Juan Manuel Fangio, ‘El campéon' of the century
On Wednesday June 24, it would have been Juan Manuel Fangio's 109th birthday. And that would have comfortably made him the most successful centenarian in the history of motorsport, having claimed no fewer than five world titles in the 1950s. That's still the third-highest number of championships won by an individual driver in Formula 1, made all the more remarkable because the only other two drivers to beat his benchmark (Michael Schumacher with seven titles and Lewis Hamilton with six) did so in modern times, characterised by astronomical budgets and a relentless technical arms race.
With every driver's place in history ultimately measured by their statistics, here's why Fangio was unique. He started 51 grands prix and won 24 of them: an absolute record, which meant that he won nearly one in two races that he entered. Nobody else even comes close: Hamilton has 84 wins from 250 starts (a strike rate of one in three), Schumacher has 91 wins on 307 races, Jackie Stewart has 27 wins from 99 races (just over one in four) and even the legendary Ayrton Senna could ‘only' manage 41 wins from 161 races: one in four.
Is that enough? Not yet, there's more to Fangio's record than meets the eye. Because those 51 races also resulted in 35 podiums (nearly 70 per cent) and 29 pole positions. Perhaps most staggeringly of all, he started from the front row 48 times in total: in other words, at every race that he entered bar three.
The odd thing was that Fangio came into the business of winning grands prix relatively late in life. His first win was the Rosario Grand Prix in Argentina in 1947 at the age of 36, which still wasn't excessively old by the standards of the day. He was well-known in his native Argentina even before the Second World War although his origins were actually Italian, as his parents had recently emigrated from Chieti, close to Pescara. Fangio initially made his name through some of the epic road races that were common at the time.
His first big national success came in 1940 at the Gran Premio Internacional del Norte: two weeks of racing covering more than 9000 kilometres across Argentina, in which his Chevrolet coupé won by more than an hour over the second-placed finisher. His reputation then went from strength to strength, thanks to consistent performances made all the more remarkable by his renowned mechanical sympathy: a result of hanging around the local garage much more than his classroom when he was younger. As Fangio would comment many years later: “I never considered the car to be a means for me to win. Instead, I always thought of myself as just a component of a car, a bit like a piston or a suspension rod...”
Whether it was down to his mechanical sensibility or not, by the time the very first Formula 1 World Championship got underway in Europe in 1950, ‘El Chueco' seemed predestined to win. The somewhat unflattering nickname came with him from Argentina: roughly translatable as the ‘bow-legged one', on account of his slow and rolling gait courtesy of two stumpy legs attached to what was anything but a sculpted body. It was almost a grudging compliment: as if people had to somehow find some sort of physical defect in a superhuman being who was otherwise a perfectly honed racer.
Fangio was the ace in Argentina's pack of world-class racing drivers: a project backed by none other than President Juan Peron, who was well aware of motorsport's increasing popularity and wanted to use ambassadors like Fangio and José Froilàn Gonzàlez to elevate his country's profile abroad.
Fangio could even have won the inaugural 1950 Formula 1 World Championship right from the beginning. But a technical problem in the very first race at Silverstone, followed by another at the Bremgarten circuit in Switzerland compromised his chances.
It would all come down to the final race at Monza in Italy, where the dominant Alfa Romeo team (running on Pirelli tyres) let Fangio and his title-contending Italian team mate Giuseppe Farina draw lots to determine which exact car they would drive, to quell any suspicions of internal favouritism. Fangio claimed pole position, but a mechanical problem meant that he ended up starting the race in his team mate Piero Taruffi's car. He managed to set the fastest lap, before being stymied by yet another mechanical issue, handing the win and the title to Farina.
Their rivalry resumed in 1951, with Fangio eventually claiming the title for Alfa. From there, the Argentinian master switched teams frequently, displaying an uncanny ability to end up in the right place at the right time. The 1952 and 1953 titles went to Alberto Ascari and Ferrari, but in 1954 Fangio switched to Mercedes to win the championship that year as well as the season afterwards. Mercedes withdrew after 1955, but Fangio then switched to Ferrari and won the title again. It was inevitable though that with two personalities as big as Fangio and Enzo Ferrari there would eventually be a clash of personalities, leading to a parting of the ways. By 1957 Fangio was at Maserati to claim title number five: a record that would stand until 2003, when Michael Schumacher claimed his sixth world championship.
Yet in 1959, Fangio completed only two grands prix before retiring from motorsport. At 47 years old, and with the writing on the wall, he decided to dedicate himself 100% to his various business activities at home in Argentina. Perhaps one of the factors convincing him to adopt a quieter life was a bizarre episode that took place in February of that year, when he was kidnapped in Cuba by rebels allied to Fidel Castro, just before he was due to take part in the Havana Grand Prix. In the end Fangio was unharmed: this was just a move for Castro's movement to flex its political muscles. Fangio was eventually released after the grand prix with profuse apologies and even a few requests for autographs. ‘El Chueco' was actually grateful to his captors: they had spared him from a race that ended up with six people dead and around 30 injured.
And that's where the story of Fangio the driver ends. He was a shining star who lit up not only Formula 1 but also events such as the 1954 Carrera Panamericana – which he won – not to mention two Sebring 12 Hour races.“I would have loved to know how he managed to be so quick through the corners,” said Stirling Moss – the greatest driver never to be crowned world champion – about Fangio. “But unfortunately, I never got close enough to see.”. From one legend to another, that says it all.
JUAN MANUEL FANGIO - 24 June 1911 to 17 July 1995
Titles: 5 (1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957)