Juan Manuel Fangio was the first driver to win five Formula One World Championships from 1950 to 1958 and he was the benchmark for four decades until the likes of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
He could have been in good in football. In his childhood, he became known as El Chueco, the bandy-legged one, for his skill in bending his left leg around the ball to shoot on goal. But, destiny had other plans for him. He dropped out of school at the age of 13 to work in an auto-mechanic’s workshop as an assistant. It was there, at the age of 16, he started riding as a mechanic for his employer’s customers. His football career came to an end when he suffered from pneumonia which had him bed-ridden for two months.
When he started riding for his customers, he had showcased his skills. When he was in the army, this skill was noticed by his superior. No one knew it, but his journey into the world of motorsport had already begun. He developed a hobby of building a car. Thus, the legend of Juan Manuel Fangio was born. When he stepped in the world of motorsport, he would change it forever.
Fangio was the Argentine national champion in racing. But, it was during the endurance race called the Gran Premio del Norte in 1940 that saw him becoming a legend. The route involved a round trip from Buenos Aires to Lima and back. The route would cross high mountains about 14,000 feet. There was also humidity and pitch darkness on treacherous roads. Fangio overcame the odds and he became a race winner. He repeated the feat in the 1941 endurance race in Brazil.
This would involve a trip from Rio de Janeiro all across Brazil, passing Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and many other cities. Juan Manuel Fangio would win that as well. But, in 1948, a personal tragedy nearly ended his drive to be a race driver. There was a point-to-point race from Buenos Aires to Caracas. A distance of 9580 km through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and finally Venezuela. Fangio was with his co-driver, Daniel Urrutia.
Near the village of Huanchaco, not far from the small city of Trujillo, there was thick fog. With his cars’ lights not helping him much, he approached the bend too fast, lost control of the car and tumbled down an embankment. Urrutia was thrown out of the car through the front windscreen. Fangio had neck injuries but Urrutia was badly injured. Fangio survived but Urrutia did not, suffering multiple fatal cervical and basal skull fractures. The race was a disaster and was marred by the deaths of three spectators and three drivers.
If one looks at F1 now, the modern equipment is dazzling. But, in the 1950s, it was not so simple. Formula One cars in the 1950s were very fast, extremely physically demanding to drive; races were much longer than today and demanded incredible physical stamina. Tyres were cross-ply and far less forgiving; treads often stripped in a race, and spark plugs fouled. There were, of course, no electronic aids or computer intervention. At the end of a GP, drivers often suffered blistered hands, caused by heavy steering and gear changing.
Fangio participated for the Alfa Romeo team and he had success winning in Spa, Monaco and France. The Argentinian achieved great success for Alfa Romeo in 1951 as well as for Ferrari and Maserati. In his time with F1, Fangio created several records. He won 24 races and had secured the world championship five times. His tally of world championships would not be broken until Michael Schumacher in 2004.
In the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958, Fangio was caught in an odd situation. Having won previously in 1957, he was expected to do well in 1958. He set the fastest lap during qualifying. On 23 February 1958, two gunmen of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement entered the Hotel Lincoln in Havana and kidnapped Fangio. Batista ordered the race to continue as usual while a crack team of police hunted down the kidnappers. They set up roadblocks at intersections, and guards were assigned to private and commercial airports and to all competing drivers.
Fangio was taken to three separate houses. His captors allowed him to listen to the race via radio, bringing a television for him to witness reports of a disastrous crash after the race concluded. In the third house, Fangio was allowed his own bedroom. He was released after 29 hours. It is believed he remained a good friend of his captors afterwards.
The captors’ motives were to force the cancellation of the race in an attempt to embarrass President Fulgencio Batista and the regime. After Fangio was handed over to the Argentine embassy. After the race, many Cubans were convinced that Batista was losing his power because he failed to track the captors down. The Cuban Revolution took over the government in January 1959, and the 1959 Cuban Grand Prix was cancelled. The Fangio kidnapping was dramatized in a 1999 Argentine film directed by Alberto Lecchi, Operacion Fangio.
Fangio retired from the sport but he continued to be involved in motor racing. He was never married. The official website of F1 has named Fangio as one of the greatest ever. Fangio died in 1995 at the age of 84. Even today, Fangio’s feats are remarkable in motor-racing.