On July 17 the motor racing world lost arguably its greatest world champion driver and undoubtedly its finest ambassador, as Fangio’s long life ebbed away in a Buenos Aires hospital. Ages 84, he succumbed to pneumonia. He had been ailing for several years, kidney failure having finally left him dependent on regular dialysis.
Whenever such a giant figure passes on, it’s never easy to compose an obituary matching the man.
Fangio’s towering stature as motor racings only five-time World Champion Driver, and the only man to have secured four of those titles in consecutive years, was founded as much upon his almost matchless skill behind the wheel.
Always accessible, a warm, faultlessly polite, naturally engaging man, he made no distinction among those he met; pauper or President, he would greet them much the same. One can ready any driver reasonably well from contemporary photographs of the man with his driver peers, and with his racing mechanics. In Fangio’s case you will normally see his fellow drivers listening, hanging on his every word, but Fangio normally seated, relaxed, relating rather than lecturing. Look at his mechanics and they are beaming, expectant, happy to be working with the best — for that is precisely what he was. He knew it, yet he wore that Special ability, his achievement and worldwide fame with faultless comfort, radiating a gentle yet unfailingly magnetic calm.
To spend time with ‘The Old Boy’ was to experience a tangible sense of being in the Presence of greatness. Even as he aged and first became infirm, that never waned. To see the likes of Clark, Stewart, even James Hunt, Lauda or Senna silent and respectful in his presence was a mark of Fangio’s innate magnetism, of which he himself seemed entirely unaware.
He was absolutely a product of his time. One hears criticism that Formula One racing which he so dominated through the 1950s, was nowhere near as competitive as it later became. True, but only considering the entire grid — competition amongst the top two or three was as fierce then as ever since. One also hears criticism, especially from Italian sources, that Fangio always manipulated himself into the best team, driving the best cars.
Arguably only Moss amongst history’s other standard-setting drivers behaved any differently — where late in his career Stirling loved to perform as the underdog. Fangio had more the peasant sense of practicality. The best team would always seek to hire the best drivers, and though Italy felt badly towards first Fangio, then Moss, when they left Maserati for Mercedes-Benz, none should blame the drivers for accepting that opportunity.
Fangio’s career in World Championship Formula One racing is familiar to most. Not so the formative influences upon his long life…
Argentine son of an Italian immigrant stone-mason, Fangio grew up in humble circumstances in the potato town of Balcarce, in Buenos Aires Province. His character was shaped by honest hard work, loyal friendships, and the competitive impetus of playing football for the local club; “I played inside-right”, he would proudly recall; ” I was really quick, hardly any left-back could catch me”. It was then that his bow-legs earned him his Spanish nickname, El Chueco, the jockey. He developed there as a team player — a star talent — but one safely rooted in a team ethic. Throughout his life he would readily share credit with others, while assiduously building his own career as an individual.
He had left school at 12 after part-time work with the Balcarce blacksmith. He was apprenticed to Miguel Viggiano’s Studebaker agency. “What really fascinated me there was that we had racing cars to work on in his shop… it was hard work, you learned to improvise…”
Viggiano trusted him to deliver and collect customers’ cars. Tarmac roads were rare in the Province. In summer what passed as a main road could be inches deep in dust like talcum powder. Winter rains would create sucking soup-like mud. “Viggiano taught me throttle control on those surfaces… I learned a lot of valuable driving lessons at a very receptive age.”
One of the agency’s sporting customers was Manuel Ayerza. Fangio’s first taste of racing came as his passenger in a Chevrolet sedan. In October 1936 he borrowed a friend’s father’s ’29 Model A Ford taxi to make his own racing debut at Benito Juarez. Town councillor Rezusta donated a set of new tyres, a rival taxi operator loaned a spare wheel. The Ford ran a big-end when lying third. Fangio had entered under the pseudonym Rivadavia to hide his activities from his father, Don Loreto. “But Papa found out and told me off, not for racing, but for letting him find out from someone else.”
He founded his own garage business in Balcarce, later joined by his brother Toto. His prowess as the driver “who always got through” was renowned locally. Friends urged him to race some more. In March 1938 they helped him to buy a Ford special to enter his first ‘official’ race. He finished fifth. Then entering the Gran Premio de Carreteras open road race — 4590 miles in ten stages. Fangio placed seventh. All Balcarce cheered.
“My townsmen wanted me to do better — they organised a collection to buy me a car for the Gran Premio that October”. He finished fifth.
For 1940’s great Gran Premio del Norte, 5868 miles from Buenos Aires over the Andes to Lima, Peru, and back, a Balcarce raffle was run to buy Fangio a new car. He won outright “for Balcarce”, and ended the year as Argentine Carretera Champion, defended the title in 1941, and won another major road race in 1942. Argentine racing was then suspended until 1945. Fangio was already 31. He worried that whenever the sport might return he would be over the hill…
Shrewd in business, he built a haulage company around his public fame. By 1945-46 he was dealing very nicely thank you in US war-surplus trucks. President Peron, a motor racing enthusiast, assumed power, funding an international Temporada race series in 1947, attracting from Italy such stars as Achille Varzi and Gigi Villoresi. Fangio raced against them in Detroit-engined specials, before resuming his winning ways in Carretera racing.
For Peron’s 1948 Temporada series, the Automovil Club Argentino arranged to run a stable of European cars for selected national drivers. Fangio was given a Maserati 4CL — “was a disappointment” — then Gordini offered him a drive at Rosario, as team-mate to Jean-Pierre Wimille, the standard-setting driver, the Clark, Stewart or Schumacher of his day.
And Juan lapped 1½ seconds faster than the French star. Wimille declared “Fangio should he given the chance in a first-class car, and then he would surely do great things”.
The ACA sent Fangio to Reims that summer for the French Grand Prix where Amedee Gordini gave him his first drive in Europe. He retired from both the Formula Tivo race and the Grand Prix. Back home that autumn for the GP de la America del Sur — over 9,000 miles to Caracas, Venezuela, and back — Fangio crashed his Chevy in fog and partner Daniel Urrutia was killed. “my fault — I thought then of stopping racing. It was hard to bear…”
Friends were supportive. He returned to racing in January ’49, finishing second in a Carretera event. Then in a freshly-delivered ACA Maserati 4CLT/48 he beat all the foreign stars at Mar del Plata.
The ACA dispatched its new team to Europe for a season’s F1 and F2 racing with Fangio as its leader — handling a Maserati 4CLT F1 and Gordini and Ferrari 166 F2 cars. He won at San Remo, Pau, Perpignan, Marseilles, Monza and Albi. He was the sensation of the season. On August 25, he landed at Moron Airport, Buenos Aires, to a state reception. He was a national hero and would become an international legend.
For the 1950 Temporada the ACA fielded Ferraris. At Rosario, Fangio was leading when he was set to lap Felice Bonetto. But the Italian veteran had not seen him, moved across and sent Juan crashing into the bales.
“That taught me a lesson. It is important to have the best machine. But when you have the best machine it is equally important to be patient. There is no need to be in a hurry to overtake your rivals.”
Back in Europe he signed for Alfa Romeo the dominant Grand Prix team of the age and his illustrious Formula One career took off.
The bald World Championship race statistics tell the story: Fangio drove in 51 premier-level Grand Prix races in the period 1950-58, starting all but two of these from the front row — 29 from pole. He set 23 fastest laps, won 24, and was placed second 10 times, third once, and fourth six times.
He was 38-years old when he first raced in Europe, and 10 years later he bowed out a fulfilled and contented man. He did so where he had begun — Reims.
“I had started there at Reims in 1948, and returned in 1949 intending to stay perhaps one year. I had stayed 10. I had hoped to win one race and I won five World Championships. My luck had protected me that far: I should not rely on it much longer.
“I had not had a single fright in all my racing life that ever stayed with me. I have had too much from life and I don’t regret a single thing.”
Rest in peace… champion.