Affectionately known as “bandy legs” by his many fans, Juan Manuel Fangio was born in Balcarce, Argentina the son of an Italian immigrant in 1911. After military service he opened his own garage and would race in local events. These “local” events were not the weekend meetings that occur all over England but long-distance races held over mostly dirt roads up and down South America.
Fangio’s first race at eighteen was in a Ford taxi. One particular race, which he won in 1940, the Gran Premio del Norte was almost 10,000 kilometres long. This race between Buenos Aires, up through the Andes to Lima, Peru and back again took nearly two weeks with stages held each day. No mechanics were allowed and any repairs would have to be completed by either the driver or co-driver at the end of each stage.
At Monza 1953 my mechanics could not find why my car was vibrating,” he recalled. “They told me on Saturday night, ‘You go and sleep well because your car is not going to vibrate tomorrow.’ When the race started my car was not vibrating. The car that was vibrating was [team-mate] Bonetto’s. During the night the mechanics had swapped the cars and repainted the numbers.” As told by Juan-Manuel Fangio
Following many successes driving all makes of American modified stock cars; Fangio was sponsored by the government and sent to Europe to continue his career after the end of World War II. It was not until 1949 at the age of 37 that he achieved regular success on the European circuit. In 1950 he was given a drive at Alfa Romeo. Battling with his teammate Nino Farina he ended up in second place but the die had been cast.
The next year Fangio won the first of his five titles. 1952 saw him suffer his first major accident, at Monza, when he broke his neck and had to miss the rest of the season.
The accident may have been caused by a promise Fangio had made to take part at the race in Monza after his race in Budapest. Because he missed the connecting flight he had to drive himself the whole night from Paris to Monza. Only half an hour before the race began he arrived and took up his starting position completely overtired. He had promised to race at Monza following a race in Belfast but due to missed connections he found himself driving all night from Paris only to arrive at the circuit one half hour prior to the race.
Having to start from the back of the grid he made a rare mistake and the Maserati he was driving went into a big slide. Being extremely tired his reactions were not what they would normally have been and he could not regain control of the car before it hit an earthen bank and somersaulted in the air. Fangio was thrown out and would spend the next few hours hovering near death.
The following year he returned at the wheel of a Maserati and finished the season in second place. Fangio always made it his policy to garner the loyalty of the team mechanics. He told them that they would receive ten percent of any winnings. During practice for the Italian Grand Prix he complained of a severe vibration but come race day the problem had completely disappeared. The mechanics had switched cars in the middle of the night and given Fangio’s vibrating car to his teammate Bonetto.
In 1954 he moved to the Mercedes team and won his second World Championship. Fangio drove twelve Grands Prix for Mercedes winning eight times.
This began a string of four straight titles. In 1955 he won a particularly brutal race at the Argentine Grand Prix. The three-hour race was run during a grueling heat wave. With a track temperature of over 135º few drivers other than Fangio were able to complete the race.
I thought I was taking this corner pretty quickly, and in the early stages I was dicing with Fangio for the lead. First time through, touch the brakes, turn in – wham! Fangio goes by on the inside, oversteering it on the throttle! Later in the lap I got past again, then next time into the corner – wham! Exactly the same thing again. I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t braking at all …” Tony Brooks discussing The Curva Grande – Monza a 160 mph corner in 1957
In 1957 the championship arrived at the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring where it was generally acknowledge by the Grand Prix Circus that this would be Fangio’s last season.He was determined to finish on top. Fangio and Hawthorn qualified one-two and the race looked set for an epic battle.The Maserati of Fangio started the race on half tanks and it was incumbent on him to build a large enough margin that would allow him to pit yet retain his lead.
This he started to do, blistering the track at a record pace but Hawthorn and Collins in the Ferraris had other ideas.On the twelfth lap Fangio dove into the pits.
Even though everyone in the Maserati pits was prepared the pit stop cost Fangio the lead when both Collins and Hawthorn thundered past. Finally the work was done and Fangio re-entered the fray.
All seamed loss as Fangio was now 45 seconds behind the leading duo and few thought that even the great Fangio could make up this difference. Fangio was one of the few as he began chopping off large chunks of the gap to the leaders. In the Ferrari pit panic took hold as they pleaded for their drivers to go ever faster.
Fangio would later say that he drove faster than he ever wanted to drive again. The lap record came tumbling down and he would soon be lapping at a faster average speed than that with which he had qualified! Both Collins and Hawthorn continued to race at a furious pace. Peter Lewis, the famous British journalist said that “he (Fangio) might almost have been pullingthem backwards on the end of a rope for on the twentieth lap Fangio sliced eleven seconds off their lead. Fangio caught Collins first and passed him on the inside but the Englishman returned the favor and pushed Fangio back into third.”
The second time Fangio drew alongside and then slowly drew away. Just the Collins was hit in the eye by a stone thrown up by the Maserati’s rear wheel but was saved by his goggles. Now it was Hawthorn’s turn and still Fangio came on; actually driving straight on in one corner to pass force his way past Hawthorn. They would finish three seconds apart with Collins coming in third. The victory gave Fangio an unassailable lead in what would become his fifth and final World Championship.
So ended the maestro’s greatest race. In 1958, driving his last race, the French Grand Prix he finished fourth and retired. His Maserati was not competitive that day and was about to be lapped by the race leader Mike Hawthorn. As a mark of respect for the great man known as “the maestro” by his peers Hawthorn braked and allowed Fangio to cross the line ahead of him. Getting out of the car after the race he said to his mechanic simply, “It is finished.” Juan-Manuel Fangio was famous for winning a race at the slowest possible speed.
His record of wins against starts will probably never be matched.