Juan Manuel Fangio would have turned 100 years old on 24 June 2011. To celebrate the life and amazing racing career of Mercedes-Benz’s senior driver in 1954 and 1955 and, later, ambassador, we reflected on his biggest successes and most significant victories for the Silver Arrows.
"It's the perfect car. The machine which every driver dreams about their whole life long," said Fangio once of the Silver Arrow. The man forged an almost symbiotic partnership with the W 196 which he raced as the leading figure in Mercedes-Benz's campaign to win the Formula 1 World Championship in the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
Fangio drove to a total of five Formula 1 world titles in vehicles from four different manufacturers. However, there was something very special about his relationship with Mercedes-Benz. He had already been a dealer for the company in Argentina since 1951 and, following the end of his racing career, he became President of Mercedes-Benz Argentina S.A. in 1974.
He passed away in Buenos Aires on 17 July 1995.
Return of the Silver Arrows
It was at the French Grand Prix on 4 July 1954 that Mercedes-Benz made its first appearance with the new W 196 – the successor to the pre-war Silver Arrows. Victor at the Reims circuit was Juan Manuel Fangio, who had been world champion in 1951 and finished second in 1950 and 1953. The Argentinean was already aged 43 at the time, making him older than many of the other drivers in the field. He had furthermore suffered a serious accident in the 1952 season.
Yet far from being a fabulous finale to his career, Fangio's win for Mercedes Benz at the wheel of the W 196 R marked the start of an extraordinary success story. During 1954 and 1955, Fangio lined up on the starting grid for the Mercedes-Benz team for a total of 19 Formula 1 and sports car races, recording ten wins and a number of other impressive results.
The boy from Balcarce
Fangio was born to Italian immigrants on 24 June 1911 in the small country town of Balcarce in Argentina - seemingly a far cry from a future career as a grand prix driver. But the youngster, who completed an apprenticeship as a mechanic, was inspired by his fellow countrymen's passion for motor racing. He came into contact with the local racing scene at an early age, gained some experience at the wheel himself and learned how to rebuild vehicles for racing. In 1932, he opened his own car workshop, and four years later Fangio competed in his first race in a converted Ford taxi.
After the end of World War II, Fangio made the switch from rebuilt standard passenger cars to thoroughbred racing cars, and entered the international racing arena. In 1950, he came second in the World Championship driving for Alfa Romeo, before going on to win his first world title for the Italian car maker in 1951.
This year also marked the start of Fangio's close ties with Mercedes-Benz, as it was the year he opened a sales outlet for the Stuttgart brand's cars in Buenos Aires. And it was not long before he was sitting behind the wheel of a Silver Arrow for the first time; in February 1951, Mercedes-Benz came over to Argentina, bringing with it three overhauled pre-war W 154 racing cars for a guest race appearance. Fangio was on the starting grid for the "Premio Presidente de la Nación Juan D. Perón", along with Karl Kling and Hermann Lang. However, the Silver Arrows were unable to reach their top speed on the circuit owing to its many chicanes, and Fangio only managed to finish third.
During the 1952 season, when the World Championship was run to Formula 2 rules, Fangio suffered a serious accident in Monza. He spent the remainder of the year convalescing from his injuries, most notably from one he sustained to his spine. He was back racing for 1953 though, when he finished second in the World Championship with Maserati.
International motor racing was enhanced in 1954 by the return of Mercedes-Benz to the grand prix arena. Racing director Alfred Neubauer signed the Argentinean driving ace as the captain of the racing team. The Stuttgart-based outfit had been developing the W 196 R racing car for the new Formula 1 season since 1953. It was powered by a 257 hp (189 kW) inline eight-cylinder engine with a displacement of 2.5 litres, desmodromic valves and direct petrol injection.
In addition to the Streamliner version, a traditional single-seater with exposed wheels was also developed. The new Silver Arrows were not ready for the start of the season, so Fangio still competed in a Maserati in the first two races. At that time, the Formula One world championship consisted of just a drivers' title. The constructors' championship was only contested from the 1958 season onwards.
1954: Fangio “effortless” drive to debut win at the wheel of the W 196 R
On 4 July 1954, Fangio lined up for his first ever grand prix in a Mercedes Benz: exactly 40 years after Mercedes driver Christian Lautenschlager drove to victory in Lyon, the Stuttgart team returned to the fray at the French Grand Prix in Reims. Fangio took the chequered flag ahead of teammate Karl Kling.
The apparently effortless switch from Maserati to the W 196 R once again underlined Fangio's ability to adapt: ever since taking part in the tough endurance races in his home country, he seemed to be able to extract the very best from every vehicle. It was this virtuoso skill that led to victory for the Argentinean time and time again.
The 1954 season turned into a great triumph for Mercedes Benz and Fangio: he followed up his victory in France with further wins in Germany (Nürburgring), Switzerland (Bremgarten) and Italy (Monza). Fangio was crowned Formula One world champion for the second time, with almost double the points of his nearest rival.
The Argentinean dominated the 1955 season in similar fashion, winning the grand prix races in Argentina, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, and finishing second behind teammate Stirling Moss at the British Grand Prix.
Other exceptional performances by Fangio during this season included second place in the Mille Miglia, driving solo in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S). Winner Stirling Moss, on the other hand, was accompanied by a co-driver, Denis Jenkinson, as was most of the field.
Following the withdrawal of Mercedes-Benz from motor racing at the end of the 1955 season, Fangio went on to win two more world championship titles with Ferrari (1956) and Maserati (1957). The following year, the Argentinean called an end to his racing career at the age of 47. In 1974, he assumed the post of President of Mercedes-Benz Argentina S.A. His five Formula One world championship titles remained a record until his death in 1995, and were not surpassed until Michael Schumacher achieved the feat in 2003.