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Old 1st August 2010, 11:00   #1
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Thumbs up Fangio: Fifteen years later

"A Little About Juan Manuel Fangio"
by Dhruv Dayal

Each decade of Formula One has the tendency of springing up one or a few drivers who fans would rate as amongst the best ever. Before Fernando Alonso we had Michael Schumacher, preceded by Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna. The former caused a lot of trouble for the likes of Niki Lauda and James Hunt who in turn carried the torch on from the British trio of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. There will always be doubts cast as to which driver was the absolute best from his respective generation, except for the man Michael Schumacher looked up to himself. To be honest, I am of a very controversial opinion that Schumi surely observed the brilliant Senna and for some reason never let out the fact that he aspired to emulate him. But we can leave that for another rainy day, for there are only two drivers that we’ve heard Michael Schumacher speak about with respect, his ex-rival Mika Hakkinen and a man nicknamed ‘El Maestro’ before Maradona was even born, Juan Manuel Fangio. Charming your way out of a kidnapping ordered by Fidel Castro warrants a thousand words of praise anyway; this legendary driver could do with a few thousand more. Born on 24th June, 1911, Fangio began racing in Argentina at the age of 24, winning a few events and eventually becoming the National Champion in 1940 and the following year. Coming from humble beginnings and not having a surplus of financial aid, the Argentine found it slightly hard finding his way into the European racing scene which, at the time, was regarded as the most difficult and competitive level of motorsport. He eventually made his way into Formula One, participating in the 1948 French Grand Prix but retiring after starting 11th. The next time he was present at a Formula One non-championship event however, not only did he set the racing world alight but he also left very few in doubt with regard to his talent. Dominating the first event in Italy, which he won by close to a minute, Fangio went on to take victory at the next race as well. He clinched a further four wins out of the six races he took part in, but the era of the ‘greatest’ Formula One driver ever had not just begun, yet.

I emphasize on ‘greatest’, because the argument as to who the best was can and will go on for decades. The one thing that separates Fangio from Schumacher and Senna however, is the fact that he was one of the nicest, most down-to-earth and humble persons to have ever graced the racing fraternity. When people talk about the gentlemen drivers of the early days, Fangio’s image springs to the mind. On track, his car control was something that would blow you away, especially since considering the safety standards of the 50’s era. He also had some innate ability to somehow demand lap times from a race track by pushing at certainly more than flat-out, relying totally on his instincts. Back in the pit area though, Fangio’s personality was far from his ruthlessly aggressive driving style.

A good example of that was the 1955 British Grand Prix, with Sir Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel lining up the front row, the latter second. Fans and Moss himself could clearly see the possibility of a British driver winning his home race for the first time ever until he got off to a bad start and Fangio took over the lead. Three laps later, Moss was back in front after battling with his Mercedes teammate and soaked in a decent amount of pressure until Fangio finally let off and settled for second. The big man with a huge heart afterwards stated that Moss had got the better of him that day and was indeed quicker, but the larger-than-life smile he failed to hide had already said it all.

As for his driving itself, Fangio’s records say it all. Till date, no driver has a better win percentage than his of 47%, taking the chequered flag in 24 of the 51 races he started. He was on pole more than half the time, 29 to be precise, and set fastest laps a more than respectable 23 times. However, what stood out most on Fangio’s racing CV was not the fact that he won five world championships, not the fact that he won four of them in a row, but the fact that he won them driving for four different teams. Just like we saw Jenson Button ditching Brawn, a team that gave him his first championship, for McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton, Fangio made switching teams a thing of his own.

After a successful campaign in 1950 with Alfa Romeo that saw him winning each of the three races he finished and narrowly missing out on the world title, he turned another three race wins and the bad luck associated with the number into a championship in 1951. After being out for 1952, he jumped ship to Maserati for the 53’ season in which he finished second. The following year, he did three races with Maserati before joining Mercedes which had come in that season, taking victory in eight out of twelve races, of which six were for counted for the championship. Business as usual, he won the title that year and the following for the Germans, then the next two for the Italians, Ferrari and Maserati.

Very often however, a driver is more than his records and statistics say so. In today’s age, you’ll hear about Lewis Hamilton getting reprimanded for doing donuts or Fernando Alonso getting flak for being a bit too outspoken on occasions. Back in the day, the most enjoyable part of being in the racing fraternity involved the greatest stories you would ever hear. Like the time Fangio drove from Paris to Monza, Italy after missing a flight and eventually reaching thirty minutes before the race start. It was one of the few times he had pushed beyond his capacity and ended up crashing on the second lap of the race, like anybody would do. Post-retirement and at the age of 83, he also challenged a law denying people above the age of 80 a driving permit. No, it wasn’t your usual appeal or plea at the local court. It was a 400 km race challenge to the Traffic Bureau which was to be completed in not more than two hours, after which he promptly had his license renewed. And in the most telling story of the great man’s career, Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1957 German Grand Prix at the treacherous Nurburgring. “I did things I have never done before, and I don’t think I want to do again. I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don’t think I will ever be able to do it again.”

It remains to be the last victory the Argentine ever took, the last few laps apparently frightening him to the extent he could never push the same way again. It all started with Fangio on pole for the race, two Ferrari’s behind him. After dropping to third, then climbing back up to first, Fangio made his pit-stop which turned out to be a terrible one.

Seen clearly in the video footage, Fangio hops back into his car, no straps to put on, no HANS device; just a half-face helmet and goggles. Then….. he goes completely ballistic, closing down a gap of about a minute to the lead Ferraris and finally overtaking them on the penultimate lap to win the race, and championship. The videos you will find online certainly portray the picture of him pushing though it is only our imagination that will allow us to see the true image, flat-out through the scariest of forests with a title on the line and nothing for safety equipment.

Another incident that speaks miles about the way Fangio’s rivals saw him is his last and final race. During the closing stages of the 1958 French Grand Prix, Mike Hawthorn was leading with Fangio a lap down. As he came to cross the line and the chequered flag, Hawthorn suddenly slowed down to let Fangio through, just so the old man could go around and do another lap in his final race ever; true sporting spirit. Coming back to the best driver debate, I do believe that Fangio was perhaps better than Senna was and Michael Schumacher was/is. The fact that he won his titles with four different teams, held the record for the most titles won for a period of 46 years, still has the best win percentage and that he competed in one of the most competitive and dangerous eras of the sport seal the deal for me.

Fifteen years on from his death on the 17th of July, I find it imperative that we remember one of the sports best drivers and surely the greatest. To youngsters getting into motor-racing today, he is the perfect idol to look up to. Charming as ever as well as faster than ever. As for charming his way out of the kidnapping, he soon became a close friend of Fidel Castro, meeting him on several occasions. So much so for F1 drivers winning over the hearts of women, Fangio won the hearts of extra-ordinary men too; not that he wasn’t popular with the ladies though. I’d like to conclude with a quote of the great man which goes, “You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are.” I’m sure he knew he was the best, even if his only admission of it was that epic smile.

A Little About Juan Manuel Fangio - In Memory of Fangio - Features : Overdrive

I liked this article because I once drove very fast and never want to repeat the experience unless it is an emergency. Also, in today's world, it is rare to see professional athletes with good sportsmanship and humility. For instance, It is disgusting reading about and watching Schumacher cheat on various moments of his F1 career. And a recent article I read about a book for sale made from Tendulkar's blood intended for those buyers who worship him literally as a god is a sign that he has, imho, crossed the line, even if the proceeds go to charity.
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Old 1st August 2010, 11:23   #2
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>>> Dose,

I haven't read the tribute that you posted yet, but here are my two pennies for whatever its worth.

I don't believe that it is possible to close an argument/debate conclusively about the greatest ever as there will be as many perspectives on judging talent, skill, performance as there will be pundits. Each era will have its greats, with performances which give them an edge over their equally talented rivals.

However, I take the (new)trend of hyping performances by the antics of the media and 'experts' with large doses of salt.

F1 has become a business and is no longer a sport,as is cricket (or what passes off for it) in India. So raw talent, skill honed by experience, sportsmanship, etiquette are not the defining characteristics any more. The ability to bring capital and to generate revenues are more significant.

You don't have champion drivers who simply come on to the track, drive well, be sporting and go back home, anymore. You have businessmen -drivers, you have banker-drivers and you have blue eyed boy-drivers who are all 'groomed' to become champions. It is not talent and skill alone which matters. So it is now more difficult.

That is where the Schumis, the Alonsos and the Hamiltons are.

The era of Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark, Hunt and Kimi are long gone. Button remains but for how long?

Media rules, moolah rules, politics rules. Cheerleaders rule.


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Old 1st August 2010, 11:45   #3
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When the flag drops, the bullxxxx stops.

That quote is true even today. What goes on off track is irrelevant. The racing we see today is top class, we've a bunch of extremely talented drivers and most of the recent title battles (05, 06, 07, 08) have been pretty epic. What's not to like issigonis?

Excellent tribute, Dose. If a driver who raced over fifty years ago is still remembered today and praised as among the greatest ever, it speaks volumes of what a racer he must have been.
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Old 2nd August 2010, 09:56   #4
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Undoubtedly we have some great racing today. But i do miss the old school racers. Thats why i liked Raikkonen so much. Old school racer in modern times.

Old Man Fangio was indeed one great driver. Apparently his race car had the accelerator in the middle and te brake on the right and the gearbox was also inverted. 1st to 5th went from right to left but Fangio easily switched between the traditional controls on his roadcar to these ones on his race car.

A great yet humble man and a personality truly to be admired and respected.

Last edited by good.car-ma : 2nd August 2010 at 09:56. Reason: Spelling mistakes
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