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Juan Manuel Fangio - "il maestro"

by

Antonio Eiras

Since my early childhood I remember hearing about Fangio with a mixture of admiration and respect. His fame overstepped the boundaries of sports car racing and his talent and mastery inspired successive generations of young drivers.

 

Originating from a family of Italian immigrants, Fangio learned to grow in adversity and take smarter advantage of the opportunities that life presented him.

 

This was how he got the support of President Perón, impressed with his performance at the wheel of a Maserati, in a race held in Buenos Aires. With this support he traveled to Europe in 1947 and after only three years, he joined the team that Alfa Romeo prepared in order to win the newly created Drivers World Championship.

 

Nicknamed "Il Chueco" (The Lame), in his native Argentina, for its characteristic gait with legs spread, in a short time competition in Europe he gained the nickname of "Il Maestro" by his unusual dexterity that allowed him to impose himself with an apparent and disconcerting ease, to the great European drivers.

 

Of the seven World Championships he attended between 1950 and 1957, he won five and was second in the other two. In the middle he was half a year without competing, while he was recovering from an injury of the spine which resulted from an accident at Monza, in the Italian Grand Prix of 1952.

 

Enzo Ferrari recalls him in his book "Piloti, che genti" with an ambiguity of feelings. On the one hand with admiration, remembering how he was impressed in the first time he saw him drive, with extreme effectiveness, without ever needing to touch the straw bales that lined the circuit. This respect that Fangio had for the car that he was driving, was an heritage of its past as a mechanic and a constant throughout his career that allowed him to obtain maximum performance with minimal mechanical breakdowns or accidents, from each of the five different cars that consecrated him five times World Champion.

 

Ferrari also remembered, with some bitterness, the first meeting he had in Maranello, with the Argentine driver that hardly spoke nor looked in his eyes, letting to his agent the task of negotiating. The relationship between the two ended in late 1956, after a season full of misunderstandings.

 

Fangio knew how to manage his career wisely and, in an unusual attitude at the time, getting the best out of his status as champion to choose, in every each year, the team that would allow him to drive the best car.

 

His mastery to drive within the limits of physics and mechanical strength, had his sublime moment precisely in his last Grand Prix win, in the GP Germany of 1957, disputed in the old circuit of Nürburgring. At the wheel of a Maserati 250F, Fangio led until half the race, when an extended pit stop to refuel and change tires, relegated to the third position. He returned to the track at 48 seconds of the leader, the Englishman Mike Hawthorn, who was driving a Ferrari and was closely followed by his compatriot and teammate Peter Collins. Driving with an infernal pace, the Argentine recovered the delay to an average of 6 seconds per lap, beating the track record ten times and took the command overwhelmingly in the penultimate of the 22 laps. How he would remember, he drove like ever and put the wheels of his Maserati outside the track, in order to gain speed in curves, supporting the inner face of the tire against the rim of the track!

 

His champion lucky star showed up several times throughout his career, as in the case of the recovery from the accident he suffered in the GP of Monza in 1952, as well as how he escaped the terrible accident in the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1955. Indeed, in the moments leading up to this accident, Fangio, who drove for Mercedes, followed close behind his teammate Pierre Levegh, when he was barred by the sudden and unexpected movement of the Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin, at the entrance to the tribune straight. In a split second before the crash and realizing the danger, Levegh raised a hand to warn Fangio, who swerved to the right and could thus avoid the contact with the French uncontrolled Mercedes.

 

The strangest episode of his driver’s life would happen towards the end of his career, by the time the GP of Cuba in 1958, a sport- prototypes race designed to promote the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Baptista. In the night before the race, the Argentine driver was abducted from the Lincoln Hotel, in Havana, where he was hosted, by the rebels of the July 26 Movement of Fidel Castro. The opponents of the regime succeeded, in this way, some international visibility for their cause, having released Fangio two days later. Once again the lucky star appeared to the Argentine, who has been welcomed within the partisans, who, unpredictably, protected him from participating in a chaotic race that would end at the seventh lap, after the last of several accidents, which caused seven deaths among the race spectators.

 

His link to the Perón regime followed him for decades, but has not prevented that, in the last years he lived the deserved recognition for his unusual and incomparable career.

 

The drawings of this work were performed in collaboration with the "Turbo" magazine, at the end of the life of the extraordinary Argentine champion.

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