Richard Hough recalls a sunny afternoon at the Nürburgring when an aging Juan Manuel Fangio performed undreamt of miracles.
For four straight years, from 1954 to 1957, and competing for three different teams, Juan Manuel Fangio ruled as Formula 1 World Champion, a stretch of years that remained unequalled until Michael Schumacher’s exploits in the 21st century. Much has been written about this small, sturdy, self-contained Argentine driver, and there have been many theories to explain his astonishing supremacy behind the wheel. His reactions were razor-sharp, his timing and sense of balance as beautifully finessed as those of a circus trapeze artist or high-wire walker. But, above all, he had boundless stamina, courage and determination, qualities that were perfectly expressed in 1957 – his final full year as a grand prix driver – when he claimed his fifth world crown (his first was in 1951).
By then, of course, a new generation of young drivers, most of them British, were hot on his heels, all determined to wrest the laurels from ‘the old man’. Fangio faced up to the challenge from these youngsters with equanimity. He had fought them many times already, and defeated them on almost every circuit in Europe. Now it was time to defeat them again. And yet, in 1957, in what had been an undeniably spectacular racing career, Fangio had to reach ever deeper to hold off such talents as Collins, Moss and Hawthorn from Britain, Behra from France and the Italian, Castellotti.
This is the story of one such triumph, one of his last but probably his greatest race, an outcome that no one believed possible, in which he surpassed even himself in his Maserati on the treacherous 14-mile Nürburgring circuit through the Eifel mountains. His victory marked the triumph of courage and experience over the handicaps of age, driving a slower machine than those of his closest rivals’, and a pit stop for tyres and fuel that lost him nearly a full minute (and which other teams did not need to make).
There had been murmurs among those in the know that Fangio was past it, that age was at last beginning to tell, and that a man of 46 – whatever his capabilities – could not continue to hold off the brilliant new generation from Britain, Italy, Germany and America. ‘Poppa’ Fangio’s days were surely numbered. He might be World Champion, but like an aging, battered boxer, he was due to go down for the count. Look at what had happened at the British Grand Prix at Aintree only a few weeks earlier. He hadn’t even got onto the front row of the grid, and youngsters like Brooks, Moss and Musso had led him with ease.
If this sort of talk reached Juan Manuel Fangio’s ears, he didn’t show it. But then, he was never a driver to show his feelings or express his thoughts, in public or in private. No one will ever know whether, before the start of the 1957 German Grand Prix, the World Champion had already decided to retire at the end of the season but had nonetheless determined to go out fighting, and as the unsurpassed master of his art.