From time to time a wave of drivers breaks on the motor-racing scene from one place. In the early 1950s, no one suspected South America of hiding so much talent…
Everyone knows that Juan Manuel Fangio came to Europe as an unknown driver from Argentina, shocked the motor racing establishment by winning a number of Grands Prix in his first European season, and stayed to win five world championship titles.
Most enthusiasts also know that Jose Froilan Gonzalez, the man whose Ferrari finally ended the unbeaten run of Alfa Romeo Grand Prix successes in 1951, was a compatriot. Onofre Marimon, the Maserati works driver who was killed practising for the German Grand Prix in 1954, was another.
But there were other Argentinian drivers who journeyed to Europe at the same time. One was Roberto Mieres, and this is his story. Fangio had made his name in the horrendous open-road races across South America before turning to the Argentinian circuits with American-engined ‘specials’ in the Mecanica Nacional class in the late 1940s. Benedicto Campos, his partner in that first 1949 European tour, had followed the same career path, as had Clemar Bucci, who had paved the way in Europe the previous year. Alfredo Pian, Gonzalez and Marimon, all of whom who raced in Europe under Fangio’s wing in 1950 and 1951, also came from the hurly-burly of Mecanica Nacional.
But their extrovert contemporary “Bitito” Mieres had a different background. He started racing with an MG in 1948, at the age of 23, and before the end of that year had organised fellow gentleman sportscar owners in the Buenos Aires area into forming the Club de Automoviles Sport, which organised the first sportscar races in Argentina. At the wheel of pre-war Alfa Romeo and Bugatti cars, young Mieres became one of the fledgling club’s most successful drivers.
In spite of Mieres’s relative lack of experience, the Automovil Club Argentina arranged for him to join Fangio’s 1950 European expedition. Although already an Alfa Romeo team driver, Fangio continued to act as manager of the Argentine team, from its base in the Italian town of Galliate.
“For the first race there was only one car for two drivers,” Mieres recalls of the start of his European career. “Fangio took an uncompromising decision; whoever was the quicker in practice, Gonzalez or me, would drive the car in the race. Well, luckily I was quicker than Froilan and therefore drove the Maserati at Geneva, where I finished fourth.”
There were not many more races for him that year, and none of world-championship status; his only other reasonably good finish was a sixth place at Aix-les-Bains.
Back home he clinched victory in the 1950 national sportscar championship, but had fallen out with those running the Argentine national team and did not return to Europe until 1953. In the interim he continued to compete in local sportscar events, with Alfa Romeo and Mercedes cars and one of the first XK120 Jaguars in Argentina.
He spent most of 1952 in the USA, which was not very productive from a racing career viewpoint. He did however meet the owner of the El Morocco nightclub, who owned a uniquely American device, an Offenhauser-powered Maserati. With this car Mieres won a minor event at Bridgehampton.
The following year the restless Mieres was back in Europe, and this time got the break every driver needs if his career is to progress. His buddy Harry Schell, the American-born but French-raised amateur GP driver, arranged a meeting in Paris with Amedee Gordini, who agreed that the Argentinian could join a number of French drivers in a test session in the nimble Gordini single-seaters. To the surprise of everyone else, Mieres established the fastest lap.
“I think M Gordini never considered it possible that none of the French drivers would be faster than me that day,” he explains, “but he kept his word and I drove for him that season”.
His world championship debut came in the 1953 Dutch Grand Prix, where he qualified last and his race ended with transmission troubles. He did not fare much better in the French Grand Prix; his race lasted only four laps. But in the last race of the year, the Italian GP at Monza, he managed to finish in sixth place, behind his team-mate Maurice Trintignant. Perhaps lacking the sheer fire of his compatriots, Mieres was proving a very useful member of the struggling team.
The season had been better in non-Championship events: he won the F2 section of the Albi GP, finishing fourth overall behind three F1 cars, and was eighth at Bordeaux. He also had occasional sportscar drives for Gordini, taking a second at Roubaix and a third at Caen, though the Le Mans 24hrs, where he partnered Jean Behra, ended in retirement.
“The only other make I drove that year was a Ferrari, in which I finished sixth at Merano.” The race was the inaugural Gran Premio Supercortemaggiore, the car a borrowed 2.7-litre Ferrari 225.
Amedee Gordini was known as Le Sorcier, because of the miracles he continually worked to keep his small and underfunded team going.
“I remember that the French Grand Prix used to be run a few hours after the end of the Reims 12hr sportscar race on the same track,” said Mieres. “Gordini’s funds were so limited that he had to unbolt the carburettors from his cars which had competed in the 12hr race, clean them (the Formula Two cars used a different mixture) and then equip the single-seaters with them so as to have them ready for the Grand Prix.”
With new rules coming in for Grand Prix racing in 1954, Mieres realised that the Gordinis would be well outpaced, so he negotiated the purchase of a new Maserati 250F from the factory.
“The price of a 250F was well beyond my financial means, so I offered the Maserati people a down payment, and said I’d pay the balance with the prize-money I hoped to win during the season.”
At the start of the season no 250Fs were available to customers, so Mieres, in common with others who had ordered new Maseratis, had to make do with an old F2 car upgraded with a 250F engine. He debuted this in the Argentine Temporada races at the beginning of the year and managed second place (and first Maserati) in the non-championship Buenos Aires Grand Prix.
“This result changed the whole picture for me. I spoke to the owners of Maserati and told them that this proved I could be part of the works team — and they agreed!”
That 1954 season brought his first victory in Europe, at Albi, albeit in a DB Monomille, a sort of French interpretation of Formula Three. The Maserati brought him third place at Pau, fourth in the International Trophy at Silverstone, and sixth in the British GP. This last race underlined the influence that Argentina had on F1 racing at the time, for Mieres was the fourth Argentinian in the first six places, behind Gonzalez, Fangio and Marimon. It was during this year that he made it onto the front pages of one of the leading US newspapers.
“At the start of the Belgian Grand Prix we all accelerated away,” he explains, “but, unfortunately for me, the mechanics had not closed my car’s filler-cap properly and some fuel splashed onto the exhaust-pipe. In an instant the back of the car was on fire, so l steered it to a safe spot and jumped out. My back was badly burned, but what I didn’t know was that someone had photographed the entire incident and then quickly sold the prints to a newspaper.
“Some time later the photographer thanked me for the incident and when I asked why, he told me he had practically been able to pay for a house in Switzerland with what he had been paid for the photos.”
Production of the 250F model was slow, and Mieres was not able to take delivery of his until the German GP. But instead of being an occasion for celebration, the weekend was a trying one for Mieres, and also for his countrymen Fangio, Gonzalez and Bucci.
“Towards the end of qualifying, I compared my best time with that of the fastest Maserati, which was driven by Moss. He was about a quarter of a minute faster than me around the Nurburgring, but he had good knowledge of the circuit from previous races there, so I considered that there was no way I could reduce that deficit in one qualifying session. But Onofre Marimon, our team-leader, didn’t like being slower than Moss, and before we knew it he had left the pits to try and better his time.” Poor ‘Pinocho’, as Marimon was known to his friends, crashed heavily at one of the corners near Adenau and died shortly afterwards.
The season ended with Mieres taking fourth places in the Swiss and Spanish GPs with the 250F. He had also driven the third works Aston Martin DB3S in the Buenos Aires 1000km at the start of the year, but retired very early in the race.
He raced for Maserati again in 1955, mostly in Formula One.
“In the Argentine Grand Prix Fangio and I were the only two drivers not to have to stop because of the tremendous heat during the race. I was close to the lead at one stage but then had to stop at the pits because of a problem in the car’s fuel pump, and this dropped me to fifth at the end of the race.”
The European season started, as usual in those days, with several non-championship races, and Mieres did very well in these. At Turin he took a fine second place, behind Ascari’s Lancia but ahead of the rest of the Lancia team, and was also third at both Pau and Bordeaux.
He then held fourth place at Monaco before retiring with transmission trouble towards the end, but kept going to finish fifth in the Belgian GP (sharing with Behra) and fourth in the Dutch.
“I preferred street layouts to the purpose-built autodromes,” he recalls. “At places such as Pau and Monaco all of us had a good chance of being up front, and I remember those high kerbs being quite a challenge! At Spa-Francorchamps it was different of course — and also much faster. But if you were fast at Spa you really knew you could drive a racing car.”
A 1955 Grand Prix he remembers particularly well is the British round at Aintree.
“My mechanic could not cure a misfire with my car during qualifying, so we tried soft plugs for the race. This cured the misfire, and the car went very well. During the early stages I was surprised to find I could run in sixth place, behind the four Mercedes and my team-mate Behra.” As the race wore on, he improved to third, behind the battling Mercedes duo of Fangio and Moss. Then the inevitable happened and the soft plugs caused a holed piston.
The last race of the season, the Italian GP at Monza, brought seventh place, and he was eighth in the final world championship standings for the year.
Mieres had been an eye-witness to that year’s Le Mans disaster, in which so many spectators were killed when Levegh’s 300SLR Mercedes-Benz cut a swathe through the crowd.
“I was entered to drive a 300S Maserati and for some reason or other its lighting system was giving trouble. Nobody seemed very worried about this, but I couldn’t imagine how we’d get far into the night without the lights wearing out the battery. Quite frankly, the thought of having to switch the lights off and trying to follow another car around that fast circuit in the dark was not to my liking.
“During one of the stops I was discussing the problem with my co-driver Perdisa when suddenly we saw a dark shadow shoot into the crowd in front of the pits. It was Levegh’s Mercedes. My co-driver rapidly agreed with me that something had to be done about our car’s lights!”
Mieres did not know it at the time, but when he returned to Argentina at the end of 1955 he had driven his last European race. He intended to take a year off to start a business, which would give his family something for the future. Having decided not to try for a place on the 1956 Maserati team he found himself without a drive in that year’s Argentine Temporada, but instead competed in the famous Buenos Aires/Rio de Janeiro yacht race, sailing being one of many other sports in which he excelled. He spent the rest of the year establishing a car agency and getting it running satisfactorily.
He returned to the international motor racing scene in the 1957 Temporada, sharing an Ecurie Ecosse D-type Jaguar with Le Mans winner Ninian Sanderson in the Buenos Aires 1000km. They did well and finished fourth, behind the tremendous battle for the lead which Ferrari and Maserati waged for most of the race.
But that turned out to be the highlight of the year.
“When I arrived back in Italy at the beginning of 1957 I spoke with the Maserati people, but all they could offer me was some testing work. New drivers had appeared in Formula One.” With hindsight, it had been a mistake not to race in Europe in 1956.
Roberto Mieres did make further appearances at international level. He was a member of the Porsche team in the 1958 Buenos Aires 1000km and, sharing with Edgar Barth, brought an RS I 500 home to a class win and fifth place overall in 1959, and in 1960 he shared Porsche RSKs with his friend Pedro von Dory in the Sebring 12hr race, showing strongly before retiring both times. They stayed on in Florida after the 1959 race to run in the 1000km race marking the opening of the combined road circuit and speedway at Daytona, and won.
Mieres raced a Corvette-engined Ferrari single-seater in Argentina during 1961 and scored, amongst other successes, a brilliant win on the Parque Sarmiento circuit in Cordoba City, against Brazilian and Uruguayan opposition as well as the best of the Argentinian bunch.
He then turned to touring-car events with Volvos, proving his versatility by winning with 544 and 122 models in 1962 and 1963 in the mountainous gravel roads on which such events were still fought.
After that he finally gave the sport up, concentrating instead on yacht racing, in which pursuit he won a number of local and continental championships.
But in October 1990 the name of Roberto Mieres returned to motoring competition when he was invited to compete in the ‘Mil Millas Sport’, a sort of Argentine Mille Miglia for historic cars, organised by the Club de Automoviles Sport, the organisation he had founded back in 1948.
Now 70, Mieres remains bubbling with enthusiasm and projects. Remarried not long ago, he is a young-at-heart father of a little girl, and lives with his family in a comfortable new ranch-house near the seaside resort of Punta del Este in Uruguay.
Book reviews, August 1978, August 1978
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