Fangio: all-time great and gentleman

Stirling Moss tells David Tremayne that his late friend and team- mate was a man who was beyond compare
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The Independent Online
No driver is better positioned to assess the legacy of the late Juan-Manuel Fangio than Stirling Moss, who raced as his team-mate at Mercedes- Benz in 1955 and was one of the few men with sufficient depths of ability to challenge the Argentinian maestro on the race track.

"He was a person of great tenacity and physical endurance," Moss said yesterday. "He could keep up the pressure, physical and mental, of racing really hard. If he did one fast lap he could continually do laps of similar speed, physically and mentally. He was not a technician by any means; I knew as much as he did. But because he was so good he obviously did have the choice of good cars, which he looked after, and although he was not a technician he was a man who had a great sympathy for the car and could get the best out of it. He was a very smooth, very clean driver."

At Mercedes in 1955, Moss came in as a young 25-year-old as No 2 to Fangio, yet Fangio allowed Moss to follow him very closely. They became known as "The Train". He allowed him to follow as closely as he wanted to in a three-hour race, showing him round and not trying to hide the lines he was taking, or indulging in intimidatory tactics such as deliberately putting a wheel off the track to throw up dirt and stones.

Pairing Fangio and Moss was a potentially explosive gamble by the Mercedes- Benz team manager, Alfred Neubauer. In terms of talent it was akin to bringing Michael Schumacher into a team already led by Ayrton Senna. Yet despite Moss's innate speed, and the threat that might have posed to him, Fangio was never tempted to harbour secrets from his team-mate, as might be the case today.

It was also an ethical thing in those days that one driver would simply not go up to another and ask him whether he was taking a particular corner flat out, or how he would set up his car. It just was not done. But Fangio was happy to let Moss follow him closely enough to observe what he was doing on the track.

"I'm sure if I'd asked him he probably would have told me," Moss once said, "but one doesn't do that. It's rather like saying, would you go to a master chef if you were another master chef competing against him and ask him how he made a recipe. You wouldn't do it. If he prints it you'd buy it, but you wouldn't ask him!

"Fangio was a very warm person. He would always come up and welcome you with affection. I had almost a father complex with him and felt close to him, without having any particular reason to. I could see that he was exactly the kind of person that I would like to be. I had that much respect for him as a driver, and as a man.

"The thing that is different today is that drivers don't respect each other. The only thing they respect is if another driver makes more money. You see, that didn't come into the frame then."

Throughout their careers, on and off the track, they never experienced any strain in their relationship, and long after each had finished racing their friendship and mutual respect remained unaffected. To this day, Moss has no idea whether Fangio really let him win his home grand prix, at Aintree in 1955, or whether he truly merited the success. And if he ever asked, Fangio would simply make a non-committal comment which would preserve the mystery.

One of their high points together was sharing a Mercedes at Le Mans, when they were leading at the time of the accident that killed more than 80 people.

"When you drive with another person it's obviously a compromise with the fitting of the seat," Moss said some years ago, "but though he was a different size to me, and a bit heavier, it didn't matter. I could make do with his seat, and was pleased and proud to be in it. I knew I had with me this incredible driver, simple as that. It's something that's difficult to put over in a modern way, because racing drivers today are so different to how they were that many years ago.

"You see, Fangio was a very humble person. He was an absolute gentleman yet he was of very moderate birth. He came from a very ordinary family and yet the man was as much of a gentleman as any lord you'd ever meet. In fact, a lot more of a gentleman than some of them. If you ever met him he had great presence. His demeanour was not awe-inspiring, but there was something there that made you feel that you were in the presence of somebody fairly important. Dignity is the word, I suppose."

Moss said that his one regret was that they were not able to converse in English, but only in his own limited Italian. They would always speak in Italian and yet because of the sort of person Fangio was, and their bond of common respect, they managed to understand what the other person was saying by use of hands and eyes.

To Moss, himself recognised by motorsport aficionados the world over as the greatest driver never to have won the world championship and the greatest all-rounder of them all, only the late Ayrton Senna ever came close to the standards set by Fangio.

"Fangio stands out absolutely as one of the all-time greats," he confirmed. "I think Senna is the one person who came up to his standard of driving, and maybe [Jim] Clark. But even then Senna wasn't the man that Fangio was. He was a great man in his own way, maybe, but he hadn't got the compassion and dignity of Fangio, the warmth. All of the adjectives I can think of, the good ones, Fangio surely embraced.

"In his day you would never meet anyone who had anything bad to say about his ethics of driving. You never got mutterings, nothing. He was beyond reproach in all things. He was such a special person, which is why he is irreplaceable.

"I have enjoyed other teams, and had a lot of fun in other teams. Because you speak the language, you could kid around with Mike Hawthorn, and Pete Collins at Aston Martin and so on, but when one is talking about the real seriousness of motor racing, being in the same team as Fangio was as high as you could possibly get."

THEN AND NOW: THE WORLDS OF FANGIO AND SCHUMACHER

Engines limited to 2.5 litres. Mercedes's straight eight produced around 280bhp. Cars created virtually no downforce, which limited cornering speeds. On the straight they might reach 175mph. Average race speed at Monaco 68mph.

Mercedes-Benz were pre-eminent, with Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia and Gordini trying hard to keep up. Manufacturers built the complete car, rather than just supplying engines to constructors. Only Ferrari still does this today.

Not counting the Indianapolis 500, which was a round of the world championship, there were six grands prix. A typical racing budget was around pounds 50,000.

Cars such as the Mercedes-Benz W196 were extremely advanced by the standards of the day. Pursuit of technological excellence was the exception rather than the rule.

Drivers wore open-face cork helmets, but frequently raced in short-sleeved Airtex shirts and leather gloves. Fireproof clothing had yet to be considered seriously.

Good by the standards of the day. In his peak year of 1961, Stirling Moss admitted he earned a maximum of pounds 32,000.

After driving a 1950s Ferrari sportscar, Jean Alesi recently said: "If you had an accident you would die immediately." Cars had a fragile chassis with no protection for the driver.

Fangio was extremely durable, while Moss was probably at a similar level to today's drivers. Others didn't bother at all. Many would contest several different races in one afternoon.

Reducing engines to 3 litres has cut power from 850 to 750bhp. Downforce limitations have reduced cornering speeds, but maximum speeds are around 200mph. Average race speed at Monaco 85mph.

Benetton-Renault, Williams-Renault and Ferrari are the top teams, with McLaren-Mercedes struggling to stay in touch and Jordan-Peugeot pushing forward. Small teams such as Simtek-Ford have gone to the wall through lack of finance.

Normally 16 races, but 17 this year. Racing budgets start at pounds 10m and sky-rocket from there.

Enormous amounts are expended on research, even though active suspension, automatic gearboxes and anti-lock brakes have been outlawed.

Drivers wear carbon fibre full-face helmets (sometimes shaped aerodynamically), and triple-layer Nomex fireproof overalls. Gloves and boots also flame- retardent.

Senna chased $1m per race in 1993, Mansell received that for his four races for Williams in 1994, plus $3m "compensation" when turned down by Williams for 1995. Schumacher is pushing for $20m for his 1996 contract.

Under the microscope after Senna's death. New regulations have improved cars dramatically. Cars are subjected to rigorous crash-testing and, generally speaking, have never been safer.

Schumacher is the supremely fit athlete, but the high G-force loadings and sprint nature of the races require all drivers to work to a high level of physical fitness. Most concentrate solely on Formula One.

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