After the famine, the feast: three 500km Grands Prix in as many weeks. Only two, however, counted towards the world championship, which was fortunate for Juan Manuel Fangio, who suffered a rare accident in the one that did not.
JUL 05th 2017
Fangio’s 1957, Part 4: French GP & Reims GP
The weekend before he had provided a masterclass of sustained commitment and car control in the French GP at Rouen, a track blessed – if you were of the right mindset and possessed the necessary skill – with arguably the most thrilling piece of road in Formula 1 history, a sequence of fast downhill bends that concluded in a cobbled hairpin. Fangio was by yards the fastest through here, deliberately unsettling his Maserati 250F on the brakes before gathering it up, apparently effortlessly, with just the right amount of throttle and counter-steering.
He was putting on a show at 130mph as well as winning. Monza’s bankings had played host to America’s Indycars in what was billed grandly as the Race of Two Worlds. Sadly the European ‘world’ was conspicuous by its absence – bar three privateer Jaguar D-types – much to the chagrin of the far-travelled visitors, some of whom stayed on to attend Rouen. Their verdict: “That Fangio fella really motor-races.”
On pole by more than a second, he was slow away but soon overtook team-mate Jean Behra, whose tail he nudged, and Ferrari’s Luigi Musso. Assuming the lead on lap four (of 77), he drew away relentlessly thereafter, responding instantly and decisively to a counter-attack by Ferrari’s Peter Collins. When the latter was slowed by a failing gearbox, Musso took up the cudgels and set fastest lap in the hope that the leader might be about to pit to change a left-rear Pirelli. But the Roman spun in his haste and Fangio, in any case, ran non-stop from flag to flag. GP racing’s most photogenic victory was perfect bar that crumpled nose.
Fangio was at it again three days later, flicking his lightweight 250F through the fast downhill right after the pits at Reims. The rest of this slippery-quick triangular road circuit was less of a challenge, however, and his margin over the next fastest in practice – a genuine surprise package – was only two-tenths.
Vanwall were denuded in France by the absences of Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks through illness and injury. Attempting to fill their shoes was late replacement Stuart Lewis-Evans, a regular winner for several seasons in frantic 500cc Formula 3. Though the British car suited Reims – Harry Schell had used it to give the Ferraris a fright here in 1956 – the calm and efficient manner in which the newcomer drove it impressed everyone. Making the best start from the middle of the front row, Lewis-Evans pulled away at a rate of one second per lap until escaping oil began to mist and smear his windscreen, goggles, gloves and rear tyres. Forced to slacken his pace, he ceded the lead and victory to Musso, who was continuing his good form of Rouen, and was also caught and passed by the battling Maseratis of Fangio and Behra.
So tight had been the schedule, both Italian teams had been forced to run a disparate collection of second-string machinery – though Fangio had begun practice in his Rouen winner – and these proved no match for the Vanwall when it was running properly. Fangio’s offset-engine 250F, first seen at Monza 1956, was no match for Musso’s year-old-spec’ Lancia-Ferrari D50 either and, after reprising his epic 1953 battle with Ferrari’s Mike Hawthorn, whose engine blew on lap 28, he was caught by his hustling team-mate in Maserati’s test hack.
Having spun earlier in the race, Fangio was, with four laps remaining, caught out by oil under braking for the tight right at Thillois. He aimed for some straw bales hoping for a ‘soft landing’. Unfortunately, they concealed a solid wall against which he came to a sudden and definitive stop.
Next stop: Aintree’s British GP.
Photography courtesy of LAT Images
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