What happened when the Prancing Horse teamed up with El Maestro. Fangio’s troubled year Full story of his spell at Maranello. It should have been perfect – motorsport’s greatest talent in its most famous team. Paul Fearnley explains why 1956 didn’t quite go to plan. Photography LAT.
Fangio crests Raidillon at Spa during the Belgian Grand Prix. The D50’s transmission seized at Stavelot while the Argentinian was leading.
Far left: ‘El Chuecho’ gets comfortable in Ferrari’s development of the Lancia D50; chasing Jean Behra’s Maserati 250F towards the Gasworks Hairpin during his frenetic, desperate drive in the Monaco Grand Prix.
Juan Manuel Fangio – albeit in the shape of his representative in Europe, Marcello Giambertone – arrived at Maranello in 1956 as the first triple world champion. The 45 year old was hoping to join a new-look Scuderia Ferrari – albeit in the shape of the D50s advanced mid-1955 by bankrupt Lancia – and was “pleased indeed when [a cable confirmed] agreement was reached with Enzo Ferrari”.
His debut with the team had resulted in a breakthrough win at Monza in 1949: “[So] I knew they were exceptional cars, rather like thoroughbred horses, with all their noble characteristics. Their fine lines and manoeuvrability made them instruments of almost artistic precision.”
Enzo reciprocated the hyperbole: “I first saw [Fangio] at Modena aerodrome [in 1949]. I began to watch him more closely because of his unusual style: he was perhaps the only driver who exited bends without shaving the straw bales. The Argentinian, I told myself, knows his job; he comes out of bends like a cannon-shot.” They seemed a natural fit – until they met.
Fangio, charisma in chrysalis, gaze lowered, barely said a word, and his tinny voice grated when he did. Sober and sombre, he was the antithesis of Enzo’s beloved swashbuckling garibaldini.
Fangio: “I remember the penetrating look Ferrari gave me: a look used to sizing up men and machines and drawing accurate conclusions.”
If only he knew. Enzo, increasingly reclusive and oblivious to the irony, found Fangio impenetrable. And that was before he committed heresy by signing for local rival Maserati. Twice. By 1956, Fangio had proved his worth and been well rewarded for it by Mercedes-Benz.
Older than his rivals and from a humble background, he was inured, if not immune, to parsimonious Enzo’s divide-and-rule management style. He was, however, averse to confrontation and sent Giambertone into battle. Combative Enzo was infuriated by Fangio’s no-show but knew that there could be no show without him: first choice Stirling Moss had joined Maserati (see page 135) and two-times world champion Alberto Ascari had been killed testing a Ferrari sports car. Enzo needed Fangio and would have to pay dearly for the privilege. In truth they needed one another. The fall of long-time supporter President Juan Péron in September 1955 had a deleterious financial impact on Fangio and the rumour that he might coincide his retirement with Mercedes-Benz’s withdrawal faded quickly.
This, then, was a marriage of convenience with all the inconveniences that brings. It began brightly: Fangio won his home Grand Prix and a Formule Libre race at Mendoza. But cracks were appearing already.
A fuelling glitch forced him to commandeer team-mate Luigi Musso’s D50 in Buenos Aires and drive harder for longer than he had for some time, as evinced by a brace of spins. Ferrari also suffered its first defeat to Maserati in the World Sports Car Championship, Fangio’s chase of Moss at the Buenos Aires 1000km proving too vivid for the back axle of his 4.9-litre V12.
Victory in one of the new 860 Monza ‘fours’, co-driven by Eugenio Castellotti, at the Sebring 12 Hours was, therefore, a handy fillip before the European meat of the season.
The remainder of the relevant chapter in Fangio, published in 1961, appears tellingly in ghostwriter Giambertone’s italics. Fangio would disown the book, stating that he’d not seen the manuscript prior to its going to press, and downgrade his Sicilian-born business manager to secretary. It’s clear, however, that he relied a great deal on this ex-race official/entrepreneur, who felt in turn sufficiently emboldened to fill the awkward silences that his understated employer and friend was inclined to leave.
Enzo considered Giambertone a mouthpiece and his 1963 memoir, My Terrible Joys, responds to ‘rash and ingenuous accusations’ levelled ‘by’ Fangio: “He made use of someone else’s pen… quite in keeping with his style. [His] story of 1956 is a sort of thriller, a concoction of betrayals, deceit and machinations of every kind.”
The problems began, reckoned ‘Giamba’, when Fangio was not made team captain. Accusations of political subtlety and commercial considerations – Argentina had banned the import of cars – carry some weight, but the suggestion that holes cut into Fangio’s Mille Miglia contender – either to cool its brakes or in order to fashion a late repair to its fuel tank – was an act of sabotage hold no water.
A distant fourth on that event, soaked and pale in a cockpit awash with rain, Fangio’s despondency was understandable only in the short term. For Enzo’s insistence that he desired a return on his investment – reportedly 12 million lire plus a share of the prize money and other side benefits – is entirely believable.
That result, though, might have confirmed suspicions Enzo harboured: “Nuvolari and Moss knew how to give their best whether at the wheel of a saloon, a sports two-seater or a single-seater, while many other famous drivers who, perhaps like Fangio, were unsurpassed in a GP car, revealed an absence of self-confidence every time they drove another type.”
As a counterbalance, and with a wise eye to the future, Enzo had surrounded Fangio with a host of hungry hopefuls who would have walked over hot coals to ride a Prancing Horse. Their vigour, vitality and actress girlfriends no doubt thrilled Enzo, but Giambertone’s assertion that he favoured them was groundless. Intra-team relationships and rivalries shifted throughout the season, but the pecking order was clear to all bar Giambertone and, to a lesser extent, Fangio.
Usually the epitome of calm, Fangio appeared to buckle briefly. Although two blown clutches spoiled his International Trophy at Silverstone and duff dampers blighted his Monaco GP, he was no match for Moss at either. His performance in Monte-Carlo was scruffy indeed. He spun on the third lap and caused the retirements of Musso and Vanwall’s Harry Schell in his rush to rejoin, he elbowed an unhelpful Castellotti aside and was struggling with a recalcitrant clutch when he glanced the balustrade at Tabac. His furious second place in Collins’ car was stark against the unruffled, victorious Moss.
Following another sports car defeat at the Nürburgring 1000km, Fangio determined to restore order at the Belgian GP. After a sluggish getaway from a thrilling pole position, he surged around his main rival approaching Stavelot on lap five and, 19 laps later, was holding a handsome lead when his transmission seized at the same place. Marooned on the far side of the circuit, there could be no reallocation this time and Collins scored his first GP victory.
Fangio oversaw a mechanical post mortem that revealed a ‘blue’ diff indicating a lack of oil, yet a thorough, bordering on suspicious, sweep of the track proved cold. Giambertone, meanwhile, sent a hotly worded telegram – ‘resented’ and ‘slighting’ were not Fangio utterances – to Ferrari’s pragmatic sales manager Gerolamo Gardini. It did the trick: Enzo gave immediate strict orders for Fangio to be “treated as leader of the team and with all due consideration”.
With Castellotti and Collins as shields, Fangio deflected the charging Vanwall of Schell at Reims for the French GP – only for a jet of petrol from the pressure gauge to squirt his face. The repair cost almost a lap and, despite setting fastest time on the last lap – earning and making a point, as he had at Monaco – Fangio finished fourth while Collins won again.
Maserati had been relaxed. Mercedes-Benz had been slick. Ferrari was neither of those things. Fangio’s rising unease would lead to illness. Giambertone wrote: “Juan was very depressed. Capable of fighting at the wheel with extreme courage against adversity, he felt himself battling hopelessly against a tide of misfortune… his heart was not in a fight against such a maddening and persistent bad luck.”
A specialist in Milan ordered the ‘emotionally anxious’ star to rest, but Enzo’s request that his doctor should examine Fangio was rebuffed. The timing was callous. Enzo’s sickly son Dino, 24, had died the day before the French Grand Prix; Fangio wore a black armband while his handlers ‘wore’ blinkers.
He skipped the Le Mans 24 Hours and arrived at Silverstone for the British GP still feeling under the weather. His D50, tended exclusively by a designated mechanic – another ‘Giamba’ demand – was below par, too, snapping from understeer to oversteer. Yet, once Moss had pitted because of a misfire, Fangio won his first victory since the Syracuse GP in April.
His victory in Germany required no such good fortune. Only Collins could hold a candle to him – until the Englishman had to hand to Castellotti after being gassed by fumes from a split tank. ‘Recovered’, Collins later crashed Alfonso de Portago’s car. In a blink, Fangio held an eight-point lead with one round remaining; Collins would have to win it and set fastest lap to stand any chance of becoming World Champion.
Fangio was, according to Giambertone, in confident mood at the Italian GP. A grieving Enzo had not been minded to celebrate his number one’s successes in Britain and Germany but, as was his wont, he attended practice at Monza, and hammed with Fangio for photographers. Given the pressures, they appeared remarkably relaxed in each other’s company.
Their team, in contrast, was unsettled. Enzo’s rift with Pirelli – it wanted paying! – and provincial attitudes of Continental, Dunlop and Michelin had forced it to use 16in Engleberts, which were delivered en masse in take-it-or-leave-it fashion before the season. Loads generated by Monza’s bankings were peeling their treads and Fangio urged caution, but Castellotti and Musso paid no heed and had to pit for new rubber after just five laps.
Fangio needed to finish third and set fastest lap to guarantee a fourth title no matter what. Ahead of Collins, whose blowout occurred on lap 11, and keeping Moss’ new 250F in sight, his D50’s steering broke on lap 19. The repaired car was given to an impatient but unappreciative Castellotti while the champion elect fretted through 10 laps, waiting for a better offer.
Musso, second behind Moss, sat tight during his tyre stop; but five laps later Collins, despite holding a slim title chance, hopped out at his. Enzo was adamant that he’d agreed this with Collins – and Musso – beforehand. Giambertone claimed that he’d had to take control after inexperienced team manager Eraldo Sculati abandoned his post to plead with the press.
The likeliest truth is that the drivers sorted it out between them. Fangio understood Musso’s action in front of an expectant home crowd – plus it was team protocol to assume the lowest-placed car – while Collins’ was the action of a respectful young man with time on his side (in theory).
According to Fangio, the gesture was unbidden. The race’s remainder was equally dramatic. Moss ran out of fuel five laps from home and had to be shunted 1.5 miles to his pit by astute Maserati privateer Luigi Piotti. Musso led for two laps before his steering broke, and Moss, having set fastest lap despite a bald rear Pirelli, retook the lead and finished with two litres of fuel in his leaking tank. Fangio, less than six seconds behind, thus retained his title even though the six points he shared with Collins did not count among his best five scores.
“Collins and Musso met their deaths [in 1958] without ever being able to win this coveted distinction,” Ferrari wrote harshly. “Fangio, therefore, needs a lot of pluck to say that he was an outcast when he was with Ferrari, forgetful even of the sacrifice his own team-mates made for him. He was a really great driver afflicted by a persecution mania.”
Giambertone pointed out that Fangio was the only driver not to receive a medal struck by Ferrari in honour of a victorious year. That the same sentence reveals that Fangio, who had signed with Maserati for 1957, was in Argentina at the time of the team celebration indicates a corresponding lack of empathy.
Fangio and Enzo ought to have cleared the air face-to-face, but the negative aspects of their personalities rendered this impossible and their relationship, so twisted in print, would remain frosty even in the glow of nostalgia.
‘THE CHAMPION ELECT FRETTED THROUGH 10 LAPS, WAITING FOR A BETTER OFFER’
A sodden Fangio heading for fourth place on the Mille Miglia. Left: pitstop during the Nürburgring 1000km, won by Moss. Clockwise, from far left: Fangio looks across as he takes Collins’ D50 to a title-winning second place at the Italian Grand Prix; the moment that the young Englishman handed over his car featured on the cover of that week’s Autosport; tensions had clearly eased by 1981.
Clockwise, from left: the D50 switched from understeer to oversteer at the British Grand Prix, but Fangio won regardless; he did likewise in the German GP; waiting to take over Collins’ car at the International Trophy.
A rift with Moss
Stirling Moss’ relationship with Enzo was worse than Fangio’s: he didn’t even get past first base. He was 22 when Enzo made him an offer: a drive at the 1951 Bari GP as a warmup for the Italian GP, followed by a Temporada campaign and a fulltime seat for ’1952.
Moss was excited but, contracted to HWM and courted by BRM, this fiercely patriotic competitor agreed initially to Bari only. Enzo had anticipated elation rather than caution.
Piqued, his peevish response created a formidable rival. Despite a hellish journey to Italy’s heel, Moss was bushytailed when he entered the Ferrari garage: “A mechanic said, ‘Can I help you?’ When I told I him I’d be driving it, he replied, ‘No, Piero Taruffi is driving it.’ I thought that pretty bad form.”
Moss vowed there and then never to forget, never to forgive: “I was a handshake type of guy, so it came as quite a shock. I don’t know why Enzo did it. He was a very difficult bloke.”
Not until 1961 did Enzo bury the hatchet: “He called me. I wanted Rob Walker to look after the cars, with sponsors provided by Ferrari. Enzo just said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
Sadly, in early 1962 Stirling suffered the Goodwood crash that ended his career before he could race his blue ‘Sharknose’ in F1: “I would have loved to drive for Ferrari. The great thing about them is that you can’t tell me of any racing driver who died because of a failure of their cars; I was used to Lotuses having their wheels fall off. Ferrari, with the support of the factory, would have been terrific. I never did drive for Enzo. That’s a regret.”