Saturday June 24 2023 marks the 112th anniversary of the birth of multiple world champion Juan Manuel Fangio.
Long before single-name recognition became the hallmark of famous singers or footballers, he was known simply by his surname, usually with an exclamation mark attached. In the 1950s, when the F1 World Championship was in its childhood, he was the hero so many times that he was lionised in every country that the sport visited.
And such was his enduring majesty that he was revered as much in retirement as he had been at his peak, and dwelt in the rarefied realm of the truly great.
Newcomers to F1 might wonder why all the fuss about a man who was 38 when he took part in his first official World Championship race, 47 when he retired, and participated in just 51 races. Yet they yielded 24 victories, and five World Championship titles between 1951 and 1957.
It would not be until Jim Clark scored his 25th (and final) win in South Africa in 1968, that Fangio’s record of victories was beaten. And not until 2002 when his five titles were matched by Michael Schumacher, who then surpassed that tally in 2003. His winning strike rate of 47.06% remains unbeaten.
For all his greatness, Fangio’s beginnings were humble. He was born on St Juan’s Day in the potato-growing town of Balcarce, 180 miles from Buenos Aires, the fourth of Loretto and Erminia Fangio’s six children.
His father was an Italian immigrant who painted houses, and his son’s first love was football. They called him ‘El Chueco’, the bandy one, applauding his ability to hook left-footed shots into the goal.
He forged an early reputation in the popular long-distance races across South America, where he learned the importance of strength and stamina. First he was a riding mechanic in a friend’s Ford Model A, but after enduring bouts of pneumonia and national service he started racing a Model A of his own in 1934. Later, supporters in Balcarce financed a Chevrolet coupe. Recognition came quickly.
Argentinian President Juan Peron loved racing and sent a group of cars to Indianapolis and then Europe in 1948. Fangio was 37, but nevertheless the logical choice as one of the drivers, though his debut in an outclassed Simca-Gordini was inauspicious.
For 1949, however, the Argentine Automobile Club bought him a Maserati 4CLT/48, and in the blue and yellow car he beat all the European aces at the Mar del Plata Grand Prix, catching the eye of French star Jean-Pierre Wimille, who championed his cause.
He also won the San Remo, Pau, Perpignan and Marseilles races and the following season, when the F1 World Championship had been inaugurated, he finished a narrow second to Alfa Romeo team mate Giuseppe Farina.
His first title came with Alfa in 1951, and after Alberto Ascari dominated the 1952 and ’53 seasons with Ferrari, Fangio was dominant from 1954 to 1957.
Without question his greatest race was the 1957 German GP at the old Nurburgring. There, in his beautiful Maserati 250F, he gambled by starting with a light fuel load and had opened a strong lead over the Ferraris of Englishmen Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins when he dove into the pits to refuel.
But disaster ensued amid chaos and a 28-second lead became a 28-second deficit. But despite having to wedge himself in position as his seat had broken, he proceeded to shatter the lap record for the daunting 14.1-mile circuit no fewer than nine times before catching and passing both red cars to score a brilliant 24th victory.
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Afterwards even he admitted that he had never driven so hard, for so long. “And I do not wish to again,” he added.
“If it goes well, the driver is just another element,” he would say. “But when the car is bad, the really good drivers, the strong ones, come to the fore. Like life, motor racing favours those with character.”
Where Clark remained faithful to Lotus, Fangio had no qualms about moving from team to team in search of the best car. In 1954, it was Maserati and then Mercedes-Benz’s W196. He won again with the Mercedes in 1955 before moving to Ferrari for 1956. They won another championship together, but it was never a happy relationship, and he was relieved to return to Maserati for the remainder of his career, winning his fifth title in 1957.
He retired from racing at the French GP at Reims halfway through 1958. He was 47, and believed that champions, actors and dictators should always quit at the top.
At the wheel, he had an immutable belief in himself, racing aggressively but with the innate etiquette of a gentleman. He was not always the quickest, and Ascari, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn could match him, but Stirling always believed Fangio was the best driver in the world.
“He didn’t have on and off days, didn’t have on and off laps. He was ethical in every way. He was just continually quick. There may have been faster drivers on certain corners or whatever, but overall – which is what matters – when the chips were down he could go out and win.
“It’s also true that he always had the best car as well, but you make your own luck. The reason he had the best car was that he was the best damned driver!”
He was a champion, for whom races passed in slow motion. Strong, tenacious, precise and persistent, capable still of extracting fast times from sick cars. And perceptive. At Monaco in 1950 he famously avoided a multi-car crash around a blind corner because he realised as he approached that the crowd was looking in the wrong direction.
His one serious accident came at Monza in 1952 when he was over-tired, and suffered a neck injury. Later he told his biographer Roberto Carozzo: “I woke up in hospital and understood that it was very easy to go from life to death without even knowing it.
“And I understood something else as well: now that I had been injured, the people who surrounded me began to leave, thinking that my racing days were over. I learned who my true friends were.”
His formula for success was simple. “It is made up of 50% car, 25% driver and 25% luck.” And mostly the luck ran with him. When he was kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement, on February 23 1958, he was looked after respectfully by his captors, who served him breakfast in bed. Subsequently they became friends as he sympathised with their cause.
He once said: “To race is to live. But those who died while racing knew, perhaps, how to live more than all the others.”
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People who knew him spoke of how his charisma lit a room. I was privileged to witness just that back in 1987, at a Pirelli function to launch Bob Newman’s book on motorsport history. His voice was high-pitched yet soft, and since we did not speak one another’s language our communication was limited.
But when I asked him to sign my book and he noted the page I had chosen, he looked up and in his piercing blue eyes there was pleasure at the selection which depicted his drifting Maserati leading the understeering Vanwalls of Tony Brooks, Stirling and Stuart Lewis-Evans through Monza’s Parabolica corner. I felt myself in the presence of greatness that day.
He said that he would have liked to be friends with his rivals, but that “on the racing track we were all enemies”. And he talked to his cars, revealing: “I can hear when a car is not feeling its best. It is like music when an instrument is playing out of tune.”
But for all that enduring greatness, he remained a fundamentally humble man.
“During a race,” he said, “I thought all the time that I was the best.” But outside the cockpit he said, “You must always believe you will become the best, but you must never believe you have done so.
“All my life I have been lucky. I feel it an honour to be Argentinian, because whoever does not love his country cannot love his family.
“I do not consider the honour done to me by my compatriots and others to be a burden, but praise for a job well done. And I am grateful for it. I still have all my trophies. They are not mine, instead they belong to all those who have supported me.
“I am not a rich man. I have enough to enjoy life and I can leave something behind for my family. And I have always been in a position to put something by. If I were really rich, I would ask myself: ‘What for?’ I enjoy myself more than others who have made materialism their maxim. Friendship is the greatest wealth anyone can possess.
“When one runs the risk of losing a sense of proportion, it’s time to go home, sleep in the same bed in which one dreamed while still a nobody, and to eat the simple, healthy dishes of one’s childhood.”