Don't Fry for Me...

The Forgotten Races – 1955 Argentine Grand Prix

A freak heatwave produced a race just two drivers completed alone. One won; the other now talks to Matthew Franey

It was a country on the verge of a revolution, in need of a hero. Three years had passed since the death of Eva Peron and an uneasy nation watched as her widower’s grip on power slipped away. Within months the General and his Peronist allies would be exiled to Spain and another chapter in Argentina’s fragile history would be written. The year was 1955.

January in Buenos Aires had been uncharacteristically hot. As the capital sweltered in a summer heatwave, sporting attention turned to the city’s autodromo, host track for the Argentine Grand Prix, the opening round of that season’s World Championship. The country’s race fans were in ferment, for a legend was returning home – Juan Manuel Fangio.

Victory in a Maserati the year before had swelled the fanatical support for the master from Balcarce, but 1955 was special. Their hero would be racing the stupendously impressive Mercedes-Benz W196, and further Argentinian hopes rested with the ‘Pampas Bull’, Froilan Gonzalez, in his Scuderia Ferrari 625, and a young racer from the camp of Officine Alfieri Maserati, Roberto Mieres. It would be Gonzalez’s return to competition after sustaining back injuries practising for the Tourist Trophy four months before. Mieres was racing in his home Grand Prix for the first and only time.

With the Lancias of Ascari, Villoresi and Castellotti and three Gordinis adding to the competition, five works teams had made the trek across the Atlantic and preparation was intense. Jean Behra had begun testing for Maserati at the circuit nine days before the race, Mercedes and Lancia were not far behind.

Qualifying only served to heighten expectation, for the hard work in testing appeared to pay off across the board. The top four qualifiers came from the leading four teams, Gonzalez just beating Fangio to pole position. He was a whole half-second clear of the field, though it was later said that Fangio had been reluctant to show his full hand. Whatever the truth, he sand-bagged his way to second on the grid, Ascari’s Lancia was third and Behra fourth. In seventh place sat a young Stirling Moss, the Briton keen to impress on his first race with Mercedes. For Fangio’s young team-mate, this was, in all senses of the word, a baptism of fire.

“It was the first time I had been to Argentina,” Moss recalls today, “and although I didn’t know what to expect, none of us could have anticipated the conditions we had to compete in. There was the most tremendous atmosphere before the start of the race. They were all there for one person – Fangio – and I was glad I was on the same side as him, because they just idolised him. We were in the pits and the crowds flocked towards him; I had to pull myself out of the way. I can remember thinking, ‘I’m glad they are on our side and not against!” Six hours before the flag was due to drop, the grandstands of the autodromo were crammed to capacity. The Argentinians, it seems, were a hardy crowd, for records from the Buenos Aires weather centre, located by chance at the race track, show just how fierce that heatwave had become. The ambient air temperature that afternoon was 35 deg C, the temperature at track level a blistering 52 deg C (126 deg F): Ahead lay three hours of racing. Even a native like Mieres could not believe the conditions.

“Heat like that just wasn’t common,” says Mieres, now a 73 year old rancher in Uruguay. “Even Argentinian drivers like Fangio and myself who had raced there just hadn’t seen heat like it. The asphalt was incredibly black and the sun was so strong that it just seemed to reflect straight back up from the track. I don’t think anybody started that race with the intention of going right through to the end. We all knew that the heat given off by the cars would just compound the problem.”

It was an issue that had already occurred to the Mercedes team and their team manager Alfred Neubauer. By race day, the W196s were modified to ensure some modicum of driver comfort but, says Moss, no amount of tinkering could outdo the weather.

“Being super-efficient the team had devised these deflectors to take the heat away from the exhaust pipes and the drivers. The trouble was, it was so hot that even the air that replaced the engine heat was rushing in at over 50 deg C. They put air ducts in to blow through the cockpit and that just forced the burning air in. On top of that when you were travelling at speed, the aerodynamics drew the air out of the cockpit and that meant all that was left around your feet was the heat soak from the engine.”

Yet race they must, and from the start Fangio, with the benefit of a low-ratio first gear out-dragged Gonzalez and set off trying to establish a lead. Behind him, his rivals seemed intent on letting him do so, for by the end of the second lap five cars, including Behra, Kling and Villoresi, had crashed out or retired. The real significance of this attrition would only begin to become clear as the heat began to take its toll.

At the front Fangio, reluctant to push too hard in the early stages, opted to hold a watching brief, content on relinquishing the lead to first Ascari and then Gonzalez. Moss, too, was beginning to make headway, as was the steadily improving Mieres from 16th on the grid. All concerned would gain another place when, after 21 laps, Ascari barrelled straight into the flat-out right-hander opposite the pits and out of the race. From that day on, the corner was rechristened the Ascari Curve.

Farina and Gonzalez were among the first of the big names to hand over their cars to other drivers; the Italian gratefully accepting the chance of a rest as reserve driver Umberto Maglioli took over his Ferrari. Gonzalez then opted for a spell in the pitlane when his back injuries began to affect his driving. Farina accepted the role of back-up driver and began his second stint. This session of musical chairs allowed Fangio back in the lead; Moss lay second followed by Harry Schell and Mieres.

Lap 29 saw the end of Moss’ Mercedes. Fuel vaporisation forced his early exit and Stirling recalls being relieved to get a chance to rest, although his retirement nearly took him to hospital…

“I climbed out and was just absolutely shagged. I knew there was no point getting all excited because the car was completely stuffed. Once you’ve got vaporisation you have had it. I could have got out and thrown up the bonnet but I wouldn’t have had a clue anyway, so I just slumped down and thought, ‘Thank God I haven’t got to do anything else.’ “Then someone grabbed me and threw me in a bloodwagon. It all got very excited and I started shouting, ‘Where the hell are you taking me?’ Some medic said something like `Observation’ to which I just said, ‘Oh, don’t be so bloody silly’ and got them to drive me to the pits where I got ready to take over another car.”

Fangio by this point had granted himself the luxury of a three-minute pitstop for fuel and refreshment during which time buckets of water were poured over him, all of which managed to allow, albeit temporarily, Schell’s Maserati into the lead. And all the while the casualty list just kept on mounting.

Eugenio Castellotti, Sergio Mantovani, Maurice Trintignant and Clemar Bucci were all unable to continue. Trintignant had to be carried to the showers to recover. Their cars only continued thanks to the idle hands left over by those first-lap incidents. When Harry Schell became the next to be afflicted by heatstroke, Behra, one of the race’s first retirements, stepped into the breach. Roberto Mieres remembers talking to his team-mate about the terrible suffering he endured.

“Harry said that he just found it impossible to drive because the heat around his legs was so intense that he could only stand to be in there for a few laps at a time. It was literally burning your legs… and your privates.”

Schell’s painful loss was the young Mieres’ gain, for as the Franco-American stopped to hand over his Maserati, the second 250F moved into the lead. From 16th on the grid, Mieres was leading his home Grand Prix. But thoughts of victory were soon dashed. Eight minutes lost to fuel pump failure dropped the Argentinian down to fifth place. He would eventually finish five laps down.

“I can remember coming into the pits and begging them to fix it. I was a young man, ambitious and strong enough and just wanted to get back out there. I kept asking how many places I had lost and they told me that there were so many drivers swapping over that I still stood a chance. It was a lottery in the second half.

“I was very fit and that obviously helped me reach the finish. I really think I would have won the race if I hadn’t had to stop. Without that lost time I would have held a comfortable lead.”

Mieres’ misfortune meant that once more Fangio would lead, this time to the finish. In second place came a Ferrari driven first by Gonzalez, Farina and Trintignant, and then for good measure another stint for both Gonzalez and Farina… The Italian finally saw the chequered flag. In fact, the second, third and fourth placed cars all had three drivers; the only time in championship history that a trio of racers have been called into action for one car.

General Peron headed for parc ferme to greet the weary finishers but it was all that the drivers could do to pull themselves from the cars; celebrations, Mieres says, were not on the agenda.

“I have a photo of me being lifted out of the car. I couldn’t move; it took three men to get me out. I didn’t realise how tired I was. When I was going round, my mind was clear but when I finished I was exhausted. I was taken to shake hands with Peron and I was soaked from head to toe with water to try and cool down.”

Fangio, too, was unable at first to lift himself from his chair to greet the dignitaries, but Moss sheds a little bit of insight on his quite extraordinary resilience during the race.

“The fact is he had these incredible pills. I don’t know what they were, but I am sure they helped him over the worst of it. He also had an amazing capacity to control mind over matter. I think that racing in front of his home crowd helped a bit, for it provides a natural level of adrenalin and you can’t buy that in a bottle.

“Frankly, Fangio was the right man to win that race. With the situation in Argentina at the time he was a hero to all the people. People like Gonzalez and Mieres were not unpopular, but Juan Manuel was the favourite and was therefore expected to do well. I’m not saying another driver couldn’t have done what he did that day, but it was fitting that it was Fangio who carried it off”