Bloody Heroes: Juan-Manuel Fangio

Juan-Manuel Fangio driving the Mercedes-Benz W196 (1986). Credit: Lothar Spurzem

Introduction

Last time on Bloody Heroes, Juan-Manuel Fangio was briefly discussed as a mentor to Sir Stirling Moss’, but he was more than just that. He was nicknamed by many as El Maestro (“The Master”) and seen as a father figure to Moss. We will be looking at how he earned that title and what it takes to be a mentor to one of motor sports greatest drivers.

Early life

Fangio’s race prepared 1929 Ford Model A “borrowed” from his father.

From the age of 11, Juan started his working life as an assistant mechanic at his local garage in Balcarce, Argentina. At 21, he was drafted into military service. Upon his return, he quickly got to work in his own garage gifted to him by his parents from a section of their home. It was this garage that re-birthed the Ford Model A that Fangio would drive on his foray into motor sport.

Rise to glory

Typical driving conditions at Turismo Carretera.

At age 27, while still a mechanic, Fangio was leading a double life as a racing driver after making his debut at local racing competitions – most notably the Turismo Carretera. The route covered almost 10,000km (approximately 6,200 miles) of unforgiving South American dirt roads over two weeks of daily stages – making it one of the most grueling motor sport competitions in history. Fangio won his first championship in 1940 and defended his title the following year. The brutality of Turismo Carretera had to be the anvil that forged Juan-Manuel Fangio into the motor sport legend that we know him to be.

Formula 1 career

Juan-Manuel Fangio driving the Alfa Romeo 159 at the first premiere Formula 1 season

Shortly after World War II, the Argentinian Government sponsored Juan to continue his career in Europe where he would soon race for Alfa Romeo in the 1950 premiere FIA Formula One championship. Juan was 39 at the time which is typically the age that F1 drivers consider retirement, but that did not stop him from outpacing drivers that were young enough to be his sons. He came second in that season but then returned with even more of his notorious determination in 1951 to claim the first of 5 F1 championship wins.

Fangio claimed the majority of his Grand Prix victories in this Mercedes-Benz W196. Credit: Agridecumantes

In 1952, Fangio had switched to the Maserati team. During this season he had raced at a non-F1 event and agreed to race at Monza the next day. Fangio missed his flight to Monza, so being the dedicated man that he was he decided to drive through the night to the starting grid from Paris – only to arrive half an hour before the race start. This would prove to be a terrible decision as the fatigue from the long drive caused Fangio to flip the Maserati on the 2nd lap of the race. Fangio survived the incident but had broken his neck – rendering him out of action for the rest of the season. Accidents such as these were frequent occurrences in the early stages of F1 but were very rare for Fangio.

Fangio Driving the Maserati 250F to victory in the 1957 F1 World Championship. Source: Automobilist.com

Once he recovered from his injuries, he returned to F1 in 1953 with Maserati to finish 2nd – and went on to take his second F1 championship victory the following year. It was in this season that Fangio had raced for both Maserati (for two races) and Mercedes (for the remaining four). He stayed with Mercedes for the next full season to take his third victory before racing for Ferrari in the 1956 season. He re-joined Maserati in 1957 and claimed his fifth and final F1 championship win.

Kidnapping & Castro

From France-soir newspaper

In February 1958, just before the (non-F1) Cuban Grand Prix, Fangio was kidnapped at gunpoint by two of Fidel Castro’s men for the 26th of July movement. This was done with the attempt to garner publicity for the cause of ending President Batista’s dictatorship. Fangio was not harmed in the 29 hours that he was held captive and he reportedly got along with his captors with his charm and display of empathy for their cause, despite having no interest in politics.

Post Racing Career

Shortly after the kidnapping, Fangio retired from racing and was appointed President of Mercedes-Benz Argentina and became honorary president for life in 1987. In 1995 Juan Manuel Fangio died in his home country at the age of 84. A sculpture of Fangio and his two-time championship winning Mercedes was made in memory of the hero and is displayed proudly in Monaco. All the respect Fangio had earned was not just for his accolades and driving excellence but also his humility and determination to better himself. This is best encapsulated by his quote:

Credit: Carthrottle.com

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