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Juan Manuel Fangio: On his 100th anniversary
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Posted By: James Allen  |  24 Jun 2011   |  2:24 pm GMT  |  72 comments

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Juan Manuel Fangio, the five times world champion racer from the 1950s.

Fangio raced for Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and won two world titles with Mercedes-Benz, the last time they were in F1 in 1954 and 1955.

He once had a playful debate with Ayrton Senna on the podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix 1993 about who was the greatest F1 driver of all time. Each was proposing it was the other.

Fangio is the source of one of the most poignant quotes I’ve come across about what makes a racer,

“There are those who keep out of mischief, and there are the adventurers, ‘ he said. “We racing drivers are adventurers; the more difficult something is, the greater the attraction that comes from it.”

He made that comment in the context of a question about the man who eventually beat his record number of titles, Michael Schumacher. But I think it stands as a perennial insight into the essential difference between the great drivers and the rest of us mere human beings.

I met him only once, in Adelaide at the Australian Grand Prix in 1990, when he was a guest of Mercedes. It was at a lunch for around 25 people and he was the guest of honour. He was smaller than I had imagined, but he was almost 80 years old at the time.

What struck me about him was his eyes; he had the eyes of a child, full of life and darting about all the time, taking everything in.

Mercedes have been co-ordinating the anniversary celebrations, putting out text, photo and video content to remember the great man.

When I was a kid it seemed impossible that anyone would ever beat Fangio’s record of five world championships, but Schumacher did it and raised the bar to seven. Given that a racing career isn’t likely to last much more than twice that many years, it will be tough to beat Schumacher’s record but someone will do it someday.

Fangio still holds the record for the highest winning percentage in Formula One winning 46.15% of the races he started, compared to Schumacher’s 33.09%.

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72 Comments
  1. rvd says:

    Thanks James, considering the life span of a racer in the ’50s, he’s the greatest ever.

    1. Wayne says:

      Great piece James, Thank you. The man’s quote might have been first uttered only yesterday for Lewis Hamilton! Great driver, and what a simply beautiful car he is pictured with! Looks like a supermodel’s thighs covered in liquid silver – stunning!

      1. Peter C says:

        ‘Supermodel’s thighs’. That certainly got my attention, Wayne, but an excellent comparison. So much more beauty than many of the chunky objects you see today! And no wind tunnels in the 50′s…….How did they do it?

  2. David Hamilton says:

    I read his semi-autobiography (half written by Fangio, half by his manager) about 15 years ago. Two thoughts stick with me from it:

    When talking about his races, Fangio didn’t go into much detail. Pretty much the most he would say would be something like: “At the start I let Moss and Collins go off ahead. Then I overtook them”. As if he could have overtaken them at any point, and doing so were the easiest thing in the world!

    Secondly, his manager said that Fangio stood out when he first saw him testing. He noticed that Fangio took the precise same line lap after lap – to the point that he went and embedded a matchstick in the tarmac fractionally off his line, and saw Fangio just miss it, lap after lap.

    (When I saw Lewis Hamilton testing a kart a decade ago, it brought that whole story to mind: I had never seen anyone drive anything like as accurately – lap after lap. I thought I had seen a future world champion that day. I just wish had actually put some money on it!)

    1. Matt tanner says:

      Agree on your comment about Lewis Hamilton. When he won at silverstone in the wet I was watching at farm. He was the only driver that braked perfectly lap after lap on a small dry patch of the track into the sharp left. All the others looked like amateurs by comparison, with many spinning off.

    2. David Hamilton says:

      Found a reference to the autobiography that I mentioned. It was a paperback called Fangio, by Juan Manuel Fangio & Marcello Giambertone, with a foreword by Stirling Moss.

      It is unfortunately out of print at the moment, but Amazon has a few second-hand copies:
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fangio-Stirling-Moss/dp/B0000CLZBM/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1308924470&sr=1-4

  3. Rusty0256 says:

    I feel privileged to have been at Sandown Park in Melbourne in 1978 where Fangio (along with Jack Brabham) had been invited to do an ‘exhibition’ drive of his championship winning Mercedes W-196; Fangio replied that he would not agree to do an exhibition but he would agree to race, and race he did. For those who have not seen the 5 lap ‘race’ between Brabham in his ’66 championship winning car and Fangio, absolutely wringing the neck of the Merc, well, see for yourself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeQ_jVjBvg4

    1. Stephen W says:

      Absolutely brilliant,it made the hairs stand on my neck to watch such an iconic driver.

      Thankyou Rusty.

    2. Galapago555 says:

      Rusty, thank you very much for sharing the link. The images are simply amazing.

      James, I see that whenever I click on a link (to a video like this or to someone’s personal page), it doesn’t open on a new window, but closes the current (JAonF1′s) and goes to the new one. May I suggest that the links were set up as to open on a new window, keeping the JAonF1 open?

    3. Werewolf says:

      Thanks, Rusty, what a fabulous video!

    4. Curro says:

      Amazing.

  4. Andy C says:

    The guy is an absolute legend. Everyone who saw him race, or knew him said he just had an aura about him.

    I was too young to appreciate that, and unfortunately there is not much footage that I can see.

    I think I remember a bit about Fangio in Jackie Stewarts autobiography (or another I’ve read).

  5. Glenn says:

    Just looking at some of his record. Very impressive. It seems he often won by up to a minute. I wonder if he was disrespected by the punters for qualifying on pole and winning so often like young Sebastian is these days.

  6. Nigel says:

    Schumacher made his F1 debut aged 22; Fangio 37.
    There is no comparison to be made.

  7. Rich C says:

    How do you define ‘greatest?’

    What we usually talk about is how he won X championships. But thats about domination of the time and has nothing to do with other eras.

    So I’ll agree Schumacher dominated his era more than anyone else ever has, but I still think Fangio was the greatest.

    1. Steven says:

      We have to consider that Fangio won with 3 different manufacturers, I think that gives him the “greates” title. It seems he could driver any car fast.

      1. Greg says:

        Or maybe he was chasing drives in the fastest cars?

        MSC put the cherry on the cake at Ferrari and could of driven for any team, but he stuck with it and took the rewards of 5 titles with them (however boring it seemed at the time watching him dominate race after race).

        Senna moved for a winning car after stepping in one at Mclaren by going to Williams. He only stuck it out in 1993 as he couldn’t get in the Williams before.

        I believe a driver can only do so much and it is the car that makes the difference, for that reason alone MSC takes the mantle for best driver to sit in a F1 car.

        For everyone who is under 20+ years old and missed most of MSC titles or just getting into F1, Enjoy watching him drive because he is the best driver to have sat in an F1 car and the last race reminded us all of that.

      2. Werewolf says:

        “Or maybe he was chasing drives in the fastest cars?”

        Fangio started in the WDC’s inaugural year (1950) with Alfa Romeo and remained there until the team pulled out at the end of the following year, his first title. He missed 1952 because of a serious injury, returning to the WDC in 1953 with Maserati, out-performing an indifferent car to 2nd in the championship.

        Mercedes entered F1 in 1954, taking preparation to a new level and head-hunting Fangio to lead the team, for whom he delivered two successive titles. Like Alfa before, Mercedes withdrew (following the Le Mans disaster) and Fangio moved to Ferrari for 1956 (title four), where he was never happy with the team politics, so returned to Maserati for his final full season in 1957 (title five).

        At Alfa, he was equal number one with Farina. He was number one during both spells at Maserati, although Gonzales was also part of the 1953 team, and at Mercedes (with Moss closing the gap in 1955). The Ferrari year is a debatable point, with Fangio feeling preference was being shown at times to the team’s young Italian drivers (Musso and Castellotti, I think).

      3. Alex W says:

        Shu is possibly the best wouldn’t disagree, but by your logic Jack Brabham won 2 WDC on the trot, could’ve just taken the best car and won plenty more, but started his own team! And eventually prevailed!! If Shu had come back with Brawn in 09 as Team Shu he would be the alltime greatest but he didn’t. Fangio may have moved to the best car, but only the best drivers have that option. As for dominating an era, Fangio dominated his era for much longer than most drivers lived!

      4. Alberto Dietz says:

        Four (Alfa, Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati).

  8. Rich C says:

    And btw *that’s a *real motorcar there! No electronic driver aids, no gimmicks, just pure-d engineering excellence!

    James, when did GP cars become open wheelers?

    1. bones says:

      F1 was born open wheelers.
      That Mercedez had the wheels covered only on very fast tracks.

    2. bones says:

      It was a different time,no point in saying who was the best one,specially us:ppl that never saw these legends driving alive.
      For me one of Fangio’s highs is the fact that he won 5 WC driving for 4 different teams in only 8 years of F1 career,that would be and will IMO impossible to match.

    3. Phil Brown says:

      The car in the photo is a 300SLR, not a W196 Grand Prix car.
      Phil Brown

    4. Werewolf says:

      The car pictured is a sportscar not a GP car (someone will undoubtedly recall the type number, which eludes me right now), although Mercedes did create the W196 Streamliner, a special bodied version of the normal open-wheeled W196 for a couple of specific superfast circuits, including Monza and, I think, Reims. This had different bodywork to the car in the photo, as well as the traditional monoposto centre driving position.

      The Streamliner was successful enough but Fangio was not a fan of it, preferring the handling of the regular chassis. I believe the only car now running is a Mercedes-built recreation around some original running gear. I think Jochen Mass may have done the test driving.

      My tired grey cells are trying to recall another streamlined but unsuccessful GP car of similar vintage, possibly a Veritas but I’m not entirely sure. Otherwise, GP cars have always been open-wheeled … unless anyone recalls another historic oddity!

  9. Joe S says:

    Good article James.

    While it is true that many careers don’t last very long, guys like Barrichello are exceptions, and they more often than not haven’t had the best car. Imagine if one was in a top car for say, 10 of twenty years. Not unimaginable given that Schumacher was at Ferrari for ten years himself.

    Not many drivers have gotten past the three titles mark, but looking at Alonso who’s double and likely to be in contention over the next few years, and Hamilton and Vettel are also likely to have competitive cars. It’s not crazy to suggest one of those three could get to four and past it, then pursuing for seven or eight. Especially as Vettel isn’t even 24 yet and looking ominous to make it two titles this year.

    1. kowalsky says:

      the tend to last longer nowadays, because the danger factor in not longer an issue.
      Now they have too be forced the guys out of the car. Even if they croal arround every race track. Shame on them.

  10. Quercus says:

    Great man.

    Throughout my childhood he was always the name used as a superlative. Who d’ya think you are; Fangio? The same way a policeman might now say, who d’ya think you are; Michael Schumacher?

    1. Galapago555 says:

      Funnily enough, throughout my childhood the name used as a superlative was Fittipaldi!! :-)

    2. Dave Aston says:

      Also, in Australian parlance, going for a fast drive was for years referred to as a ‘Fang’.

    3. Jo Torrent says:

      I heard about this story about Fangio name being synonym of speed. I wonder if with Schumacher there are other drivers whose name was mentioned to refer to speed.

  11. Husker says:

    Here’s to the great one!

    One question James, do you know what was Schumacher’s winning percentage at the end of the 2006 season?

    Just curious how these 2 seasons have decreased that of the original retirement to what he has now.

    Cheers!

  12. Alan says:

    Wonderful picture of Fangio with the Mercedes in front of him…love to have the pic as my wallpaper!!

  13. Marc says:

    Fangio/Senna win titles in the most dominant car….praise Fangio/Senna like superhuman beings, pretend the car was a Beetle.

    Schumacher/Vettel win titles in most dominant car…..”it’s just the car, a monkey could win in them, title is hollow”.

    If the best drivers of all time at their peak would be in the same car on the same day (time machine?), drivers like Fangio, Stewart and Senna would hardly make it into the top 10.

    Yes, Schumacher, Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen would drive circles around them, when at their peak (and Vettel and Hamilton aren’t even close to their peak, so there you go).

    But reason has no place when nostalgia concerned of course :P

    1. Michael Hutchinson says:

      I suggest you go see the Senna movie, then you’d really know what kind of skill he had behind the wheel.

    2. Alberto Dietz says:

      Chronologically, the three greatest GP drivers so far are Nuvolari, Fangio, Schumacher.

      1. Kenny says:

        Clark?

  14. Werewolf says:

    Thanks, James, for celebrating this very special anniversary. Fangio was a phenomenally skilful driver and is a genuine legend, a true great, by all accounts a gentleman and that the incomparable Sir Stirling Moss holds him in awe says all there is to say.

    Comparisons with Schumacher are as pointless as they are subjective, given the difference in eras and that, for many, Fangio exists only by reputation, in books or on film.

  15. peter says:

    I think the last of the wheel-enclosed cars in F1 must have been the Connaught from 1957. Fangio also did the long distance road races in Argentina in the 1940s, so he was lucky to be a live to drive in F1! It just isn’t possible to compare the cars then and now, so for me the drivers of that period stand out, for surviving as well as for winning. Hawthorne was once hit in the face by the bonnet of his car, Fangio had lively eyes but he could hardly move his neck after crashing at (I think) Monza in 1952. Different times. Great men.

    1. Werewolf says:

      Can’t believe I forgot the Connaught!! And there was a stillborn Vanwall, wasn’t there?

  16. mtb says:

    Thanks for that report James!

  17. I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but the one thing that sticks in my mind about Fangio is the 1957 German Grand Prix, when he overtook the two Ferraris having been an absurd distance back and then couldn’t sleep for two nights from having pushed himself so close to the limit to do so.

    Absolutely remarkable, and you wonder how close any of today’s drivers get to such a state of mind (or whether they may even do it without thinking thanks to the relative security of the cars they drive).

  18. DH says:

    Thanks James, great picture, great story.
    What a beautiful car, so many decades later still. At Goodwood Revival in another decade, be interesting to see how will crowd about this vs. the current cars.

  19. Michael Prestia says:

    In this sport the one with the fastest car is usually the champion. I can’t think of a year in F1 where that wasn’t the case… but I have only been watching for the last 20 years. If someone took a Virgin, Hispania or Lotus in this day and age and won the championship then you can say “WOW, that is a greatest driver ever because its all 100% driver and not the car!” Otherwise its who is fast but has the fastest machinery.

    1. Werewolf says:

      “If someone took a Virgin, Hispania or Lotus in this day and age and won the championship then you can say “WOW”

      I think I’d probably say someone had nobbled the opposition. But then, with the new changes in engine mapping and blown diffusers … I think I’d still say someone had nobbled the opposition!

      1. Mark Vincent says:

        Maybe not championship winning, but look at the great drivers wring performance out of sub-standard cars. Alonso in a Minardi, Senna in a Toleman, Vettel in the Toro Rosso and my childhood hero, Peter Gethin in a BRM at Monza(OK maybe not a great but he did drive me around Brands in a sports car when I was 8) spring to mind.

      2. Werewolf says:

        And Gethin also won the Race of Champions at Brands in a F5000 car, which impressed me at the time. He’s at Goodwood next weekend, if you’re attending Mark, and from past experiences he’s a really friendly guy.

        Great drives in grotty cars would make a great thread.

      3. Mark Vincent says:

        Thanks for that, I was at Brands when he won the Race of Champions with my uncle who was involved in motor racing at the time. I agree with your idea for a “Great Drives in Grotty Cars” thread, it’s got me diving for my reference books, but I think Senna/Toleman/Monaco will take some beating. My signed Gethin photo still has pride of place on my study wall, a bit of a sad admission from a 53 year old?

      4. Werewolf says:

        Not sad at all, Mark. We all admire the Fangios and Sennas and would have signed photos/prints of them if we had been lucky enough to meet them but our personal favourites, based on other formulae, personality or whatever, are very special to us. I have Phil Hill, Frank Gardner and Jacky Ickx very much in that category and, like you, I have their autographs on display alongside more traditional greats (Moss, Brabham, Surtees, Fittipaldi, Hakkinen, etc).

  20. ACB says:

    Thanks for the post and sharing your memories James.

    As the saying goes, drivers have seasons, champions have eras.

  21. kowalsky says:

    he was not the best, but one of the best. Without a doubt what he achieved is incredible.In an era when the sport was dangerous. Now is just a sad shadow of what it was.

  22. Bill Day says:

    Nice article, James, and perfect photo. What an outrageously beautiful car. The esthetic of motor racing will never equal what it was in Fangio’s era, and perhaps into the 60s. By esthetic I mean not only the cars but the art of race car driving.

  23. gudien says:

    I like the comment about the eyes, James. And always a first rate gentleman too. Thanks for the reality check.

  24. Mario says:

    ‘essential difference between the great drivers and the rest of us mere human beings’

    The way you presented this line makes me believe you forgot something about human nature, or you had a clumsy moment maybe. You seem to have forgotten that every human being has the potential to be great at every point in time.

    So perhaps difference is the people who achieved greatness were simply good at realizing their potential or better said letting it happen, while the so called ‘rest of us’ are still in the process of doing so.

    There are no mere human beings.

    1. James Allen says:

      How often to you really challenge yourself, I mean up to and beyond your perceived limits?

      1. unooc12 says:

        Just taking your response, I know we are getting into the sound of one hand clapping stuff now but….

        YOU SAID: “I mean up to and beyond your perceived limits?”

        Don’t drivers assess the limit and drive to what they feel it is. Hence why when the tail slides out they aren’t correcting it as such but they felt the car lose the grip and are correcting the car knowing that it is about to slip. It’s the old reaction time thing.

        And 2ndly I would say that there are others who push themselves in what they do regularly…

        Sportsmen – faster, longer, harder etc…
        Musicians – Play faster, more complicated, perform with a greater understanding of the music

        Anyone who does exercise competitively in anyway – beating their time around a certain lap. Here in Mlebourne at lunch time many business people run laps of ‘the tan’

        I would say that since the whole world is a competitive place and the better someone is the better you will succeed in life, that anyone who wants to do better or get a better life tends to push themselves as hard as they can. Not everyone, some are happy where they are, but many do push themselves as hard as possible and challenge themselves regardless of whether they are paid 50 million euros to do it on TV or nothing at all to stay fit

      2. Mario says:

        All the time. My perceived limits aren’t high enough to impress anyone yet, that’s all. Whether I’ll get to where I want to be withing my lifetime or not is another matter, it doesn’t bother me.

        I am just surprised you consider yourself mere, it’s unnecessary obstacle. If you do you should change that immediately, otherwise it’s no fun.

    2. Werewolf says:

      In determining greatness, potential is irrelevent. Achievement and the manner of that achievement is all that matters.

      The ultimate realization of potential is never simple (or easy) and most of us never truely try.

      Human worth is a whole different issue but I have to say I’ve known some quite successful people who are considerably less than mere!

  25. Nando says:

    Can you imagine the press reaction if someone got out of the car to hand him a world championship at their own expense!

  26. CJM says:

    Is Fangio better than Schumi?

    Is Schumi better than a BLT?

    Pointless questions.

    Is that the sexiest car ever built? Oh yes…

  27. Steve JR says:

    Amazing. He’s a living legend. It must be amazing for him to see the likes of Ham and Vet slug it out in the modern day machinery whose DNA was was born in his era….the main difference being that life on the edge used to really be just that. Amazing.

    1. Steven says:

      Hes no longer with us, since 95

  28. John Hanhardt says:

    James: Thanks for this excellent piece on Fangio. I remember attending the 1957 German GP at the Nurburgring. Fangio’s win was electrifying! I was just a kid but I have memories of his car shooting by. It made me a fan of the sport for life! I should add that not only was the sport different but for spectators you could move around easily and get close. All amazing!

    1. Werewolf says:

      John, if you see a green hue in the sky, it’s emanating from my body! I cannot even begin to describe how much I would have loved to have been at that race.

  29. Brian Morrison says:

    Having watched the Fangio/Brabham 4 lap race I can say with conviction that if only we could get back to F1 cars without strong aerodynamic downforce then there would be no need to worry about the racing and the spectacle.

    Fangio’s driving was just electric, it’s easy to see why the drivers of that period are still held in such regard today.

  30. Tom in adelaide says:

    My gosh, why can’t we make vehicles this beautiful today? Stunning.

  31. peter says:

    There was an aborted rear-engine Vanwall that I recall and there’s a very vague image in my head of a streamliner, but don’t ask me to draw it! Connaught, the first British car to win an F1 Grand Prix!Not enough credit given to Moss among the greats. Monte Carlo 1961 Moss against Ferrari in a private Lotus. Wonderful!

  32. Steven says:

    WOW! There seems to be a lot of haters on this thread. In my book Fangio is simply the greatest. He won WDC with 3 different manufacturers, he won in one of the most deadly eras, he was already old when he started winning, he broke the ‘rings track record by about 20 seconds on his last win, he has no equal. everybody else is left competing for 2nd best…

  33. StefanBellof says:

    Which is the best soccer team of all time ? Beckenbauer’s Germany ? Zoff’s Italy ? Maradonna’s Argentina ? Pele’s Brazil ? Zidane’s France ?… Just impossible and maybe even improper to compare these great teams with eachother. Fangio, Lauda, Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Vettel, Alonso, Hakkinen, Mansell, Hill,… they all deserve our deepest respect because they all pushed the barrier further than any one else at that time. All the rest is complete speculation. Happy Birthday Juan Manuel !

  34. paul moss says:

    When men were men, and race cars were beautiful

  35. Zakspeed says:

    Thanks for this article James.
    I too was at the grand prix in Adelaide in 1990, and was lucky enough to meet Fangio briefly. I was a young autograph hunter, and the great man himself was about to give me his autograph, until some meddling official pushed me out the way and I missed my chance! I believe he actually drove an Alfa Romeo 158 on track during a historic car display on this weekend. My memory is that he actually had an accident during his lap – minor and he wasn’t injured, but there was some damage to the car and it certainly was the talk of the paddock at the time. Do you remember this?

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