This is the only Mercedes-Benz W196 that survives outside captivity – yet the most successful. Doug Nye uncovers the car in which Fangio won his second F1 Championship Hero Worship Mercedes W196. Full story of Fangio’s lost racer. Fangio’s Mercedes W196… and Fangio himself a five-times World Champion, yet all the other drivers loved him. Hero worship: Doug Nye on the full story of Fangio’s lost racer. Photography Tim Andrew.
AUS! AUS! AUS! Dasspielist aus! Deutschland ist Weltmeister!’ Extrovert soccer radio commentator Herbert Zimmermann’s barely coherent shriek of ‘Over! Over! Over! The game is over! Germany is World Champion!’ remains familiar in Germany today. On 4 July 1954, at Berne in Switzerland, the underdog West German team had just beaten favourites Hungary 3-2 to win the FIFA World Cup. Some claim that this memorably redemptive moment became the first time post-war that the German National anthem had been played at such a major sporting event…
Yet that same day, at the Reims-Gueux circuit in France, Juan Manuel Fangio had led home team-mate Karl Kling in a brand-new sister Formula 1 Mercedes-Benz W196, to finish first and second in the French Grand Prix. That shattering GP success was Mercedes-Benz’s first since 1939. So 4 July 1954 became a doubly great day for Germany. It might be recalled by most as ‘The Miracle of Berne’ – but within the motor racing world, Reims witnessed something far more inevitable. The Italian axis of Maserati and Ferrari had been trembling at the prospect of a comeback by what Mr Ferrari called the ‘Trans Alpini’ – and their worst nightmares were fulfilled. Those silver cars bearing the three-pointed star were back.
Perhaps it was doubly significant that, seven weeks later, after a second comeback victory in the German GP at the Nürburgring, Fangio and Mercedes-Benz added a third great win, this time in the Swiss GP, which also clinched a second Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship title for the brilliant Argentinian. He raised his trophy at Berne’s Bremgarten forest circuit, only a couple of miles from the Swiss city’s picturesquely named Wankdorf Stadium, where elated German soccer captain Fritz Walter had so recently brandished the World Cup.
Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport magazine set the scene for it all when he wrote: ‘The name of Mercedes-Benz was one of the most powerful in Grand Prix racing between 1934 and 1939, and during those years they brought a science into motor racing that was revolutionary; at the same time they speeded up the process of racing car design to a pace that forced many of their competitors to abandon Grand Prix racing… With the approach of the new Formula 1 that was due to begin with the 1954 season, Daimler-Benz announced that they would be represented… by an entirely new team of Mercedes-Benz racing cars.’
When these entirely new, futuristically alien, streamlined W196s with their wheel-enclosing bodyshells emerged at Reims, fans recoiled in astonishment. Drivers Juan Fangio and Karl Kling immediately qualified first and second, then finished 1-2 in their debut race there.
Over the fleeting 14 months that followed – completing the 1954 season then on through 1955 – the Mercedes-Benz W196 single-seater cars contested 12 World Championship-qualifying Grands Prix. They won nine of them, confirmed Juan Manuel Fangio’s 1954 Drivers’ World Championship, then carried him to a second consecutive Drivers’ title in 1955. With perhaps tacit generosity on Fangio’s part his regular teammates Karl Kling and Stirling Moss won the non-Championship 1954 Berlin GP and the Championship 1955 British GP. Earlier in ’55 Fangio had also won the Formule Libre Buenos Aires City GP.
Through that second season of the W196s’ meteoric yet brief career, the Daimler-Benz factory team had also campaigned its related 300SLR sports-racing cars. They proved totally unbeatable, winning every Sports Car World Championship race entered except Le Mans, from which the team was withdrawn when running 1-2.
Finally, on 16 October 1955, Stirling Moss and Peter Collins won the Targa Florio in Sicily to add the Sports Car title to Fangio’s Formula 1 Drivers’ crown. That night, roly-poly team manager Alfred Neubauer received a letter from Fritz Nallinger, Daimler-Benz AG’s director of research and design. Neubauer read: ‘After mature deliberation the management committee has decided… to absent itself… irrevocably from motor racing for several years.’ With both World Championships won and total road racing domination re-established, Mercedes-Benz had nothing left to prove.
Some 32 years later, in September 1987, I interviewed Daimler-Benz’s revered former chief engineer, 81-year-old Rudi Uhlenhaut, for BBC TV in his old office at Untertürkheim. We talked of cars and stars, design and development, racing and record-breaking; Rudi – a fine driver and a brilliant development engineer – was then a small yet still imposing and charismatic figure. He apologised for his English, which was actually perfect (his mother wasAmerican), explaining that in retirement he was out of practice speaking it. But about his company’s post-war return to serious motor racing in 1954-55, his words were crystal clear.
He said: ‘Believe me… I do not speak propaganda. But when we returned to racing in the mid-1950s, our directive was to be the best, and to win both the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship and the Sports Car Championship. We did that, and – while we could have done better – when our board took the decision to withdraw, we were the best.’
That was no idle boast. Uhlenhaut’s words were simply a statement of fact, embodied within W196 chassis 00006/54 – which Bonhams will be selling at its Goodwood Festival of Speed Sale on 12 July. This is the only W196 out of captivity; the only survivor not preserved within either Daimler-Benz or an international museum. Yet it is the most successful.
It is the only surviving Mercedes-Benz W196 to have won not just one World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix race, but two. It is the first open-wheel version of the landmark W196 to have won a race, and it is the actual car in which Fangio clinched the second of his five Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship titles. It is to be offered in remarkably unspoiled, almost ‘barn-find’ condition – its sophisticated mechanicals believed to be complete, and runnable after proper preparation – and it is a Grand Prix car in whose presence enthusiasts simply stand and stare. For those who understand its stature, and its history, Fangio’s German and Swiss GP-winning ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ is absolutely iconic.
But there’s more. As a work of supreme mechanical artistry it surely transcends mere motor racing. It is emblematic of German industry’s post-war re-emergence from obliteration. Daimler-Benz escaped from the cataclysm in 1945-47 making bicycles and servicing US Army Jeeps. Historian Karl Ludvigsen has described how, in the late 1940s, anyone who enquired about a return to racing would be told: ‘Please, we are fighting for our very lives. We have no time to think of such things…’
From July 1948 the ‘European Recovery Program’ – better known as The Marshall Plan – pumped $13 billion in to Western-aligned economies. Germany received a share from 1949. Mercedes-Benz car production gathered pace and the board considered racing to promote the brand’s resurgence. A foray to the Argentine Temporada series in February 1951, using pre-war-designed W154 Grand Prix cars, then disappointed. That April, Mercedes-Benz’s new 300 production car was launched. Its six-cylinder cast-iron engine was adopted to power a new sportsracing car to publicise the marque’s rebound in 1952. The result was the spaceframe-chassised ultra-light W194 300SL ‘Gullwing’ Coupé. These handsome cars showed formidable form that year, finishing 2-4 in the Mille Miglia, 1-2-3 at Berne, 1-2 at Le Mans, 1-2-3-4 (in Spyder form) at the Nürburgring, and first and second in the Carrera Pan Americana.
For that Mexican trip competitions manager Neubauer shipped-in the two successful W194 Coupés, two Spyders, two 3½-ton trucks and nearly 40 personnel. To study just one of his team movement sheets is to gaze at a work of art. Every border, every customs post, even individual customs officers, were named, telephone numbers provided, hotels and meal stops booked, rendezvous venues pinpointed, individual journey-stages all given target times. Not only European but also American competitors looked on, and blinked. Mercedes-Benz really had returned.
Through 1953 the factory’s racing efforts concentrated upon development of the all-new 2½-litre naturally aspirated Formula 1 cars for 1954. These roller-bearing-engined W196s broke new ground, successfully introducing to Formula 1 lightweight spaceframe chassis construction, fuel-injected straight-eight ‘laydown’ engines with desmodromic valve actuation, all-round inboard-mounted brakes, and all-independent suspension with low-pivot swing axles at the rear.
These definingly complex cars emerged late, missing the first two World Championship rounds in Argentina and Belgium. Charged with providing his team with every advantage, Neubauer had schmoozed 1951 World Champion Fangio into signing-on for ’1954. Neubauer offered him two options: either a full race fee to miss early-season GP races for which the new Mercedes would be unready, or to forgo that fee and be free to drive for another team. Fangio chose freedom, stayed with Maserati and immediately won both early GPs in a 250F. Then at Reims that first weekend of July he switched to the three-pointed star.
Decades later Fangio recalled: ‘The best team was Mercedes… I never had any worries when I was driving for them, because the team was so strong technically. If I asked them to make a change of any kind, they got down to work, and in no time at all I was back at the wheel with things as I wanted them to be. That’s why I won eight of the 12 races I drove in with them. In another three I was second, third and fourth, and only retired in one at Monaco 1955. In my estimation, 75% of the credit for a win went to the car and the group whose work backed it up, and the remaining 25% went to the driver, and to luck.’
While the original enveloping-bodied Stromlinienwagen W196s had shone at superfast sun-soaked Reims, they proved a handful around Silverstone in the British GP. It was cold, and the circuit was slick with drizzle. Mercedes’ tyre supplier, Continental, had been out of majorleague racing for 15 years and the slithering streamliners’ skittishness was due more to inadequate grip than any deficiency in driver view. An alternative open-wheeler slipper-bodied W196 had been planned for the tighter courses, especially for the following German & European GP at the Nürburgring, but the programme was still running late.
As Fangio recalled after he’d clouted marker tubs during practice at Silverstone, both he and Kling vigorously lobbied Neubauer and engineer Uhlenhaut that night in The Five Arrows Hotel at Waddesdon, near Aylesbury, emphasising that the promised open-wheeler was not merely preferable for the Nürburgring, but absolutely vital.
In response, three open-wheeler W196s were hastily finalised for Mercedes-Benz’s home race; the Reims-winning Stromlinienwagen chassis 00003/54 stripped and rebodied, plus two sister cars – chassis 00005 and 00006 – built new as open-wheelers. In the Nürburgring race, Fangio would drive car ’6, Kling ’3 and pre-war Champion Hermann Lang (aged 45) car ’5. Herrmann drove a Stromlinienwagen, car ’2. Fangio qualified his brand-new ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ on pole position, while Kling lost a wheel on the Tiergarten Straight and had to start way down the grid. But Fangio and his protégé González, driving for Ferrari, ended practice utterly distraught because their dear friend and compatriot Onofre ‘Pinocho’ Marimón – promoted by Fangio’s defection to lead the Maserati opposition – had crashed fatally at Wehrseifen. There is a hugely affecting photograph of González sobbing inconsolably into Fangio’s shoulder. That night both searched their souls. Should they race? Could they race?
It speaks volumes that they promptly ran 1-2 as the Grand Prix began. ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ outpaced the Ferrari, but was itself caught and passed by team-mate Kling’s W196, charging up from the back of the grid. While Fangio sat back in second place, confident he could handle the German driver/engineer in the closing stages, Kling was a man on a mission before his home crowd. Then he began to taste and smell a fuel haze blowing past him in the cockpit. His car’s tail-tank was leaking; his apparently crazy pace was to build time to refuel.
Neubauer became frantic. Fangio: ‘This was not how the race was supposed to run… but I was not responsible, so every time I passed the pits I pointed at Kling as if he had no right to be there.’ Neubauer angrily signalled to Kling: ‘FANG-LANG-KLING’. But the veteran Lang could not maintain the pace, spinning off when his W196 seized.
With six laps to run the 300,000 crowd eagerly anticipated a home win for Mercedes-Benz and Karl Kling, but the commentator at the Karussel suddenly announced that Fangio had retaken the lead, and Kling was slowing. He stopped at the pits with a broken transmission mounting. It was wired in place and he rejoined to finish fourth. Having conserved his brand-new car, and ever confident he could have disposed of Kling had he kept running, Fangio hurtled home in ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ to cement Mercedes-Benz’s comeback with this home-race victory.
Three weeks later, Fangio won the Swiss GP at Berne from his compatriot González’s Ferrari and fresh-faced Hans Herrmann, third in his sister W196. Again Fangio’s mount had been ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ and as he took the flag in this car so he clinched his second Drivers’ World Championship title. Thereafter, Hans Herrmann was assigned ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ as his car for the Italian GP at Monza, in which he finished fourth behind Fangio’s winning Stromlinienwagen, chassis 00004. And in the season-ending Spanish GP at Barcelona, Herrmann retired with spark plug trouble and engine failure, caused largely by over-rich mixture selected as a precaution in hot weather.
Old ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ was then confined to test duties through 1955 when Stirling Moss joined Fangio and Kling in the full-time factory team. The car was finally recalled to the colours for the season-ending Italian GP at Monza, in which Kling drove her with typical intensity. He ran a strong second behind Fangio’s leading (and eventually winning) Stromlinienwagen chassis ’2 until 00006’s propeller shaft parted, due to the rare omission in assembly of a locating dowel. Kling was bitterly disappointed, yet Mercedes dominated: Fangio first and guest driver Piero Taruffi second in open-wheeler chassis ’15, the last W196 built. In fact there had been no chassis ’11 and, of the 14 Mercedes-Benz W196 cars built, nine would survive intact until 1991-92 when written off chassis 00005 was revived for display in the Daimler-Benz Museum, making ten today. In fact the factory preserves six W196s – cars ’2-5-8- 10-13 and ’14 – while ’3 as an open-wheeler and two Stromlinienwagens, ’9 and ’12, are in customer-country museums.
So how did ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ escape into private hands? After its final race, driven by Kling at Monza, it had been prepared to full race standard and was then consigned to the Daimler-Benz Exhibitions Department on 22 December 1955. In June 1965 it was exhibited in Munich and during 1966 it starred at both Le Mans and Hockenheim. It then appeared at the 1967 British Grand Prix before being used for tyre testing at the Untertürkheim factory test-track, and displayed in Berlin and at Stuttgart University. Display duties followed in 1969 in Luxembourg, Berlin and Hamburg. A Daimler-Benz Museum archive document records that, as of 5 November 1969, the ‘car should be available at any time for R Uhlenhaut for testing purposes’.
On 24 June 1972 the car ran in engine tests at Untertürkheim before, on 22 May 1973, Mercedes-Benz officially presented it as a smarter replacement for the deteriorating car ’14 to the freshly reconstituted National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, England.
Some years later the NMM authorities decided to offer the car for sale, to help finance construction of a library and lecture-hall complex. This decision was controversial but agreement was reached, Mercedes-Benz earned credit for supporting Beaulieu’s new John Montagu Building and ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ was sold to Anthony – now Sir Anthony – Bamford of JCB Excavators. He soon sold it on to French collector Jacques Setton who wanted ‘simply the world’s most rarefied, most exclusive, Grand Prix car’. It passed to German businessman Friedhelm Loh who, in 1999-2000, ran it at the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The car was then resold and today, after many years out of public view, ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ is to find another owner in the Bonhams Festival of Speed sale.
Its stature is immense, not only as the iconic ‘Fangio car’ of the 1950s but also as a shining star of groundbreaking Mercedes-Benzengineering. Perhaps above all it is emblematic of worldwide post-war recovery. It’s a monument to modern Germany’s resurgence in making friends, not enemies – and to human endeavour’s ability to rebound from cataclysm. Assuch it celebrates not only World Champion innovation, performance and pace, but also the return of peace.
Thanks To Bonhams, www.bonhams.com.
‘ITS STATURE IS IMMENSE, NOT ONLY AS THE “FANGIO CAR” OF THE 1950S BUT ALSO AS A SHINING STAR OF GROUNDBREAKING ENGINEERING’
‘AS A WORK OF SUPREME MECHANICAL ARTISTRY IT SURELY TRANSCENDS MERE MOTOR RACING’
‘FOR THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND ITS HISTORY, FANGIO’S GERMAN AND SWISS GP-WINNING “TRIPLE-OH-OH-SIX” IS ABSOLUTELY ICONIC’
Top and above. Fangio giving ‘Triple-Oh-Oh-Six’ its winning debut in the 1954 German GP, then clinching his second World Championship next time out in the 1954 Swiss GP. The subsequent 1955 bodywork (which remains fitted today) is simpler and lighter.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1954-1955 MERCEDES-BENZ W196R
ENGINE 2496cc roller-bearing slant-eight with central power take-off, twin-spark, desmodromic valves, Bosch mechanical fuel injection
POWER From 257bhp @ 8250rpm (French GP 1954) to 280bhp @ 8700rpm (mid-season 1955) TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual rear transaxle
STEERING Worm and roller
Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers.
Rear: low-pivot swing axles, torsion bars, telescopic dampers
BRAKES Shrouded inboard drums, servo-assisted
WEIGHT 650kg (dry)
PERFORMANCE Top speed c170mph, dependent on gearing
Above, from left to right. Patinated bodywork and flaking paint are testament to 00006’s originality; air is directed through crossmember, which sits above huge inboard drum brake. Wide seat necessary because pedals are separated by wide transmission. Gearshift pattern is mind-boggling.
A piece of history – from behind the wheel
Octane’s own Tony Dron on driving the Mercedes-Benz W196
Studying the cockpit of the Mercedes- Benz W196, I thought it might feel a bit odd. The driver sits astride a wide transmission tunnel, with the clutch pedal on the left and the brake and throttle pedals on the right. Oddly enough, once inside I never noticed it.
Getting aboard involves removing the steering wheel before settling on the upright, armchair-like seat. Despite the transmission tunnel, the driving position is surprisingly comfortable. Serious concentration is demanded by the gearlever, tucked out of sight under one’s right leg. The gear pattern seems counter-intuitive: to select first, you press a button on the top of the lever, allowing access to the left side of the gate – the action is left, then forward; second is ‘back-right-back’, then it’s straight forward for third, ‘back-right-back’ again for fourth, and straight forward once more for top.
The mental process required is like performing a familiar action, back to front while looking in a mirror. It feels very odd, mainly because of those forward movements of the lever when changing up. With so much to compute when driving a GP car, it’s essential to discipline the brain in advance for this gearbox.
In his superb book The Mercedes-Benz Racing Cars, Karl Ludvigsen states that every W196 driver found the shift pattern puzzling, adding that even the great thinking driver Piero Taruffi confessed to grabbing second instead of fourth on his first practice lap in a W196, sending the revs ‘sky-high’. Taruffi reckoned it was only the desmodromic valvegear that prevented the valves from touching the pistons and blowing the complex straight-eight to pieces.
These thoughts were on my mind for my first drive in a W196 and it was a relief that I made no mistakes. That was back in 1983 at Hockenheim, when I was fortunate enough to attend an exclusive test of several historic Mercedes-Benz racing cars. The invitation came from Daimler- Benz’s press director Günther Molter, who had been with the company in 1954-1955 when Mercedes-Benz returned to dominate Grand Prix racing.
Juan Manuel Fangio took the drivers’ title with Mercedes-Benz in 1954 and 1955, usually with young Stirling Moss following inches behind. When the management suggested that Moss should hang back a bit, in case Fangio made a mistake, Moss famously replied: ‘Fangio does not make mistakes.’
Believing that no W196 was ever allowed to be used for magazine track tests, I was amazed when Mr Molter gave me three separate sessions at a sunny Hockenheim circuit in this car. One of the short-wheelbase lightweight models, with outboard front brakes, it was built for Monaco in 1955. Fangio was leading the Grand Prix there in this car when it suffered a rare mechanical failure but he went on to win the Dutch Grand Prix, again in this same car, a month later.
Part of the reason for the outstanding success of Mercedes-Benz in F1 at that time lay in the attention to detail – if a part failed, effective modifications were made immediately. Another factor was the speed with which major changes could be made. For the return to F1 racing, the team had calculated that superiority in straight-line speed was the number one goal and the original W196, with its long wheelbase and streamlined body, was easily the best F1 car of its time in that respect. When Fangio said he would prefer an open-wheeled body, to improve his precision in placing the car, new bodies were finalised in days.
Then, unexpectedly, the nature of F1 racing changed for 1955 as slower, more twisty circuits took over from the traditional fast tracks with their long straights. Mercedes-Benz quickly designed a new W196 with a wheelbase of 87.0in, about six inches shorter than before. These came to be known as ‘medium-length cars’ when this car, with its 84.7in wheelbase, appeared a few weeks later.
One thing about the short-wheelbase W196 that appealed to Moss was that the outboard brakes didn’t send brake dust up through the cockpit. In tests at the Nordschleife, Fangio and Moss found the short W196 rather hard work but they were both 5.5 seconds a lap quicker than they were in the medium-length car that day.
Other drivers that day, Karl Kling and the engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut, were unable to exploit the comparatively nervous short car’s potential in the way that Fangio and Moss could. At Hockenheim, a much easier, smoother circuit than the Nürburgring, I found this short W196 very effective, with good brakes and roadholding. It turned in well and the steering felt sharp and responsive. Its hint of nervous behaviour, understeer to twitchy oversteer, was nothing to worry about on Hockenheim’s geometrically excellent turns.
I can’t remember the rev limit I was given but it was well below the 1955 maximum of around 8700rpm. It sounded magnificent and pulled strongly from low revs without coming violently ‘on song’ as the revs rose.
Driving it in such conditions was pure, addictive pleasure. When I stopped after my last run, the first person to speak to me was Jenks, none other than the famous Denis Jenkinson, who wanted to know all about it. ‘Mind you,’ he said after a while, ‘it’s been detuned to run on normal fuel so you haven’t experienced the full power it had in 1955.’ He had a point there.
In 1955, between Monaco and the Dutch GP, Fangio wisely chose a long-wheelbase open-wheeler W196 for the Belgian GP, which he duly won on the ultra-fast old circuit at Spa. Some 20 years after my amazing experience at Hockenheim, I was lucky enough to drive Fangio’s Spa winner in the Festival of Speed at Goodwood, thanks to another invitation from Mercedes-Benz. Again, the weather was fine and the car ran faultlessly. I was surprised by how fast the much longer W196 seemed in the relatively confined space of the narrow hillclimb. It felt quite big too but it handled benignly in an understeering to neutral attitude. Most of my concentration, however, was fixed on getting that mind-boggling gearshift right.
THE HERO HIMSELF
Juan Manuel Fangio won five World Championships yet managed to charm all the drivers he so frequently beat. Words Doug Nye.
Juan Manuel Fangio was simply one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. And he was also one of the nicest and finest of human beings. Stirling Moss says it all when he recalls: ‘Fangio was a man with so many attractive character traits – that one would like to regard as one’s own, but knows that one lacks – it hurt.’
Above and left In the W196 at the Nürburgring for the 1954 German Grand Prix, which he won; after victory in the 1955 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, and another win by him for Mercedes-Benz.
To almost matchless speed, balance, fantastic vision, anticipation, technical knowledge and mechanical sympathy, he added amazing anticipation, maturity, humility, and simple common sense.
A World Championship-qualifying Grand Prix win in his era was a rare achievement. Few GPs were run each year. During his entire glittering career he started only 51. Yet of those he won a record 24. What’s more he started all but two from the front row of the grid – and 29 of those from pole position.
Some say that while Fangio was the standard-setter in a GP car, he wasn’t so good in sports cars. Fangio himself believed in fate, and always said that was just his luck. He told me once: ‘All my bad luck struck in sports cars, in Grand Prix races my luck was good…’
But it surely took more than luck in sports cars to win for Lancia in the five-day Carrera PanAmericana road race through Mexico, and for Ferrari and then Maserati in two Sebring 12-Hour races, and twice to finish second in the 1000-mile Mille Miglia, for Alfa Romeo, then Mercedes-Benz.
Fangio could dominate in almost any racing car he drove – and his rivals in 1950-1957 looked to him as the benchmark, the man by whom they measured their own ability.
He came into top-class European Grand Prix racing not as a boy, still learning the ropes, but as a full-grown man. He had built his reputation in his native Argentina, driving progressively modified production saloons from 1936, then single-seaters. His first major victory had come in 1940 – in the incredible Gran Premio Internacional del Norte – from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru, and back – a mere open-road matter of 5800 miles. He won in a Chevrolet V8 Coupe and became not only Carretera Champion for 1940 and ’1941, but also an Argentine national hero.
When racing resumed post-war in 1947, Fangio resumed winning. He was an experienced and trained mechanic, with his own workshop business. When his national Automovil Club Argentino went to race in Europe, he was selected as lead driver. Yet when he made his European racing debut – at Reims, France, in 1948 – he was already 37 years old. He returned for another European tour in 1949 when he won repeatedly in Maserati 4CLT, Gordini and Ferrari cars entered by the ACA. His exploits earned him an Alfa Romeo works drive for 1950. In that inaugural season of the FIA Drivers’ World Championship he ran team-mate Nino Farina to the wire, but the Italian just edged the title.
But in 1951 none could match Fangio’s works Alfetta, and he won his first World Championship, beating Alberto Ascari and Ferrari. In June 1952 he broke his neck in a Maserati crash at Monza, and was out of racing for six months.
When he bounced back in 1953 he drove for Maserati in Grand Prix events and for Alfa Romeo and Lancia in sports cars. He won that year’s Italian Grand Prix for Maserati – finishing second in the Mille Miglia sports car classic despite broken steering in his Alfa Romeo – and won the Mexican Carrera PanAmericana road race for Lancia.
He signed for Mercedes-Benz in 1954, but the Germans’ super-sophisticated new W196 cars would not be ready until mid-summer. So Fangio first won the Argentine and Belgian Grand Prix races in the brand-new Maserati 250F before swapping to the streamline-bodied Mercedes-Benz W196 at the French Grand Prix. He instantly won again, and in Mercedes cars then charged on to win the German, Swiss and Italian GPs and his second World Championship title.
Through 1955, with Mercedes all season, he became the sport’s first-ever three-time World Champion. When Mercedes withdrew from racing at the end of 1955, and governmental regime change had occurred in Argentina, Fangio was vulnerable not just in racing, but also under financial investigation back home. Enzo Ferrari offered him take-it-or-leave-it terms to drive his Lancia V8-based cars in 1956, and in a late-season surge Fangio clinched his fourth World Championship title… for them both. Fangio and Ferrari never bonded, so after that mixed experience and at the age of 46 he returned to one of his first loves – Maserati – for the season of 1957.
And it was in Maserati’s works Lightweight 250F cars that he won his last Argentine Grand Prix – and the Monaco GP, and the French GP, and, most spectacularly, yet another German Grand Prix. With five World Championship titles to his credit Fangio called a halt to fulltime racing in 1958.
Early that year he won the non- Championship Buenos Aires City GP in a Maserati 250F, then made one final Formula 1 appearance in the 1958 French GP at Reims, where he had made his European debut ten years before. In the ‘Piccolo’ Maserati, despite a broken clutch, he finished fourth.
As Fangio accelerated out of the last corner there, towards the finish line, Mike Hawthorn rushed up behind in his race-leading Ferrari. And seeing Fangio, he backed off, to let the driver his rivals knew as ‘The Old Boy’ complete his final race unlapped. Here was a measure of the respect in which Fangio was held by his peers and rivals alike. For decades after his retirement, Fangio – the Latin-American superstar blessed with an almost Nordic coolness and calm – remained that rarest thing within the sporting world: motor racing royalty.