One was the next big thing, the other widely recognised as the greatest driver in the world. Sir Stirling relates why 50 years ago he willingly played understudy to his Argentinian mentor
By Rob Widdows
Stirling Moss is the most famous racing driver in the world and the greatest all-rounder the sport has ever seen, even if he never won a Formula 1 world championship. Juan Manuel Fangio took the title five times and nobody ever dreamed his record would be beaten. Until Michael Schumacher came along, that is.
No great surprise, then, that Moss has chosen Fangio as the team-mate he would most like to celebrate.
“He was the main reason I joined the Mercedes-Benz grand prix team in 1955,” says Stirling. “That and the fact that it was a quick and reliable car. I wasn’t used to that after driving for HWM. Mercedes had 56 people in the racing department. That was a lot for the times, and of course there was also the team-manager Alfred Neubauer, and Rudi Uhlenhaut the engineer. But Fangio was my strongest reason for going there.”
At this time Fangio was already a hero for the young Moss and it was inferred, if not written, that the Englishman was joining as number two to the sublimely gifted Argentinian.
“Yes, that was fine with me. He was the senior driver, but in all the races we did together there was only one where they said they’d like Fangio to win.” Moss is warming to his subject. “I had such respect for the man; his driving talent was enormous, but I could beat him in sports cars. For some reason he didn’t like sports cars. They didn’t demand the delicacy of the single seaters, but it worked out quite nicely because we shared the driving at places like Le Mans and we always teamed up together.
“In the grands prix for Mercedes we were known as ‘the train’ because I followed him so closely, usually three or four feet apart. The only person who got excited about this was Neubauer because at places like Zandvoort he was worried that my engine would swallow the sand kicked up by Fangio. ‘And what happens if he goes off the track,’ he said? I told him, ‘Fangio never goes off and I’m sticking with him’. Never would Fangio go over the edge, or kick up rubbish. He didn’t need to as it wasn’t his style.”
The two men first met at a race in 1951 when Fangio was driving for Alfa Romeo and Moss was with HWM. Moss remembers it well.
“I was being lapped by Farina in the Alfa – he was quite a dirty driver – and as he came by he pushed me over a bit and by doing so he got into a slide and started fish-tailing. So I was able to get by him again on the exit of the next corner, and he slid off. And then Fangio came by and he was laughing. That was my first meeting of the eyes with him, you know, and he was just killing himself laughing that his Alfa team-mate had been passed by a HWM. But we didn’t meet properly until I went to Mercedes in 1955.”
The great thing about Stirling Moss is that he has no hang-ups about recognising the talent and prowess of another driver, especially a team-mate: the man they all must beat.
“He was the greatest of them all,” he asserts. “In truth you can’t really compare drivers across all the different eras, but to me Fangio was outstanding and of course he was in the era of dangerous cars, not what I call the safe cars of later years. I mean, we’re talking about cornering at 145mph in the damp, knowing that if you go off then you’re probably going to die. Or you walk back to the pits with the steering wheel and ask for another car. But we all knew it was dangerous: I went into it partly because it was dangerous. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re a kid. It’s totally different now, so comparisons are difficult, but Fangio was the greatest. He had tremendous stamina, he was tremendously consistent and he was a gentleman, too. He has to be number one, for me.”
I get the feeling that Stirling could talk all day about his time with Fangio, a man he clearly loved and respected both on and off the circuit.
“I would ask to be remembered as one of the greatest all-rounders,” he goes on. “Mario is in there, and a few others, but Formula 1 is the pinnacle of excellence – you have to be very, very precise and that was where Fangio was without peer. People say he was a good mechanic too, knew all about his cars, but this is absolute bullshit. In the briefings he always used to say, ‘I’ll go with Stirling’s set-up’. He may have been a good mechanic for all I know, but setting up the car was not his strong point. Once, when we were at Dundrod for a sports car race, I asked for a change of gear ratio, or something, and I didn’t tell him,” he laughs, “but that was very rare.”
So what was Fangio’s special talent? What set him apart?
“If I knew how he did what he did, I would have then done it myself!” More laughter. “I followed Fangio very, very closely, watched what he did. The whole art of driving a racing car is keeping it balanced. Acceleration, steering and braking are all inclined to unbalance a car but Fangio could somehow go closer to the edge of disaster than anyone else because of his feel. When you go into a corner with a powerful grand prix car, you steer on the throttle, you use the steering wheel to present the car to the corner. Then you use the throttle to balance the car, to hold it on its limits. He had the gift of balancing a car like that, more so than anyone else,” says Stirling. “I had the gift, yes, but he somehow sharpened the point, imposed himself upon the car. He had this feel for the car.”
We cannot tackle the subject of Fangio as team-mate to Moss without another journey back in time, to Aintree in 1955. On July 16 of that year, Stirling Moss notched up his first grand prix victory, beating Juan Manuel Fangio by less than half a second. There has always been conjecture that Fangio lifted, allowing Moss to win his home race on that glorious summer afternoon on Merseyside.
“Well, this is the interesting one, and I’ve never been absolutely sure,” he begins. “I don’t really know the answer; he wouldn’t ever tell me. But he did say to me, ‘this was your day; you were really on form today’. Now, we always found it difficult to communicate because we never had a common language and I’m not sure if something was lost in the translation. All I do know is that I got fastest lap of the race that day and that’s indicative. We’d been going round in the lead – I was following him – and then I got past. It was quite easy, and then I went like hell, as hard as I could. He was also going like hell and at the end I came round the last corner, on the last lap, and put my foot flat on the floor, pulled hard over to the right and waved him by – knowing damn well he couldn’t do it, the cars were so evenly matched. And of course,” he laughs, “I won by half a car’s length. Afterwards I asked him ‘did you let me by? Did you give me that one?’ and he said, ‘no, no, you were really on form today.’ I truly don’t know if he did or he didn’t, but yes, I was fastest in practice, got fastest lap and then won the race.”
Intriguingly, Fangio won every other grand prix that season – save Monaco where he had to retire thanks to a transmission fault – easily tucking away his third world championship in a display of almost total dominance.
The word ‘respect’ comes up time and time again in our conversation about Juan Manuel Fangio. This is a word you don’t hear so much these days within a team, especially these past few seasons.
“I would have done anything for Fangio,” says Stirling, looking me very straight in the eye. “I had that much respect for the man. For me, it was the same sort of respect I had for my father, actually. I loved the man, in a different way from my father, but yes, I loved the man.
“When Mercedes said to me, ‘Look, we’d like Fangio to win this race,’ then it was no problem to me at all. I’d say ‘OK, why not, where’s the problem with that?’ and I was proud to be able to say that within the team. But he was different, you see. I mean, my God, I’d never have signed up as number two to Hawthorn for example, or anybody else for that matter. The only man in the world with whom I would have agreed such a thing was Fangio. I was never actually officially contracted as the number two, it was more by inference; he was already twice world champion. There’s no other driver in my entire career that I would have considered doing this for.”
Thinking of any parallels here? A young man in his first season with Mercedes–Benz power, teamed up with a double world champion? Different days.
How our Grand Prix Correspondent answered the eternal question
“At almost every race meeting I go to people ask one particular question, and that is ‘Who is the world’s best driver today, Moss or Fangio?’ I have numerous stock answers to this query and among them are ‘probably some unknown van driver in Patagonia has the combination of reflexes and judgment that would beat all the reigning champions given the chance.’ Another is that ‘Hawthorn must not be overlooked, because he has won two major grand prix events, both in open battle and each was a decisive victory,’ but eventually the questioners boil things down to the difference between Fangio and Moss.
From the English driver’s own words, Fangio is the best – in my own words, I add, but for how long I would not like to say. Taking this season’s races, on almost every grand prix circuit there has been a corner that Fangio could take faster than Moss, using identical cars, or both using the same car.
An example of this very slight difference between the two is the tunnel at Monte Carlo, where you enter into complete darkness and only see the light of the exit after you are fully in the tunnel. Even using the same car in practice Fangio could go through the tunnel without lifting, while Moss admitted freely that try as he might he always eased the throttle a fraction as he entered the tunnel.
Another place on the same circuit was the hairpin at the Gasworks, where I timed a whole collection of drivers in practice from a mark on the approach to another on the exit of the hairpin. The time was just over seven seconds and every lap Fangio was one or two-fifths faster than Moss. The main reason for doing this timing was a private arrangement with Moss to find out whether he could take the hairpin quicker in second or third gear. No matter what Moss did Fangio was always faster through the corner.
Taking the opposite extreme, I did a similar thing in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. On this occasion I timed everyone round the long high-speed curve at Stavelot, a distance occupying some 15 seconds at a speed of around 100mph. Again, Fangio was a consistent half-second faster than Moss. These few vital fifths of seconds, or even tenths, all add up in a race and, added to Fangio’s superior track-craft through having more experience of open grand prix battles, I would rate him Number 1. As I said earlier, for how much longer is another matter.”