knew he never would again. That day, he argued, he had conquered the Nürburgring but he was well aware that on another day, it could have claimed him. For two days after the race, Fangio found himself unable to sleep, still replaying the chances he had taken, over and over in his head.

He had announced at the start of the 1957 season that it would be his last, but again Fangio would be tempted back for 1958, albeit in a reduced capacity. He drove a factory Maserati 250F to 4th place at the season-opening Argentinian Grand Prix, securing pole position and fastest lap along the way despite ostensibly being in retirement. He would also contest that season’s Indy 500, then a round of the Formula 1 World Championship, for the first and only time. However, he failed to qualify for the race.

The Maestro, the ambassador

His final Grand Prix was at Reims, France on 6th July 1958 in a self-entered 250F. He would finish 4th that day, with the race winner Mike Hawthorn deliberately dropping back from his wheeltracks in the final few circuits, unwilling to subject Fangio to the indignity of being lapped.

In retirement, Fangio would serve as the President of Mercedes-Benz Argentina, as well as perhaps the most beloved and gracious of all the senior ambassadors the sport has ever known. Every World Champion between 1958 and The Maestro’s eventual death, aged 84 on 17th July 1995, would queue up to enjoy an audience with the great man. Each would come away starry-eyed and dry-mouthed, in spite of the fact that Fangio spoke no English and Formula 1’s next Spanish-speaking World Champion wouldn’t be crowned until a decade after his passing.

To try and directly compare drivers from across different eras and different generations is a fool’s errand if there ever was one. A definitive answer to the forever begging question about the identity of the greatest of all time, then, will remain forever elusive. But have no doubt and make no mistake: for as long as cars are raced anywhere and in whatever form, Juan Manuel Fangio will be a part of the conversation. An unforgettable champion, with class to spare, he remains Formula 1’s immovable foundation.

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