Juan Manuel Fangio: 'The morning I met the maestro'

Interviews with the great Juan Manuel Fangio were a rare treat, so our Editor-in-Chief wasted no time in getting to London in 1979 when the five-time World Champion was in town

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I have often wondered what became of the fixtures and fittings and artefacts of The Steering Wheel Club. There were innumerable great photographs, but also more unconventional items, like the twisted steering wheel from Innes Ireland’s Lotus 19, following a huge accident at Seattle in 1963. And autographs on the wall, too, including that of Juan Manuel Fangio. That I know, because I was present when the maestro signed. Saturday, June 2 1979: it was one of the more memorable days of my life.

Fangio was in England to participate in the Gunnar Nilsson Memorial meeting at Donington. This was a one-off event in aid of the fund set up by Gunnar in the last months of his life, to raise money for Charing Cross Hospital, where he had been treated for the cancer that was to claim him.

Nilsson died in September 1978, little more than a year after his only Grand Prix victory, for Lotus at Zolder, and mere days after somehow making the journey to Sweden for the funeral of Ronnie Peterson, his fellow countryman and friend. He was a well-loved member of the Formula 1 fraternity, and a great number of celebrated racing figures went to Donington to honour him and raise money for his cause.

The central figure in the proceedings, of course, was Fangio, then 68 years old, and down to drive a 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 on a series of demonstration laps. Out of the blue – and at very short notice – I was offered the opportunity to interview him in London, prior to setting off for Donington. The venue chosen could hardly have been more appropriate.

Over the years, I had been privileged to meet Fangio a number of times, but this was to be the only occasion on which I interviewed him at any length, and I’ll admit I was a touch apprehensive as I walked down Curzon Street that sunny morning. From childhood Fangio had been an idol to me, and I bought a new and expensive cassette recorder for the occasion: I needed to be sure that the tape would be fine and clear, but more fundamentally it seemed only right…

I got to ‘The Wheel’ ahead of time, but Fangio was already there, sipping a coffee and chatting to a Spanish lady who had come along to act as interpreter. She was, I remember, extremely attractive, and this had not escaped him.

Stirling Moss will brook no argument when it comes to the best racing driver of all time, but he has always maintained that Fangio was a greater man even than driver, that it was his humility – in the face of all that accomplishment – that one remembered most. “Fangio was a quiet man, not at all an extrovert,” Stirling said, “but when he came into a room conversation would fade away, as everyone turned to look at him…”

From the beginning of ‘my morning with Fangio’, he was utterly charming, if anything more shy than I. Always a little bandy-legged – hence the nickname ‘El Chueco’ by which he had come early in his career in Argentina – he was also now a little stooped as he smilingly came over to shake hands, then to introduce me to our interpreter, who sparkled in his presence, and proved well able to do justice to the nuances of his anecdotes.

It is amusing now, in this time of obsession over team orders, over favouritism towards one driver or whatever, to recall Fangio’s response when I brought the subject up. At once he burst out laughing. In those days, such matters were dealt with on more of a… grass roots level.

“At Monza in 1953, my Maserati had a terrible vibration all through practice. It could not be cured, and I was worried that the car wouldn’t last the race. In every team I drove for, you know, I always made sure of having the mechanics on my side – whatever I win, I would tell them, you get 10 per cent.

“Anyway, the night before this race I complained again about the vibration in the car – and on Sunday it was miraculously cured, and I won!” A pause, a sly grin. “I’ve no idea how they solved the problem – but I do remember that Felice Bonetto’s teeth fell out…”

My very first meeting with Fangio was a matter of complete chance. I started work as a racing journalist in 1971, and the Monaco Grand Prix was only the second race I had covered. On the Monday I was killing time before leaving for the airport, and noticed that something seemed to be going on at Rampoldi’s, one of my favourite restaurants, a wisp of Somerset Maugham’s Cote d’Azur. Sundry vans were parked outside, and when I ventured in I found a small crowd around one of the tables, arc-lights and movie cameras everywhere.

On the table were several Solido model racing cars, and breadsticks arranged as part of ‘a circuit’. Sitting there was Fangio, recreating the famous incident at Monaco in 1950, when there was a multiple accident at Tabac on the first lap. Now, in London, I brought up the subject of that race.

“I led from the start in my Alfa,” Fangio said. “Villoresi was behind me, and behind him was Farina, who spun at Tabac in front of Gonzales and Fagioli. Maybe 10 cars were involved, and the track was completely blocked.

“I knew nothing of this, of course, because it had happened behind me. But when I arrived there on the next lap, I braked hard and stopped, just before all the wreckage. People said that I must have had a sixth sense, but it wasn’t like that, really – I was lucky.

“There had been a similar accident in 1936, and I happened to see a photograph of it the day before the race. On the second lap, as I came out of the chicane before Tabac, I was aware of something different with the crowd – a different colour. And I realised that, instead of seeing their faces, I was seeing the backs of their heads. I was leading the race, but they weren’t watching me – so something down the road was more interesting. And I remembered that photo…”

You may call that luck if you wish.

Throughout his career, though, Fangio indeed seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to choosing the right team at the right moment. In many minds he will be forever synonymous with Mercedes, in whose cars he won World Championships in 1954 and ’55. But his first title had come at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo in 1951 (when he was already 40 years old), his fourth with Ferrari, in 1956, and his fifth, in ’57, when he drove for Maserati in the car he loved best, the immortal 250F.

“I have very good memories of my years with Alfa,” he said. “In sentimental terms the Alfetta was perhaps my favourite car, because it gave me the chance to be World Champion for the first time. There were some wonderful races between Alfa and Ferrari – I had tremendous affection for [Alberto] Ascari, who led Ferrari for so many years. He and later Moss were without doubt the rivals I feared most. My team-mate at Alfa was [Giuseppe] Farina…”

Had I not read that Fangio had described Farina as a ‘madman’?

He nodded. “Si, si, loco! I hated to drive with him in traffic on the way to a race… ay, ay, ay… Eventually, of course, he killed himself in a road accident.”

What he remembered most about the two seasons with Mercedes was the cars’ dependability. “They were usually the fastest, of course, but they were also amazingly strong. To win with them was easy. The only problems I remember were with the streamlined car in 1954 at the small Silverstone circuit, where they marked out the course with oil drums. It was raining, and visibility from the cockpit was not good, and I kept hitting the drums, so I was only fourth.

“Later that season I had an oil leak at Barcelona, and the next year my engine failed at Monte Carlo. Otherwise, nothing went wrong. I drove 12 Grands Prix for Mercedes, with eight wins, one second, one third, one fourth – and one retirement. In those days, you know, F1 cars were not so reliable, so the Mercedes was incredible in that way. Not so nice to drive as a Maserati, but you were almost sure to finish.”

Fangio’s single year with Ferrari, 1956, he did not enjoy, despite the fact that it brought another title. “It was not a happy year for me, no. I never felt comfortable there, although I was on very good terms with all the drivers – Castellotti, Musso, Collins… all dead two years later, poor boys…

“At Ferrari I did not like the team manager. Also I had always had a mechanic exclusively on my car, but Ferrari had a different system, and it wasn’t until halfway through the season that I was able to arrange that. Then everything was much better, and I won at Silverstone – the only time I ever won in England – and then at the Nürburgring.”

Twelve months on, he won at the Nürburgring again, now in a 250F. That race sits in the pantheon of Grands Prix, for it is doubtful that a man ever got more out of an F1 car than did Fangio that day as he chased down the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, making up over a minute on them after a stop – leisurely in those days – for fuel and tyres. A year earlier he had left the lap record at 9min 41.6sec; now he went round in 9min 17.4sec.

From reclining in his chair, Fangio suddenly sat up at mention of the 1957 German Grand Prix. “I loved that Maserati,” he said. “It wasn’t very powerful, but it was beautifully balanced – I felt I could do anything with it. Even now, sitting here with you all these years later, when I think of that race I can feel fear. The Nürburgring was always my favourite circuit – I loved it, all of it, and I think that day I conquered it, but on another day it might have conquered me, who knows? Afterwards I knew what I had done, the chances I had taken – I believe that day I took myself and my car to the limit, and perhaps a little bit more. I had never driven like that before, and I knew I never would again.”

By common consent, that was Fangio’s shining moment, and he agreed that it was the greatest race he ever drove. “Not my hardest race, though,” he smiled. “That was the Grand Prix of Argentina in 1955, because the heat was so bad. Remember that the cars had the engine at the front in those days, so there was also all that heat coming back at you. There were drivers who were pulling out of the race, collapsing, and I think [Roberto] Mieres, another man from Argentina, and I were the only ones to get through the race without a relief driver. I felt as bad as they did – I got through it by trying to imagine I was waist-deep in snow…”

At the end of 1957, World Champion for the fifth time, Fangio decided that the time had come for retirement. “I was never tempted to come back, although I did race once or twice afterwards. I was 46 years old by then, and very tired after all those years of racing and travelling – and being away from home. I loved my 10 years as a Grand Prix driver, but I did not miss it afterwards, because there had been great sacrifices – necessary to stay on the top, but sacrifices nevertheless.

“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 me…”

Fangio raced a Grand Prix car for the last time at Reims in 1958, primarily as a favour to Maserati, with whom his relationship was always affectionate and strong. “I had plenty of time to think in that race, because at Reims it was mainly straights. I thought about my career, how I’d come to Europe originally for just one year, and never thought I’d win a race – and in the end stayed 10 years and won five World Championships! But now I was wondering what I was doing here, and I knew then it was over, and time for the rest of my life.

“Musso died in the race that afternoon, and many people thought that was why I finally retired. It wasn’t true. I had already made up my mind – and you must remember that during my time as a Grand Prix driver more than 30 men died. Although my sadness deepened every time, I did not allow it to influence me. When another driver dies, you always believe he made a mistake, nothing more or less. Therefore it was necessary to concentrate on not making mistakes – if you think you are going to die in the next race, it is better not to race at all. My team-mate at Maserati was [Jean] Behra. I liked him very much, and he was a very fast driver, but… too brave…

“In fact, I nearly retired in 1948 – before I ever came to Europe – after an accident in a long-distance road race in Peru, in which my co-driver Daniel Urrutia was killed. He was also my great friend, and I suffered a lot afterwards – I was the driver, but he was the one who died. I wept when my protégé, [Onofre] Marimon, died at the Nürburgring in 1954, but perhaps after Daniel, I was able to cope with anything.”

Fangio mesmerised me that morning, and again the following day at Donington. I saw him in the paddock shortly before his demonstration, and went over to thank him again for the interview. He said he knew what the spectators were expecting from him, and he hoped he had the nerve to do it. He didn’t know Donington, and had never driven the Mercedes W125 before.

Eventually the supercharged 5.6-litre engine barked into life, and Fangio – short-sleeved polo shirt, open-face helmet, as ever – got on his way. Coming out of the chicane on his first lap, he dabbed the throttle a little too early and the tail flicked out of line, but it was checked before you could blink, and then the power was on again. Close by me, also standing on the pitwall, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti whooped like schoolboys. And when Juan Manuel finally brought the car into the pitlane, the faintest of smiles on his face, they looked at him just as I – and everyone else – did, all of us knowing we had witnessed something we would never forget.

Two years later, over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix, I went to a dinner at the Alfa Romeo museum in Arese, given in honour of the 30th anniversary of Fangio’s first World Championship. “Ciao, Niguel!” he said when I went to shake his hand, and I felt I’d been greeted by God. The next day he climbed aboard the Alfa 158 at Monza, and he drove it like the wind.

I thought him an enchanting man, and have many times recalled Stirling’s remark about his humility. When I think back now to my morning with him those many years ago, perhaps what I remember most is a quiet remark he made while signing my many Fangio books. “When I stopped racing, you know, they made me president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina… Me, a lad from a small town…”