“You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are.” Juan Manuel Fangio
It’s October 12th 2003, and Michael Schumacher crosses the line in 8th place, becoming World Champion for the 6th time. A record that had lasted a staggering 46 years had been broken, and Juan Manuel Fangio had now become the second most successful Formula One driver of all time. Schumacher had achieved the unachievable – in some minds – but the way in which the Argentine won his titles has become stuff of legend, so it’s only right that Badger looks back on his career on June 24th 2011, the 100th anniversary of the Master’s birth.
Coming into the sport at a late age, Fangio spent time acclimatising to racing in Europe during 1948/49, before being taken on by the Alfa Romeo team in the very first championship season in 1950. In fact, he won all the races he finished that season, but was beaten to the title by team-mate Guiseppe Farina by the virtue of one fourth place finish more. The rise of Ferrari in 1951 meant that points were shared out more evenly among the top runners, but Fangio still triumphed in three races and finished runner-up in two more, taking his first title by 6 points.
Thanks to regulation changes for the following season (the FIA are consistent if nothing else) Alfa Romeo withdrew and Fangio was left without a seat to defend his No.1 status. Taking a drive with BRM in Northern Ireland, he had also promised to appear for Maserati in Monza the following day, but had flight issues in Paris and made the decision to drive the rest of the way himself. Turning up 30 minutes before the start, the great man was in no shape to race, but attempted it anyway. Two laps in, he was thrown from his car after hitting a bank, sustaining several injuries that would keep him the reigning World Champion out of any running in 1952.
Fangio returned with vengeance when fully healed. Taking up the Maserati seat again, three second places and a victory sealed runners-up spot in his return campaign. Maserati would be his home for 1954, but when Mercedes came calling it was too much for the Argentinian to turn down. Indeed, Fangio was responsible for the German marque being a presence in Argentina thanks to holding the concession to sell their cars. With two wins already in the bag before switching, another four in the remaining six meant title number three was all too easy. Number four in 1955 was also just as easy, even with team-mate Stirling Moss proving tough opposition. The 1955 Le Mans disaster meant that Mercedes withdrew after that season, but Fangio’s exploits had been noticed by Enzo Ferrari, and was snapped up for yet another assault on the championship.
The ruling of a driver being able to take their team-mate’s car, and sharing the points won because of it, brought Fangio yet another crown. Retirement on home soil became a win, while poorer results in Monaco and Monza became second places, which pushed his points total beyond those of Moss and Peter Collins. The relationship with Ferrari was not a strong one though, even with a title together, and the more comfortable surroundings of Maserati – who had stood by him through the injury nightmare of a few years previous – was a far better proposition for a driver that had now established himself as the man to beat. Fangio duly won a championship for them too, making it four in a row, and five with four different teams.
The following year didn’t go as well, and the fire was beginning to fade in the driver now labelled El Maestro, el major (The Teacher, the best one). Deciding to retire in 1958 – stopping after his last race in France, he said to his mechanic “It is finished” – the great man spent the rest of his life either repairing the machines he spent his career racing, or selling the Mercedes brand in his home country of Argentina. There were the odd appearances throughout the years too, exhibiting the cars he made famous, or presenting trophies to later generations of Formula One drivers.
Maybe the strangest story to come from his later life was in 1994, when the Argentinian government decided to deny any drivers licence renewal’s to any citizen over the age of 80, which age Fangio had now passed. His response to his refusal? Fangio challenged, reportedly, Traffic Bureau personnel to a race. Surprisingly, a “special dispensation” was granted.
Juan Manuel Fangio passed away July 17th 1995, aged 84.
Perhaps it’s fitting to use the words of the man who passed the milestone of five World Championships to finish on. When taking title number six in 2003, Michael Schumacher stated, “Fangio is on a level much higher than I see myself. What he did stands alone and what we have achieved is also unique. I have such respect for what he achieved. You can’t take a personality like Fangio and compare him with what has happened today. There is not even the slightest comparison.”
For once, this writer and Schumacher see eye to eye.