'Ring leader

Ask enthusiasts to name the greatest race, the greatest drive or the greatest victory and Fangio's winning charge in the 1957 German Grand Prix will usually top all three lists. But just how good a performance was it? To find out, Paul Fearnley tackles the awesome Nürburgring in the exact same Maserati 250F Fangio used that memorable day

You are Peter Collins. Young, handsome, living a glamorous life with a film star wife — and quick. You have heaps of respect for Fangio, but today, it would seem, you have got him covered. Certainly, your pit is serene, unconcerned. Your advantage is increasing. You draw alongside your 'Mate'. Thumbs up. 'One, you; two, me. Okay, Mike?'

Two laps later, though, your pit is agitated. They give you the hurry-up. Fangio is now making a move. His second set of Pirellis are nicely scrubbed in, whereas your non-stop Engleberts are past their best; his Maserati is blessed with a superb balance, whereas your Ferrari is frustratingly understeery.

You respond, though. As you had just before he'd made his tyres-and-fuel stop on lap 12. Did a 9min 28.9sec. A new lap record. This is still winnable. Especially as Mike is having one of his 'on' days. He's a match for anyone in this mood. But got to keep up with him. It will take two to beat the 'Old Man' today.

Still he closes. Lap by lap. Corner by 175 corners. 48.5sec the gap. Then 41.2. Then 32-dead. My God, 10sec in one lap! Lap 17, and he shaves your fastest lap by four-tenths. Seven seconds gained that time. Just five next time around, despite another record on his account.

That's the thing with Fangio, he's relentless, makes few mistakes, doesn't need to take risks to be quickest, has a fantastic feel for the limit. Saw that at Rouen. Must keep calm and smooth to stand a chance.

Still can't see him. still can't. Ah, there he is. A red spark in a 'Green Hell'. There he is again. Closer this time. An irresistible force.

In truth, neither Collins nor Hawthorn could have known the precise details of their momentous defeat until after the race — a 9min lap and up-to-date pit-signals are mutually exclusive. The only two things they knew for sure was that they were trying their damndest — and that it wasn't enough.

But in the (eventual) calm after the storm, as they mulled over the charts, they would have spotted Fangio's first 90mph lap of the 'Ring, a 9min 23.4sec on lap 19. Followed by his lap of laps, a 9min 17.4sec. This was 9.2sec quicker than his pole time — and bettered his 1956 lap record by 24.2sec.

No wonder he caught you!

But immortality doesn't come cheap. On the podium, Collins and Hawthorn were all smiles, basking in Fangio's reflected glory, genuinely happy for him, comforted by the knowledge that they had played their part, done themselves proud. Fangio was happy, too, goofed with them, even. But there are other photos in which he appears beat, done-in. The driver whose bull stamina was legendary, suddenly looked his age.

He was 46.

Although he finished that Indian summer of a season, winning his fifth tide — and did three more races with his beloved 250F in 1958 — mentally, Fangio retired on that day of days in August '57. He didn't have to mull over the charts to know that he had driven harder, for longer, than at any other time in his career. He knew, too, that he had no wish to repeat the process: to stay up a gear at every comer, carry more speed into every corner, skim across, caress, the ground — at every corner. And he was absolutely convinced that he would never again feel so 'at one' with a car as he did with chassis 2529.

In contrast, I'm at sixes and sevens with it. And my heart is going 10 to the dozen. Raced by Fangio; wrecked by an idiot. It does not bear thinking about. But it's all I can think about. We are cruising in second and third gears, taking the photographs you see here, yet this seems fast enough on a damp/dry track. The engine is fantastic — you'd think it had a modern 'black box' under its bonnet, so tractable is it — but the steering is leaden, the brakes wooden. How the (green) hell did Fangio do it, be so fast in a car that feels so wilful? My respect goes off the scale.

You are Paul Fearnley (we'll leave it at that). You have heaps of respect for Fangio, but you have to stand where he once sat in order to lower yourself into his cockpit. Ensconced, there is plenty of width in here — ample for his sturdy frame — but legroom is stunted. The driving position is very armchair: backside over central propshaft, feet not quite dangling, but distinctly splayed, either side — clutch left, brake, accelerator right. Praise be, no confuse-a-novice centre throttle as fitted to many 250Fs.

A studded, wooden-rimmed wheel is a stretch away, but not to the extent of that aesthetic Moss full-arm. Remember that gripping side-on close-up of Fangio? T-shirt, taut bicep, corded forearm. More flex. A wee bit closer to the wheel, I guess.

Dash is simple: rev counter left, oil/water temperature centre, oil pressure (kilograms per centimetre cubed) right. Far right is the four-position ignition switch (twin-spark motor can function on first or second of two magnetos but both are required for racing.)

By my right thigh is the metal gear lever. It controls the usual five-speed racing arrangement: first off on a godleg (Freudian typing error), main ratios nestled in the H, reverse blocked by lift-up metal catch. The lever does fall to hand, but only after groping lower than anticipated. Until you settle to ergonomics that scream 1950s, a shift feels akin to a rummage for an unseen item in the footwell.

So, somewhat perched and somewhat cramped, I'm ready for a push-start. Weighty clutch in, second snicked. And heave!

Giaochino Colombo's reworked straight-six is louder than I'd imagined it would be. Far more aggressive. Its throttle is featherlight, though, and I hamfootedly kick the three Webers awake. My left tympanum goes into spasm. That's a bazooka of an exhaust. At tickover, it's as if individual power pulses can be differentiated; superheated smoke rings at supersonic speeds. I inhale. Deeply. And select first.

At least I attempt to. A gentle downward pressure is required and uncertain fumbling ensues. The lever is tapping the back of the gate, but the gears won't drop into mesh. I discover later that they will every time given a slight rise in revs and clutch foot. Which is no help now as an expectant crowd gathers.

Kachonk! Finally. Too many revs, too much slip (clutch engages right at the top of its travel) and I L-plate away. Then too few revs and I stall — astride the main road. Not a good moment.

Main road? Didn't I mention the A-road, the little village on a hill and the roundabout between me and 2529 and the Nordschleife?

Another push. More revs, less slip, a gearchange and we make it, finally. Remember that gripping side-on close-up of Fangio? Cheeks hollowed by the wind, face and neck relaxed, chin tipped back, helmet peak tipped back more. Visualise the exact opposite. That's me now. And I've not been out on the circuit yet.

It had everything the 1957 German GP: a virtuoso victory, the 24th, last – and best of Fangio's incredible career; a beautiful, charismatic car, the ultimate expression of the classic front-engined era; the world's most challenging track.

It also had an understated start, an unbelievable finish, diverging then converging strategies, old hand versus young guns, shimmering sunshine and a weight of suspense that could only be borne by the 'Ring's long, long... silences.

It's a bewildering place even in today's 'ameliorated' form. The track had been resurfaced in places for 1957, but it was still bordered by the high hedge that swallowed the unwary without a trace. Today's Armco bestows a cloak of claustrophobia despite the mountain-top aspect – but at least you can see over and/or through it; the hedge must have greatly reduced your sight lines.

That day, though, Fangio transcended mere visual information. He reached within and drew the margin for error he usually allowed himself tighter than he ever had.

Indeed, was there any margin for error on this memorable occasion? Had he finally given his talent full leash, or had he trusted a little bit to luck?

Both, probably.

The closing stages of his career were a bit of a strange mix. In the 1956 Monaco GP, at the wheel of a Lancia-Ferrari, he had driven what many considered to be his most ragged race, getting through two cars in a vain chase of Stirling Moss.

At Rouen, one month before the 'Ring, he had driven what many considered to be his most beautiful race. A crushing masterclass of oversteer, the perfection of which was only spoiled by a crumpled nose-cone.

Was his German performance a blend of these Beauy, and the Beast extremes? Perhaps.

Oddly, between the unparalleled highs of Rouen and the Nürburgring, he had slotted one of his most lacklustre single-seater races. At Aintree for the British GP, he qualified 'only' fourth, dropped to eighth on the first lap, never ran higher than sixth, and was in seventh when he retired with broken valve gear on lap 50. He was suffering from a stomach upset, and was 'giving the impression that he didn't care much for the circuit', but this was the man who had driven through the furnace heat of Argentina to win in 1955, who would have won at Aintree that year had he not stepped aside for Moss.

There was another F1 race between Rouen and the 'Ring: the Reims GP. Fangio crashed when second. Oil, he said, locking brakes, said others, but a Fangio shunt was so rare that it caused raised eyebrows. It still does.

So, had he reached the stage whereby he required a true test of his ability before pulling all the stops out? Was he having to eke out his energy to put the pretenders in their place when it mattered? Was it an element of inconsistency that allowed him to finally unlock his last edge of speed—and cause him to consider retirement?

Okay, I'm forcing the point. But take it from me, to drive the 'Ring in a 250F is to consider that there might have been some desperation or bravado in Fangio's display.

They say he could only have done it in Maserati's finest, the most forgiving car of its era. But by dint of staying up a gear, Fangio was whittling away at the car's good nature, upsetting its balance, making things happen and, perhaps, getting away with it.

Team-mate Jean Behra had been 5sec slower than Fangio in practice, and was lapping in the mid 9min 30sec bracket during the race. To be 5sec quicker than him in the race, too, would have been reasonable to expect. To be 10sec quicker would clearly have indicated that you were pressing on. To be 15sec quicker was... you tell me. Behra, remember, was a racer renowned for his 'tiger', a racer who wanted to compete every weekend, a racer who would take risks.

And there's more. After the race, it was discovered that both front suspension pivots on Fangio's car were seized, clogged with detritus from grassy moments, of which he'd clearly had more than one. In this state, 2529 surely could not have been as 'cuddly' as it is often described.

Some say Fangio had it all under control, that he didn't push in those first two laps after his stop because he wanted to lull Ferrari into complacency. But did that mechanic drop the wheel spinner under the car on purpose? By his own admission, Fangio felt those 52sec stationary had cost him the race. He was chasing a lost cause, not breezing through a smoothly running strategy.

For me, Fangio and 2529 were in harmony that day, but it wasn't one of perfection, it was one of necessity, car and driver taking turns to catch the next moment, to save the day, to rewrite history.

This is not meant to demean the performance, merely to emphasise the animalistic aspect of it. Hawthorn reckoned that Fangio would have run right over the top of him had he not got out of his way. He's probably night.

On my own now, exiting he Karussell. Proximity of exhaust, engine, prop and diff ensure I'm cosy. But as I crest Hohe Acht, the circuit's summit, I go prickly cold. The track was fogged-in when we'd arrived yesterday, couldn't see the pits from the hotel opposite, and yet today dawned bathed in sepia light from a low-level sun. And a shaft of it beams and refracts off the Plexiglass wraparound.

There's a higher power at work here. My pace, and heart, quicken. The steering comes alive, and I begin to get the tiniest inkling.

Downhill, and 2529 feels like it's getting away. At one corner, I wish I could tell you which, we begin to run wide where Armco and kerb are one. I know what I should do, unsettle the tail, but I freeze and steer though on a steady throttle, taking a larger slice of kerb than is good for my appetite for life.

I slow to savour the view along the bonnet and across the mountains.

I back off some more – to accelerate hard and soak up that sensational noise.

Now to Swallowtail, a long left-hander, like the Karussell, only with more space. This is the place. This is the only time I will ever get. I barrel in, car bumping and thumping, scuttle flexing – and boot it. And it sticks. More grip than I thought. But then I exit onto Tarmac, damp and shiny, and the tail gives a little wiggle. And I give the steering a little wiggle. And my endorphins go into spasm.

Along the straight, past Döttinger Hohe, the stretch where Fangio's prey looked hopefully in their mirrors – and were disappointed – I go up a gear. This is a quick, quick car. I get another inkling. And back off before my crash helmet parts company. I brake as hard as I dare, from perhaps 110mph, but those huge drums are still cold and the right-front grabs. It's a wake-up call. But I dream on.

Our thanks to Hartmut Ibing, Walter Baumer, Dirk Küster and the Nürburgring for their help.