The Drive of a Lifetime

11th August 2017

Sixty years ago, in the German Grand Prix, Juan Manuel Fangio came back from a disastrous pit stop with a near-miraculous drive. 

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The greatest driver’s greatest race? Sunday 4th August, 1957. A warm summer afternoon in the Eifel mountains, where 200,000 spectators gathered to watch the German Grand Prix – 22 laps of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, a terrifying 14.1-mile circuit of 172 corners leaping and twist- ing through dense forest.

In pole position, with a qualifying lap time of nine minutes and 25.6 seconds, Argentinian maestro Juan Manuel Fangio – four times and reigning World Champion, at the wheel of a Maserati 250F, a development of the car that had delivered his second title in 1954. By now 46 years old, Fangio was likewise in the twilight of his career; a new generation of English drivers respectfully called him “The Old Man”. Among them was Stirling Moss, recent winner of the British GP, but his Vanwall had problems. The challenge of beating Fangio thus fell to Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

The Ferrari was no slouch. Fangio himself had driven it to victory in 1956, breaking a 17-year lap record in the process. Yet even at that pace it would take more than three-and-a-half hours to complete the 311.67-mile race. Noting that the Ferraris had full fuel tanks, evidently intending to run nonstop to the finish, Fangio chose to start with half-full tanks and softer tyres – less weight and more grip, giving him greater speed at the cost of a 30-second mid-race pit stop.

At first, everything went to plan. Leading from lap three, Fangio smashed the lap record time and time again. After 12 laps he was 28 seconds ahead of the Ferraris and duly pulled into the pits for fresh tyres and fuel. 

Fangio defied the laws of physics as he hurled his Maserati at the circuit, drifting so close to the scenery that his front suspension was jammed with foliage

As the Maserati crew poured 100 litres into the tank and hammered off the wheel nuts, he had time to change goggles, sip lemonade and speak with the chief mechanic. But even as the left-rear wheel nut hit the ground, the pit stop turned to disaster. Unseen, the nut rolled beneath the car. It took almost half a minute to find and replace it. Hawthorn and Collins howled past. By the time Fangio accelerated away, he was 48 seconds adrift and he lost three more while bedding in the new tyres.

What followed has passed into legend. Fangio defied the laws of physics as he hurled his Maserati at the circuit, flying over the crests and drifting so close to the scenery that his front suspension was jammed with foliage. By lap 16 he had closed the gap to 33 seconds; three laps later it was 13.5. He drove lap 20 in a scarcely believable 9m 17.4s, gaining 11 seconds in just 14 miles, and as Hawthorn and Collins crossed the line he was right behind them.

He needed two attempts to pass Collins, but his move on Hawthorn was decisive, pushing past on the inside of a turn with two wheels on the grass. With a loose seat, he was now strain- ing to hang on to the car, but Hawthorn's pursuit was futile. Fangio won by 3.6 seconds, securing a fifth world title.

Retiring at the end of the year with a 46 per cent win rate unmatched to this day, the humble champion knew it had been the race of his life. “Whenever I shut my eyes, it was as if I were in the race again, making those leaps in the dark on those curves where I had never before had the courage to push things so far... I believe that day I took myself and my car to the limit, and perhaps a little bit more. I had never driven like that before, and I knew I never would again.” Fangio’s 1957 Grand Prix win will be celebrated at this year’s Goodwood Revival 

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Summer 2017 issue

Written by Peter Hall

 

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