CLASSIC CAR HEROS: Fangio’s Greatest Drive

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BY BEN SELBY

If you know Formula One, you know of Juan Manuel Fangio. He arrived in Europe, after a successful motoring racing career in his native Argentina, and was one of the upcoming stars of the newly created World Championship for Drivers, or Formula One, in 1950.

During this decade, the racing world sat in awe as this former bus driver won race after race, displaying an almost supernatural ability to get the absolute maximum out of car, while not seemingly pushing too hard, or beyond what he though the car could handle.

Juan Manuel Fangio

The legendary Stirling Moss would describe Fangio’s ability to concentrate and feel what his race car was doing at any given point during the race, was honed to such a fine line that he regarded him as the top driver of his era.

The figures also speak for themselves, five drivers World Championships with Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Lancia-Ferrari, and of course, Maserati. Throw in countless pole positions and outright wins, all while in his mid-forties. These days if a driver is approaching 35, they are seen as being past it, but Fangio was different, unique, and utterly worthy of his nickname “The Maestro”.

While Fangio had plenty of hits throughout his career, its his exploits in the 1957 German Grand Prix that best sum up why he is one of the greatest drivers ever.

For 1957, Fangio re-joined Maserati for what would be his final full season in Formula One. His weapon for that season would be a car that would epitomise the era, the Maserati 250F. It was designed by Gioacchino Colombo, the same chap who designed the first Ferrari V12 engine, Vittorio Bellentani and Alberto Massimo.

Maserati 250F

Its 2.5L straight six was mated to a five-speed gearbox housed in a lightweight aluminium tubular frame, and produced 270hp. Not much at all by today’s standards, but for the mid-fifties, more than adequate, especially as the 250F weighed in at a snip over 630kg.

The performance numbers are quick, even for today. Zero to 100km/h in 4.2 seconds. Drivers could also squeeze almost 270km/h at the top end, if the main straight was long enough. Oh, and it was drop dead gorgeous to look at. Fangio’s natural feel for machinery at high speed and the Maserati’s light weight and balanced handling, made the pair a match made in heaven.

As the 1957 season got underway, Fangio and the 250F won the first three Grand Prix in his native Argentina, Monaco, and France. He was beaten in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch by Stirling Moss in his Vanwall.

Up next was the German Grand Prix at the now notorious Nurburgring. With 187 corners, the Nordschliefe circuit rose, fell and criss-crossed its way through the Eifel mountains. Jackie Stewart would go on to describe the Nurburgring as “The Green Hell”. Even finishing a race here was an achievement in itself.

Ferrari 801 with Mike Hawthorn at the wheel

The biggest threat to Fangio and Maserati came from the two works Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. The V8-powered Ferrari 801 was derived from the iconic Lancia D50, which Scuderia Ferrari used to win the World Championship with Fangio the previous year. It was more powerful than the 250F, but it was heavier and thirstier.

Fangio realised his best chances of claiming victory at the Nurburgring would be in the pits. If he could fill up and change tyres mid race as quickly as possible, he would have a chance, as the Ferraris intended to race non-stop to the finish. The race itself consisted of 22 laps of the 14-mile circuit. With grandstands packed, the flag fell and the race was on.

And they are off!

The Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins took off, with Hawthorn grabbing an early lead. Fangio bided his time, giving about 80 per cent, until a few laps later he was able to pass Hawthorn and build up a commanding lead of 28 seconds.

At the end of Lap 12, Fangio brough the 250F into the pits, as planned, with his lead over Hawthorn intact. Then everything went wrong. What should have been quick change of tyres and fuel stop, turned into an eternity as Fangio’s mechanics took a pedestrian 52 seconds to top him up and swap tyres.

Fangio and Maserati 250F

As a result, Fangio’s precious lead he had been eroded. As he left the pits, Hawthorn and Collins were running first and second, almost a full minute ahead of him. Many were pretty convinced by now that Fangio couldn’t possibly jump back and grab the win, everyone that is, except Fangio. Something inside him snapped, so he buried the throttle, and he was off like a shot.

Bit by bit, Fangio started to reel the Ferraris in, with the Maserati on full song. The gap was closing fast. Lap times were also tumbling as Fangio broke the lap record again and again. Fangio blasted down the pit straight, 9 minutes 23 seconds, the gap was now at 13 seconds. Fangio was coming, and Hawthorn and Collins knew it.

Fangio rounds the Karrusel

Through corners like the infamous banked Karrusel, Fangio would enter each turn a gear higher than normal. The crowds were on their feet, 9 minutes 17 seconds, Fangio was now right behind the Ferrari of Peter Collins. Collins held his line, the Ferrari’s V8 bellowing at high rpm. Then Fangio made his move, he shot by Collins, and now was right behind Hawthorn.

Fangio in between Hawthorn and Collins

It was at this time this writer is willing to bet the Ferrari mechanics were wetting themselves with nervous tension. Fangio was right behind their lead driver. Hawthorn, on his day, was on par with Moss and even Fangio, however, this was not to be Hawthorn’s day. On the last lap, Mike Hawthorn had to bear witness to Fangio, and the Maserati 250F, passing him. Fangio continued on, winning the German Grand Prix by 3.5 seconds.

Fangio Winning the 1957 German GP

When Fangio returned to the pits victorious, everyone went crazy. They rushed across the track, people were crying, he achieved the impossible. He had won the German Grand Prix, and accumulated enough points to clinch his fifth and final Formula One World Championship.

He made his way to the podium and met the grinning faces of Hawthorn and Collins. They both embraced him, “as the sons embracing their father” Fangio would recall later in life.

Fangio being contratulated by Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins

It was Juan Manuel Fangio’s last F1 win, and one of the greatest drives in the history of motorsport. Fangio retired from Formula One in 1958, though he would still drive-in historic race meetings and appear at Motorsport events up until his death in 1995. Due to a change in formula for the 1958 season, the 250F was now obsolete and Maserati pulled it from competition. Just 26 examples were ever built.

Peter Collins would tragically lose his life at the Italian Grand Prix in 1957, while Mike Hawthorn was involved in a fatal road accident after being crowned Formula One World Champion of 1958.

Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan Manuel Fangio’s performance at the 1957 German Grand Prix is the stuff of legend. As a result, generations of Formula One superstars like Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, John Watson, Alain Prost, and even Ayrton Senna, regarded Fangio as the greatest Formula One driver ever.

The fact he won the World Championship five times was special enough, but almost every time was with a different team. The Maestro was well and truly, peerless.

Now sit back and enjoy this footage of Fangio at the 1957 German Grand Prix.

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