– A chasm of difference between McLaren’s men
– From the ‘quiet Beatle’ to the ‘Maestro’ of racers
Talking points of the moment. Over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend one concerned the 2012 World Championship calendar, in which the Bahrain GP is due to return following the cancellation of this year’s race, due to what may be euphemistically termed ‘unrest’. In light of recent events in Bahrain, many in the Suzuka paddock voiced their unease about going back there next year, and, given that the championship will contain 20 races, there were suggestions that the lately dropped Turkish GP could return to the schedule.
This notion has much going for it. Judging by the crowd figures, neither Bahrain nor Turkey appears to have much interest in Formula 1, but at least the circuit in Istanbul is a good one and — rather more importantly — in Turkey they don’t sentence doctors and nurses to 15 years in prison for living by the Hippocratic Oath.
In the wider world, there have not surprisingly been endless tributes to Apple guru Steve Jobs, many speaking of his vision — and of his ways of getting things done. In a small way Jackie Stewart could attest to that, and as I learned of Jobs’s death, I was reminded of a tale JYS once told me.
“Twenty or so years ago I had a consultancy with Benetton, and Luciano [Benetton] asked me where I thought the future of Formula 1 lay. I said, ‘Electronics’, and the more we talked about it, the more it seemed a good idea to see what someone like Steve Jobs thought of the electronics used in F1.
“I called him, and although he wasn’t particularly interested in racing himself, his father was a huge fan. ‘Two first-class tickets from San Francisco to any race you like,’ I said. We couldn’t decide on a race, so I said, ‘What sort of food do you like?’ He said he loved Italian food, so Monza it was, and we all stayed at the Villa d’Este.
“Steve was very impressed by what he saw in the Monza paddock. At the time Honda were at the top of the tree, and we were always wondering what they were talking about over the radios — but of course we didn’t have the Honda frequency. Then Steve saw one of the Honda guys going for a pee, followed him to the loo, and started chatting to him. The guy was completely overawed by meeting Steve Jobs — and Steve came back with the frequency…”
Honda — or rather Honda engines in the back of Williams and then McLarens — were indeed at the top of the tree for some considerable time in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but it wasn’t always so. Indeed, in light of what the company failed lamentably to achieve in its most recent venture into F1, it was not surprising to hear Jenson Button, following his glorious victory at Suzuka, candidly admit that there had been times in his career when self-doubt had begun to assail him.
During his long association with Honda, Button was very well remunerated, but that was about it: the cars were invariably off the pace, sometimes embarrassingly so, and it seemed that Jenson’s Formula 1 career might never truly take off, that some of his best years were being squandered.
“I had a couple of really rocky years,” he said, “when I questioned my own ability. Winning the title gave me confidence…”
The irony was, of course, that the car — conceived in the era following Ross Brawn’s arrival — in which Button won his championship in 2009 was going to be a Honda. Then the world went into financial meltdown, and shortly before Christmas in ’08 Honda — having spent who knows what on this latest car — announced it was done with F1, as of now. The company behaved entirely honourably in taking its sorrowful decision, not only in terms of pension and redundancy agreements with the team’s employees, but also in providing Ross with the wherewithal to continue into the new season. Suddenly the name over the door was ‘Brawn GP’; in went a Mercedes V8, replacing the Honda — and the new car dominated the first half of the year, Jenson racking up enough points to take the title.
Rather as AJ Foyt won Le Mans on his one visit there, and Juan Pablo Montoya made it to Victory Lane in his only Indianapolis 500, so Brawn GP took the championships in its single year of existence. By the end of 2009 Mercedes had bought the team, and the rest is recent history.
When Button chose that moment to leave, it’s fair to say that most onlookers were surprised, and then some. Jenson, after all, had been part of the outfit — changes of name notwithstanding — for a long time, and it was a comfortable and familiar environment for him.
Perhaps, though, the situation was less straightforward than it seemed to the outside world. Even before the Mercedes buyout, Brawn had determined that he wanted Nico Rosberg on board for 2010, and he was keen to have Button in the other car. Once the Mercedes involvement came to the fore, though, the picture changed. The German company, I was told at the time, was less keen on retaining Jenson, having eyes only for a possible deal with M Schumacher.
Whatever, over at McLaren meantime they had tired of trying to agree terms for Kimi Rӓikkӧnen — lately bought out of his Ferrari contract, in favour of Fernando Alonso — to return to the team in the post-Dennis era, and we were all taken aback to learn that an offer had been made to Button, and, what’s more, been swiftly accepted.
I was not alone in wondering at the wisdom of Jenson’s decision, for in the aftermath of Alonso’s cataclysmic if successful single season with McLaren, the perception had grown that this was absolutely Lewis Hamilton’s team, that anyone who ventured there would be the de facto number two. That had emphatically been the case with Alonso’s successor, Heikki Kovalainen, but he wasn’t in any case up to the job. Button was a different matter — a World Champion, like Hamilton.
The perception was that, on raw pace, Jenson would struggle against Lewis, and that was reasonable enough, for there’s none faster. That said, when you thought about it you concluded that maybe it wouldn’t be as one-sided as some were predicting. As Hamilton’s hero had been Ayrton Senna, so Button’s had been Alain Prost, and in both cases there was evidence of this in the way they drove, the way they went racing.
Prost never had a problem in acknowledging that Senna — particularly in qualifying — was quicker than himself, indeed quicker than anyone. He did, though, bring other, different strengths to bear. For one thing, he was always Senna’s superior when it came to setting up a car; for another, he was Lauda-like in his ability to drive and think at the same time; for another yet, his silky style was remarkably easy on the car — and, crucially, its tyres.
One of the most famous images in sport is that of Nigel Mansell’s Williams-Honda blowing a rear tyre in the title-deciding Australian Grand Prix of 1986. For safety’s sake Williams at once brought Nelson Piquet in for a new set of Goodyears, and Prost — against all odds — went to on to win both race and title.
At the time everyone said that Mansell, who had needed only third place to take the title, had lost it by virtue of that tyre failure, and there was no disputing that. But there again, it could also be argued that he — and Piquet — had lost it a fortnight earlier in Mexico. The Williams-Hondas were conclusively the fastest cars of the time, and easily out-qualified Prost’s McLaren-TAG.
As it was, the Mexican Grand Prix brought a rare triumph for Pirelli, on whose tyres Gerhard Berger’s Benetton-BMW scored a first victory. Those on Goodyears, which included Williams and McLaren, suffered higher degradation than expected, and in an era when tyre changes were by no means the norm Piquet made three stops, Mansell two — and Prost just one. Thus Alain finished second, Nelson fourth, Nigel fifth. Had Frank’s boys beaten the McLaren, as anticipated, Prost would have been out of the championship reckoning, and Adelaide would have been an all-Williams finale.
As one looked ahead to a Hamilton/Button partnership at McLaren, one remembered occasions like that — particularly in light of the fact that a major rule change was upon us: refuelling was at last mercifully banned, putting an end to that dreary sprint-stop-sprint syndrome when everyone was always in a light-ish car, on new-ish tyres, and no one ever overtook anyone. Now, for the first time in many years, looking after your tyres — balancing pace with wear — was going to be a factor again. And just as this had once played to Prost’s strengths, so it seemed logical to assume that Button, too, would benefit.
If one leaves Sebastian Vettel out of the equation — the man has, after all, been on a different planet in 2011 — it seems to me that Jenson has been indisputably the star of the year’s second half. True, Alonso has, as ever, beautifully driven his Ferrari, the third fastest car of the season: always on it every lap, as was evident at Suzuka where he finished a second behind Button, ahead of Vettel and Webber. One expects that of Alonso, though, and has done since the Minardi days.
What has lately changed in Button is his consistency of pace, formerly not to be counted on, race to race. In 2009, the year of his World Championship, he was nigh untouchable through the first half of the year, but then went through a long and uncomfortable patch when the speed — particularly in qualifying — simply wasn’t there, and Brawn’s best hopes for a while lay with Rubens Barrichello.
It’s a fact that Button, like his hero before him, invariably raced better than he qualified, but by starting too far back on the grid he was giving himself a lot of extra work on race day. As the ’09 season wore on the precocious Vettel was coming on strong, and it was a relief to all when Jenson, having qualified 14th, finished fifth at Interlagos, a place behind Sebastian, but with the points needed to clinch the title.
Last year, now with McLaren, Button’s form remained a little patchy. There were days when he was brilliant, often when conditions were treacherous, but others when his presence in a race went almost unnoticed. This season, though, we are into the Pirelli era with tyres — in an attempt to improve the quality of the racing — specifically constructed to have a limited life, and Jenson has truly come into his own, particularly so since his epic victory in the horrible conditions of Montréal where he pressured Vettel into an error on the last lap.
At the Nürburgring Hamilton had a rare error-free afternoon and won, but the next weekend it was Button who took the flag in Hungary. And if Vettel then went on another tear, winning at Spa, Monza and Singapore, Jenson finished third, second, second. At Suzuka, a race that meant the world to him, he took his third win of the year.
Afterwards he said he couldn’t really explain why it was that everything had lately fallen so well into place, why he was driving consistently better than at any time in his life. Shortly before Suzuka McLaren announced a new multi-year deal with Button, and while not as long as Alonso’s with Ferrari, still it says everything about the confidence the team now has in him.
For the last several months Button has been the mainstay at McLaren, while his team-mate has had everyone flummoxed. How can it be that, in his fifth season of F1, Hamilton — for all his innate speed and occasional genius — looks nothing like the driver he was in his first? This year he has won twice, in China and Germany, each time with a performance from the top drawer. And he looked mighty good, too, when chasing Vettel in Barcelona, when charging hard at Silverstone and in Korea. But so far only five times has he made the podium in 2011, and on way too many occasions has ‘made contact’ with others, notably Felipe Massa, who must by now be starting to feel he has a target on his back.
At Monza last year Hamilton clattered into Massa on the first lap; at Monaco he clumsily ran into him — half on the pavement — at the hairpin; at Silverstone he clouted Felipe as he muscled by into the last corner; in Singapore he carelessly clipped him into a corner, puncturing the Ferrari’s right rear tyre; at Suzuka he again drove into him at the approach to the chicane.
Then there was the clash with Maldonado in Monaco, and again at Spa in practice, the coming-together with Kobayashi in the race there, to say nothing of the one with his own team-mate in Montréal…
What has struck me about several of these incidents is how odd they have been, particularly those with Massa in Singapore and Japan, and with Kobayashi in Belgium. It is as if Lewis has momentarily flicked off his concentration, and sometimes the impression one has had is of him veering from one extreme to the other. He is by nature an aggressive driver, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that so long as it is controlled. But having had so many ‘incidents’ this season (and so many appearances before the stewards), at Monza, as he tried to get past Schumacher, he seemed to err in the other direction, if anything being too cautious in his approach.
In fairness their paths have rarely crossed, and perhaps Lewis was mindful not only of the need to finish and get some points, but also of Michael’s legendarily… robust reputation for defending his place. Whatever, it must have struck a chord when Button, as soon as he was onto the tail of the Mercedes, passed it first time. Afterwards Martin Whitmarsh said he hoped Lewis would go back to being Lewis again.
In Singapore, as we said, he had the contretemps with Massa in the race, but even more unfathomable to me was an incident in qualifying, at the end of Q3, when the front-runners went out for their final runs. This is the time when everyone necessarily seeks a clear lap — but they don’t make it easy for themselves by delaying going out until the last possible moment, so that inevitably they are bunched more closely than is ideal for anyone, save the man at the front of the queue.
Hamilton found himself behind Massa — sod’s law — but rather than drop back from him a little instead he got impatient, and in trying to pass the Ferrari very nearly clobbered it into a slow corner, which would have done no favours to anyone, himself included. Ahead of Felipe, after all, was another car from which he himself was trying to drop back.
At Suzuka we had the opposite. Several drivers rushed out at the very end of Q3 — so late, in fact, that it was questionable that some would make it over the line in time for a final banzai lap. Ahead of Hamilton was Button, and at the chicane Lewis backed off so much that Webber and Schumacher — desperate to get to the line in time — flashed by him, one on either side. Mark made it to the line before the 10 minutes were up; Michael — and Lewis — did not.
We’re back to this thing about driving and thinking at the same time, and this year Hamilton’s actions have frequently suggested it is beyond him. When I say that many of his incidents with other drivers have been odd, it is because they seem to come not from pure driving errors, but because he has momentarily lost concentration, as if his mind is elsewhere. Back in 2007 there was never a sign of any such thing. Personally I don’t think Lewis has ever driven so consistently well as in that first season, and I include the following year when he won the World Championship.
Much has changed for Hamilton in recent times. For reasons undisclosed, he had a falling-out with his father (then also his manager) in early 2010, and although there has happily been a rapprochement between them, Anthony now plays no part in the direction of his son’s career. That may be a good thing, for it is rarely a sound idea for family and work to overlap, but undeniably he was always there for Lewis, and it may be the case that the management company which now looks after the ‘Lewis Hamilton brand’ provides a less intimate support.
When he started his F1 career, Hamilton was in a ‘no lose’ situation. For more than 10 years, from karting through the junior formulae, he had not only been financially supported by McLaren, but had become part of the family. It was always the plan that, all things being equal, he should become a McLaren driver, and although some were surprised when he was selected in the post-Raikkonen/Montoya era to partner the incoming Alonso, it was a dream scenario for him. Fernando, after all, was the reigning champion, acknowledged as the best, so it would be no disgrace for a rookie to lose to him — but if he managed sometimes to beat him… Perspicacious as ever, Jackie Stewart suggested that the pressure was on Alonso, that he was new in a club of which Hamilton had been a member for years, that all Lewis had to do was put his head down and go…
And this he did. Yes, he may have had thousands of testing miles behind him, and yes, the McLaren may have been the best car of 2007; the fact remains that Lewis, not highly paid yet and still living in England, was brilliant throughout the season and missed becoming the sport’s first rookie World Champion by a single point. “He could,” said Stewart at the end of that year, “be another Jim Clark…”
All that seems a long time ago, and sometimes Hamilton seems like a lost soul, as if wondering where things started coming off the rails, and how Vettel has hijacked the career he must have believed he was going to have. There are those who murmur that his ‘LA lifestyle’ doesn’t help, that the celebrity friends he has made — through his famous girlfriend — have taken his eye off the ball, that the jet lag inherent in flying so often to California and back can’t be a good thing, and on and on…
Niki Lauda put it this way: “In my experience, if you stay who you are and you don’t pretend to be something else, there’s no risk — good or bad, that’s what you are. But if, like Lewis, you suddenly divert and you like things that have more show, it’s OK as long as you can keep the two apart — this is the glamour world I want to live in, and this is my racing. He has huge talent — but he also has changes going on, and I think he needs to watch this…”
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is inescapable that Hamilton is not delivering as he should, as his almost boundless natural talent requires. For some little time he has looked like a man not at peace with himself, and as such is the antithesis not only of Vettel, but also of Button. Lewis could well, one thinks, look at Jenson and learn.
* * * * *
Although the Yuletide season is very far from my favourite time of the year, some Christmases are better than others. Denis Jenkinson used to say that the best thing about December 25 was that the roads were emptier than on any other day of the year, and therefore available for a spot of what he liked to call ‘serious motoring’, for which read ‘pressing on a bit’.
In today’s world, such a phrase dare not speak its name, for not only are we blitzed with limits, cameras and speed bumps, even to think in terms of ‘pressing on a bit’ is to invite not only the attention of the police, but also opprobrium from society at large.
In the late 1950s Jenks one year contrived to borrow a Formula 2 Lotus for Christmas Day, this duly delivered by Colin Chapman himself by means of Ford Anglia and trailer. While all and sundry were tucked away, eating dry turkey and arguing with relatives, DSJ was out and about in the Hampshire countryside, ‘trade plate’ on the back, having the time of his life — until the vehicle inevitably ‘ceased to proceed’. Driveshaft.
I can’t pretend to an experience to rival that but some Christmases, as I say, are better than others, and long ago — 1977 to be precise — I had a memorable time in a Ferrari 308, borrowed for the duration of the break. On a deserted Ml, en route to the north, my two cats of the time — Webster and Murphy — attained a Feline Land Speed Record which may never be beaten.
Come the start of the New Year, it was time sorrowfully to head back to Henley, to return the Ferrari to the garage from whence it had come. While I was there, in walked George Harrison, who had arrived to take delivery of a new, black Porsche 911 Turbo.
Over the years I had come to know George a little, for our paths had crossed at the races. For all his fame, he was one of the least pretentious celebrities I ever met, an unalloyed motor racing enthusiast who loved occasionally to come to a Grand Prix, to hang out in the paddock and chat. That morning he at once began talking animatedly about the forthcoming Lotus 79.
In came a salesman with the keys for the 911, and George got up to leave. “D’you want to come for a spin?” he said, and so away we went. It was a bright morning, but still freezing hard, so no time for heroics. After a while we stopped at a pub for coffee, and George got to talking about his first Grand Prix, at Aintree in 1955.
By chance it had been mine, too, and we happily reminisced about that hot, humid afternoon when the Mercedes quartet finished 1-2-3-4 and Stirling Moss won a Grand Prix for the first time. “I’d seen Stirling before,” George said, “but that day I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing Fangio with my own eyes…”
Thereafter, whenever I encountered a W196 I thought of Aintree, yes, but also that morning in Henley, and it was just so at the Goodwood Revival in September. George Harrison, sadly, has been gone for 10 years now, but as I wandered around the collection of Fangio’s cars — which included two W1 96s, a streamliner and a conventional monoposto — in the paddock I thought how much he, too, would have revelled in it.
Every year the Revival celebrates a great driver from the past by means of a parade of cars from his career. On each of the three days, usually at lunchtime, they emerge on track for a couple of relatively sedate laps, and it is a sight I find unfailingly moving — never more so than five years ago when the driver honoured was Phil Hill, then nearing his 80th birthday and in failing health.
Hill I count among the most memorable racing people I have known, a great driver, of course, but also a great man. By the time of Goodwood in 2006 he was frail indeed, but not so much so that he couldn’t take part in his own parade. Like so many others, I suspected as we shook hands and said goodbye on the Sunday evening that I would never see him again, and so it proved. There are those you miss forever.
At an early Revival meeting Phil shared a Daytona Cobra coupé with his son Derek in the TT Celebration event. It was similar to the Shelby-entered cars driven by himself and Dan Gurney in the 1964 Tourist Trophy, and I was much impressed by his abiding speed and verve in the car.
By his own admission, though, Phil was not by now as quick as his son, who drifted the big blue car as if born to it. Derek revered his father, and came to Monza this year because it was the 50th anniversary of Phil’s winning not only the Italian Grand Prix, but also the World Championship. “I just felt I should be here,” he said in the paddock, and quite right too.
When we got onto the subject of Goodwood the following weekend, Derek said how excited he was at the prospect of driving a Maserati 151. In its time this was perhaps sports car racing’s equivalent of the Novi at Indianapolis, in that it became iconic by virtue of glorious sight and sound rather than anything it achieved. Like the Novi, it kinda lacked staying power.
That didn’t matter in a short race like the TT Celebration, however, and in treacherous conditions Hill drove the wheels off the 151, passing countless Cobras and even Nick Mason’s Ferrari GTO, driven by Martin Brundle, no less.
It was not inappropriate for Derek to be at the wheel of a Maserati, for while his father will be forever synonymous with Ferrari, Phil, despairing that Enzo would ever put him in an F1 car, decided to risk his ire by making his Grand Prix debut in a 250F at Reims in 1958.
Predictably the Old Man wasn’t too thrilled, but fortunately Hill was in favour at the time having won Le Mans — with Olivier Gendebien — the previous month, and fate played a tragic hand, too, in prompting his promotion to the F1 team. That day at Reims Mike Hawthorn won but Luigi Musso, trying to stay with him in the early laps, crashed to his death, and a month later Peter Collins also perished at the Nürburgring. In September Hill finally raced a Dino 246 at Monza, leading in the early laps and finishing an obedient third behind team leader Hawthorn.
As Phil raced a Grand Prix car for the first time that day at Reims, so Fangio, also in a Maserati, took his leave. Essentially the great Juan Manuel had retired at the end of the previous season, but he hadn’t quite severed his ties with the sport, competing in the odd sports car race, even dabbling with Indianapolis where he drove an Offy roadster — the Dayton Steel Foundry Special — in practice before handing it to journeyman Mike Magill, having rightly concluded it was incapable of winning the 500.
The French GP Fangio drove more as a favour to Maserati than anything else. By now the company, financially on its knees, had withdrawn from racing. But within the factory they continued to play about, and the car taken to Reims was a revamped ‘lightweight’ 250F. Although Fangio fought for second place with Moss’s Vanwall and Behra’s BRM, his now obsolete Maserati could not stay the pace and fell back, eventually finishing fourth.
One of those niceties of GP racing history occurred towards the end when Hawthorn, who had dominated the race, caught Fangio but declined — out of respect— to lap him. It is hard to envisage a similar courtesy being extended to Schumacher.
The 250F in the Fangio parade at Goodwood was not the Reims car, but the 250F — the one Juan Manuel drove to his last, and greatest, victory at the Nürburgring in 1957. Jackie Stewart, who worshipped Fangio as a boy, was thrilled to drive it. “Charles [March] asked me if I’d drive something in this year’s parade,” he said, “and when he told me it was in honour of Fangio I jumped at it.
Then he said, ‘Which car would you like to drive?’, and although the Mercedes went through my mind I told him I would love to drive the Maserati from the ‘Ring. It was wonderful, too: my only concern was that on reflex I’d hit the middle pedal by mistake — it’s the throttle, of course, not the brake…”
In the paddock all the Fangio cars were housed together and a mesmeric sight they made, not least the 1939 Chevrolet Coupe, which he drove in the celebrated longdistance road races run in South America before and after World War II.
The car, along with the later Volpi Chevrolet single-seater, lives in the Fundación Fangio in Balcarce, the small Argentine town in which he was born, and in which he is buried. The interior of the coupé is completely stripped out: behind the two tiny seats, which would barely reach the small of your back, sit a battery, an enormous fuel tank — very necessary for the — long stages — and that’s about it.
I looked at this car in wonderment. How brave did you have to be to contemplate days and nights, thrashing along mainly dirt roads through the mountains, in something as stark as this? It goes without saying that there were no seat belts, but before the Gran Premio de la America del Sur, in the autumn of 1948, Fangio had his brother build a primitive rollcage for the Chevrolet: had he not his name might never have been heard outside South America.
The details of the route for this race beggar belief. Starting in Buenos Aires, it was to be run both ways along the roads of the Pacific Coast countries and divided into two stretches: first a trip of 6000 miles, from BA to Caracas, Venezuela, divided into 14 stages, then a return leg of 3225 miles, starting from Lima, Peru. The race began at lOpm on the evening of Wednesday October 20, and Fangio took with him as co-driver his close friend Daniel Urrutia, whose name adorns the passenger door of the coupé.
In total there were 138 entries, leaving at 10-second intervals, and Fangio started at number one, his major rivals Oscar Galvez and Domingo Marimón, whose son Onofre would later lead the Maserati F1 team, losing his life in a practice accident at the Nürburgring in 1954.
Once the race was under-way, Fangio was invariably the pacesetter, but whenever the car suffered a mechanical problem — which was often — he and Urrutia were obliged to fix it themselves. During one night alone they lost four hours while rebuilding the transmission, and rear axle shaft failures were frequent. When the car was running properly, however, Fangio was unsurpassed, starting one 340-mile stage (some were over 800) in 79th place, finishing it in fourth.
Sleep was in short supply and to complicate matters further, as the competitors relished an overnight stop in Bolivia, preparatory to setting off early the next morning to cross the border into Peru, they were notified that a revolution had broken out! No, no, there was no question of calling off the race, or anything as drastic as that, but… it would be necessary to get underway tonight rather than tomorrow. Exhausted when they got to Lima, the drivers requested a rest day, but it was denied: the revolution was getting nearer, the authorities said, and the race should head north as soon as possible…
Fatigue was now becoming a potentially lethal problem, and on top of that, as they left Lima they headed into dense fog. Just as it was coming to dawn on day nine of the race Fangio, struggling to keep awake and driving into dead reckoning, went off the road into sand, whereupon the Chevrolet went end over end.
Although the car had no belts, Fangio held on to the wheel, and thereafter was always convinced that the new rollcage had saved his life. Urrutia, though, was thrown out when the passenger door flew off, and although other drivers stopped to help and he was taken in one of their cars, cradled in Fangio’s arms, to a hospital nearby there was no saving him. Fangio was given an injection, and mercifully went to sleep.
“They were very hard, those races, very hard,” he said when I interviewed him in 1979. “My first big victory was the Gran Premio del Norte in 1940 — almost 10,000 kilometres (6200 miles), from Buenos Aires up through the Andes to Lima, and then back again. The race took 13 days, with a stage of up to 1200kms (745 miles) each day, all on dirt roads. On that race there were no night stages, fortunately, so we could get some sleep — in other races it was different! We were not allowed mechanics, so any work on the car had to be done by the driver and co-pilot, and we were only allowed one hour for that at the end of each stage. I drove my Chevrolet, and we had to carry all the spare parts for the car — pistons, gearbox, even back axle! Therefore the cars were very heavy at the start and became lighter as time went on.”
Fangio was only once seriously hurt in a racing car. In June 1952 he drove the BRM V16 in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod, and the next day was due to race for Maserati in the Monza GP, not a race that counted for the World Championship, but still a major event.
“I had given my word that I would be there, and Prince Bira had promised to fly me from Belfast to Milan in his own aeroplane, which should have given me a chance to sleep. But the plane broke down, so I took a scheduled flight to London, hoping to get a connecting one to Milan. They told me, though, that all flights to Italy were cancelled because the weather was so bad, so I flew to Paris and tried to get a sleeper train to Milan — but it was now midnight, and too late…
“I called Louis Rosier and asked if I could borrow a car. I arrived at Monza half an hour before the start of the race, and there was just enough time for a shower and a few practice laps, to remind myself of Monza — because I’d missed practice, I had to start at the back. The race began at 2.30; by three o’clock I was in hospital, lucky to be alive…
“The accident happened on lap two. I had passed several cars and was really pushing, but then the Maserati went into a big slide — and I was so tired my reactions weren’t quick enough to catch it. Even now I can remember it so clearly… going off the road, turning over in the air, seeing the trees rushing towards me, being thrown out of the car, landing on a soft patch of grass — before I passed out the smell of grass was strong…”
For many hours Fangio, his neck broken, hovered between life and death. “When I regained consciousness Farina was by my bed. He was never one to visit other drivers in hospital — and he was holding a laurel wreath, so I thought he must be dead too! Eventually I began to take in that I was still alive, that he had won the race, and brought the wreath in tribute.”
It was Fangio’s worst accident and kept him out of racing for the balance of the season, but although he was already 42, he said he never gave retirement a thought.
“Those were my most serious injuries — but morally my worst accident was that race in Peru. We tumbled down a mountainside, and Daniel was thrown out. When the car came to rest I was trapped, but eventually I managed to get out — and when I found Daniel he was dying. His wife was in the hospital at that moment, giving birth…
“Perhaps afterwards nothing ever affected me so badly again — not even when Onofre was killed. After Daniel’s death, for a while I thought I could never race again, but after the Monza accident it was different — I couldn’t wait to get well, to get back in a racing car. Both accidents, though, were caused by the same thing: fatigue. After that I took great care to be rested before a race.”
Ahead of Fangio, as it turned out, were four more world titles, two of them in the W196s that had lined up at Aintree half a century earlier and were arrayed again now, near the Chevrolet and the 250F and all the others, in the Goodwood paddock. No wonder he was Senna’s earthly god.