Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
Back in 1990 I was delighted to be asked by Stirling Moss and Bob Newman of Pirelli to work with them on a book about a wonderful human being who was a hero to us all – Juan Manuel Fangio.
I ended up spending quite some time with the great man, with Bob as interpreter (Italian to English and vice versa) and with Stirling. We produced a book entitled ‘Fangio – A Pirelli Album’ by Stirling Moss (oh yeah) and really enjoyed the overall experience until publication day. The end product was – so far as I was concerned – over-designed and under-produced. Its print quality was just appalling, photo reproduction a disaster, but it paid quite well – I’d enjoyed immensely my time with Il Maestro – and to my astonishment nobody who mattered to me seemed to share my disgust with the finished job… which endures to this day.
Now, having got that off my chest, maybe I should explain where this is all leading. Five-times Formula 1 World Champion Fangio was just magic, truly motor racing royalty, and received and celebrated as such worldwide. Yet he always maintained completely natural friendliness and accessibility. He was always very confident and self-assured, but the natural simplicity of his humble background in rural Argentina, and his natural personal warmth, always won him universal admiration and friendship. Moss told me that he always saw in “The Old Man” many natural character traits that he always hoped he had, but regretfully concluded he did not. “The Old Man” he might have been, but he always had a very civilised and gentlemanly eye for the ladies, and even Stirling once confessed to me that Fangio once pinched one of his girlfriends, and all he could do – ‘frankly, was admire his taste!’
But while Fangio was almost unbeatable on most race circuits around the world, he certainly seemed to struggle here in England. Another particular bluntly-spoken old motor racing friend of mine surprised me once by remarking ‘I never did get that Fangio legend – whenever I saw him racing here (apart from the ’56 British Grand Prix) he either didn’t show much form, or seemed to get beat…’
While his UK debut had been made in the 1950 British & European GP at Silverstone, when his Alfa Romeo 158 broke under him, he returned for the International Trophy race there in May, 1951, and in torrential rain splashed his works Alfetta home only fourth. He showed more tiger in that year’s British GP, but had to play second fiddle to his protégé ‘Pepe’ Gonzalez’s works Ferrari – who scored Maranello’s maiden World Championship-qualifying GP win.
And then on Easter Monday 1952 he made his next British appearance right here at Goodwood. The BARC had scored a major coup in securing his attendance, but then Alfa had withdrawn, Maserati weren’t attending and he was left without a drive. Cue the ever-supportive John Cooper, who surrendered his own brand-new prototype Formula 2 Cooper-Bristol for the great man to steer. It misfired all day, and he rowed it unhappily home anonymously sixth on the day that young Mike Hawthorn (from Farnham) won two races and finished second in a third driving in a sister car prepared by his Dad.
Meanwhile Fangio had been signed-up by Raymond Mays for the BRM Formula 1 team, whose tortured development of its highly-supercharged V16 spaceship cars had outlived the World Championship status of the regulations to which they had been built. Fangio drove his, as Moss’s team leader, in the June 1952 Ulster Trophy race at Dundrod, spun and retired. Next day at Monza for a Formula 2 race in a works Maserati – clapped-out by a troubled overnight dash from Ulster – Fangio crashed on the opening lap, broke his neck, and was out of racing for the rest of that year.
Once back in action in 1953, he drove in both the British GP and the Libre race at Silverstone, finishing 2nd in each in works Maserati A6GCM and BRM V16 respectively – or ‘being beaten again’ as my sceptical pal would put it. He reappeared for BRM in the Goodwood September Meeting, posting another 2nd place, and a retirement.
Into 1954, driving the new Mercedes-Benz W196 streamliner in the British GP at Silverstone, he spent all day slithering around on ‘concrete’ Continental tyres, battering his Silver Arrow’s bodywork against the sand-filled oil drums marking the course – and finished a tardy 4th. In the September RAC TT at Dundrod, sharing a works Lancia with Piero Taruffi – another 4th place.
This could have become embarrassing, but “The Old Man” never turned a hair. Older than most rivals, he would simply grin his slow grin, shrug and explain: ‘It is just my luck – one should not be greedy.’ He was, in fact, still winning just about every other race he started. 1955 British GP at Aintree – a race-long duel with new Mercedes-Benz team-mate Moss, Stirling scored his maiden win, Fangio 2nd again. Stirling: ‘I really don’t know to this day whether I really beat him, or he let me win my home race. But I tell you what Boy – he didn’t half make me bloody work for it!’ And in that September’s RAC TT at Dundrod – co-driving his works Mercedes-Benz 300SLR with Karl Kling, 2nd yet again (to Moss/John Fitch).
1956 saw Fangio’s British luck retire his Lancia-Ferrari at Silverstone in May, and when he returned for the British GP in July he was a sick man. ‘At Reims in the French Grand Prix I felt a cool spray and smelled fuel and realised I was being showered by fuel forced from the back of the pressure gauge… all it needed was a spark or an exhaust blow-back and finito! I was drenched in fuel and stopped at the pits where they fixed the pipe but my chance of winning was gone.’ His British team-mate Peter Collins won while he finished 4th. He had in fact suffered severe chemical burns from the fuel soaking his clothing, and developed as he told me: ‘…what Italians call St Antonio’s Fire – a most painful condition. I swelled up all red and raw round my middle. At the pre-race medical at Silverstone the English doctor was shocked by the sight and said “You’re not fit – you can’t race”. I told him “OK, you tell your race organisers and sort it out with them”. I was allowed to race…
‘Moss was leading in his Maserati, but then he retired and left me to win. I had won by my luck again – and by the pain-killing tablets… I felt so bad immediately after that race that I actually fainted – I just went out like a light, zonk! That was the only race I ever won in England…’
But boy oh boy – what a fantastic driver Fangio really was – even if few British crowds (including our’s right here at Goodwood) really got to see him at his most dominant. As a lifelong unashamed fan I am just happy to have known him…
Photography courtesy of The GP Library