Fangio: The Classic Personified

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BEN OLIVER EXAMINES THE LEGEND THAT IS FANGIO

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My Mum recently found a dog-eared, postcard-sized, black and white photograph. It was of Juan-Manuel Fangio, standing next to one of his fifties Mercedes W196 Grand Prix cars. In the top left, there’s an inscription in Spanish: ‘A Ted Oliver, cordialmente, JM Fangio, 27.5.1982’.

Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio was five times world champion and arguably the greatest driver who ever lived. My father, to whom the picture was inscribed, was not. When he passed away a couple of years ago it was a surprise to all who knew him that it was not the result of a road traffic accident. As a young journalist, he somehow managed to report on the mayhem of Belfast in the seventies by bus and taxi; such was his lack of interest on cars that he only got his licence at 30. By 1982 he was reporting on the Falklands War from Argentina for the Daily Mail, and plainly somehow managed to meet Argentina’s greatest sporting hero, after the pre-cocaine wracked Diego Maradona.

A friend recently returned from Argentina and told me that some forecourts still offer three grades of petrol; normal, super, and Fangio. It’s hard to overstate what Fangio means to Argentinians, and to historic motorsport nuts. Michael Schumacher might have taken Fangio’s world championship record but isn’t held in anything like the same regard; Schumacher didn’t come back from a broken neck to win another four world championships in consecutive years.

Only Ayrton Senna, another South American, really compares. He and Fangio had the same incandescent talent, but the fans’ devotion to Senna will always be intensified by the fact that he was killed so young, and while racing. Fangio, on the other hand died in Buenos Aires in 1995.

But how did the man acquire his iconic status? Perhaps it’s his Everyman qualities. Fangio was the son of poor Italian immigrants; he only started racing aged 25, in a seven year-old Ford taxi converted for the dirt-track racing Argentina was obsessed with.

Within a few years he was winning some of the most gruelling races in the world, like the Carrera Panamericana road race or the insane International Grand Prix of the North, a 13-day, 5800-mile slog from Buenos Aires to Lima in Peru, and back. Fangio was a strongman, a worker, and certainly no two-hour, Sunday-afternoon prima donna. He was also a gentleman; endlessly polite to his fans, his mechanics and his fellow racers.

When he first came to Europe to race in Formula One the Argentine government paid for his Maserati and his entry fees; he won six races, including his first four, and was welcomed back as a hero by President Peron. That sealed his reputation at home.

Getting to see him in action did it for European fans; watching him race Ferraris and Mercedes and Maseratis and Alfas, seeing him come back from that broken neck at Monza in 1952, or witnessing his drive at the Nurburgring in 1957 in which he set lap record after lap record on that tortuous, deadly circuit to move from third to first and seize his final world championship.

Some say it was the finest grand prix drive ever. Car nuts love a debate, but there’s probably less debate over Fangio’s qualities than there is over any of the great classic cars. And he almost had a car named after him. Horacio Pagani is another Argentine born to Italian parents. Fangio fostered his early career as an engineer and Pagani planned to name his hypercar after his great mentor, but only abandoned the plan when Fangio died; he didn’t want to be thought to be cashing in. Instead he called it the Zonda, after an Argentine wind, but the later Zonda F references the great champion.

It is at this point that I need some Who Do You Think You Are-style expert to pop up and tell me why Fangio and my old man met. Unfortunately, I’ll never know. I can’t imagine what he and Juan Manuel found to talk about, given how little they had in common and the fact that the land war between their two countries was about to start in earnest. Did they discuss how it felt to drive a Maserati 250F? His memories of racing Moss and Clark and Hawthorn and Ascari? Probably not. And current affairs was out too. “Nice weather we’re having. How are your lot doing in the war? Not terribly well, I hear…”

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