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.