Formula 1 - The Story so Far: Juan Manuel Fangio
As we endure the winter break, let's look back at the flagship moments and people of Formula 1. Who better to start with then Fangio?
The Formula 1 series has its origins in the European Championship of Grand Prix motor racing which took place during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1946, the rules for a new category - Formula 1 - were agreed upon and the Turin Grand Prix became the first F1 Grand Prix in history. Then, in 1950, the World Drivers' Championship came into existence following its formalization in 1947. The inaugural world championship race was held at Silverstone in 1950. It wasn't long before one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen began to compete for the drivers' title...
Juan Manuel Fangio is, quite simply, one of the best Formula 1 drivers there has ever been.
Born on the 24th of June 1911, the Argentinean driver was active in the sport between 1950 and 1958, he won twenty four of the fifty one Grand Prix races he entered, was on the podium thirty five times, achieved pole position twenty nine times and got the fastest lap of the race twenty three times. Oh, and he won the Driver’s Championship five times with four different teams – something that has never been repeated in Formula 1.
Fangio dropped out of school at thirteen to work as an assistant mechanic before serving his compulsory military service at age twenty one. His commanding officer noticed his driving skills and made Fangio his official driver. Following his discharge, he opened his own garage and began racing in local event.He began his racing career in Argentina in 1934 where he drove a 1929 Ford Model A that he had rebuilt himself. The events he took part in were arduous, long distance races that were held mostly on dirt roads across South America. Following his success, Fangio received funding from the Argentine Automobile Club as well as the Argentine Government. He was then sent to Europe in 1948 to continue his racing career.
When Fangio entered Formula 1, he was the oldest driver in many of the races he participated in, being in his late thirties at the time. The sport was obviously a lot more dangerous back then with the cars being extremely fast but also very physically demanding. Races were longer, there were not any computer or technical aids aside from someone with a chalkboard as they passed the pits, tyres were far less forgiving and any part of the car could break without much encouragement. Drivers usually finished races with blistered hands – if they’d survived the race at all that is.
Fangio’s first Grand Prix was at the 1948 French Grand Prix at Reims where he started from eleventh place on the grid in his Simca Gordini. He retired from the race but went on to win a further six races in 1949 despite considering leaving the sport due to the death of his co-driver Daniel Urrutia at a long distance race he competed in back in Peru.
When the first F1 World Drivers’ Championship got underway in 1950, Fangio drove for Alfa Romeo alongside Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli. Fangio won at Monaco (dodging a multi car pile-up), Spa and Reims-Gueux but Farina snatched the title due to a retirement from Fangio in another Grand Prix. Fangio won a further three Grand Prix races in 1951 at the Swiss, French and Spanish Grand Prix before taking the Drivers’ Title for himself, six points ahead of Ascari.
He shockingly found himself without a car for the 1952 World Championship due to new technical specifications preventing Alfa Romeo from entering. He drove in several non-championship races that year instead. Then, after missing a flight to Monza where he was due to drive for Maserati the next day, he decided to drive through the night on non motorway roads to compete the next day. Fatigued and arriving only half an hour before the race began, Fangio started the race from the back of the grid. It was a short race for him as he lost control of the car on the second lap, crashed into a grass bank and was thrown out of the car as it kept flipping over. He was taken to hospital in Milan suffering multiple injuries including a broken neck. Fangio spent the rest of the year recovering back home in Argentina.
Back to full health for 1953, Fangio drove for Maserati, taking the win from their main rivals, Ferrari, on their home turf at Monza. During practise, Fangio’s car suffered from a bad vibration and, determined to win no matter what, he offered his mechanics ten percent of his winnings if they fixed the issue. They did, he qualified in second, set the fastest lap of the race and beat Nino Farina by just 1.4 seconds to take the victory.
A number of second place finishes meant he finished 1953 second in the driver’s standings. For the rest of the year, Fangio competed in the Mille Miglia – a one thousand mile race on open public roads in Northern Italy – where he finished second despite suffering from left front steering arm failure. He also won the two thousand mile Carrera Panamericana in Mexico at the end of the year.
During the 1954 season, he won his home Grand Prix – and remains the only Argentine to do so – as well as the Spa Grand Prix in the iconic Maserati 250F. Fangio switched from Maserati to Mercedes when the latter entered the Championship mid-season and won at Mercedes’ first Grand Prix in France. He went on to win at the Nürburgring, Bremgarten and Monza. Monza was tricky as it featured Alberto Ascari in his new Lancia and an emerging Stirling Moss in a privately entered Maserati. However, Ascari suffered from engine problems and Moss’ engine blew up near the end of the race, leaving the path clear for Fangio to take the win. By the end of the year, he’d won six out of eight championship races and this was enough for him to secure his second Drivers’ Title.
He remained with Mercedes for 1955, subjecting himself to a vigorous training program in order to keep up with the fitness levels of the younger drivers. He was partnered with Stirling Moss that year and the pair made a formidable team. However, following the 1955 Le Mans disaster where more than eighty spectators were killed in an accident, Mercedes withdrew from racing. But not before the British and Italian Grand Prix – the only two left on the calendar that hadn’t been cancelled after Le Mans – and after finishing in second place in Britain and winning in Italy, he became World Champion for the third time.
Fangio, never shy about leaving a team at the end of (or even mid-season), then joined Ferrari for 1956 where during the final race of the season in Italy, something happened that simply wouldn’t happen in Formula 1 today. With fifteen laps to go, Fangio’s teammate, Peter Collins, was in a position to win the World Championship. But he came into the pits, gave his car to Fangio and he came home in second place. They shared the six points they won for second place and this gave Fangio his fourth World Championship.
In 1957, Fangio returned once again to Maserati where they were still using the iconic 250F from 1954. He won the first three races of the season in Argentina, Monaco and France, showing he had lost none of his skills as a racing driver.
Then came the German Grand Prix.
Fangio needed to extend his lead in the Drivers’ Standings by six points to claim the Championship with two races to spare. He started the race from pole position but was swiftly overtaken by Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn. He retook them both by the end of the third lap, but a disastrous pit stop on lap thirteen, took him from a thirty second lead to a fifty second deficit when he re joined the race behind both Collins and Hawthorn. This is where Fangio became superhuman and truly became “El Maestro – the master.” He began setting fastest lap after fastest lap before setting a record breaking time on lap twenty – a monumental eleven seconds faster than the best lap time set by the Ferraris. On the penultimate lap, he overtook Collins and Hawthorn and then managed to win the race by just over three seconds. With a performance often regarded as the greatest in F1 history, Fangio then won his fifth World Championship – a record that stood for 47 years, beaten only by Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. It was to be Fangio’s final win in Formula 1.
His final Grand Prix came in 1958 at the French Grand Prix where race leader Hawthorn slowed down before he crossed the finishing line so that Fangio could unlap himself and complete the race distance. Fangio has a winning percentage of 46.15% - the best in F1 history, second place taken by Alberto Ascari with a winning percentage of 40.63%.
Fangio returned to Argentina and sold Mercedes Benz cars there, becoming president of Mercedes Benz Argentina in 1974. He also challenged a law in 1994 in Buenos Aires that denied driving licences to those over eighty years old. He challenged the Traffic Bureau personnel to a race between Buenos Aires and Mar del Plate – a two hundred and fifty mile distance – in two hours or less. Following this race, an exception to the law was made and Fangio got his driver’s licence back.
Juan Manuel Fangio died of pneumonia on the 17th of July 1995 and today is still considered one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. Statues of him are in place at motor circuits across the globe, most notably in Monaco, Germany and Italy.
Given the nature of Formula 1 today, it is unlikely that there will ever be another F1 driver like him. So whilst drivers like Schumacher and Hamilton may have beaten his records, there really is no comparing them - they are each masters of their own era of the sport and it's important to remember that.
What do you think of Fangio? Do you think he's one of the best F1 drivers of all time? Or would you go further and say he's one of the best racing drivers of all time? Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below.