The 50’s. The Wild West of Grand Prix racing and a time when it all seemed so primitive. Men raced rugged machines around undulating tracks and danger vibrated through the minds of many. Juan Manuel Fangio’s tale is diverse and obscure. From his regular visits to the podium to a bizarre kidnapping. We take a quick look into the spellbinding life of the man who became The Maestro.
On the 17th of July 1911, one of the most compelling and accomplished Formula One drivers was born. The start to his life was not made easy and his journey into Formula One was a challenging path to travel. Juan Manuel Fangio spent his adolescence in San José de Balcarce, a dusty rural city in the Buenos Aires Province. Like many children in Argentina, he went to school and played football with a keen passion. It was on the football pitch where Juan adopted his first nickname, El Chueco – “The bandy legged one”. This was thanks to the skill of bending his left leg completely around the ball to score.
Juan Manuel dropped out of school at the very early age of 13 and worked as an assistant mechanic, as he had done for the previous two years. He spent nearly 40 years working as a mechanic, often preparing his own very basic motorcars for events. He entered them into strenuous, long distance Argentine races, often spanning over an obscene distance of 400 km. Years later Fangio’s mechanical skillset in the European world of racing would prove to be invaluable.
Through his twenties he added a range of credentials to his racing C.V. with an emphasis on his Argentine National Championship titles in 1940 and 1941. His natural talent developed and in 1948 he participated in his first European racing event at the age of 37 – a time in a racing driver’s life when retirement would seem imminent, but not for Fangio. Funded by Argentine Government, Juan took with him his vast mechanical knowledge, virtually errorless driving style and above all, his incentive for morality and honour, self-discipline and respect for others – all traits instilled by his father, whom Juan was very grateful to.
Fangio embraced his arrival on the Formula One scene. With cars being more advanced and drivable, he was able to nurture his talents and he blossomed into the capable driver he was always destined to be. However unlike his rivals, he never seemed to remain particularly loyal to the outfits he worked for. At the end of a season he would look to move to whichever team he felt he could win.
Out of the 51 entries he raced in, he averaged a modest 12.75 races for each team. These include the prancing horse of Ferrari, Italy’s first F1 success of Alfa Romeo, his third Italian team, Maserati, and German works team Mercedes. Out of the seven championships he raced in, five were won by him. Of those championships he won four in different teams – a difficult and unconventional map to reach his success.
He was soon dubbed “The Maestro”, thanks to his entertaining, yet precise driving style. He was able to negotiate his car through oscillating bends with a kind of vicious grace – an oxymoron which simply doesn’t give enough justice to his flamboyant driving style. The entertainment value of Fangio was surely enough to cement his name into Formula One’s history books, irrespective of his innate achievements. None of this would have been possible without his mental grit. Unwavering levels of concentration and a calculated mind were integral parts of the man that almost welded him to his car, and become truly a part of the machine he was racing.
His talents made him almost entirely faultless and misfortune came seldom. On the rare occasion he would provide room for a mistake, but more commonly, it would have been a mechanical botch. Beside a bad spout of pneumonia as a boy, his closest call to death came in 1952. Due to a technicality, Alfa Romeo was unable to race their Alfettas and did not compete. As a result, Juan was without a seat that season and he missed the first race. After agreeing to partake in a non-championship event with BRM, he planned to have a similar race with Maserati at its native track Monza, near Milan.
The plan was simple. After he competed in his BRM at Dundrod (an 11.9 km Irish circuit, comparable to a softened Nürburgring of the day), he was scheduled to fly to Italy, but he subsequently missed his flight due to his tight schedule. With his Latin tenacity, the Argentinian took it upon himself to drive from Paris to Autodromo Nazionale Monza, a nine to ten hour drive. The Maestro astonishingly made it with a half an hour to spare.
Drained and fatigued from driving through the night, he lined up on the grid and awaited his worst accident yet. This time his mental stamina and endurance simply wasn’t enough to avoid the terrible event. Two laps into the race and he veered off track and experienced and colossal shunt, subsequently giving him a range of injuries, the most serious being a broken neck. The result of this left him with a permanently stiff upper body.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories to come out of Formula One came in 1958. Cuba was under the rule of Batista, an unpopular President who was in his final years of leadership before a historical revolution. That year there was a non-championship Cuban Grand Prix where Fangio was supposed to take part. On the 23rd of February in a hotel Havana where Fangio was staying, two of Fidel Castro’s masked gunslingers abducted The Maestro.
His stay with his kidnapers was far from unpleasant though. The gunman’s hospitality ‘treated’ him to a radio to listen to the race he was about to miss. When news came in of a horrific crash, they went so far as to put a television in front of him! During his 29 hours of captivity, Fangio was taken to three different houses. In the third he was even given his own bedroom. Even more strangely, after his release Juan remained good friends with his kidnappers for many years.
Before the playboy celebrity names of Hunt, Piquet and later on, Irvine, it was perhaps Juan Manuel Fangio that was the initial link between driver and their luminary titles that go along with the profession. Despite his receding hairline and small stature, his general aura was always charming and he was never without a woman by his side.
Notwithstanding his victories, championship titles and universal fame, Fangio was a man built on morals, ethics and fairness. After his death in 1995, he is still today recognised as an original champion and gentlemen.
The Maestro – Life in Numbers
|Name:||Juan Manuel Fangio|
|Place of Birth:||Balcarce|
|Date of Birth:||Jun 24th 1911|
|Date of Death:||Jul 17th 1995 – 84 years old|