Considered by many to be the greatest driver ever, Juan Manuel Fangio was crowned world champion on five occasions out of seven Formula One seasons. He took part in 51 Formula One races and was on the front row on 48 occasions. His record of flying laps stood at an incredible 23 and these were probably the reason he won 24 of his 51 races.
Fangio’s competitors, in his hay days, were young enough to be his sons and almost all belonged to high society and privileged backgrounds. Fangio was the proverbial “black sheep” of the starting grid as he made his way to the tracks from a small dusty town in Argentina. Fangio was 11 when he started work as a mechanic. For almost forty years, Fangio was a mechanic by trade and raced the odd car every now and then. With a very disciplined approach to life, Fangio took part in extremely long and arduous races in South America. He raced cars, he made himself, over thousands of miles while overcoming incredible hardships and odds to race away to victory. When he became 38, he went to Europe to race and with him, took along years of mechanical experience as well as the competitive edge in the art of racing.
Formula One gave Fangio the opportunity to race in more sophisticated cars and everything came easier to the Argentinean who decided to hone his skills at that level. Fangio was an expert at drifting the car at corners and the crowd always loved the flamboyant cornering amidst bellowing tyre smoke in a wild, yet controlled, maneuver. Fangio not only possessed the most astonishing car control skills, he also had the power and endurance to excel in hard-handling, heavier cars that were part of the three-hour long endurance tests that were a norm in Grands Prix in those days. Fangio always demonstrated ample reserves of perseverance, patience and an undying urge to do better. The best part of Fangio’s driving was that he hardly ever crashed. Only once ever did he have a near fatal crash but that was mainly due to a fatigued body that led to poor judgment.
Juan Manuel Fangio had just come off an all-night drive through the Alps to race at a non-championship event at Monza. On the second lap of that pre-season race, Fangio’s Maserati crashed badly and Fangio ended up with a broken neck that left him with a permanent injury in the form of a stiff upper torso.
Fangio was a short and stocky man and was nicknamed ‘El Chueco’, meaning ‘bow-legged’. Despite his un-athletic body, Fangio was constantly surrounded by women. His fame knew no bounds when Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries kidnapped Fangio to highlight their cause. As with everyone who ever met the man, his captors were charmed to no end by a cheerful Fangio and they released him without causing any harm.
Fangio always promoted fair play and was a true gentleman. Despite his incredible achievements, Fangio always stayed humble and generous, showing utmost courtesy at each instance.
Enzo Ferrari came out to criticize Fangio’s loyalty once he left the Scuderia to move to Maserati saying that Juan was only ever after the best cars. Juan’s fiercest rival, Stirling Moss came to his aid and explained to all and sundry that it wasn’t Juan who chased the best cars. The fact was that Juan Manuel Fangio was the best and the easiest way for a Formula One team to become successful was to hire him.
Not only was Fangio a wonderful driver, but his knowledge of the car’s interiors made him an incredible help for the mechanics, often wielding wrenches on his own. Even at times when his team’s performance wasn’t up to the mark, Juan would pull a rabbit out of the hat and snatch victory purely on his incredible driving.
One of the greatest drives, considered by many including his rivals, came at the 1857 German Grand Prix. Fangio had come into the pits for a routine stop and unfortunately for him, his team made a mess of what was to be a simple stop. After losing almost a minute on the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, Fangio drove like a man possessed. Considered to be the toughest tracks on the circuit, the German Grand Prix circuit was literally eaten up by Fangio’s Maserati. Nobody had ever witnessed a Maserati fly around the tracks in the way that it did and on that day, Fangio smashed the lap record to bits and made his way to the top of the podium.
Fittingly, this wonderful win was his last ever victory as a few months later, a fatigued and sad (from the death of over 30 peers) Juan Manuel Fangio decided that it was time to hang up his helmet. Fangio’s incredible record of 5 Formula One Championships lasted 46 years and ensured that he became one of the biggest legends in the sport.
Juan Manuel Fangio passed away in 1995 at his home in Argentina. He was 84.