On November 3, 1990 I enjoyed breakfast at Jimmy Watson’s restaurant in Adelaide, Australia. The food was great but the reason I remember sitting at the corner table had less to do with the menu and everything to do with my hosts. An elderly couple sitting opposite a young cadet journalist like me was an odd match but I was there to interview a man his peers simply referred to as the maestro.
Forget that generations of fans idolised Juan Manuel Fangio as the greatest racing driver of all time, it was his competitors like Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins who looked up to him the most.
The well dressed, elderly man sitting opposite was none other than J.M. Fangio, a quietly spoken gent who not only survived the most dangerous era of racing but debuted at an age when many were retiring and then went on to win five world championships. For more than half a century after his retirement, Fangio maintained the greatest winning percentage in Formula One history.
Well dressed in a casual way with a tailored blue, open neck shirt, white chinos and a cream sports jacket. An immaculately folded handkerchief protruded from his top pocket to match the cravat neatly tucked around his neck and into his shirt.
With graying, slicked back hair, the then 79-year old’s statuesque figure and broad shoulders contradicted a surprisingly humble personality that smiled frequently during our discussion. His eyes gave away a lifetime of stories without needing words while his softly-spoken, even mousy voice, contradicted his masculine frame and the fighter pilot-style stories he regaled.
“In 10 years of racing, 30 drivers, most of whom were my friends, were killed behind the wheel,” Fangio said.
In 10 years of racing, 30 drivers, most of whom were my friends, were killed behind the wheel,
His voice trailed off in that way many old Grand Prix drivers do when they talk of friends that will stay forever young and in some ways you can see an almost resentment in his eyes when you talk about the safety and financial comfort of modern day racers.
“I have very little contact with current drivers but when I do talk to them, it is not about racing. Modern drivers can retire after winning one world championship, I won five championships and I still had to go to work.”
After retiring at the age of 47 in 1958, Fangio turned to selling cars and picked up the Argentine Mercedes concession before being appointed president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina in 1974.
Photo courtesy of The Wheel Hub.
Photo courtesy of The Wheel Hub.
Photo courtesy of The Wheel Hub.
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One of six children, Fangio’s parents were hard working Italian immigrants from the Abruzzi region who settled in Balcarce, Argentina and sent young Juan off to work as a mechanic at the age of 11 in 1923. It was in these formative years that he gained the vital skills he would use to magnificent effect decades later to nurse injured race cars across finish lines all over Europe.
Fangio’s first taste of racing came in cross-country endurance marathons piloting crude, self-prepared V8 Fords around Argentina for up to four weeks at a time. Overcoming astonishing hardships and the death of a close friend in a roll-over accident, Fangio scored many victories before moving to Europe to begin Grand Prix racing at the age of 38.
"Most of us who drove quickly were bastards," his rival and Mercedes team mate, Stirling Moss once said.
Moss, who coined the maestro name said he loved Fangio like a father. "I can't think of any facets of Fangio’s character which you wouldn't like to have in your own," he added.
In seven Formula One seasons, Fangio was world champion five times with four teams and runner-up twice. In his 51 championship Grands Prix he started from the front row 48 times (including 29 pole positions) and set 23 fastest race laps en route to 35 podium finishes, 24 of which were victories.
He won two championships with Mercedes-Benz and one each for Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati.
Enzo Ferrari never cared for Fangio after he moved to the Scuderia in 1956 to replace Alberto Ascari who was killed while testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza.
Despite winning his fourth title with Ferrari, Enzo insisted it was his car and not Fangio which won the title even though Fangio was forced to use his team-mate's car for the Argentinian, Monaco and Italian GPs after his own car suffered continual mechanical problems.
Yet Ferrari quipped after his star driver moved on to arch rival, Maserati; "Fangio did not remain loyal to any marque and used every endeavour to ensure that he would always drive the best car."
Stirling Moss was quick to point out why Fangio won so many championships.
"Because he was the best bloody driver! The cheapest method of becoming a successful Grand Prix team was to sign up Fangio."
Though perhaps it was because he befriended his mechanics and was never shy to pick up a spanner to help out that some times those mechanics repaid the maestro in a less than scrupulous manner.
“In one of the last races of 1953 at Monza, Maserati gave me a very powerful car which was extremely fast but it was shaking badly at 7000rpm,” he told me in his squeaky voice.
“I asked my mechanics to do something but by Saturday afternoon the vibration was still there and I was concerned that it wouldn’t be fixed in time. They said ‘Fangio, go to sleep, tomorrow your car will be ready without problems.’
“The next day, the car ran beautifully and over 80 laps, dicing with Farina and Ascari in Ferraris and my team mate Marimon, I won. Later, Marimon came over and asked how was my car because his had been shaking badly all day.
“It was then that I realised why the paint on the numbers of our cars were wet when we went to the start line.
“Can you imagine that happening today,” he pondered.
If that wasn’t enough, at the season-ending Italian Grand Prix of 1956, Fangio's Ferrari team mate, Peter Collins had just 15 laps to complete before being crowned world champion but in an act of sportsmanship not fathomable in today’s commercialised world, Collins handed over his car to Fangio who had retired earlier with mechanical troubles and they shared the six points won for second place.
This robbed Collins of his title and gave Fangio a fourth world crown such was the admiration Collins held for the maestro.
Fangio’s record number of championship wins was not broken until Michael Schumacher took his sixth title in 2003.
"Fangio is on a level much higher than I see myself,” Schumacher said.
“What he did stands alone and I have such respect for what he achieved. You can't take a personality like Fangio and compare him with what we did. There’s not even the slightest comparison,” Schumacher said at the time.
It’s no surprise that in the post-war period, Fangio’s fame had made him one of the most recognisable faces and names on the planet and it was a point which was not lost on those who wanted to make their own headlines.
On February 23, 1958, Fangio was in his room at the Hotel Lincoln in Cuba preparing for his race the next day when his room was stormed by two unmasked gunmen.
Bundled into a car, Fangio was kidnapped by pro-Fidel Castro forces and taken to a nondescript house deep in the suburbs. Local police set up roadblocks and were stationed at hospitals and airports while the other drivers were each assigned a bodyguard.
Fangio never made it to the race and after being shuffled around to a number of houses, he remained blindfolded but was allowed to listen to the race on a radio.
“They were nice boys and treated me well,” he said as we made our way through breakfast.
“It was a point they were making and they never meant any harm. It’s true that I still send them Christmas cards every year and they keep in touch with me,” he said.
Remaining blindfolded, Fangio sat with his captors and listened to their revolutionary plans.
“But I didn’t offer much advice as I didn’t want to get involved in the politics.”
The captor’s motives were to force the cancellation of the race in an attempt to embarrass the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Fangio was released unharmed, 29 hours later.
Retirement came at the end of that 1958 season bowing out as the defending world champion which he won in what he described as his finest hour, the 1957 German Grand Prix.
It was a comeback fight at the treacherous Nurburgring that many today regard as the greatest drive in F1 history following a botched pitstop by his crew.
Driving the same, outdated Maserati 250F he raced back in 1954, Fangio needed to win but lost nearly a minute—and his lead—to the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in the pits.
The Old Man flung his 250F around the most daunting of tracks, smashing the circuit record with every lap and clocking times 11 seconds a lap quicker than his Ferrari rivals.
With one lap remaining, Fangio stormed to the lead and from being 50 seconds behind, won by just over three seconds.
“I felt like I was looking down on myself, watching the race from above, willing my way to what should have been an impossible win. It was a magic feeling.”
With 24 world championship Grand Prix wins from 52 starts, Fangio’s winning percentage of 42.15% remains the best in the sport’s history. At the age of 47 the maestro called it a day and returned to his birthplace of Balcarce to establish his motor museum.
“It is better to keep my trophies on display there than at home because I would have to clean them myself whereas in the museum there is someone who spends all his time cleaning them for me. A much better idea don’t you think?”
Juan Manual Fangio passed away on July 17, 1995 at the age of 84 in Buenos Aires and was buried in Balcarce.
His pall-bearers included his younger brother Toto, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and compatriot racers Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Carlos Reutemann as well as his last boss, the president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina.
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