Today marks seventeen years since the death of Juan Manuel Fangio, the first five-time Formula 1 World Champion and a man universally known as ‘the maestro’. For many, he remains the greatest racing driver the world has ever seen.
He won the World Championship in 1951, and then won it again four years on the trot between 1954-7. He win record of 24 wins from 51 starts was a record at the time.
He died in the town of his birth, in Balcarce, Argentina. The son of an Italian immigrant, he had a passion for football as a child and earned the nickname El Chueco (meaning ‘Bandy Legs’) for his wide-legged playing style.
His first exposure to motorsport came as an onboard mechanic for a Chevrolet racer, who was a customer of the very garage where Fangio worked. Interrupted by a stint of national service, Fangio opened his own garage and started to enter a host of South American road races n his spare time.
He was starting to find his feet in this area, but his racing was interrupted by the Second World War and there was no racing for years.
Undaunted, Fangio kept his reflexes sharp by driving great distances at racing speeds in everyday road-going cars.
The end of the war saw motorsport back in action in 1947. Fangio found himself a fan of the visiting Italian drivers, Achille Varzi and Luigi Villoresi, whom he raced against in a Maserati loaned to him by the Argentine Automobile Club.
Having secured the blessing of the Perón regime and having landed himself a Maserati, Fangio headed to Europe and started to win regularly.
Alfa Romeo came knocking with an offer of a works drive with them in the inaugural Formula 1 World Championship season of 1950. Partnered with Nino Farina, Fangio narrowly missed out on claiming the first World Championship crown, but did enough to win the title in 1951.
The team’s Tipo 159 was getting long in the tooth, so Fangio jumped ship to Ferrari to ensure he remained with the best equipment – a characteristic for which he became famous later in his career. His move was perhaps ill-timed to an extent – he crashed at Monza and broke his neck, keeping him out of competition until the 1953 season.
That year, he returned to F1, this time with Maserati. He won the Italian Grand Prix that year, and remained with the team until mid-1954, at which point he was poached by Mercedes to head its F1 line-up.
He won four races with the team before the year was out to claim his second championship title, and then dominated proceedings in 1955 to defend his crown with another four wins.
The Le Mans disaster saw Mercedes withdraw from motorsport at the end of 1955, giving Fangio the opportunity to return to Ferrari and his unfinished business with the team. The year was a fierce battle between team-mates Fangio and Peter Collins, along with Fangio’s old Mercedes team-mate Stirling Moss, now driving for Maserati.
Collins would sacrifice his own title ambitions when he handed his own car over to Fangio at Monza after the Argentine’s had packed up, which gave the acclaimed driver an unprecedented fourth title.
For 1957, Fangio returned to Maserati once more and won his fifth and final World Championship crown. His greatest triumph was the race that clinched the title – at a place no less than the Nürburgring – when Fangio closed down a 45-second deficit to Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in a handful of laps to win the race.
After finishing fourth on what would turn out to be his final Grand Prix outing on home soil in 1958, Fangio headed to France and competed in his last Grand Prix. With Maserati having wound down its operation, Fangio was entering selected races as an independent.
On one of his favourite circuits, Reims, Fangio was stricken early on with a clutch failure and relied solely on listening to the engine RPM to identify when to change gear. With the chequered flag in sight and just about to be lapped by the race-winner Hawthorn, the Englishman stood on the brakes at the chequered flag, not wanting to disrespect the man he so admired by lapping him.
That race also saw the tragic death of Fangio’s former team-mate and great friend Luigi Musso, and Fangio opted to retire then and there to avoid becoming another F1 statistic. By the end of the year, Collins would also be dead and the newly-crowned champion Hawthorn would die shortly into the New Year.
Never again getting behind the wheel in competition, the quietly-spoken little Argentinean continued to command enormous respect whenever he graced a circuit around the world. He held a seemingly magnetic attraction for young and old alike, and even Ayrton Senna was moved to tears when Fangio presented him with the winner’s trophy after the McLaren driver claimed victory at the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Fangio would be dead just over two years later, a few weeks after his 84th birthday. While not totally unexpected given his recent ill-health, his death cast a pall over the sport – itself still recovering from the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger just a year before – as the F1 community remembered a man of great generosity and sincerity to whom it owed an enormous debt.