Racing drivers do not have long to make their mark in history, win their championship and inspire a future incumbent. However, each generation, a new driver steps forward, one who is continually noted and referred to long after their final victory.
Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso could be the particularly inspiring champions from this era, themselves motivated by the success of Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Perhaps all have been encouraged by the remarkable career of Juan Manuel Fangio, Formula 1’s original champion?
He is the man universally referred to as ‘The Maestro,’ a status that has not been gifted lightly by fans and commentators alike. His time in the racing pinnacle was brief, but it is a title he more than deserves. After all, during his racing years – 1950-51 and 1953-58 – starts he won a staggering 24 races from 51 starts. That is a record 46.15% win ratio, more than Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark. In his brief eight years, Fangio made history and is still considered one of the all-time greats to this day.
The great Argentine, won his second ever race in style with a two second lead over Giuseppe Farina – a relative mile by Monte Carlo standards. The year was 1950 and Monaco was his stomping ground. Formula 1 was relatively new, the modern day champion had only started, but journalists of time were quick to note his status in the sport.
Karl Kling, a racer and former manager in his own right, once spoke of Fangio and his gentlemanly nature of track. The German worked with the five time champion during his time at Mercedes – he won two world championships with the constructors.
“When the name Fangio is mentioned, for me was one of the greatest drivers of those days,” he said. “He “was a good colleague and principal sportsman; few were quite as fair.”
There are fewer compliments quite as poignant as that of another driver. They are fiercely competitive, honest and hide many emotions beneath their racing helmets. Such was the career of Fangio and the great racers that followed in his wake.
He was known for his professionalism and exemplary decision-making, almost constantly driving for competitive teams that were capable of winning a championship that year. His last win perhaps shows this. It was hosted at the Nurburgring, a notoriously challenging circuit at the best of times. The great Argentine was 51 seconds behind – which was once again akin to a mile in relative terms – after a poor pit stop. He charged to victory, producing fastest lap after fastest lap.
“I believe that day I managed to master it,” the master himself once explained. This seems to explain why “You drive like Fangio!” is an expression that has remained in some areas of France. It refers a quick and aggressive driver who is intent on conquering the combination of handling with speed. We need to bring it to England so be sure to use it next time you are a passenger in a car somewhere.
Next year, Vettel will contest as many seasons as the great champion and could equal his title haul – should Ferrari improve and the Italian outfit decide to confirm him sometime soon. Perhaps this reference puts into perspective, just how many opportunities Fangio had to create his legacy. A truly exceptional legacy at that.
Indeed, even his lowest racing moment could be considered an incredible achievement in itself. At the 1952 Italian Grand Prix, in the heart of Monza, he arrived half an hour before the race after a rushed drive from London. He was exhausted and in no fit state to be racing.
While at the helm of his Maserati, he crashed and broke his neck in the process. He returned the following year fit, healthy and ready to race. That is a truly astonishing feat from a unique driver whose career has stood the test of time.
I will leave it to the late, great Ayrton Senna to have the final and best word.
“Even if I, or someone else, can equal or beat Fangio’s record, it still will not compare with his achievement.”
You can read more about Fangio and Mercedes’ dominance in the 1950s, in my latest F1Plus column here.