Juan Manuel Fangio

Born:
24th June 1911
Balcarce, Buenos Aires Province
Died:
17th July 1995 (Aged 84)
Balcarce, Buenos Aires Province
Nationality:
Argentinian
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

Juan Manuel Fangio was motor racing royalty whose five World Championship wins set a record that lasted almost half a century. He had an aura that was justified by both his achievements and modest demeanour.

The fourth of six siblings, Fangio was raised in a humble immigrant family in the provincial town of Balcarce, his painter-decorator father having arrived from Italy when a child. Fascinated by cars from an early age, Fangio left school at 11 years old and worked as a mechanic in a local garage. “Chueco” (“the bandy legged one”) was something of a frail youth and he almost succumbed to a severe case of pneumonia when a teenager.

Keen on football and boxing at the time, Fangio’s life changed when a client of the garage asked him to be his riding mechanic in one of Argentina’s marathon road races. He completed his Military Service at Campo de Mayo near Buenos Aires before setting up his own garage in partnership with close friend Jose Duffard and the venture soon prospered.

It was 1934 when Fangio raced for the first time but his borrowed Ford Model A retired that day. Those tentative early steps were taken without the knowledge of his parents but his improving results meant the subterfuge could not last for long. It was with a Chevrolet Coupe that had been bought with the help of his neighbours that Fangio eventually came to the fore.

His breakthrough success came in the 1940 Gran Premio Internacionale del Norte. He battled established stars Oscar and Juan Galvez during the 5920-mile road race from Buenos Aires to Lima and back. Fangio eventually eased to victory after the brothers both retired. He won the Turisimo Carretera (Argentina’s road racing championship) that year and the next to confirm his promise but it was then suspended until 1947. It was Galvez who prevailed for the next two seasons when it resumed and the brothers would win the championship for 14 of the next 15 years.

Fangio’s first opportunity to race against European stars came in the 1948 Temporada and he impressed Jean-Pierre Wimille after they battled for the lead at Rosario while both driving Simca-Gordinis. Fangio set the fastest race lap and led the Frenchman before his engine expired. Now 37 years old, Fangio finally made his European debut when driving a works Simca-Gordini 11 at Reims that year. He qualified on the front row for the voiturette Coupe des Petites Cylindrees but retired from both that race and the Grand Prix itself. His Argentinean season was a tragic one however because co-driver Daniel Urrutia was killed when Fangio crashed during the seventh leg of the Buenos Aires-Caracas road race.

His GP debut may have been unremarkable but his return to Europe with an Automovil Club Argentina entered Maserati 4CT/48 was sensational. The 1949 Formula 1 season began with the previously unheralded Fangio scoring dominant victories at San Remo, Pau and Perpignan. He added further success at Marseille and Albi (driving a Scuderia Achille Varzi Simca-Gordini 15 in the former) before his unbeaten run only ended with retirement from the GP de France at Reims. He also won the Formula 2 race at Monza and returned to Argentina with his reputation established and an Alfa Romeo contract for the following season.

The famous Italian marque returned for the newly established F1 World Championship in 1950 with Fangio, Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli as regular drivers. Running second behind Farina when he retired from the British and Swiss GPs, Fangio won at Monaco after the Italian caused a nine-car accident on the opening lap. Back-to-back victories in the Belgian and French GPs meant Fangio entered the Monza finale with the points lead and he qualified on pole position for a fourth time. However, he retired while running third to hand the inaugural title to his team-mate.

There was no such disappointment in 1951 for Fangio held off Ferrari’s increasing challenge to be crowned World Champion for the first time. That year began with Fangio driving a pre-war Mercedes-Benz W163 in the Temporada races – finishing third in the Buenos Aires City GP. He then won the opening GP in the Swiss rain and after taking over Fagioli’s car in France. But the new normally aspirated Ferrari 375 now challenged the supercharged Alfa Romeo 159 thanks to its much better fuel consumption. Alberto Ascari scored back-to-back victories for Ferrari to enter the final race just two points behind Fangio and with fewer scores to drop. Ascari qualified on pole position for the decisive Spanish GP but his challenge soon evaporated due to an incorrect tyre choice for the fast Pedralbes road course. Fangio led from the fourth lap to secure a title that was celebrated with an outpouring of Latin fervour from Buenos Aires to Balcarce.

The 1952 World Championship was switched to F2 rules after Alfa Romeo withdrew and Fangio joined Maserati for his title defence. He also started a couple of F1 races with the undeveloped BRM H16 but retired at Albi and Dundrod. However he rolled his Maserati A6GCM at Lesmo during the early laps of the non-championship Monza Autodrome GP. The resulting broken vertebrae in his neck and concussion forced Fangio to miss the rest of the season.

He returned to Maserati for the start of the 1953 season with the opening race held in Argentina for the first time. However, this was a period of total Ferrari domination and Fangio retired from the first three GPs of the year. He was narrowly beaten by Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari 500 after a slipstreaming classic at Reims and repeated that second-place finish in Britain and Germany. The season ended at Monza once more and Fangio was part of a four-way fight for the lead all the way to the flag. He challenged double World Champion Ascari into the final corner on the last lap and the Italian spun. Fangio crossed the line to win a GP for the first time in two years and inflict Ferrari’s only such defeat during the World Championship years. He completed 1953 by winning the Carrera Panamericana for Lancia.

New F1 rules were introduced for the 1954 World Championship and Fangio signed with Mercedes-Benz. They were not ready for the start of the season so Fangio drove a works Maserati 250F in the first two GPs of the season instead – winning in both Argentina and Belgium nonetheless. Mercedes made its eagerly anticipated return to the sport by fielding three streamlined W196s in the French GP and it was immediately clear that F1 had a new benchmark. Fangio and Karl Kling lapped the field to complete a dominant 1-2 for the Silver Arrows. It was therefore a surprise when he struggled in the British GP – Fangio finishing fourth after struggling to judge Silverstone’s open corners due to the enclosed bodywork. With a new open-wheel version of the W196 available when required, Fangio won the next three GPs as he clinched a second world title. That he won six of the nine races that year emphasised that Fangio was undoubtedly now the best driver in the world.

He was joined by young Englishman Stirling Moss for 1955 and opened the F1 season by withstanding the extreme heat to win the Argentine GP once more. The Monaco GP was lost when his rear axle broke but Fangio led Moss home at Spa-Francorchamps in a convincing 1-2 victory for the team. However, Mercedes and the sport as a whole had been shocked to the core when the 300SLR of “Pierre Levegh” crashed into the crowd at Le Mans, killing the Frenchman and over 80 spectators. The French, German, Swiss and Spanish GPs were all cancelled as a consequence but Mercedes dominated the three races that still staged. Moss led Fangio home at Aintree and “El Maestro” won in Holland and Italy to clinch the title. He also finished second in the Mille Miglia, Tourist Trophy and Targa Florio as Mercedes also won that year’s World Sportscar Championship.

Mercedes withdrew from all forms of motor racing at the end of the season so Fangio joined Ferrari in 1956. Armed with the Vittorio Jano designed Lancia-Ferrari D50, Fangio won the opening round in Argentina and finished second in Monaco, having taken over from team-mates Luigi Musso and Peter Collins respectively after his own car had been delayed. This was not a happy season for Fangio and back-to-back victories for Collins put a fourth World Championship in doubt. Indeed, when he retired from the final race in Italy it appeared that the title was between Moss (Maserati) and Collins. In the event, the selfless Collins gave his car to Fangio who brought it home to finish second and clinch another title.

There were rumours of retirement but the 45 year old returned to Maserati in 1957 instead. That season delivered his fifth world title (and fourth in a row), his finest GP victory and confirmed Fangio’s status as a legend. He won the opening three GPs in Argentina (successful at home for a fourth year in a row), Monaco and France – his 250F famously captured on full drift at Rouen by Motor Sport’s Michael Tee. Fangio conjured his greatest F1 drive to recover from a tardy pitstop at the Nurburgring to pass the Ferraris of Collins and Hawthorn – clinching another title with his 24th and final GP victory.

With Maserati withdrawing as a works concern, Fangio decided to race as a freelance in 1958. The year began with his privately entered 250F on pole position and fourth at the finish of the Argentine GP. Victory in that year’s Formule Libre Buenos Aires City GP confirmed that Fangio’s talent remained undiminished. Kidnap before the Cuban GP was described as “an adventure I rather enjoyed” but an invitation to race at Indianapolis was scuppered by existing contractual obligations and business affairs back home (still in partnership with Duffard). He appeared in a World Championship GP for a 51st and final time in the French GP at Reims – again finishing fourth to draw a close to a glorious career.

Motor racing’s most famous son remained a regular visitor to the F1 paddock and he was an ambassador for Mercedes-Benz during his later years. When he died in 1995 after a long illness, Fangio left a legacy of records and demeanour that can only be beaten on the printed page. A truly humble gentleman, Juan Manuel Fangio remains a giant of Formula 1.