Lucky strike

If Juan Manuel Fangio’s first race at Monaco was stunning, his first race lap was unbelievable. Shaun Campbell recalls Fangio’s ‘lucky’ debut win.

Juan Manuel Fangio called it luck. A simple word, expressed with a shrug, to explain how he remained alive when so many of his friends and rivals didn’t. It seems a hopelessly inadequate explanation, but then luck means different things to different people. For Napoleon Bonaparte it was the quality he valued most in his marshals. Golfer Arnold Palmer once remarked that it was strange how the harder he practised the luckier he became.

If Fangio was lucky, nobody worked harder to earn it, nor trusted to it less. If you’re looking for the qualities that made Fangio stand apart from his rivals, luck comes a long way behind innate talent, physical stamina and mental agility. It was these attributes that brought him his first Grand Prix win at Monaco on 21 May, 1950.

It was the second round of the newly inaugurated World Drivers’ Championship, which had opened at Silverstone a fortnight earlier with a crushing display by the supercharged Alfa Romeo 158s. Giuseppe Farina, Luigi Fagioli and guest driver Reg Parnell filled the first three places, lapping the rest of the field twice. Only one of the Alfas failed to finish that driven by ‘new boy’ Fangio, at 39 some years younger than his Italian team-mates, and with only two short European seasons behind him.

Farina and Fagioli knew Monaco well. Both, indeed, were former winners of the Grand Prix, Fagioli way back in 1935 with Mercedes-Benz. Fangio, by contrast, was driving there for the first time. If he had been a second or two off his more experienced team mates’ pace, it would not have been surprising. But right from the start of practice he was hammering the 350bhp Alfa around the streets at a speed nobody could approach. Pole position was secured with a lap of 1min 50.2sec, 2.6sec quicker than Farina.

At Silverstone the Alfas had been so much faster than everything else it had been almost embarrassing. At Monaco the competition was much closer. Froilan Gonzalez took third place on the grid for Maserati, Philippe Etancelin was fourth in the Lago-Talbot, and just behind Fagioli in sixth and seventh were the Ferrari 125s of Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi. Apart from the flying Fangio, they looked pretty well matched.

Farina made the quickest start, leading the 29-car field into Ste Devote, but the Argentinean was quickest on the power out of the sharp right hander and shot past on the uphill drag to Casino. Farina clung on as best he could, the two Alfas already opening up a sizeable lead on Villoresi and Gonzalez at the head of the pack. At Tabac corner, the tight quayside left-hander at the end of the straight from the chicane, Farina spun wildly. There was a fresh wind blowing in from the sea and some waves had splashed over the harbour wall, making the exit to the corner slippery. The Alfa clouted some stone steps and bounced back into the middle of the track. Villoresi braked hard and found a gap, but from them on it was just chaos. Fagioli spun and the tail of his Alfa slewed into the nose of Farina’s car; Gonzalez hit both of them and knocked them apart, Louis Chiron, Raymond Sommer and Ascari all managed to wriggle their way through, but then Louis Rosier’s Lago-Talbot was hit up the back by Robert Manzon’s Gordini and the chain reaction was set off again. In all, 10 cars in various states of damage were strewn across the corner’s exit, leaving only a car-width gap on the inside for safe passage.

Oblivious to the carnage behind, Fangio started his second lap. Today, the race would have been stopped and the wonder of modem communications would have allowed it to be stopped almost instantly. But then there were just a few marshals and drivers desperately trying to manhandle the wreckage of 10 cars out of the way. A solitary yellow flag was waved at the approach to the comer.

Fangio was accelerating hard out of the chicane when he felt something was wrong. He hadn’t yet seen the flag down at the bottom of the straight. High walls line the circuit at this point, making the approach to the corner blind, so he couldn’t see the twisted metal that littered the track either. But what Fangio could see was the heads of the spectators, and they were dark instead of the blobs of white he would have expected to see. The spectators had found something more interesting to look at than him, the leader of the race, and that set Fangio’s alarm bells ringing.

The night before, Fangio had been entertained by some Monaco GP officials and had been looking through some old photographs of the race. The image of a first lap pile-up in the 1936 race suddenly flashed into his mind and he stood hard on the brakes. The Alfa slithered to a stop inches from disaster. Fangio was close enough to the scene of the accident to lean out of the cockpit and give one of the cars a push on its wheel and ease it a few inches away. Just enough room to grab first gear and accelerate through the gap. Villoresi, warned by Fangio’s fishtailing Alfa, also managed to pull up short, but stalled his engine.

As a race it was over. Fangio won by more than a lap, an easy win, the first of 24 Grand Prix victories over the next eight seasons. He thanked his luck. He was lucky to have seen that photograph the night before, he said. Lucky to have had practically all his opposition wiped out on the first lap. But luck had nothing to do with it.