In today's motorsport world, success relies on more than just a driver's abilities – technical prowess, the team, and financial resources play a significant role as well. While this has always been the case, the importance of a driver's skills was more prominent half a century ago, heavily influencing the final outcome of a race.
Although a driver's skills still impact race results (as demonstrated by the considerable point difference between Ferrari teammates Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen), they alone cannot secure victory without a fast car. Fernando Alonso's faith in Honda's potential and his struggle to unlock it as he watches race leaders pull further ahead exemplify this point.
During the early years of Formula One, one driver seemed to defy the influence of team changes: Juan Manuel Fangio. His record of five World Championship titles stood for 47 years until Michael Schumacher surpassed it. However, Fangio's other records may never be broken. The Argentinian driver claimed F1 Championship titles with four different teams (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz) and won nearly half of the races he entered – 24 out of 52 (46.15%). He also triumphed four times at the Argentine Grand Prix, a record unlikely to be broken since the circuit is no longer part of the F1 championship.
Moreover, Fangio boasts the highest percentage of pole positions (55.8%, achieving 29 pole positions in 52 entries) and the highest percentage of front-row starts (92.31%, with 48 front-row starts from 52 entries). He also holds the record as the oldest world champion, securing his final title in 1957 at the age of 46 years and 41 days.
So, who was this individual who transformed into a racing phenomenon behind the wheel of a sports car?
Like many Argentinians, Juan Manuel Fangio Déramo (his full name) had European roots, with his parents having immigrated from Italy in the late 19th century. Born in 1911, Fangio showed an interest in football, but after discovering auto mechanics during his teenage years, he left his studies to focus on it. Meanwhile, his driving talents emerged... while serving in the army.
While serving his mandatory military duty, Fangio's driving prowess captured his commanding officer's attention, leading to Fangio becoming his designated driver. After completing military service, Fangio established his own garage and participated in local racing events.
Argentinian car races differed from their European equivalents in terms of duration, often lasting several days and spanning thousands of kilometers. For instance, in 1940, Fangio claimed victory in the Gran Premio del Norte, an almost 10,000-kilometer race that took two weeks to complete. The race commenced in Buenos Aires, traversed the Andes to Lima, and returned.
Fangio's accomplishments didn't go unnoticed – he earned the title of Argentine champion multiple times. After a brief hiatus from active racing, he ventured to Europe in 1948, backed by the Argentine Automobile Club and the Argentine government, which provided funding for the promising racer.
Entering F1 in the 1950s, Fangio, nearing 40 years old during his rookie year, could have been the father to many fellow drivers. Age didn't deter the Argentinian: he secured second place in the championship, narrowly losing to his Alfa Romeo teammate Giuseppe Farina, and claimed the title in 1951.
In 1952, World Championship rules changed, rendering Alfa Romeo's supercharged Alfettas unusable and prompting the team's withdrawal, which left the reigning champion without a car. Mid-season, Fangio attempted to join the Maserati team but suffered a severe crash in his debut race, sidelining him for the season due to injuries. Having missed his flight, Fangio drove overnight from Paris to Monza, leaving him severely fatigued for the race.
Undeterred, Maserati signed Fangio for the 1953 season, during which he finished second. After delivering two victories for the team in early 1954, Fangio transitioned to the Daimler-Benz team after three rounds, securing the championship title and repeating the feat in 1955.
In 1956, Fangio joined Ferrari, leading the team to secure the Formula 1 championship title. He switched back to Maserati in 1957 and, after winning four of seven races (coming second in two and not finishing one), claimed the F1 championship with his third Italian team.
Fangio's final Formula 1 triumph took place at the German Grand Prix, marking a pinnacle for both him and Maserati. Starting from pole position, Fangio made a pit stop mid-race for tire changes and refueling, while his main competitors continued driving. Six decades ago, F1 pit stops were longer than today, so Fangio entered the pit with a 30-second lead but reemerged 50 seconds behind leader Peter Collins. Setting consecutive fastest laps, Fangio closed the gap and ultimately overtook the Ferrari, securing the win by a mere three seconds.
After the race, Fangio stated,
I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don't think I will ever be able to do it again. He was correct; following the 1957 German Grand Prix, Fangio never achieved another Formula 1 victory and retired from the esteemed competition in 1958.
The year 1958 also marks an odd moment in Fangio's life: the Argentinian was kidnapped before a race in Cuba. Fangio was held by activists from Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement for 29 hours; he missed the race, but he ended up practically befriending his captors (they say he developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome) and became a sympathiser of the Cuban revolutionaries.
In the course of his career, Fangio also partook in both the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but his achievements there pale in comparison to Formula One.
Fangio died from illness in 1995, at the age of 84, but only after being inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, opening a museum named after him in his home town of Balcarce, and seeing sculptures of himself in several Argentine cities.
The Argentinian was best summed up by the words of Michael Schumacher when asked to compare his championship titles with those of Fangio: "Fangio is on a level much higher than I see myself. <...>. You can't take a personality like Fangio and compare him with what has happened today. There is not even the slightest comparison."
Today, Fangio is known not only as a great race driver, but also as a person who added value to the cars he drove. For example, the Mercedes-Benz W196 that Fangio drove in 1954 was sold at the 2013 Goodwood Festival of Speed auction for what was then a record amount – GBP 19.6 million (approximately USD 29.6 million). The car had not been touched since the end of the 1954 season, increasing its value even more.
Until now, this Mercedes-Benz ranks third on the list of the most expensive cars even auctioned, and it is still the most expensive F1 car ever sold. Number four on the list of most expensive cars is a Ferrari 290 MM that was sold in New York for USD 28.05 million in 2015 and was raced in 1956 by... the very same Juan Manuel Fangio.