Obituaries: Juan Manuel Fangio

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The Independent Online
Only truly great sportsmen are revered as much when competing as they are in retirement, and in Juan Manuel Fangio's case his charisma accorded him a godlike status. His name became a synonym for speed.

Arguably the greatest racing driver of them all, while he behaved like a world champion at all times, he had a firm sense of the place of competitors in his world. "Without hesitation, I would say that my fiercest rivals were Stirling Moss and Alberto Ascari. Both were highly gifted racing drivers." Yet not quite friends. "It would doubtless be a good thing if friendships developed," he said. "But on the racing track we were all enemies."

Fangio took 24 grand prix triumphs from 51 races, a record not bettered until Jim Clark scored his 25th win in South Africa in 1968, and a strike rate still unbeaten. His greatest day came at the daunting Nurburgring track in Germany in 1957, when he gambled on starting with only a light fuel load.

After building up a lead over the works Ferraris of the Englishmen Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, he made a pit-stop for more fuel only to encounter disaster which converted a 28-second advantage into a similar deficit. Amid the chaos in the Maserati pit he remained an oasis of calm, before embarking on a blistering drive that shattered the lap record for the 14.1-mile circuit nine times, even though he had to wedge himself in place after the seat broke. He passed both Ferraris to score a fantastic triumph. Afterwards even he admitted that he had never driven so hard, for so long. "And I do not wish to again," he added.

When he retired he stood unmatched, and his record of five World Championships remains unchallenged following Alain Prost's retirement and the death of Ayrton Senna.

Fangio was born in 1911 in the potato-growing town of Balcarce, 180 miles from Buenos Aires, the fourth of six children. It was San Juan's Day, hence his name. His father, Loretto Fangio, an Italian immigrant, painted houses, and in such humble beginnings first stirred the young child's dream to become a footballer. He was called El Chueco, the bandy one, because of his fabulous technique of hooking left-footed shots at goal.

He forged an early reputation in the South American long- distance races, which he always maintained taught him the importance of strength and stamina, two of his greatest attributes. He started as a riding mechanic in a Ford Model T, and after bouts of pneumonia and national service began racing one himself in 1934. Later came a Chevrolet coupe financed by donations from his supporters in Balcarce. He didn't start racing in Europe until he was 37, but those were different days when age was immaterial.

The Argentinian President Juan Pern was a motor-racing fanatic and sent a group of cars to Indianapolis and then Europe in 1948. Fangio was a logical choice as one of the drivers, but in an outclassed Simca- Gordini his debut was inauspicious. In 1949, however, the Argentine Automobile Club bought him a Maserati 4CLT/48, with which he beat all the European aces at the Mar del Plata Grand Prix. That year he took the blue and yellow car to victory in San Remo, Pau, Perpignan and Marseilles. Next year, when the FIA World Championship was officially inaugurated, he finished a narrow second to his Alfa Romeo team-mate Giuseppe Farina, and won his first title the following season. Ascari, the other great of the era, won the title for the next two seasons for Ferrari, but from 1954 to 1957 Fangio was unbeatable.

He considered himself just another component in the car. "If it goes well, the driver is just another element. But when the car is bad, the really good drivers, the strong ones, come to the fore. Like life, motor racing favours those with character."

Not that he often had a bad car, for more than any other driver, even Senna, Fangio had no qualms about moving from team to team to be sure that he had the most competitive equipment beneath him. In 1954 it was Maserati and then, when they were ready, the Mercedes-Benz W196s. He won again with Mercedes in 1955 before forging an uneasy but successful alliance with Enzo Ferrari for 1956. A fundamentally honest and honourable man, he detested the intrigue at Maranello, and moved across town to his old love, Maserati, for his final full year.

He retired at Reims, midway through 1958, at the age of 47, holding strongly to his own belief that champions, actors and dictators should always quit at the top. Now and then he would demonstrate cars for Mercedes-Benz, with whom he maintained strong ties until his death, and though he crashed a W196 in Adelaide on his last active appearance, those who witnessed it never forgot his mastery of the supercharged W125 at Donington Park in 1978.

Juan Manuel Fangio was a gentleman of the track. In the cockpit he was a tiger, but never unsporting. Debate still rages whether he really allowed his team-mate Stirling Moss to win the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955; if he did, Fangio was never going to embarrass Moss by admitting it, and insisted that the better man had won.

He was not always the fastest. On his day Mike Hawthorn could challenge him, as he did so successfully at Reims in 1953. Both Ascari and Moss were assuredly in his class, although Moss steadfastly adheres to his belief that Fangio was the greatest driver he raced against.

Fangio's qualities as a driver were strength, endurance and tenacity. He was, of course, quick, and his precision was uncanny, but he was self- controlled enough to win at the slowest possible speed. He was also brilliant at nursing sick cars while maintaining high average speeds. Moss recalls that where Ascari would just clip a straw bale on the exit to a corner, Fangio would just miss it by the same millimetre every lap. The legendary journalist Denis Jenkinson, who raced against Fangio as Moss's navigator when they triumphed in the 1955 Mille Miglia classic, saw in the Argentinian the perfect embodiment of the will to win.

He was a champion for whom time at the wheel passed in slow motion. At Monaco in 1950 he avoided a multi-car shunt because as he approached the blind corner around which it had occurred he noticed that the crowd was not watching him, but looking in the opposite direction. He rarely had accidents. The really serious one was at Monza in 1952 after he had driven all night and was overtired. He sustained a serious neck injury. Of his recovery, he later confided to his biographer Roberto Carozzo: "I woke up in hospital and understood that it was very easy to go from life to death without even knowing it. And I understood something else as well: now that I had been injured, the people who surrounded me began to leave, thinking that my racing days were over. I learned who my true friends were."

There is a story told by an American oilman who was involved in a road accident while Fangio's passenger, as the great man spun his car to avoid a truck stalled in darkness across the road. Fangio and his wife were thrown out, and the indignant truck-driver demanded of the American: "Who do you think you are, driving like that? Fangio?" The American replied: "No, but he is," as he pointed to the injured Argentinian. The truck-driver stared in horror, and then burst into tears.

Fangio once said: "There is a formula for success, and it is not difficult to analyse. It is made up of 50 per cent car, 25 per cent driver and 25 per cent luck." His luck was good. He was once kidnapped by Fidel Castro's July 26 Movement, but emerged none the worse for wear after being very well looked after. He received his breakfast in bed.

His other close escape came at Le Mans during the great disaster of 1955, at the height of a fabulous duel between his Mercedes and Hawthorn in a Jaguar. Fangio's team-mate, the little-known Frenchman Pierre Levegh, struck Lance Macklin's Austin Healey as Macklin suddenly pulled across the road to avoid Hawthorn, who had slowed sharply to enter the pits. Levegh's car crashed into the crowd, killing him and more than 80 people. Though some criticised Levegh and questioned his age and reactions, Fangio always maintained that a hand-signal from the elderly Frenchman, a moment before he struck Macklin's car, was the deliberate warning that had saved his own life. More than many of his ilk, he honoured the fallen. He once said: "To race is to live. But those who died while racing knew, perhaps, how to live more than all the others."

Fangio possessed an air of absolute charisma; the ability to lighten up a room just by walking in. He had a high-pitched yet soft voice, and spoke only Italian and Spanish, not English. For him, however, motor racing was a universal language. I met him once, in 1987, when Pirelli invited him to the launch of a book celebrating the history of motorsport. Naturally, he was prevailed upon to sign copies, and I remember the humour and friendliness in his piercing blue eyes as he looked up from the page I had selected, on which his Maserati led Brooks, Moss and Lewis Evans in their trio of Vanwalls at Monza.

In retirement he never lost the humility that had only ever been suppressed when he held a steering wheel. "All my life I have been lucky," he would say. "I feel it an honour to be Argentinian, because whoever does not love his country cannot love his family. I do not consider the honour done to me by my compatriots and others to be a burden, but praise for a job well done . . .

"I am not a rich man. I have enough to enjoy life and I can leave something behind for my family. And I have always been in a position to put something by. If I were really rich, I would ask myself: 'What for?' I enjoy myself more than others who have made materialism their maxim. Friendship is the greatest wealth anyone can possess."

His kidneys began to fail in his later years, and after endless weekly dialysis he would have preferred to have been left to die rather than go through the routine which would only temporarily boost his health.

"During a race," said Fangio, "I thought all the time that I was the best." But he held himself in check in public. "You must always believe you will become the best, but you must never believe you have done so.

"When one runs the risk of losing a sense of proportion, it's time to go home, sleep in the same bed in which one dreamed while still a nobody, and to eat the simple, healthy dishes of one's childhood."

David Tremayne

Juan Manuel Fangio, racing driver: born Balcarce, Argentina 24 June 1911; died Buenos Aires 17 July 1995.