“ Trying to be the best in everything? I agree with that. But never believe you are the best.” – Fangio
There is sport as we know it today and there is sport as it used to be. It sounds clichéd. I know. But an overview of the contrast is essential grounding as otherwise we would be building castles in the air. Somewhere in the first quarter of the 2020 Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story, former Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen describes his experience of driving the car Fangio raced in, “ it is amazing, the effort it takes to drive the car.’’
Fangio’s heydays on the circuit were in the 1950s. The Argentine driver was Formula One world champion five times, a record subsequently beaten by Michael Schumacher. He raced with four teams – Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Mercedes Benz. But it is the state of racing he endured that amazes above all else. Fangio’s early promise was in football. After completing his military service, he opened a garage and in 1936, commenced a career in racing, driving a Ford that he had rebuilt. That last bit is a defining characteristic of Fangio’s approach to the sport.
A modern Formula One race is for instance a demonstration of how a team works like an orchestra, perfectly conducted. While the young drivers push their cars to dizzying speed, what matters equally is the efficiency of support crew during pit stops. If you watch a pit stop in slow motion, it is a lesson; both in terms of the coordination displayed right then and the thought, preparation and rehearsing that may have gone into it. Fangio’s formative years were in South America’s touring road races. As some of the early footage in the documentary shows, racers at such events drove carrying spare parts and extra cans of gasoline. There was no support crew, no teams of mechanics on call to address a breakdown. The typical driver was a combination of driving and maintenance skills.
This backdrop, from which Fangio came, contrasts the imagery of modern day circuit racing, where every ingredient is handled as distinct silo with specialists for the purpose. Indeed a distinction mentioned in the documentary about Fangio is his ability to race at Formula One, comprehending the limits of his car and try preserving it to the end. He knew how to sense the thin line separating an engine pushed to the limit from potential breakdown. The above quality made Fangio the sort that worked collaboratively with his team. You see in the documentary the early form of the pit stop. In those days of Formula One, a crew of mechanics dedicated to each car wasn’t available. When signing up with the final team of his Formula One career, a clause Fangio wrangles is that his car would have a dedicated mechanic.
Further, one of the hallmarks of modern day motor racing is the high level of driver safety afforded by advancements in technology. I watched the documentary on Fangio after savoring the Netflix series on Formula One’s 2018 and 2019 seasons. The latter had spectacular accidents with cars flying due to the force of impact. In all those accidents – except one – the driver concerned emerged unscathed. Such advancements in technology were not there in Fangio’s days. Accident fatality rate was high. It was humbling to listen to racing greats like Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost recall in the documentary, the number of fellow drivers killed. Having said that, it also appears to have been a gentleman’s age compared to the cut throat competition of today. At one of the races, Fangio’s car develops a flaw that cannot be rectified. He finishes the race and wins it in a car that a team mate gladly surrendered for his use.
Fangio’s story is also different from a couple of other angles. The current line-up of drivers in Formula One is young. Fangio was middle aged by the time he got to Formula One. Here’s what Wikipedia’s page on Fangio says: Fangio was the oldest driver in many of his Formula One races, having started his Grand Prix career in his late 30s. During his career, drivers raced with almost no protective equipment on circuits with no safety features. Formula One cars in the 1950s were very fast, extremely physically demanding to drive; races were much longer than today and demanded incredible physical stamina. Tyres were cross-ply, and far less forgiving; treads often stripped in a race, and spark plugs fouled. There were, of course, no electronic aids or computer intervention. At the end of a GP, drivers often suffered blistered hands, caused by heavy steering and gear changing. Fangio was born in 1911. His first time at the World Championship of Drivers was at the 1950 British Grand prix; he was 39 years old then. His last time on the circuit was at the 1958 French Grand Prix; aged 47. His success with a variety of teams also stands out. Few drivers have repeated that since.
There is a point in the film on Fangio, when Juan Manuel Fangio II (Fangio’s nephew and a former auto racing champion himself) says, “ if you want to be efficient in today’s cars you need precision. If you wanted to be efficient in the cars from the 50s, you needed art. Now like I always say, if you add precision to the art from the 50s, the result is a world champion. If you add art to today’s precision, the result is also a world champion. So what we need to do is to add to each period what that period was missing.’’ A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story is available on Netflix. It is an engaging documentary to watch before or after the Netflix series on the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons. It doesn’t matter whether your understanding sprouts up from the seed or downward from the tree branches; what is important is that it has roots.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)