On the August 4 of 1957 the Grand Prix of Germany took place in the dangerous and demanding Nürburgring circuit, with its 22.81 km (the longest one) and 180 curves. Fangio adored that circuit because it presented him every possible difficulty, which allowed him to stand out from the rest of the pilots. For example, in some areas, at a very high speed, the undulation of the track could make a car take off at an altitude of 2 meters in an 8 meter long path. For one to understand how dangerous this circuit is, it must be taken into account that from 1927 till 1957, with 6 years of interruption in the middle due to World War Two, 125 pilots died there. Due to the total and uninterrupted level of concentration it required, Fangio always had in mind that if the driver’s performance during a curve was not perfect, he could lose control four curves later.
That afternoon, his Maserati 250F was equipped with Pirelli tyres, which had a good grip but would not last the 22 laps (500 km) the race demanded. Instead, his main opponents drove Ferraris 801 with Englebert tyres, which worked perfectly for the whole race. So the Head Mechanic of Maserati, Guerino Bertochi, and the Manager Nello Ugolini made the 3 cars of the motor racing team take off with half a tank of fuel to switch the tyres halfway through the race. They indicated Fangio that if he took a 30 second advantage, they could change his tyres and refill his tank in time for him not to lose track of the Ferraris.
At 1 pm on a very hot day the race began. Fangio, having qualified the pole position, remained in the third place awaiting for the chance to get past the two Ferraris which he then left behind during the third lap.
From that moment on, there was only one man in Nürburgring. He started his plan, beating his own record eleven times, except for the twelfth lap, during which he stopped with a difference of 29 seconds. Mechanics did not do a very good job changing his tyres and they took longer than usual so he lost those 29 seconds plus 48 more.
Fangio left the boxes disappointed, thinking that his dream of winning that afternoon was almost impossible. Nevertheless, he was determined to try and with his usual cold strategy (the best one ever according to Enzo Ferrari), he drove the last lap moderately to settle down and warm up the tyres, 51 seconds with 9 remaining laps. With his experience, Fangio told me he had learnt that if the path was perfect, it was possible to race fast curves at a higher gear than usual, with the risk of losing grip but knowing you would come out in the next stage with the engine with more revolutions. This was the attitude he maintained until the end of the race.
There was a gentle rise in the path that crossed the track under a bridge that normally was raced in the fifth gear stepping on the gas pedal so that the car would not lose grip when touching the ground. Fangio took that path down to the core, right next to the side of the track. The Maserati took off and landed on the other side of the asphalt next to the fence that surrounded the perimeter. He saw on his rear-view mirror that he had sparked off a cloud of dust when his wheels had hit the shoulder. From that moment on, he repeated this move in every round and thus won precious seconds in such a fast stretch.
This way -always beating his own record- when the penultimate lap came, he was at the tail end of Collins’ Ferrari and when the north curve came along, he got past him, unfortunately a little too open due to the fast entrance so Collins managed to leave him behind again. Fangio followed then Collins very closely with his car during several curves which led to an ascending stretch where he caught up with him at 260 kms per hour. They reached then a bridge where both cars hardly fit. Collins took the first place but fell down the blind slide that followed the bridge.
Hawthorn’s Ferrari was now a few meters away, so Fangio stayed behind him for several curves studying his final sprint. His opportunity came during a short stretch that led to a 90 degree curve to the left and immediately to the right again. The very moment Hawthorn left some space on his left just before taking the turn, Fangio’s car appeared right beside with two wheels grazing the grass. As Hawthorn never expected Fangio to attempt that move on that spot, he was surprised to see a red stain beside him and this made him lose control. After the race, Hawthorn stated that he had had the impression the “old devil” would run over him had he not moved. After leaving his opponent behind, Fangio kept a distance that would not allow Hawthorn to make use of the suction. Fangio kept that distance during the last round and won the race by 3.6 seconds, although in the last twirl the main rivet in his seat broke forcing him to hold on the bodywork with his legs only.
The audience stood up cheerfully during the last rides and when the race finished, Fangio was literally ripped off from his cockpit and carried up to the podium where Collins and Hawthorn were waiting to congratulate him with great joy as if they had won the race.
A well-known English journalist stated that three elements had been key in heroic deed: an exceptional chassis, an engine with torque and an artist behind the steering wheel. Stirling Moss, who came in fifth, commented he had always admired Fangio greatly, but when he had seen how his idol had reached and got past those two great pilots in just one move, he remarked his greatness and unlimited reserve of talent. Including Fangio’s stop in boxes for 77 seconds, the average of the race exceeded the record in turns Fangio had set when he had classified the year before.
The tension provoked by the risks he took with such powerful entrance would not allow him to sleep well for two nights. Flashes of the race just kept coming back to him. I remember having listened to this race on the radio with great emotion and now, on the 50th anniversary, I just could not keep this story to myself.
In Nürburgring, Fangio achieved the pole position, broke his own lap record eleven times, won the race, obtained his fifth World Championship two days before it ended and got the title of “Master of Nürburgring” for winning the Grand Prix three times in a row.
Juan Manuel Fangio’s picture after winning the Grand Prix.