In the master's wheeltracks

By Stirling Moss

The arguments about who is the greatest racing driver of all time have gone on as long as motor racing itself, and, no doubt, they always will. But the truth is that comparisons between different eras are effectively impossible – you just can’t stack up a Caracciola or a Rosemeyer against a Senna or a Schumacher. If you could take Tazio Nuvolari into a 1998 Formula One paddock he’d probably be pushed to recognise it as the same activity he excelled at during the 1930s and, for my money, the only worthwhile debate is which driver is the best of his era.

And yet… for me there will always be one individual who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, certainly out of all the drivers I met and raced during the great post-war period. He stands out as a racer, and he stands out as a man. In my book, Juan Manuel Fangio was the greatest racing driver of all.

I raced against him for most of my Formula One career, but it was my great good fortune to be his team-mate for one full season, in the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix and sports car teams in 1955. I got to know him really well, as a colleague and as a friend. I was 25 years old, and the value to me of being able to follow in the master’s wheel tracks was immeasurable.

Nowadays aspiring young drivers learn their trade in kart racing from a very early age – which teaches you a lot about car control, but perhaps a few bad habits as well. In my day most of them cut their first teeth in unlikely old sports cars in club racing (although in my case I learned the elements of competition, and balance, from the age of six on horseback). Fangio served his apprenticeship, a long and hard one, in battered old American sedans in those incredible South American long-distance road races.

In view of what he ultimately achieved, it seems astonishing that he didn’t appear on the international scene until he was already some 38 years old.

He won his first four races, and then two more, which brought an invitation to join Farina and Fagioli in the Alfa Romeo team for the first season of the World Championship. So, in just a single international season, Fangio earned a seat with the dominant Grand Prix team of 1950.

Which was when I first met him, around the Continental paddocks. Of course he was one of the top men – that year he won the Monaco, Belgian and French Grands Prix, and was runner-up for that first World title. I was just a young lad from England in an under-powered, under-funded HWM. But to this day I remember clearly what was, I suppose, our first meeting on the track.

It was in the Bari Grand Prix in Italy. This was effectively my first Formula One race, even though my HWM was just a 2-litre F2 car. Farina and Fangio were battling away in those marvellous screaming supercharged 158 Alfas, and they came up to lap me. Farina came by under braking into a corner, and carved me up a bit – he was like that: very refined and distinguished off the track, but he could be a bastard on it – and in so doing he messed up his line and ran wide. So I re-passed him on the exit of the corner in my little HWM. Of course he was pretty upset about that, but once he’d sorted out his problems he put his foot down and tore past me.

Fangio came through right behind him, and as he drew abreast of me he looked across and gave me a big grin, as if to say: That was a bit cheeky! He obviously thought it was a huge joke.

He was World Champion in 1951, even though Ascari and Ferrari were at last able to beat the now ageing Alfas, and for 1952, the first of the2-litre formula, he joined Maserati. And he and I were briefly team-mates for the first time when we both drove the unsuccessful V16 BRM in Formula Libre races. (I always say it was the worst car I ever raced). It was after driving the BRM that he had the worst accident of his career.

He’d raced the V16 at Dundrod on the Saturday and, as usual, it had broken. But he was also due to drive for Maserati in the non-championship Monza Grand Prix the next day. He flew from Belfast to Paris that evening, but bad weather grounded his flight on to Italy. So he got hold of a car and went by road, driving overnight from Paris to Milan. He arrived at Monza a scant hour before the start of the race, started from the back of the grid – and the Maserati somersaulted at Lesmo, giving him head injuries and a broken vertebra in the neck which put him out for the rest of the season. For once, his extraordinary powers of endurance had let him down.

Meanwhile Mercedes-Benz had decided, after some successful sports car races with the 300SL, to put into motion a programme to return to Formula One in 1954. From the first Fangio was a central part of their plan: they wanted the best of everything, and that included having the best driver in the world.

In 1953 Fangio was with Maserati again, and although Ascari’s Ferrari was quicker almost everywhere, he won the Italian Grand Prix, and was again runner-up in the championship. Then came the 1954 season and the new Mercedes, although they weren’t ready for the first two rounds – both of which Fangio won for Maserati. But he won first time out in the silver streamliner, at Reims, and six wins that season made him a clear champion.

As soon as we knew Mercedes were coming back, Ken Gregory, my manager, and my father flew to Stuttgart to see Neubauer, to ask: What about a car for our boy? Neubauer said they’d been watching me and I was on their shopping list, but all of my Grand Prix experience had been in make-weight Formula Two cars, and they wanted to know how I’d get on in something with comparable power.

So Dad and Ken bought a customer 250F Maserati for me, and in 1954 I put it on the front row for four Grands Prix running, ahead of the other Mercedes drivers (but not, of course, Fangio except in one soaking session at Berne when I gained provisional pole). At the end of the year I got the call to go to Germany to try the car, and I joined the team for 1955. I could now race with the World Champion, work with him and learn from him.

That year there were only six rounds in the World Championship (apart from Indianapolis, which still counted in theory, but was ignored by the F1 teams). Mercedes-Benz were victorious in five: four wins, one second and one retirement for Fangio; one win, two seconds and three retirements for me. My win came in my home Grand Prix at Aintree, when I beat Fangio for pole, swapped the lead with him several times in the race, and led him over the line by just a fifth of a second. I’ve never really known whether he let me take that home win. When I asked him years later, he said I had the legs of him that day, but I’ve never been quite sure…

Mercedes also dominated the World Sports Car Championship, and their straight-eight 300SLRs were victorious in five out of the six races entered. I won three, including the Mille Miglia with dear old Jenks, and had two seconds: Fangio won two and had two seconds. The sixth race was Le Mans, where Fangio and I shared a car. We were leading by almost 20 minutes when, in the early hours of the morning, the order came from Stuttgart that we should withdraw from the race because of the tragic accident that had happened earlier, where Pierre Levegh had crashed his 300SLR into the crowd. Without that executive decision, I’m sure it would have been six out of six.

Fangio had amazing strength and stamina. Remember that, in those days, Grands Prix lasted at least three hours, or 300 miles. In Argentina that year it was 101 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade – except there wasn’t any shade – and in the cockpits the temperature didn’t bear thinking about. Everyone was passing out with heat exhaustion, and most cars that finished had two or three drivers. Fangio raced on alone, to win the race and set fastest lap. Afterwards he said he kept going by thinking of the Swiss Alps, and willing himself to believe that the sweat running off him was the ice-cold water of a mountain stream…

Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of that season, so Fangio joined Ferrari, and was World Champion again in 1956. He won three more Grands Prix, but I don’t think he ever liked the atmosphere in the team. For 1957 he was back with Maserati. Meanwhile I’d gone over to Vanwall, hoping that at last there was a British Racing Green machine that could beat the red cars.

And it could. There were seven races that year: Fangio won the first three on the trot, in Buenos Aires, Monaco and Rouen. Then came Vanwall’s first Grand Prix victory, at Aintree: my car broke, but I took over Tony Brooks’, so we shared the win (and the points).

The next round was at the Nürburgring. Vanwall had never been there before, and over the bumps the car was frankly horrible. I managed to finish fourth, and Tony was ninth; after three hours’ racing we were both very stiff and sore by the end from all the lurching and battering, and Tony was actually sick in his cockpit. So I didn’t see anything of what turned out to be Fangio’s finest victory.

But, re-reading Jenks’ Motor Sport report, I see he built up a healthy lead, lapping consistently under his own lap record. Then, with 10 laps to go he had to make a pit stop. For some reason the stop was disastrously slow: it took the mechanics 52 seconds to refuel and change two rear tyres, so that when he rejoined the Ferraris of Collins and Hawthorn had gone through, and were a good half-minute ahead. Lap by lap round the twists and plunges of the Nürburgring he carved away at the deficit, a man possessed, and as they started the penultimate lap he was at the Ferraris’ heels. He took Collins at the Nordkurve and Hawthorn at Breidscheid, and won the race by 3.6 seconds. His own lap record from the previous year’s race was 9m41.6s. He finally took an incredible 24 seconds off that, leaving it at 9m17.2. It was his greatest race, and he said afterwards he hoped he’d never have to drive like that again.

After our disaster at the ‘Ring, the Vanwalls were now going really well, and I won the remaining rounds at Pescara and Monza. But Fangio was second both times, and clearly the champion – for the fifth time, and the fourth time on the trot. He was 46 years old. He did his home Grand Prix and one other the following year, and then slipped into graceful, and nobly deserved, retirement.

In eight Formula One seasons he’d stated in 51 Grands Prix, and won 24 of them – an extraordinary 47 per cent success rate. That percentage is surely one record that can never be broken. It is the best evidence of his indomitable mental strength, his extraordinary tenacity, that ability to retain concentration through fatigue. Plus the fact that, in absolute terms, he was always very, very quick – when he needed to be.

His car control was exceptional too. I think that came from the same roots as his stamina – those long-distance South American road races, on the limit for days at a time. But he was never flamboyant about his work. He would drive just as fast as seemed necessary to get pole position: then, if someone beat his time by a tenth, he’d go out again and find two-tenths. He always seemed able to find the extra from somewhere, when he wanted it.

Fangio didn’t just stand out as a racing driver. As a man, he epitomised two words which are now, sadly, rather out of fashion. He was both a sportsman, and he was a gentleman.

I never saw him do anything that you wouldn’t like to do yourself. Racing was much cleaner in that era than it is now, but even then you’d see drivers carve people up, put a wheel on the rough to throw stones in the face of a pursuer, that sort of thing. Fangio would have none of that. He only won races in his speed and skill at the wheel.

It someone tried to carve him up, he wouldn’t get angry. He’d just wag his finger at the culprit. So great was the respect for him among the other drivers that a wagged finger from Fangio was a pretty frightening thing. Not that anybody got much opportunity to carve him up, to be honest – unless he was lapping them!

He was never critical of people, and you could never get any gossip out of him. He didn’t like running people down: it just didn’t occur to him to do it. He was never any good for a story, and he didn’t seem to want to go out on the town after a race and have a bit of fun, as most of us liked to do then. He was always discreet and diplomatic.

But he enjoyed having people around him, and he always treated his mechanics as friends and colleagues. He seemed to have endless time for the fans who mill around you at a race. He was extraordinarily tranquil and relaxed out of the car, and very patient. But he was also an emotional man. I remember when his young protégé, Onofré Marimon, the son of one of his old rivals from the Argentinean road races, was killed during practice at the Nürburgring. He was weeping – but he got into his car, and won the race.

I never talked to him about it, but I think he wouldn’t have liked the way motor racing has progressively become less of a sport and more of a business. In those days you didn’t try to negotiate a hard deal with a company like Mercedes, for example. They would make you a good offer – salary, car, living allowance (in 1955 I got $20 a day, which seemed pretty generous then; I suppose he got more, as champion and team leader). With Mercedes you didn’t stare them in the face and ask for more!

But that’s not to say that Fangio wasn’t extremely shrewd. He knew very clearly how different teams behaved, how they treated their drivers. When Ferrari offered me a drive, I asked Fangio’s advice. Should I take it? Drive for them, he said, but don’t sign. Never sign for Ferrari.

His was an unmistakeable figure: stocky, rather bandy legged, and, because of that old neck injury, a way of swinging his whole body round to look at you with his very piercing eyes. In all the time I knew him, we had to communicate in Italian. He spoke no English, I speak no Spanish. When he retired, he gave me a clock. It’s on my wall to this day. It has an inscription round the rim: To the future World Champion, signed JM Fangio. I’d been runner-up to him three years running, and I think he expected me to take the title when he stopped – which of course was not to be.

It was my privilege to race with the man who was the best driver in the world. You can’t fail to benefit from something like that. All I was trying to do was emulate him, to be as good as him. I like to think he also taught me humility because, as the best in the world, he was a humble man.

Just eight years as a racing driver on the world stage, but the name of Juan Manuel Fangio will live forever. And if you look at every part of his career, every detail, you won’t find anything he ever did, or said, that wasn’t good for motor racing.

We won’t see his like again.