Winning races, hearts and minds

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Being pelted by rubber bullets at 180mph is not normally something that brings a smile to your face. But Juan Fangio could not help himself, for he knew now that he was in control of his own title destiny.

The Argentinian was tight in the (disintegrating) tyre tracks of his main rival at the time, flashing along the wide Avenida el Diagonal in Barcelona, the start/finish straight of the Pedralbes circuit, scene of the final round of the 1951 championship.

Ferrari had won the previous three GPs. and although Fangio arrived in Barcelona two points ahead, potentially he would have to drop five, his main rival just three. And that man, Alberto Ascari, had started the race as favourite from a comfortable pole position.

But Ferrari chose to run its 375s on 16- not 17-inch rubber. some say to improve acceleration, others to protect weak halfshafts on the bumpy straights. Whatever, it was a catastrophic error. As early as lap four Ascari was in trouble and Fangio swept into the lead. It had been predicted that the thirsty Alfas would stop twice to Ferrari’s once: Ascari had stopped three times before halfway. his Pirellis, and hopes, torn to shreds.

Fangio’s race, in contrast, went exactly to plan and the win — and the first of five titles — was his.

But it almost didn’t happen at all. When Alfa Romeo revealed that it was planning to sign Fangio for the inaugural world championship in 1950. the reaction of the Italian press was not uniformly favourable: surely there were lots of local drivers who fitted the bill?

Fangio arrived in Europe to discover that his contract was on hold. And when he replaced the injured Giuseppe Farina in the sole Alfetta at the San Remo GP in April. what should have been a gentle run out for team and driver had brewed into a political storm. A tactical withdrawal was considered, but Alfa decided to brave it out: Fangio was under the microscope.

Beaten to pole position by Ascari’s supercharged Ferrari, he made a poor start in streaming wet conditions and. for a moment, he doubted himself: was his Alfa Romeo career over before it had even started?

But he refocused and, by lap 13, was in the lead — and pulling away. Thereafter he drove beautifully to score a victory on debut. The doubters melted away. and during the post-race celebrations a contract was produced. Fangio signed it with a golden pen.

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