In the Camp of the Enemy

Events at home in Argentina led Juan Manuel Fangio to drive for Ferrari—the team he’d been competing against for eight years.

In the Camp of the Enemy 1
August 24, 2018

“I must say the year with Ferrari was not happy. I never felt comfortable there. Since I first raced in Europe I had always been in a team that was opposing Ferrari. Now I was joining him.”

How had Juan Manuel Fangio, fresh from his second World Championship with Mercedes-Benz and third in all, found himself in this situation? Fangio was reputed to be the master at gaining the best position with the best team. Yet here he was, in the camp of the enemy, driving for a team that had engaged him out of desperation, not desire.

In fact, Grand Prix racing was what Fangio had planned not to do in 1956. He had already carried on for five more seasons after his first in 1949, the one year he had intended to race in Europe before returning to his businesses in Argentina. In 1956 he would be 45, and eager drivers half his age were nipping at his heels. In 1955, when they were partnered at Mercedes, Stirling Moss had shown that he could be a deadly future rival.

“At the end of 1955, I considered the possibility of retiring for the first time,” Fangio told Roberto Carozzo. “When Daimler-Benz announced that it was pulling out, I thought the time had come for me as well. I wanted to return to Argentina for good.”

Fangio the fatalist took the Mercedes withdrawal as a sign. His two seasons with Daimler-Benz had rewarded him lavishly—by his standards he was a wealthy man—and his business interests in Argentina were well established. Furthermore, as the first driver to win three World Championships, surpassing Alberto Ascari’s two crowns, he had nothing to prove. Nonetheless, events outside his control would soon conspire to keep him in Formula 1.

FANGIO’S FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP, with Alfa Romeo in 1951, had coincided with the apogee of the career of another Juan, a man who had strongly encouraged his activities abroad, Juan Domingo Perón. That was the year of his re-election as Argentina’s leader, on the arm of his much-adored wife: María Eva Duarte Perón, widely known as Evita. But by the end of 1951 Argentina had exhausted her gold reserves, and 1952 saw the death of Perón’s spouse, also his most fervid and loyal supporter.

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Although Juan Perón had done much to democratize Argentina, his nationalistic approach to its economic problems failed to arrest its decline. The Catholic church, which had strongly supported Perón at first, excommunicated him in 1954. In September 1955 Perón’s fellow military officers presented him with an ultimatum: either resign or there would be a civil war.

Perón chose the former. He left Argentina, ultimately to exile in Spain. His political party was declared illegal and any mention of his name, or that of Evita, was prohibited. Thus, in the very same month that saw Daimler-Benz decide to suspend racing, the government in Fangio’s homeland underwent the most profound turmoil and transformation.

As a post-Christmas present in 1955 to 172 companies and 586 individuals, Argentina’s provisional government froze their assets until they could prove that they had acquired them legally during the Perón years. On the list of individuals were industrialists, diplomats, sports stars, film and theater actors, and racing drivers—Fangio and José Froilán González. They had 150 days to prove the legality of their rights to their property; thereafter, in the absence of proof, their assets could be confiscated.

Fangio felt he had little to fear. “Politics, I think, are handled from behind a desk, not the wheel of a racing car,” he said. “If the Perón government thought it hit a good idea to satisfy public enthusiasm for motor racing, what reason should I have to stop competing? But I chose never to do anything political, neither for nor against any government of my country, no matter which one. I hope no-one will reproach me for that.”

Early in 1956, Fangio said, “The government has promised me a fair assessment of my situation. Actually I can say that I’m happy that a public determination will be made of the source of my property: It was earned with difficulty in many exhausting races. Naturally I will drive in Europe again this year. My main goal is to win the World Championship for a fourth time.”

This was Fangio’s public posture but privately he was less ecstatic about this threat to his affairs, in which he would ultimately be cleared by his government after agonizing years, not mere months. “Things started to go not so well in Argentina,” he admitted later, “so I decided to postpone retirement for another year. I returned to Europe to race with Ferrari in 1956, but I wasn’t very happy about it.”

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Why Ferrari and not his old love, Maserati? Fangio had not been best pleased by a gefuffle over a winner’s trophy between himself and Maserati management, for whom he won the Caracas sports-car race with a 300S in November 1955, his first post-Mercedes contest. That there might have been fro-ing and to-ing over the trophy was not surprising. It was a solid gold cup weighing five kilograms (roughly eleven pounds) which was later valued at some $500,000.

Equipment was a factor too, as Maserati’s Ermanno Cozza pointed out: “It’s possible that Fangio chose Ferrari because at the time they had the Lancia cars, which were more innovative and promising, and he was always looking for the best car.” Added Maserati engineer Giulio Alfieri, “He probably thought that Maserati wasn’t up to his level in that period. There were also economic reasons.” Ergo—contacts with Ferrari.

“I saw him for the first time at the Modena Autodromo in 1949,” said Enzo Ferrari of Fangio. “I watched him for a couple of laps and then I couldn’t take my eyes off the car. His style was unique: He was probably the only driver to come out of a curve without grazing the bales of hay on the borders. ‘This Argentine is not kidding around,’ I told myself. ‘He comes out of the turns like a shot but he holds the middle of the track.’

“Later he came to talk to me at the Scuderia,” wrote Ferrari in his memoirs. “He was accompanied by an official from the Argentine Automobile Club, and we all talked for quite a long time. Actually Fangio didn’t say more than ten words. I couldn’t figure him out. He evaded my glances, answered in monosyllables in a strange tinny voice and let others speak for him, an indefinable crooked little smile plastered across his face, making it impenetrable.”

Soon enough, Enzo Ferrari was able to appreciate Fangio’s abilities on the racetrack. But that didn’t make the inscrutable bandy-legged man from the pampas any more appealing.

“As concerns Fangio as a man,” he said, “our later conversations were no more successful than that first one. His gaze continued to evade mine, my questions continued to provoke enigmatic answers, which he gave in that strange little voice, and whoever happened to be with him would speak for him.”

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The oracular and mysterious role was usually Ferrari’s. Here, for a change, was a man who did not seem cowed by the Merlin of Maranello.

“I hadn’t given much importance to the meeting I had had with Enzo Ferrari,” said Fangio at the end of 1955, when he was still in retirement mode. But then Enzo “found out that I was at Pescara, where I was having a few days of relaxation at the end of the season. He phoned me and asked me to come and have a chat with him at Maranello. ‘Fangio, I know you cost a lot but I need you.’ I remember those words of his very well.”

IT COULD NOT HAVE BEEN EASY for Ferrari to admit that he needed someone. He was a builder of great racing cars; ergo, the best drivers queued up for them. But just as circumstances had driven Alfa Romeo to need Fangio in 1950, when the Milanese team had only one front-line driver in Nino Farina and Ferrari had already snapped up Ascari and Luigi Villoresi, so they conspired with Enzo in 1956.

During 1955, Lancia had withdrawn from racing and turned over its complete stable of V8 single-seaters to Ferrari. They were the only cars that had been able to rival the Mercedes on sheer speed, so Enzo had to be seen to do well with them in 1956—especially because he had also been heavily bankrolled to do so by Italian business interests including Fiat, which had underwritten an annual subsidy of £30,000, a little more than $85,000. But the driver he loved, the consummate artist who had mastered the tricky Lancia, Alberto Ascari, had been killed in a 1955 test at Monza.

“I will take the drivers that no-one else wants,” Ferrari boasted in 1956. “I don’t have the money to throw away on people. I will certainly have Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso, and above all the supreme champion Fangio.”

But actually getting Fangio was another matter. “Ferrari began a protracted and difficult negotiation to obtain his services,” wrote Brock Yates in his biography of Enzo. “There was trouble from the start. Ferrari was accustomed to dealing with drivers directly, without intermediaries. This was to his advantage. Most were naïve in the ways of business and could easily be bamboozled into driving for pittances. But Fangio was different. He had come from Mercedes-Benz, where drivers were paid handsomely, and was not about to accept Ferrari’s menial sums—gift-wrapped in the potential ‘glory’ to be gained by a drive for the Scuderia.

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“Fangio brought to the meetings a wily agent named Marcello Giambertone,” Yates continued, “an Italian race promoter and general gadfly in the sport. Ferrari was furious at Fangio’s effrontery in coming with an intermediary. Worse yet Giambertone hammered out a lucrative deal for his client. It is said that Fangio received about 12 million lire [at the time $19,150] a year for driving, plus a list of small perks that battered Ferrari’s wallet. But whatever the deal, the relationship between the Commendatore and his star driver began on a sour note and never improved.”

According to Romolo Tavoni, then Ferrari’s secretary, Giambertone did not seek a contract identical to Fangio’s with Mercedes. “Usually Mr. Ferrari split the prize money 50-50 with his drivers,” Tavoni told Chris Nixon. “At Mercedes Fangio had been given 50 percent and a big salary and he demanded the same at Ferrari.”

Mercedes actually gave Fangio all the starting and prize money, but 50 percent plus salary was evidently a good enough negotiating position for Giambertone, who knew well that Ferrari’s coffers as well as his stable had been replenished.

“Mr. Ferrari liked Fangio the driver but not Fangio the man,” Tavoni continued, “saying, ‘I provide the cars, you provide the driving skills, so I think 50-50 is correct.’ When Fangio insisted on a salary also, Ferrari felt that he was breaking with tradition.”

Fangio was less interested in tradition than he was in stability and security; with a salary, he knew where and when his next lira was arriving. Grudgingly, we may be sure, Enzo Ferrari agreed to the Argentine’s terms.

THE FIRST RACE of the 1956 season, at Buenos Aires in January, found Fangio driving an only slightly modified Lancia D50, now wearing a Ferrari badge. When asked how it compared to the Mercedes, Juan Manuel answered, “It’s different.” It was also a second quicker in qualifying in Fangio’s hands than his silver W196 had been the year before; he was a full two seconds clear of the field in pole position.

His fastest race lap in his home country was an impressive three seconds quicker than what he had clocked in the Mercedes. Maserati protested a push start the driver received on the circuit but their attempt to have him disqualified was rejected. “Fangio himself is a splendid sportsman who plays fair and observes the rules,” remarked Mike Hawthorn, “but it seems that when he gets out to Argentina he becomes the victim of over-enthusiastic helpers to whom all’s fair as long as their national hero wins.”

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Helped by retirements, Fangio was indeed able to win the race after taking over Luigi Musso’s car when his own had fuel-pump trouble. This set a pattern for the season, although not one that was established by Ferrari team manager Eraldo Sculati, whom Fangio disliked and who in fact would only hold the post that season.

Highly paid reigning World Champion though he was, Fangio was not officially designated the team’s number-one driver. This was significant at a time when drivers could share cars and still earn points; the “number one” would usually have first choice in such situations. Yet Ferrari’s other drivers—Castellotti, Musso, and Peter Collins—took care of that, said Fangio: “The young men told me, ‘Juan, you are the leader, you are the World Champion.’”

That being said, agent Giambertone also maneuvered behind to the scenes to dispel the vagueness hanging over Fangio’s status in the team. This resulted, said Sculati, in a mid-season telegram from Enzo to the effect that Fangio was “team captain.”

The Grand Prix circus moved to Europe in April for two non-championship contests at Siracusa. On the road circuit on the outskirts of the historic Sicilian city, Fangio led from pole and set fastest lap en route to a dominant Lancia-Ferrari victory.

The next race, in May, was the championship Grand Prix at Silverstone. Fangio’s ill luck in Britain—he had retired in 1950, finished fourth in ’54, and come home second every other year—continued, and he imposed it on Peter Collins by taking over the Briton’s car at one-third distance of his home race. But both Ferraris retired with clutch trouble and Moss won in a debut drive with the new British Vanwall.

At Monaco, Fangio stamped his authority on an elite field of cars with a storming pole-position performance. The race was another story. “Fangio was a crazy mixed-up racing driver that day,” reported Autosport.

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His Ferrari was damaged in an early spin while chasing the leading, Maserati-mounted Moss, and damaged even more when its driver began using all the pavement and more in his furious chase. He brought the car in at two-thirds distance and was again given that of Collins, who was then in a strong second place. Collins, according to Autosport, “was so vexed that he went straight to his hotel and turned his back on the race passing its doors.”

Fangio couldn’t catch Moss but his second-place Monaco finish saw him leading the championship. Nevertheless it had been a messy performance by his standards.

“Many people have said it was not Fangio in the car that day,” he told Nigel Roebuck, “but they don’t know what was going on in the car! For me it was the fastest way around that track in that car. It may not have been pretty to watch, but it was the quickest way.”

He knew a different style would be needed for the high-speed swerves of Spa in June. There, in qualifying, he was a staggering five seconds quicker than the next-fastest man, Moss. Although Stirling was first away at the start, he wrote that “Fangio was all out to rehabilitate himself and win the world championship and passed me at the end of the Masta Straight.” The Argentine gained a commanding lead but suffered a transaxle failure at two-thirds distance, letting Collins through to take his first win in a championship Grand Prix.

THE NEXT POINTS-EARNING GRAND PRIX came a month later at the French circuit of Reims, with its daunting high-speed bend at Gueux. In qualifying Denis Jenkinson lent an ear to the sound of Fangio’s Lancia-Ferrari: “As he went past the pits at nearly 160 mph everyone listened for him to lift his foot off the accelerator as he approached the long right-hand curve; the scream of the eight megaphones remained constant until it died away in the distance and everyone, drivers included, paid tribute to the world champion.” Eyebrows went sky-high afterward when Juan explained that he was having to hold the shift lever in fifth half-way around the curve because it was jumping out of gear!

Like Spa, Reims resulted in mechanical problems for Fangio while leading, this time a fuel line that sprung a leak. He had not necessarily expected Mercedes-style reliability at Ferrari but this was beginning to be more than annoying. Fangio judged that he had a solution.

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“I had always had a mechanic exclusively on my car,” he said, “but Ferrari had a different system. Halfway through the season I was able to arrange it and then everything was much better.” After a meeting between Ferrari and Giambertone, mechanic Cassani was delegated to look after his cars.

A capable mechanic himself, this was a topic Fangio understood. “The driver must always have a relationship with his mechanic,” he felt. “He must go to the garage and see what is going on. This is one thing which makes a relation between driver and mechanic turn into a friendship. It was this that I found hard to achieve in the Ferrari team. I had been their opposition for so many years and now I was their driver.”

With Cassani now assigned to Fangio, reliability was in the Argentine’s favor at Silverstone, where he scored his one and only victory on British soil when race leader Moss retired. The tables were turned at the Nürburgring. There, Fangio’s Lancia-Ferrari had the legs of Moss’ Maserati both in practice and in the race, which the former led from flag to flag. Fangio was the first of several drivers who broke the lap record that Hermann Lang had set in 1939 in the 3-liter supercharged Mercedes-Benz, and the only one of the five works Ferraris to finish the race.

Fangio went to the last championship race of the season at Monza with a clear points lead and only a mathematical chance of losing the crown to Moss, Collins, or Maserati’s Jean Behra. Wrote Motor’s Rodney Walkerley, “We think Peter Collins is in the running somewhat to his own surprise and, like other drivers, will be glad if Fangio retains his honors and will be quite content to drive to Ferrari’s team orders as usual. At least he has pulled himself out of the junior class where he is expected to hand over his car during a race.”

With the Italian Grand Prix being run on the road circuit and bumpy high-speed banking combined, durability was expected to play a role at Monza, and so it proved. Ferrari had problems with both its Englebert tires and the fragility of its steering arms, the latter failing for Fangio just before half-distance, when he brought his car to the pits. After long repairs, Castellotti took the car back into the fray.

There was Fangio, standing carless in the pit lane. A stony-faced Musso, hoping to do well on his home ground, ignored Sculati’s entreaties to step aside for Fangio during a tire change, while Alfonso de Portago had retired his car early. Fangio’s only hope of taking the championship well out of reach of the race-leading Moss was Peter Collins. The Briton, circulating in third place, would have to win and set fastest lap to out-point Moss and Fangio—at that juncture an all-but-impossible task.

Collins knew what he would do. His bitter emotions about Monaco had been forgotten, and Walkerley’s assessment had been spot-on. In addition, according to author Luca Dal Monte, before the race Enzo Ferrari had spoken to the Englishman about the possible situation at Monza in terms that were vague but nevertheless indicative of what would be expected of him.

Pitting for tires on lap 34 of the 50-lap race, Collins made it clear he wanted Fangio to take over his car. Out of the junior class or not, the 25-year-old from Kidderminster accepted that it was unworthy of him to deny Fangio the points that would guarantee his fourth championship crown.

“I was astonished when he handed over his car,” Fangio recalled, “but I did not stop to argue. I do not know whether in his place I would have done the same. Collins was the gentleman driver.”

In Collins’ Ferrari, Fangio finished second in the Italian Grand Prix, only six seconds behind Moss, who was lucky to win after an emergency fuel top-up and the retirement of Musso, who was leading three laps from the finish. Thanks to the coup that led to the exile of Perón, championship pretenders Moss, Collins, and Castellotti would have to wait their turn.

It had been a hard battle for Fangio, as demanding as his 1951 season with Alfa Romeo. He began the year on equal terms with his young rivals, who were widely expected to see him off. He ended the year as the undisputed artist of his craft who seemed still to have reserves of speed and skill.

As for Enzo Ferrari, he felt he got what he paid for. It had been a difficult year for him, with the death of his son Alfredo, better known as Dino, on the Saturday before the French Grand Prix. About the future he was fatalistic; in 1957, he said, “we won’t have the World Champion. We won’t have him because we don’t have enough money.” For his part, Fangio returned to his natural home at Maserati and another title.

Also from Issue 169

  • 812 Superfast
  • Ex-Clint Eastwood custom BB
  • Second year in the Ferrari Challenge
  • 488 Challenge development
  • Phil Hill's photography, Part 2
  • Privateer racer Bill Sweedler
  • F1: Ferrari vs Mercedes cont.!
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