The original maestro

In eight seasons of Formula One, the great Juan Manuel Fangio was World Champion five times. Twice he was runner up. In half the races he contested, he was the first person to the Chequered Flag. It is an impeccable record, and one that is not likely to be repeated. Remember too that his Grand Prix career began in his late thirties, at an age when most drivers retire in this era.

Born in 1911, Fangio’s early sporting exploits centered around Football. After serving in the military, he ran a garage, and began to compete in long distance endurance races in his native Argentina. World War II paused his motoring ambitions, but he continued to practice driving cars, and, when racing commenced, he was quick to get back in the cockpit. After further success at home, he left to race single seaters in Europe in 1948.

Backed by the Argentina government, Fangio won two major non-championship races in 1949 – the Grand Prix d’Albi, and the Pau Grand Prix.

For 1950, Fangio was snapped up by Alfa Romeo to drive in the inaugural Formula One World Championship, partnering Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli. Farina won the championship, but he was just three points clear of Fangio in second place.

The following year Fangio won three races on the way to his first World Championship, defeating Alfa teammate, Farina, and the Ferraris of Ascari, Gonzalez and Villoresi.

After Alfa Romeo withdrew from Grand Prix racing, Fangio signed to drive with Maserati, but his season was over before it began after he was severely injured in a non championship race at Monza. With the World Champion out of action, Ferrari was left to dominate, Alberto Ascari taking the first of his back to back championships. The Italian driver won every championship race he entered.

Fangio was back in action for 1953, winning at Monza on his way to second in the World Championship. In Sportscar racing, he was third at the Targa Florio in a Maserati, and second at the Mille Miliga in an Alfa Romeo.

After two years of Formula Two regulations, a new 2.5 litre formulae was ushered in for Grand Prix racing in 1954, along with Lancia and Mercedes, both returning to the highest echelon. Fangio joined the German manufacturer, but had to race a Maserati 250F in the first two events of the season, while the Mercedes W196s were being prepared. It mattered little what car he drove, for the Argentine won both at home, and at Spa for round two.

Mercedes was ready for round three at Reims. The neat W196s were fitted with streamlined bodywork, and it suited the circuit perfectly, as Fangio led home teammate Karl Kling. The Mercedes was the class of the field – with inferior equipment, Gonzalez, Hawthorn and Trintignant could only look on as Fangio made the most of his car advantage to win the Championship by nearly twenty points.

If Mercedes were dominant in ’54, they were crushing the next season. Fangio won four of the six races, on the way to his third World Championship.

Between them Fangio and Englishmen Stirling Moss won five out of six races, to take a comprehensive 1-2 in the championship. Adding to Mercedes success, Fangio finished second at both the Mille Miglia, and the Targo Florio. But  unfortunately, Mercedes withdrew from motor racing after the season ended, after a shocking accident at the Le Mans 24 hour  killed eighty spectators.

Fangio wasted no time in signing with Ferrari for the 1956 season. Infront of his home crowd he triumphed at Buenos Aires, but only after he took over Luigi Musso’s after his own car broke down. Wins followed at Monaco and at Reims, and Germany. Entering the final round at Monza, Fangio held an eight point advantage over teammate Peter Collins and Jean Behra in the Maserati, and was on course to claim his fourth World Championship when his Ferrari was struck by steering problems. His retirement meant that both Behra and Collins could win if either won the race – and secured the fastest lap. But Collins sportingly stepped out of his own car and allowed Fangio to complete the race in second place, taking his third consecutive Formula One title in the process.

In 1957, Fangio won his fifth and final World Championship, driving this time for Maserati. Despite now being forty-seven years old, he was the dominant driver all season, winning four times in seven races.

Indeed, it was at the Nurburgring, that the German Grand Prix, that he put in the most sterling drive of his career. After leading the race early on, he made a pitstop, and rejoined in third place behind the Ferraris,

with a deficit of 45 seconds. Despite trailing the oposition by so much, Fangio pounced, driving the lap record after lap record as hunted down and caught  Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins ahead of him. It was a glorious win – and the last of his career.

Fangio took part in the first two races in 1958, but left it at that. 51 Grand Prix, 28 pole positions, 23 fastest laps, 245 points, and of course, 24 marvelous victories. Perhaps he often benefited from superior equipment, but the ‘maestro’ will always be remembered as the fastest man of his era, if not of all time.

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