“There was always fear at the Nurburgring. But fear is not a stupid thing. Winning is not a question of courage, but of faith in oneself and the car”
– Juan Manuel Fangio
The year was 1957. The Formula One circus had assembled at the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix, not the emasculated 5.1 kilometer Nurburgring that drivers will race around on Sunday, but instead its far more formidable predecessor.
Nearly twenty-three kilometers to the lap, comprising over a hundred treacherous corners, the track rises and falls, rolling up hills and down into valleys, as it snakes its way through the dense forests of the Eifel Mountains.
To this day, it remains one of the most daunting racetracks in the world, dubbed the “Green Hell” by triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart, and is too dangerous for modern Formula One cars.
But back on a summer’s day in 1957, it was witness to what is still heralded as one of the greatest races in the history of motor-racing.
It was the fifth round of the world championship. Reigning four-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio had won three of the four world championship Grands Prix so far that year. With only two races to go following the German Grand Prix, a win at the Nurburgring would allow Fangio to seal a record fifth world championship.
The Old Man, as the 46-year-old’s rivals fondly referred to him, was in a class of his own all weekend. Driving a factory Maserati 250F, the Argentinian had set the quickest practice time, smashing his lap record from a year ago by 16 seconds, to take pole position for the race.
But only three seconds slower was the Ferrari of Mike Hawthorn followed by the second Maserati of Jean Behra with Hawthorn’s team-mate Peter Collins completing the front row.
Both Ferraris were heavily fuelled and would not be stopping over the 22 laps of the race. Fangio, on the other hand, had opted for a ‘sprint’ strategy’, fuelling his Maserati to half-distance in the race. Thus it was crucial for the reigning world champion to get a good start, use his lighter car to full advantage and start building the cushion that he needed to make his pitstop.
But at the start, it was the two Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins that led the way off the line.
“I let them do so and in fact I was surprised at the way they kept passing each other instead of working together as a team,” Fangio said. “Instead of thinking how to get out in front together, they were playing around for the lead.”
The Old Master bided his time in third, however, and, wily as he was, took the opportunity to study their driving before eventually making his move on the third lap to take the lead.
“From now on there was only one man on the Nurburgring,” legendary motor-racing journalist Denis Jenkinson wrote in Motor Sport magazine. “Increasing his lead by seven seconds a lap from Hawthorn and Collins, who were in close formation, Fangio on lap twelve drew into the pits, where his Maserati mechanics took a disgustingly long time by Grand Prix standards to change the rear wheels and refuel.”
Fangio held a 28-second lead as he headed into the pits. The bungled pitstop, during which one of the wheel nuts rolled underneath the car, cost him valuable time and he rejoined the race 48 seconds behind the Ferraris with ten laps left to run.
But undaunted by the challenge facing him and refusing to admit defeat, Fangio roared around the treacherous track in his lightweight Maserati, treating all those watching to one of the greatest displays ever of driving a racing car on the very edge, his will to win pushing him to take risks he ordinarily wouldn’t have taken.
“I began to use higher gears. It wasn’t very comfortable, feeling the lack of grip as the car went round, but after all, I had to win.”
Driving as he was, Fangio clawed back eleven seconds on race leader Hawthorn on one lap, shattering the lap record lap after lap, until by the start of the twenty-first and penultimate circuit, the Maserati was right with the Ferraris. He got past Collins early on and was soon on Hawthorn’s tail.
“I started tailing him, and was beginning to work out how many chances I had left to overtake him, when the opportunity suddenly presented itself. After that series of curves came a short straight, which ended in a 90-degree turn to the left, followed by an equally sharp turn to the right. On the straight stretch Hawthorn pulled to the right to get his angle. I saw my chance and cut in on his inside.”
Now back in the lead, Fangio kept the pace up over the final lap, just keeping out of reach of the chasing Hawthorn. In the end, the Argentinian crossed the line only 3.6 seconds ahead of the Ferrari after a drive that demanded from Fangio every ounce of the immense amount of talent, skill and courage that he possessed.
In fact so great had the effort been that Fangio still felt its effects days after what was arguably the finest race he ever drove.
“That day I made such demands on myself that I couldn’t sleep for two nights afterwards. I was in such a state that 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.”
“For two days I experienced delayed-action apprehension at what I had done, a feeling that had never come over me after any other race, a feeling that still returns to me this day when I think about that time. I had never driven as I drove then, but I also knew I’d never be able to go so fast again – ever.”
Fangio was right, of course. That race on the 4th of August, 1957 won him his fifth world title, but it was also the last of his 24 Grand Prix wins.
The following books were quoted from and used as sources for this article:
• Fangio – The life behind the legend by Gerald Donaldson
• Formula One: The Autobiography edited by Gerald Donaldson