www.nurburgring.org.uk | Fangio at the Ring
The following article is reproduced from the June 1983 edition of Road & Track magazine, with the kind permission of the publishers. If you ever wondered what it was like to race at the Ring in the glory days, there is no better description ...
at the Ring
Copyright © Road & Track 1983
The pine trees flew silently past as the Mercedes-Benz 280SE zoomed up, then swooped down like a roller coaster car into a blind bend with a sheer drop-off on the outside. For a second, the 3-pointed star on the hood swept around the precipice, then homed back onto he road ahead. We seemed to be suspended in space as the road snaked wildly beneath us, as if in response to some crazy choreography. But, all was controlled by the iron fist of a perfect, almost inhuman computer incapable of making mistakes.
And yet, every lime the road seemed to snake out of the way, I realized that we were the ones who were moving. The strange sensation was aided by the lack of dramatics: no shriek from the tires, no wild roll, no panic braking. Just a smooth, effortless transition from one bend to the other.
At the wheel was a 71-year-old man who not only knew the place like the back of his hand, but also drove as if the big sedan were an extension of himself. The place was the Nurburgring and the man was Juan Manuel Fangio. In the midst of my astonishment at this unspectacular display of driving, I realized that had I been the passenger of anybody else I would be hanging on, feet braking against he floor, eyes bulging, breathing in short gasps. Instead I was calm, smiling, comfortably ensconced in my seat, looking at the road swirling beneath me, as I listened to the only person in the world with whom I could feel safe at that breakneck speed:
'This is where I went off the road the first time I came to the Ring. See that embankment over there? Well, the embankment was there, but there weren't any armco barriers. They didn't exist in the Fifties when I was racing. The foliage came right down to the roadside and if you went off, you usually hit something pretty hard. This track was a real rough one because when you weren't swooshing past between two rows of trees, you were skating around a precipice or skimming the roofs of houses that 10 seconds before you'd been looking at from above.
When I went off there I was lucky. I went off tail first, so I managed to hold the beast. If you went off nose first at this point you could be in real trouble.'
While talking, Fangio twirled the wheel, downshifted the automatic transmission, and the car zoomed down again into another one of the Nurburgring's endless succession of bends.
'My shunt was in 1951, during the second season of the World Drivers Championship, and I was racing for Alfa Romeo. In those times everybody used to think we were unbeatable, but Froilan [Argentine driver Jose Froilan Gonzalez, sometimes recalled as the Wild Bull of the Pampas] had beaten us all at Silverstone for the 1951 British Grand Prix.
Grand Prix cars hadn't raced at the Ring since before the war, but in 1950 there was a Formula 2 race. Alberto Ascari won it rather easily and collected enough experience to set up a very good practice time for the 1951 GP, apparently without too much effort.
As for me, I had to start from letter A. I'd never been here before, and I knew you can't learn 174 bends in almost 23 kilometers overnight. You've got to have a method and the one I tried was to learn the track, section by section. When I concentrated on one of them, I forgot about the rest. It was hard work, but bit by bit the whole thing began to fall into place.'
The memory was still there. I sat bemused in the passenger seat as Fangio, who hadn't raced for 25 years at the Ring, kept calling out the type of bend that was coming next, even two or three bends ahead sometimes: 'A left-hander now...then down...this one looks like a bitch but at the exit it launches us into a smoother one...now a short straight...'
'It came to the point that I had the area from the start to the 13-km post sorted out, and, as for the rest, I wasn't a guidebook but I was sure to have the main dangers fixed in my mind. There were lots of little reference points that triggered reflexes warning me to be careful. Pretty soon I was driving the Alfetta as fast as anybody, but pride comes before the fall and all of a sudden I found myself skating off the road. Luckily the embankment slowed me. Oh, boy, was I mad as hell. I drove into the pit chewing the words with which I would admit I'd bent the 158's tail.
I told my chief mechanic I couldn't use 1st or 2nd gears because of a clutch problem, and he took control of the situation, saying, almost pompously, "Forget it, Juan. Don't worry. Everything'll be okay tomorrow." In spite of everything, I had set up the third fastest practice time and I was in the front row. There were two Ferraris to my right and my teammate Guiseppe Farina on my left. Only three of us had lapped in less than 10 minutes, Ascari and Gonzalez with the Ferraris, and me.
You know, in those days we didn't run a warm-up lap before the start. When the flag dropped you just blasted of into the unknown. Maybe it was sunny at the start and it was raining a couple of miles farther on. The mechanics used to warm-up the cars and drove them around the garage area and then push them to the starting line. When they turned them over to us there was always a report. This time it wasn't all that inspiring. "No good, Juan," my mechanic said lugubriously. "Just like yesterday. Niente da fare."
So I had to slam in a gear, get the car moving, and get off, using 3rd and 4th only - at the Nurburgring! Even so I didn't do too badly, and at one stage I led the race for a while. I dropped back when I stopped for fuel; but then the Ferraris had to stop too and I had a new chance to get back into the lead. I really stood on it, trying to pull away from Ascari and Froilan. But it didn't do me much good. The gearshift got harder and harder, and when I tried to get away from the pits after my second fuel stop the engine stalled. After I fell out of contention, Ascari was free to build up a 30-second lead, but even so Froilan, could not get by me for 2nd. I guess it wasn't too bad for a first time at the Nurburgring, but I still think I could have won that race.'
As he spoke, Fangio seemed to grow younger by the minute. He threaded his way swiftly through the Eifel mountains, stopping by the roadside every now and again, remembering some particularly significant spot.
He isn't too enthusiastic about talking to kibitzers who don't know motor racing, but when he feels he is on the same wavelength with the listener the memories start to flow. Even so, Fangio is polite to non-enthusiasts and always seems to be smiling as he talks in that high reedy voice of his, with the faintly singsong Spanish of the people who live in Buenos Aires province.
Fangio always finds a way to be nice to everyone from heads of state to filling station operators without affectation, and without looking up to or down on the person. This is why today Juan Manuel Fangio is the Argentine best known outside his native country, and is a top celebrity in Europe, where, a quarter of a century later, his motor racing successes are remembered vividly. In Germany, for instance, his popularity is astonishing.
'I won three German GPs here, one with Mercedes, one Ferrari and one with Maserati. And the Germans never forget the time I raced with Mercedes; remember this is the only German make that was ever successful in Formula 1. I won World Championships with Mercedes-Benz and I guess this is something very special to them.
The 1954 race was the first one that I won with the open-wheel Mercedes. After Silverstone I developed a dislike for fenders of the streamlined model. I remember I kept on knocking down the oil drum markers the ingleses used to mark off the airfield circuit. After that race I asked the technical staff to get the streamliner, I wanted to see where my wheels were going. I also said, sure, maybe inboard brakes are great on the drawing board, but please let me have good old outboard brakes. I know where I stand with them. Maybe they thought I was out of the Stone Age but the car they gave me for the Ring was entirely different, and superb. So comfortable to drive. In a GP Mercedes you sat with your legs splayed out, exactly opposite to today's racing cars. If you had a good seat this meant you were solidly supported at three points and your arms worked easily as they weren't busy holding your body in the seat. You twirled the steering wheel instead of hanging on to it.
I set the fastest qualifying time for the 1954 German GP, and at the start I was very optimistic. I decided to get right into the lead and stay there, keeping an eye on the others. I was delighted with the car, which was a violin, and after a few laps the only ones who were going fast were the other two Mercedes drivers, Karl Kling and Hermann Lang. Their main objective was to take 2nd place from Gonzalez' Ferrari.
But Kling, who started from the back of the field and more or less bulldozed his way into 2nd place, didn't stop there and started to charge after me. It's difficult to think he was worrying too much about strategy. Rather he was keeping the pedal on the floorboards until he saw the tail of my car.
Suddenly, here I have Kling trying to pass me. What's all this, I asked myself. Then I realized Karl wanted to put on a good show for all his fellow countrymen out on the circuit, even if it was against team orders.
My car was going fine so I let him past and then reversed the situation, crowding him from the back, you know, just keeping very close and never letting up the pressure.
You should have seen old man Neubauer! [Alfred] was dancing up and down with rage and hanging out everything but the dishrag. The old man was as smart as a bag full of foxes and knew Karl and I were knocking spots off each other. Neubauer was practically chewing his hat brim because he could see both of us falling out of the race, but I was damned if I was going to let up. Every time I went past the pits I pointed to Kling's car and smiled, as if saying, "Tell him to slow down first! Don't look at me!"
Well, Kling did have to slow down because he roughed up the suspension badly and I retook my lead quite easily, but even so I thought that if we had arrived together on the last lap I would have slammed past anyway.
After this I thought about things a bit and suggested to Neubauer that all we drivers should agree to avoid this sort of situation in the future. The idea was that from the start everyone drove his own race until a pattern developed. Then, if our team was in a commanding position, which we expected to happen often, the pit would hang out a Keep Station flag and we would avoid cutting each other's throats.
This agreement was accepted by everybody and worked fine, doing a lot of good for the team, even a year later when we got Stirling Moss. You know, Stirling was a real charger. I mean he'd never let go, and he was very good too. I was also pretty competitive in those years, so we didn't let up on each other. I know for sure if our agreement hadn't been in force, more than once Stirling and I would have blown each other up.'
The pace began to ease and the conversation became more evocative. We stopped at Wehrseifen, but just before that there is a place where there are two parts linked by a bridge, both of them very like the other. The circuit looked a bit different to Fangio but even so he picked out the place where Onofre Marimon was killed in a practice accident in that same year of 1954.
Onofre was another Argentine driver, the son of Fangio's arch-rival and great friend Domingo Marimon. Young Onofre was immensely popular with the other Argentine drivers and his loss hit Fangio and Gonzalez hard.
Inevitably, our conversation turned to the historic 1957 German Grand Prix. The last GP victory in Fangio's personal record, the race that gave him the 1957 World Championship, his fifth in total and the fourth Championship in a row. Since then, no one has been able to do better than two in a row and three all together. Beyond this, the 1957 German GP is considered The Grand Prix, and perhaps the most intensely fought motor race ever.
It was over 500 km, a distance that a modern GP driver just wouldn't believe. The cars? On the straightaway they were about as fast as today's Coney Island Specials, but the brakes, steering, tires and gearbox were strictly vintage, and ground effects had never been heard of.
You had to be tough in those days. Not only because of the distance, but because engines were at the front and all the heat and oil fumes wafted back into the cockpit. Blisters and severe burns were so commonplace that drivers like Fangio usually don't recall them when telling their stories. In the monstrous 1957 German GP, Juan drove one of the best motor races in history to win in 3 hours 30 minutes 38.3 seconds of total inspiration.
'I got off to a good start in that 1957 season. I won the first three races: Argentina, Monaco and the French Grand Prix. Of course that's ignoring Indianapolis, which had been grafted into the World Championship, but more as a gesture than anything else, because there wasn't any connection between the two types of racing. Then came the British Grand Prix at Aintree, where the greatest threat was the Vanwall, the first British Formula 1 car to really go.
We were quite concerned about them when we came to the Ring for the German GP, but they proved surprisingly ineffective. It turned out the Vanwall suspension system wasn't designed for a place like the Ring and its bumps. Either the mirrors fell off the cars or the drivers' teeth shook loose. So the Vanwalls weren't a factor in the race, and it was going to be a straight Ferrari-Maserati battle.
We had the Maserati 250F, a model that I liked very much. My car handled quite well and had very good brakes, and by this time I knew the Ring much better than before, so I knew I was going to give a good account of myself. On Friday I did 9 minutes 25-plus seconds without trying too hard, and it was a hell of a good time because it was about 30 sec less than I had done the year before with the Ferrari. Frankly, the only question during practice was who was going to be 2nd. It turned out to be Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari. Mike worked very hard and gradually got up to 3 sec behind me. When the practice was over, I was at the front, then Hawthorn, Jean Behra with another Maserati and Peter Collins with a Ferrari like Mike's.
Of course, practice is one thing and the race is another. We had Pirelli tires; they were a bit soft and fitted our suspension very well but, if their grip was good, they also wore faster, particularly the rear tires. That meant we were going to have a pit stop at mid-race to change tires. The Ferraris were on Engleberts, which were harder than our Pirellis and gave the drivers a rougher ride, but we were sure they would go through the race without changing. We could bet they'd start out with the fuel tanks full and try to go through nonstop.
All this gave us a lot to think about, and finally we worked out a plan that was rather simple but seemed effective. We were going to have to change tires anyway, so we decided to start with the fuel tank half full, grab the lead and try to build up as much lead as possible before pitting. Then another half tank for the second part of the race, so we'd be driving a light, nimble car, the tires would wear less and we wouldn't have to worry about a second pit stop, which surely would be disastrous. On race day, as I went to the starting line, I had a plan. I should try to have at least 30 sec over the Ferraris at half distance, between laps 11 and 12, because after some practice we had discovered the mechanics needed that much advantage to send me back to the track ahead of the Ferraris. I remember race day was hot and to make matters worse the start was about 1:00 p.m. The two Ferraris shot off first, Hawthorn leading Collins, with me trailing carefully. Personally I never worried too much about haring off in the lead, least of all on a circuit like the Ring, because we didn't have prerace laps in those days and you never knew what might await you on that first lap. So I slipped into 3rd and began to keep an eye open for wherever I could get by.
Get by? Those two guys were going like firemen; in fact, they looked as if they were racing each other instead of holding station. I preferred to sit back for a lap or two until I could see a bit more of a gap between them. On the 3rd lap I was already losing my patience and decided I'd waited enough, so I started pressing Collins. I took him just after the pits and shortly afterward I passed Hawthorn on the Adenau downslope. By the 4th lap I was well away and concentrating on my race plan.
From what I heard later, the two Brits kept in close company behind me, flat-out and racing each other, so much that they alternated several times between 2nd and 3rd. Their Ferrari, Tipo 801, was practically the same car I'd won with the year before, the Lancia-Ferrari D50, without the 1956 side fairings.
A beautiful car to drive, a small car...a toy. Still, I managed to keep ahead and gradually pull out and I could see that, bit by bit, I was building up the 30-sec lead I wanted. On lap 10, with a race plan similar to mine, Jean Behra stopped. He refueled, took on new tires and dropped from 4th to 9th, mixed up with the Vanwalls. On lap 11 I got the come-in sign and I pitted next lap. Everything was working like a clock. I had my 30 sec.
Out of the car, I gulped down almost a full bottle of mineral water, spilling part of it over my heated body and, after listening to some brief comments, I was ready to go. But suddenly I realized something was wrong. The mechanics were nervous, they were fouling up refueling and one of the wheels wouldn't come off. All of a sudden; my 30 sec were vanishing into thin air. I stood looking at the car, with my back to the track, but sure enough the Ferraris screamed past and my car wasn't ready yet.
Well, they got it ready finally and I climbed in as the car was already being pushed. I remember first I sat on the fuel tank to get a better view of the track behind, then I slipped into the seat and I was adjusting my goggles as I left the pit lane. Even today somebody recalls that race and wonders how I could be so impassive about it all. But hat else could I do? Even with the new tires I knew I'd have to do a couple of laps not quite flat-out to scrub them in. I went to the pits with a 30-sec lead and now 1 was 48 sec behind, and next time around, 51 sec! Well, I thought, that was the end of a beautiful dream.
As the tires bedded in, I began to drive as fast as I had at the beginning, and soon found I was starting to gain ground. It also seems that Romulo Tavoni, the Ferrari team manager, thought I would never catch up, and so signaled Mike and Peter to take it easy. Perhaps he should have figured that I was looking for some extra aces up my sleeve.
Very often I realized that if you really were in a hurry you could sometimes take some curves a gear higher than usual. Risky, but effective. You didn't get that comforting sensation of grip, but you went in much faster and came out like a gunblast if you chose the line properly.
There was no way I was going to give up, so I started to try the next-higher-gear stunt all over the circuit. Wherever I was going through and just lifting off in 5th, now I went through flat-out. One of those places was a left-hand bend where you had a hump as you barreled out, shot under a bridge and got onto the next traightaway.
There is Armco there now, and soft shoulders, and they leveled out the hump when they rebuilt the circuit. But in those days we used to lift off a bit; for one thing, to set the car up better; for another, not to fly off into space.
Well, the first time I dared to go through flat-out, the car zoomed into the air, flew for about an hour, and landed at the very edge of the track, near the wire fencing they had then. Only God knows how the right reflex functioned to twitch the wheel, but there I was, back in business. So, that was it. From then on I took that bend flat-out. On that place alone I knew I was saving seconds that I had to have.
Some days you know you are 10/l0ths. I was never a hairy driver, but that day everything seemed to go right for me. Before I knew where I was, I had knocked off 20 sec and by lap 16 I was only 30 sec behind.
Now the Ferraris were really climbing the wall. Laps lasted around 10 minutes, and while their drivers were out there in the boondocks the pits had no way of communicating with them. Next lap they hung out so many signals it looked like Independence Day, but it was too late. By this time my car was running like a dream, relatively light, with good tires, and I was inspired. I started breaking the lap record every time I went by the pits. I had broken the record at the beginning, then Collins improved on my time at mid-race, but those final laps were crazy. I broke the record seven successive times. The Ring is a terrible circuit and I was out there on my own, which makes it much tougher to check your own speed and ascertain whether you're really going as fast as you think you are. Forcing myself to maintain my rhythm, I remember having done 9:25.3 sec, which was the first time the Ring had been lapped at more than 190 km/h.
Well, the pit signals were more and more encouraging but the race was drawing to a close and the question was, would I have time to catch the two flying ingleses?
Just when I was getting worried, I saw a little red blot far ahead of me. All right, I thought, at least I'll have a chance to fight for 2nd, but I didn't know the other leading Ferrari was just a few yards ahead. It was when we arrived at the Adenau downslope that I realized the two Ferraris were so close together, and then I said to myself, "This is it! I can catch those two!"
I began the hunt, and as we shot past the pits I was breathing down Peter's neck. Hawthorn was only a few yards in front but there were only 2 laps to go! Coming into the North Curve, just after the pits, I ttried to take Collins but I overdid it and he was able to stay ahead. His line was better than mine into the next bend and he stayed in 2nd place. But I had the bit between my teeth. I couldn't allow Peter to have the slightest relief, so I put pressure on him everywhere, going flat-out, the throttle pedal welded to the floorboard.
We got into a left-right-left switchback and I moved right beside him coming into a left-hander that had a narrow, little concrete bridge at the end of a blind up slope. Then another downslope and after that you turned sharp right, fast but very, very dodgy. The little bridge was coming at us at a million miles an hour and there we were, side by side, with me tap-dancing on the right shoulder of the road. Theoretically the bridge was just wide enough for both of us to go through together, but how brave can you get?
Finally it was Peter who lifted off at the last moment and I was 2nd. The other Ferrari was right there. It was coming nearer, swaying from side to side as Hawthorn really piled it on. I began to wonder if I was going to get through, but the opportunity came by itself just before Breidscheid, about halfway around the circuit. There were several bends, then a short straight in which we could breathe a bit, and then two bends, a 90-degree left and a sharp right. On the straight, with trees beside and in front of us, and a cliff to our left, Mike went right to take an ideal line when he came to the bend.
That was my chance. I hurled the car into the inside of the bend. I think I must have put two wheels on the grass verge because otherwise the two of us wouldn't have made it through. Mike did a double take when he saw me where he didn't expect me, and he lost the fine edge of his driving for a moment. Well, that's the way it goes. You should never let the other guy have the inside of your bend.
So I got into the lead and at this moment I really turned it on because I wanted to get clear away as soon as I could to avoid any surprises from the boys behind me. The result was another lap record, at 9:17.4, 8 sec faster than in practice despite the car being as tired as I was.
In the last lap I made sure. I didn't have too much margin to play with, because, of course, Mike was mad as hell and he wasn't about to give anything else away. Nor was I after the hard work I'd put in to get back into the lead. When I got the checkered flag, Hawthorn was just 3 sec away. Well, they say races should be won with as short a lead as possible, don't they?
There was a terrific release of tensions as we crossed the finish line. We carried on several hundred yards more, then went into the pits. The crowd there was absolutely crazy. They all shouted at the same time, smiling, trying to touch us, to hug us, caressing and patting the cars as if they were horses. I remember being lifted in the air, carried shoulder high, while I screamed for water, water, water, after three and a half hours driving in that pressure cooker.
On the podium the two English boys embraced me, and they seemed as glad I'd won as if they'd won themselves. What a day! Two great boys, they always showed they had a lot of respect for me and I am convinced they were really sincere in their happiness at my victory. There was Mike, gesticulating to explain how I'd passed him, and then Peter, always smiling. I asked why he'd dropped back a little after I passed him and he said a little stone shot by my tires had shattered his goggles.
The victory ceremony that day was something else, but even so I never imagined that so many years afterward people would still remember this race so clearly. The only thing I felt at the time was satisfaction at having won such a tough race and that I had won the World Championship again.
And somewhere deep inside me, I told myself that never, never again was I going to drive like I did that day.'
We drove on in silence. Fangio had told everything without much visible emotion, but I could perceive the quick gestures with his hands, the lilt in his voice, and the glitter in his eyes, not watery with nostalgia, but bright with the memory of what must have been a tremendous vital force within this otherwise quiet man.
The sun was going down and as we stopped to look at places Fangio especially remembered, a sharp, cold wind reminded us that a stormy night was near. Then I saw rather than heard a Ford Sierra coming very fast around the circuit and warned Juan to get out of the way. The driver slid past, not even realizing the man looking at him was the Maestro.
'Christ Almighty! Come, look at this cliff. Now that I see it from here...just think I came along here, flat-out. This is where I passed Mike. I'm glad I never saw this part before except from behind a steering wheel.'
We left early for Cochem-Mosel, and there, after an affectionate farewell, we split up: Fangio back to Stuttgart and I to Milan, where I was starting the long flight back to Argentina. Though he was gone, Fangio filled my thoughts. I couldn't forget what Fangio had told me a few nights before as we dined in a Stuttgart restaurant.
'My last race was in Reims, where so many years before I'd started my first race in Europe. It was 1958. I had told the Maserati people I would drive for them, but I warned them I wasn't going to do the full year. Just three or four races. The first one was the Argentine Grand Prix, which I couldn't miss, of course, and Moss won it with the Cooper. Then I tried out at Indianapolis, but I never felt like a potential winner and I decided it would be a mistake to race there unless I could introduce myself to these new spectators as a true champion.
And so, came the French Grand Prix at Reims. The 250F was lighter and had a shorter wheelbase, but Maserati had lost ground and the car was very much down on power. I barely made the 3rd row, and in the race I held 5th for a while but there were Behra, Moss, Schell, all snapping at my heels, coming two and three abreast wanting to get past. And the Ferraris? As far as I was concerned they were in a different motor race. I did work up into 2nd place; but that was because of a combination of circumstances, including Luigi Musso's unfortunate accident, poor boy. Then, the clutch pedal came off, it just came off. I pitted for a second, threw out the pedal and, as I wasn't going to wait for an extended repair, I got off again shoving the gears in any which way.
There I was, alone out on the circuit and it might as well have been Monday morning as far as my chances for this race were concerned.
Reims had some very long straights where, because was in the middle of nowhere, I could relax and think. I began realize this wasn't the thing for me. I remembered Tazio Nuvolari.. He'd been my childhood idol, the unattainable summit and I remembered the thrill when I met him on my first trip Europe.
Nuvolari was the superchamp. I once raced against him and remember we frontrunners lapped him right away. I could hardly bring myself to pass him, but of course, it was his stubbornness in refusing to admit he'd had enough. That his day was over. Now he was being lapped in public. I didn't decide then that this would never happen to me, but now at Reims that picture was becoming too clear.
Down those endless Reims straights I made a sort of mental balance sheet. I had hoped to race a year in Europe, maybe twice if I was lucky, and I'd already had 10 years in Grand Prix racing. One of my crazy hopes was winning a World Championship. I already had five. At the moment I had won more GPs than any body else. I was 47. I'd achieved everything a racing driver could achieve and yet here I was, driving like this was some kind of bread truck. The crowd had paid their money to see a World Champion drive and here I was, watching the scenery dawdle past. So I said, the hell with it. This was it, but it.
I think I finished 4th or something, who knows. I didn't even want to look at the pit signals. After a million years the race ended and when I got out of the car I said to the mechanic that it was my final Addio. They put pressure on me for years but I never raced again.'
|www.nurburgring.org.uk | Fangio at the Ring|