Fangio: The Life Behind the Legend by Gerald Donaldson

Right formula for 20th-century icon
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The Independent Culture

God forbid there should ever be a Michael Schumacher biopic - though when you can watch a film of David Beckham sleeping, then why not? But if there were, any lanky young milksop could play him. Hollywood has never come to call on Juan Manuel Fangio either, though Hugh Hudson did film a biopic in 1971.

Physical similarities apart, only Harrison Ford in his prime could have played the legendary driver. The Argentinian's early days, on the epic road races that traversed South America, were an adrenaline hybrid of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and Gerald Donaldson tells a thrilling tale of mechanical nightmares worked on desperately through the night and battered cars raced through entire disaster movies. Though he started late, Fangio's ascent was rapid, and Donaldson painstakingly negotiates his progress to five Formula 1 world titles, the last aged 46. Fangio was one of 20th century's sporting icons, measured by sporting laurels and by character.

His charm and charisma must have been at their most seductive when he was kidnapped on the eve of the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix by supporters of Fidel Castro, to publicise their fight against the dictator Batista. They explained their cause over dinner, put him up overnight, and after the race they dropped him off at the Argentinian embassy, where "they bade him a fond farewell and again apologised for inconveniencing him".

Donaldson is not the Fangio of his trade, but he is its Alain Prost - studious, controlled, finely detailed - and he has produced what is surely the definitive volume.