Argentina cried for him

Onofre Marimón was starting to shine on Europe's tracks under Fangio's guidance. The future looked promising, until an accident at the Nürburgring, 50 years ago. Tony Watson explains

Before examining Onofre's demise, we should go back to his seventh world championship grand prix start, the 1953 season-closer at Monza. Qualifying had gone well, and from the second row he had quickly latched onto the leading trio comprising Juan Manuel Fangio — also aboard a Maserati — and the Ferraris of Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina. For lap after lap, he had kept the blue-and-yellow Maserati glued to them, following their lines, carrying speed through the Lesmos, and remembering Fangio's tip about gaining time through the Curva Grande, pointing the car at the large tree on the inside of the bend. Gaining or losing a place here and there, keeping an eye on that 7500 mark on the rev-counter. With ever-changing pit-boards that at times would have read ASC-FAR-FAN-MAR-VIL-HAW, there was even hope of another top-three finish, as at Spa-Francorchamps in the first race of his campaign. However, after an hour and a half's racing, an oily mist on his goggles let him know that something was amiss. He stopped at the pits, stretched his legs a bit while two mechanics toiled on the car. Onofre returned to the fray after an eight-minute delay for his radiator to be repaired, several laps down but latching onto the lead group. Although he retired when he hit Ascari's spinning Ferrari in a dramatic last lap sort-out of the leading group, no one could take away the fact that he had fought long and hard with the leaders, matching them for pace.

This and several other outings during that season led to Onofre being a fully-fledged member of the Maserati team in 1954. Life was smiling at him. A promising future, a nice family to return to in only a fortnight's time, and there he was, following the footsteps of his two great chums, Fangio and José Froilán González. Even so, he wanted more. Compatriot, friend and former works Maserati driver Roberto Mieres remembers that he used to say "I want to be like them," referring to his two more famous countrymen. Several outings during 1954 indicated he was getting closer to his aim, but less than a year after that Monza afternoon, the popular Argentinian driver crashed to his death at the Nürburgring.

Onofre was born in Zárate, near Buenos Aires, in 1923. Five years later, he and his family moved 500 miles west to the city of Cosquin, a health resort in the Córdoba hills. His father, Domingo, became a rival of Fangio and the Galvez brothers in the Turismo Carretera marathons of the 1940s. In fact, Domingo won the lengthiest event of them all, the 1948 Gran Premio America del Sur on a 5950-mile route from Buenos Aires to Caracas, capital of Venezuela.

Growing up in that environment, Onofre — nicknamed 'Pinocho' by a cousin — developed a taste for speed. The story goes that at 13 he pushed his father's two-seater racer out of the family garage, fired it up and proceeded to see how fast it would go. After proudly announcing the feat of getting it up to racing speeds to his mother, she reacted by smashing a dish on his head. Not that this chiding stopped him, as his racing debut came when he was not yet 17 years old, finishing second aboard a self-prepared special on a makeshift circuit in the suburbs of Cosquin. There wasn't much time left for competing though, as WWII meant that a lack of spares led to a standstill in racing.

When racing resumed after the war, he continued to contest minor events. Then a broken collarbone put his father out of action ahead of the 1949 Vuelta de Mar del Plata for Turismo Carretera cars, and Onofre made headlines, taking over the Chevrolet coupé and winning the 536-mile, open-road race. A second chance with that car materialized in time for the two-leg Vuelta de Córdoba in 1950, 1068 miles of racing on both flat and mountainous terrain. Having challenged none other than Juan Gálvez for the lead on the first day, he was leading on the return leg when the car's engine gave up the ghost near the finish. The ever-cheerful youngster was learning fast.

With his sights set on single-seaters, an opportunity cropped up from his father's friendship with Fangio. The latter had flown to Europe in 1950 for his first season with Alfa Romeo, leaving his single-seater (a Chevrolet/Wayne-powered Volpi) in Domingo's hands. At that year's season-opener on the streets of La Cumbre, Domingo told his son that whichever of them proved quicker in practice would race the car. Onofre put the car on pole position and never looked back, taking his first Mecánica Nacional win. Other victories were to follow, leading the Automóvil Club Argentino to offer him one of its Maseratis — a 4CLT — for the end-of-season race at Paraná, where Fangio won and he finished fourth. His second outing with the car, in neighbouring Chile five weeks later, ended in retirement

The first half of 1951 saw him take the Volpi to a win and two second places. But then Fangio sensed an exploratory trip to Europe would do Onofre no harm and opened some doors for a drive aboard a Maserati 4CLT-Milano for this young buck who he once described as being "like a son for me". Onofre's maiden Grand Prix wasn't a success, as a broken engine in the French Grand Prix made for the briefest of world championship debuts. There were other outings in Europe that season, one which led to retirement in the Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing a Talbot-Lago with González, and another at Modena, where he finished eighth in a privately-entered Ferrari, after losing time in the pits.

Onofre spent most of 1952 in Argentina, continuing his winning ways aboard the Volpi, narrowly missing the Mecánica Nacional title at the final round and also opening a car dealership. Very much a family man, there was the future of his wife and two children to consider. Talking of the younger ones, he was very good to the less well-off children of his town, bringing them books and toys when he returned from abroad. For most of that year, though, he was organising a return to Europe, and towards the end of the year he was ready for a first full season abroad — a works-assisted drive with Maserati for 1953.

Prior to the first outing with the grand prix car, he was Fangio's co-driver in one of the 'Disco Volante' Alfa Romeos that were entered for Le Mans, although the car retired early on and he didn't get to race it. The Maserati was ready for the world championship round at Spa-Francorchamps where, on his first visit to the challenging circuit, he finished a fine third as the first Maserati home, behind the Ferraris of Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. Two weeks later, at the French Grand Prix, he formed part of the leading eight or nine-car slipstreaming battle, but salvaged only ninth after oil radiator trouble.

Retirements followed this promise in the British, German, Swiss and the (non-championship) Caen Grands Prix, after which he co-drove a Maserati A6GCS with Emilio Giletti in the Nürburgring 1000Km. Facing entries from Ferrari, Lancia and Ecurie Ecosse, the Italo-Argentinian duo hauled the nimble 2-litre car up to second place, but its engine failed near the finish. Two weeks later came that world championship season-closer at Monza, in which he fought for the lead with Fangio, Ascari and Farina until his car hit mechanical bothers. Second place, behind Fangio, at the Modena Aeroautodromo the following Sunday provided some comfort, before returning home.

With Mercedes-Benz's cars not ready for the start of 1954, Fangio remained at Maserati and won the Argentinian and Belgian Grands Prix. Onofre retired on both occasions, but was busy contesting four non-championship races between those two events. Pole position at Syracuse — ahead of the works Ferraris of Farina, González and Hawthorn — was a good start to the season abroad, and despite little help from his Maserati's clutch he was vying for Farina's lead until crashing into retirement. A week later, he retired while lying third at Pau, was then fourth at Bari, and at the beginning of June claimed what was to be his single victory in Europe, starting from pole and dominating at Castelfusano, venue of the Rome Grand Prix, an event that Ferrari didn't attend. A fortnight later, his second visit to Spa was a contrast, as despite qualifying fourth behind Fangio, González and Farina, engine trouble brought retirement after just three laps.

Fangio and Onofre co-drove once that season, when they raced a 250S/6C Maserati in Monza's Supercortemaggiore 1000Km, and master and pupil ran in second place until the car's rear axle broke shortly before the finish. Next up was the French Grand Prix at Reims, where Onofre started from the second row, just behind his new team-mate Ascari, who had been drafted in on a provisional basis from Lancia. Onofre held on to fourth place in the early laps, then stopped at the pits to cure a misfire and retired at mid-distance with gearbox trouble. With three world championship rounds run, he had no points to his name. Then, a fortnight after the French Grand Prix, the Maserati transporter arrived at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix too late for qualifying. This meant that Onofre would have to start the race from the penultimate row of the 30-car grid. His charge through the field was meteoric and although he could do nothing about the Ferraris of González and Mike Hawthorn, he finished in a strong third place, seconds ahead of Fangio's Mercedes-Benz W196 streamliner. Onofre also shared fastest lap with Fangio, Stirling Moss, González, Ascari, Hawthorn and Jean Behra, so things were suddenly looking much better.

Four rounds remained, and the first of them was the German Grand Prix at his favourite circuit, the Nürburgring, which reminded him of the rolling nature of the roads surrounding Cosquin. There were changes in the Maserati camp: after two outings, Ascari was no longer in the team and Moss was now in the line-up alongside Onofore and Luigi Villoresi. Onofre's Friday lap times were good enough for the third row on the provisional grid, but he was unhappy about being 10 seconds over the 10-minute barrier so Fangio suggested they run in tandem the following day to see if that could help improve his cornering lines. Sadly, `Pinocho' didn't wait for Fangio to arrive and, with Domingo lending a hand in the pits timing his son's laps, he only got as far as Wehrseifen on his third lap, about five miles after the pits, near the bridge at Adenau. The car left the track and went through a hedge and, according to onlookers, a small tree flipped it down a bank. It came to rest upside down with Onofre trapped inside, his chest crushed against the steering wheel. He survived for five minutes, but there was little that the people who had righted the car could do to save him. The last rites were administered by a priest who happened to be on the scene.

Mieres was also competing in the Grand Prix that weekend: "We were very good pals, just about the same age, both of us younger than Fangio and Gonzalez. The question is that we, like the rest of the Argentinian drivers, were much at the limit in those years, trying to get near the lap times of Fangio and González. That Saturday, when he went out to practice while most of our group was in the pits. I was in my car, waiting for him to come past the pits. And we waited, and waited. Suddenly, Fangio comes and says to me 'go out, go out, see if you can find him'. So they push-started my Maserati and I drove round, and suddenly, I see this large hole in the hedge alongside the track."

Fangio had been most surprised at noticing Onofre was already out on the track when he arrived. After all, on Friday evening he'd told him to keep calm and he'd show him the way round. The reason for Onofre going out onto the track aboard his Maserati earlier than expected was discovered the following Thursday when Domingo returned to Buenos Aires. Devastated by his son's death, he told the press: "The weather was threatening, and `Pinocho' decided to go out on the track as soon as possible, in case it started to rain. Before leaving, he told me he wanted to lap below 10 minutes. The way he was driving, I felt he could do it. When 10 minutes were up, I had a sense of foreboding. I thought he had had some trouble. Then I started to run."

González noticed the ominous tyre marks on the track while practising that day: "During the rest of the lap I was trying to work out which of the drivers it could be. When I arrived at the pits, I heard on the loudspeakers that it was `Pinocho' who'd crashed. So I got hold of a sportscar that Ferrari had taken to the circuit and drove round to the place of the accident. From what the people there told me, the car went off the track and tangled with a tree, which then somersaulted it down a ravine." He noticed the wrecked Maserati was stuck in fourth gear, and this was a third gear corner. It's impossible to know what exactly had happened, but Onofre must have been giving it his absolute all towards the bridge at Adenau, simply to try and break that 10-minute barrier.

Argentina's golden days in Europe

Think of great Argentinian drivers and Juan Mamuel Fangio is always the first to spring to mind, as you'd expect of a five-time world champion who racked up 24 wins in 51 World Championship starts between 1950 and 1958. Yet he wasn't alone in forging a trail through Europe, as the Automóvil Club Argentino was generous with its scholarships to encourage its most promising racers to try their hand overseas.

José Froilán González was twice a winner in a career that ran from 1950 to 1960, giving Ferrari its first world championship race win in 1951, at Silverstone. Roberto Mieres showed promise in 1954 and 1955, scoring frequently but never finishing higher than fourth before quitting to concentrate on business and yachting. The country's star waned when it lost its grand prix after 1960, until it regained its race 12 years later and also found another driver of whom to be proud: Carlos Reutemann, winner of 12 grands prix. Since his retirement in 1982, though, the cupboard has been all but bare.