When I was a kid, I would read in the racing magazines of this place in London, The Steering Wheel Club, and as time went by it grew to mythical proportions in my mind. It was mentioned frequently, for example, in my hero’s diary entries, published in the first book about him, Stirling Moss, by Robert Raymond. Was it really Irue that `the racing crowd’ met there, that Graham Hill broke and looking for a way into the sport had endlessly hung around at the bar, making a half a bitter last all evening? Evidently, it was. In his autobiography, Life At The Limit, Graham confirmed the story. “One of my ploys to meet racing people was to go to the Steering Wheel Club in Mayfair, where I would soak up the atmosphere, and talk racing. I’d go there with one shilling and buy myself a half, and I’d stand there all evening with it eventually it got so warm that most of it evaporated.
“Of course I could never accept a drink from anyone, because I didn’t have the money to buy one in return, so people must have thought I was a bit stuffy from that point of view. I always used to walk in as if I were a member, which I never was, but in this way I got to know more racing people…”
If ever I found myself living in London, I vowed, I would lose no time in joining the Steering Wheel Club and, in 1967, the year of my 21st birthday, both these things duly came to be. The first time I ever went there, I saw at the bar Gregor Grant, the founder of Autosport and a man I’d been reading for years. ‘Boy’, I thought, ‘this really is the place to be’, and when I realised that the man he was talking to was limes Ireland, my cup indeed ran over. At that time, Ireland had recently retired from racing and had gone to work for Autocar, as Sports Editor. In the fullness of time, when I, too, began to write about grand prix racing for my living, we became good friends, and one evening the subject of ‘The Wheel’ came up. Innes, with his passion for ‘Scottish wine’, had spent countless long evenings there over the years indeed, the handle for the door of the gents’ loo was the twisted steering wheel from his Lotus 19, wrecked at Seattle in 1963. Over many a glass, we reminisced about the club, which had recently, sadly, closed its doors for ever, like its Paris counterpart, `12 Action Automobile’. If I, too, had passed many enjoyable evenings there, however, my abiding memory of ‘The Wheel’ will always be of a Saturday morning, in June of 1979. Juan Manuel Fangio, then 68 years old, was over to drive a Mercedes-Benz W125 at the Gunnar
Nilsson Memorial meeting at Donington Park the following day, and I was offered the chance of interviewing him. The Steering Wheel Club, it was suggested, would be a suitable venue.
Over the years, I was privileged and I don’t use the word lightly to meet Fangio a number of times, but that was the first, and it was the only occasion on which lever interviewed him at length. I was a touch apprehensive as I walked along Curzon Street that morning: this was not, after all, a simple matter of chatting to a mere mortal.
He was utterly charming, from first to last if anything, more shy than I. A little stooped now, a little bandy-legged as always, he smilingly came over to shake hands, then introduced me to the Spanish lady who had come along as act as interpreter. She was extremely attractive, a fact which clearly had not escaped him.
Very amusing, too, as it turned out, and well able to do justice to the nuances of Fangio’s anecdotes. There was mischief in his eyes as he spoke, and occasionally she burst into giggles. I assumed that, in his soft voice, he was speaking only of motor racing, but maybe not. At one point I said something about the relationship between teammates, about the games played by drivers to get themselves preferential treatment. As he had this relayed to him in Spanish, Fangio cackled with laughter. There was nothing new under the sun.
“Mr Fangio remembers that, at Monza, in 1953, his Maserati had a terrible vibration all through practice, and it could not be cured. He says that, in every team he drove for, he always made sure of having the mechanics on his side; he would tell them that, whatever he won, they would get 10 per cent of it. So, the night before this race, he complained again about the vibration and on Sunday it was miraculously cured.”
She paused, then looked at him, eyes twinlding: “He says he has no idea how they solved it but he remembers that Felice Bonetto’s teeth fell out during the race.”
Later, replying to a question about the 1957 German Grand Prix, his expression was more solemn. His chase of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins that day at the Nurburgring has gone into motor racing legend, and if it were the greatest drive of his life, so it follows that it has never been bettered by anyone.
He remembered the day well, of course, but more than anything with a sense of relief. “Mr Fangio says he can feel fear, even now, when he thinks of that race. After his pitstop, when he was going after Hawthorn and Collins, he beat his own lap record by 24 seconds. He knew what chances he had taken. “More than any other circuit, he loved the old ‘Ring, and he believes that day he conquered it but on another day, maybe, it would have conquered him: the next year. Collins died there.
“He says he had a strange feeling after that race he had never driven like that before, and knew he never would again. Although his Maserati wasn’t very powerful, it was a beautiful car to drive, and he felt he could make it do anything. Everybody has always said it was his best race, and he thinks they are right.”
It was at the end of 1957, when he had won the world championship for the fifth time, that Fangio decided to stop. After that, he says he was never tempted to come back. He was by then 46 years of age, and very tired, after all those years of racing and travelling and being away from home. He loved his 10 years as a grand prix driver, but he did not miss it afterwards, because there had been great sacrifices necessary, to stay on the top, but sacrifices nevertheless.
“During that time, around 30 drivers died, and he says that, while he did not allow it to influence him, his sadness deepened every time. Racing is beautiful when you are full of enthusiasm, but when it becomes work you should stop. By the end of 1957 it was becoming work for him.” If he inevitably loses stamina with age, so there is a belief that a really great racing driver never loses the fundamental ability of his salad days. Fangio periodically appeared in a racing car, even into his seventies and the magic was still intact. The day after our meeting, he drove the W125, and when he came out of the chicane on his first lap, being unfamiliar with the car, he dabbed the throttle a little too early. The tail flicked out of line, and we held our breath, fearful that he was about to look foolish.
Before you could blink, though, the slide had been checked, and the power was on again. Close by me, also standing on the pitwall, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti whooped like schoolboys. The great Fangio was still having fun.
His last grand prix was at Reims in 1958, and he agreed to do the race primarily as a favour to the Maserati people, of whom he was very fond. “Mr Fangio had plenty of time to think in that race, because there were plenty of straights. He thought about his career how he’d come to Europe originally for just one year, and never thought he would win a race, and in the end stayed 10 years and won five world championships! But now he wondered what he was doing here, and knew then it was over and time for the rest of his life. When he stopped racing, he was made President of Mercedes-Benz Argentina him a lad from a little town.” The lady was enchanted by him, and so was I.