Who was the great Juan Manuel Fangio?
- Erwin van Delft
- July 26, 2008
- 1950 F1 season - The very first World Drivers Championship, by Jikku George
- 1958 French GP - The Maestro's swansong, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Alberto Ascari - Cursed natural talent, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas/Leif Snellman
- Luigi Fagioli - The Abruzzi robber, by Leif Snellman
- Nino Farina - The hard man, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Stirling Moss - How Stirling got his Mercedes breakthrough, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
Juan Manuel Fangio
XIX German GP (August 4, 1957)
Juan Manuel Fangio was born in in Balcarce, Argentina on June 24th, 1911, as the son of Italian immigrants Loreto and Herminia Fangio. Juan Manuel's names were chosen in honour of Saint John and the Spanish king.
Don Loreto was a painter and a stone mason, good in what he was doing and indeed able to raise the standard of living of his family. Juan Manuel went to school at the age of 6 and at the age of 11 went to work in a metal shop. Soon after, he started working in a garage, cleaning parts for reuse while studying their use and function. At 13 years of age he got himself a job at Miguel Vigganio, a Studebaker garage, where he was very glad to hear that it also prepared racing cars. There, he developed a fascination for motor-car engineering while endulging in road racing when allowed the opportunity. Soon Mr Vigganio entrusted him with a 4-cylinder Overland. Fangio fell in love with the car the very same minute but he also loved to play soccer. That's where he earned his nickname El Chueco, meaning 'Bowlegs'.
Sadly he was put down with pleurisy and had to rest for a full year. Once recovered, his army service came up and on return he was fully fit again. Then his father gave him a place to start his own garage. Soon it was crowded with car owners.
Unlike some of the prima donnas Europe was used to Juan Manuel Fangio was a shy and even timid man with a soft and friendly voice. It was in high contrast to the driver Fangio, who as soon as he took place behind the steering wheel changed into a man with the best driver qualities ever shown. In hindsight Fangio was born to be a racing driver. Years of study turned his art into perfection. Fangio often compared it with painting.
More facts about the 'Maestro'
Juan Manuel Fangio was known for winning at the lowest possible speed. His record of 24 wins out of 51 World Championship Grand Prix starts (a win rate of 41%) will probably never be broken. He saved Grand Prix racing after the horrific events at Le Mans in 1955 and put down a dominant record that still leaves every driver aspiring. It would take until 2003 and 2004 before some of his records would be broken. But despite Michael Schumacher's best efforts Fangio once said that only Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna matched his driving skills - well, almost. Fangio died at the age of 84, on July 17th, 1995.
Pre-war racing in Argentina
He drove his first race in 1936, at the age of 25, when he got himself a rebuilt Ford Taxi from 1929, racing it on a dirt track using the alias Rivadavia so his parents wouldn’t discover his new, dangerous hobby. He ran third until his driveshaft failed but he already got everyone’s attention. The fact that he survived made him a future champion, people said, since the pre-war Argentinean circuits were real death traps.
With the help of friends he bought himself a 1939 Chevrolet and Fangio started to do mountain races. These tended to last for several days across an often very difficult and narrow mountain route. This class was named carras, and Fangio won his first big event in 1940, the Grande Premio Internacional del Norte. Fangio seemed to be the best gladiator at this and became the national champion in 1940 and 1941 before going to Europe with the highest of expectations. But the fact that World War II was raging wasn’t quite helpful.
After the war
During the war Fangio was unable to race so he went into the business of buying and selling used tyres and trucks. These being very much wanted objects in war time, he quickly made himself a small fortune. With this money he could sponsor himself in motor racing after the war had ended. He just hoped that he wouldn’t be too old when that happened...
Finally, in 1947, the engines were revved up again, and in 1948 Juan Peron, the Argentine president, founded a national team for Oscar Galvez and Juan Manuel Fangio. The two came over to Europe fighting the best drivers in the world, resulting in two important wins for the team. Encouraged by the results, the Argentine government bought two new Maseratis for 1949. Fangio won the first four races straight away and finally took six wins out of ten starts.
Participation in the Drivers World Championship
Alfa Romeo had planned to seize all its motor racing activities after the 1949 season but in the end decided to stay on a little longer to enter the inaugural World Championship for Drivers. Alfa Romeo entered with a 15-year old car: the 158 'Alfetta', with old hands Luigi Fagioli, Nino Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio on the driving force. Fangio and Farina were the main title contenders, and their battle lasted until the sixth and final race of the season. It was decided when Fangio's Alfetta let him down, causing him to retire.
Fangio made up for it in 1951, winning his first title against growing Ferrari opposition, but spent part of 1952 on the sidelines when at Monza he had his first big shunt. He broke his neck and would be recuperating for the rest of the season. What had happened? He was in Belfast and had promised to race at Monza but he missed the airplane. Then Prince Bira promised to take Fangio with him after the race, but for whatever reason that never happened. Thus Juan Manuel had to drive from Paris to Monza by himself, driving all night and arriving some 30 minutes before the start of the race. Exhausted, he still started the race, dead last, until making a very rare mistake in his Maserati, probably because of being too tired. He couldn’t correct the car going sideways and he was launched from the car. For the next few hours, he was more dead than alive.
In 1953, Fangio was back behind the wheel of a Maserati. He managed to become second in the World Championship F1 after being the better of Alberto Ascari in the second half of the season while Ascari had dominated the first half of 1953 in his Ferrari. Fangio had always been very true to his mechanics since being a mechanic himself helped him understand their work much better. So he always donated 10% of his prize money to his mechanics. This helped when during free practice for the Italian Grand Prix Fangio complained about a vibration. But on race day the vibrations were completely gone. It turned out that his mechanics had switched his car with that of team mate Felice Bonetto, repainting the starting numbers without anyone noticing.
Driving for Mercedes-Benz
Juan Manuel drove the first two races for Maserati in 1954 while waiting for Mercedes-Benz to enter Grand Prix racing. Fangio, Kling and Herrmann were taken on to drive the beautiful, streamlined W196. That year Mercedes-Benz took pole position in every Grand Prix it entered, winning six out of eight races, while Fangio won eight out of the twelve races he started for the German team, bringing him his second and third World Championship.
In 1955, his teammate was young Stirling Moss who was almost Fangio's equal and tried to copy his driving style by following him closely, earning them the nickname of 'The Train'. It was also the time when Moss started to call Fangio the 'Maestro'.
Then came Le Mans 1955… Although driving a Mercedes-Benz, Fangio had nothing to do with the big accident that killed 81 spectators after Levegh's Mercedes hurtled off into the packed grandstands. Nevertheless, it was a turning point in his career - in the career of anyone involved in motorsport at the time. At the end of the season Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing activities ‘never to return’ and there was serious thought of banning Grand Prix racing from Europe.
Rescueing Grand Prix racing
In 1956, Fangio moved to Ferrari to drive the Ferrari-Lancia D50, a car developed by his former opponent Alberto Ascari, and restored the glory of Grand Prix racing by taking six pole positions from seven races, winning three times and finishing second twice. That gave him his fourth title and according to some it was his best.
Fangio moved back to Maserati in 1957 and this led to his fifth and final championship. Sometimes it is said that Fangio could almost smell what would be the best car in the upcoming season. He drove his best race ever in 1957, at the Nürburgring, the 22.8km circuit with no less then 174 corners. Although his Maserati was outpaced by the Ferraris that weekend he somehow managed to pull a gap of over 30 seconds. Halfway into the race, after 12 laps, he came into the pits for fuel and new tires, losing him 56 seconds. After that, Fangio drove like never before, breaking the lap record lap after lap and astonishing friend and foe by catching the two leading Ferraris, eventually squeezing past both of them on the final lap, winning the race and his fourth consecutive title. He was awarded by the French Academy of Sport for this most spectacular finish of all time.
Fangio drove his last two races in 1958 and finished fourth in the French GP. After that he quit. His Maserati was uncompetitive that way and near the end of the race, race leader Mike Hawthorn was about to lap him. But the Englishman had so much respect for the 'Maestro' that he simply followed him home to the flag. Once Fangio got out of his car he simply told his mechanics that “It’s over”.