The story of El Maestro: Juan Manuel Fangio
"You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are."-J. M. Fangio
Back in the days, F1 was a test of manliness. Real men were driving real cars with proper engines, and putting their lives at risk just to show who’s a better driver. But, not all of them deserve to be called “the greatest”. To earn that title, you needed to be an amazing driver, and not afraid of your rivals. In short, you had to be Juan Manuel Fangio.
J. M. Fangio. Credit: Grand Prix History
This is the man who won 5 F1 championships, a record that remained unbroken for 47 years before being beaten by Michael Schumacher. On the other hand, some of Fangio’s records will probably remain unbroken, such as winning his championships with 4 different teams, winning Argentinian GP four times, having the highest percentage of pole positions (55.77%) and being the oldest world champion (he won his last title at the age of 46).
Fangio was born in Balcarce, Argentina in 1911. He first showed interest in football, but he showed passion for cars in his teenage years. He pursued his car passion even more, but his driving skills were really shown when he was in the army. Fangio’s commanding officer was amazed by the way he behaved behind the wheel, and after the war ended, Fangio started doing some local races.
Credit: Irish Mirror
The race that really put him on the map was the Gran Premio del Norte. This race was 10.000 km long and lasted for two weeks, but Fangio drove like crazy and won it. After that, he was the Argentinian racing legend, and even though he took some time off to enjoy life, Argentine Automobile Club sent him to Europe to get a proper racing career.
Fangio in his Alfa 158. Credit: Coches Classicos de Hoy
His F1 debut was in 1950 at the Grand Prix de Pau with an Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158. At the time, he was almost 40 years old, but age wasn’t a problem for him. That season, he came 2nd in championship, right after Giuseppe Farina, but 1951 was when Fangio got his first championship.
Giuseppe Farina in his Alfetta 158. Credit: Unique Cars and Parts
Unfortunately, the regulations changed in 1952, and Alfa wasn’t allowed to use their Alfettas, leaving Fangio without a car. He tried to get in Maserati’s team in mid-season, but he crashed in the first race and had to miss the rest of the season due to injuries.
Fangio admiring his Maserati. Credit: Motor1
However, Maserati saw Fangio’s enthusiasm and signed him for the 1953 season, which he came in 2nd again. In 1954, after two winning races, he signed with Daimler-Benz and won the championship...and he repeated that the next season too.
Fangio in his famous Mercedes. Credit: Irish Mirror
After Daimler, he went to Ferrari and brought them the championship title. But, Maserati wanted him back, and they signed with him for the 1957 season, and he won that championship as well. However, what really proved his amazing driving skills was his last victory.
Fangio and his Maserati 250F in 1957. Credit: Irish Mirror
The 1957 German Grand Prix was Fangio’s and Maserati’s ultimate race. In the first half of the race, Fangio gained a 30-second lead. Then, he took a pit stop, while his rivals continued driving. After the tire change and refueling, Fangio was 50 seconds behind Peter Collins (who was in the lead). So, Fangio put his foot down, setting fastest laps one after another, and eventually caught up with Collins, overtook him and won by a 3-second lead in front of him.
Fangio in the lead at the 1957 German GP. Credit: ESPN.co.uk
After that victory, he stated: “I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don't think I will ever be able to do it again.” And his statement turned out to be true. He never won another F1 race, and decided to retire in 1958.
That year was also weird for Fangio, since he was kidnapped then in Cuba. You probably heard about this before. To sum it up, Fangio was kidnapped by Castro’s activists before a race in Cuba. They held him for 29 hours, but that was enough time for Fangio to become friends with them. After they set him free, he stayed in touch with them until his death.
Juan Manuel Fangio died in 1995 at the age of 84. Just before his death, he was enlisted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He also got to open a museum named after him in Balcarce and saw many statues of himself around Argentina.
A statue in Monaco honoring this racing legend. Credit: Daimler Media