Juan Manuel Fangio (June 24, 1911 – July 17, 1995) was a racing car driver from Argentina, who dominated the first decade of Formula One racing. He won five Formula One World Driver’s Championships — a record which stood for 46 years until eventually beaten by Michael Schumacher — with four different teams (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati), a feat that has not been repeated since. Many still consider him to be the greatest driver of all time.
Fangio was born to Italian immigrants on June 24, 1911 in the small country town of Balcarce in Argentina – seemingly a very far cry from a future career as a five-time Formula 1 world champion. But the youngster, who did an apprenticeship as a mechanic, was inspired by his fellow countrymen’s passion for motor racing. He came into contact with the local racing driver scene at an early age, gained some experience at the wheel himself and learned how to rebuild vehicles for racing. In 1932, he opened his own car workshop, and four years later Fangio competed in his first race in a converted Ford taxi.
After the end of World War II, Fangio made the switch from rebuilt standard passenger cars to thoroughbred racing cars, and entered the international racing arena. In 1950, he came second in the World Championship driving for Alfa Romeo, before going on to win his first world title for the Italian car maker in 1951 at the wheel of the Tipo 159 Alfetta.
During the 1952 season, when the World Championship was switched to Formula 2, Fangio suffered a serious accident in Monza. He spent the remainder of the year convalescing from his injuries, most notably from one he sustained to his spine. He was already back in the racing seat in 1953 though, when he finished second in the World Championship driving the A6GCM for Maserati.
The 1954 season saw Fangio drive for both Maserati and Mercedes-Benz. Racing director Alfred Neubauer signed the Argentinean driving ace as the captain of the Silver Arrows racing team. The Stuttgart-based outfit had been developing the W 196 R racing car for the new Formula 1 season since 1953. It was powered by a 257 hp inline eight-cylinder engine with a displacement of 2.5 litres, desmodromic valves and direct petrol injection. Apart from the Streamliner version, a classic Formula racing car with exposed wheels was also created. The new Silver Arrows were not ready for the start of the season, so Fangio still competed in a Maserati 250F in the first three races, winning at Argentina and Belgium.
On 4 July 1954, Fangio lined up for his first ever grand prix in a Mercedes-Benz: exactly 40 years after Mercedes driver Christian Lautenschlager drove to victory in Lyon, the Stuttgart team returned to the fray at the French Grand Prix in Reims. Fangio took the chequered flag ahead of teammate Karl Kling. The apparently effortless switch from Maserati to the W 196 R once again underlined Fangio’s immense ability to adapt: ever since taking part in the tough endurance races in his home country, he seemed to be able to extract the very best from every vehicle. It was this virtuoso improvisational skill that led to victory for the Argentinean time and time again.