1950s-era Formula One was very different compared to how it is in 2005. Argentine Juan-Manuel Fangio (aged 46, ten years older than Michael Schumacher is today) arrived at the sixth round of the 1957 season having already won three races that year.
With each driver only counting their best five results towards the championship, and most drivers having skipped round three of the season at Indianapolis as oval racing was a substantially different discipline to Formula One, Fangio knew that a fourth win at this stage would guarantee him the title.
The Nurburgring was a vast, 14-mile long circuit of 172 corners, built in 1925 as a work creation initiative of the inter-war Weimar government. ‘The Green Hell’ as it came to be know was nestled in dense forestry, with one sharp turn abruptly leading into another, with names like Quiddelbacher Hohe, Hocheichen and Karussel. Except for a massive, kilometre-long straight, the entire circuit was endless blind turns, sharp elevation changes (in places the cars were completely airborne) and trees growing right up to the edge of the circuit. There has never been a more difficult or dangerous circuit than the Nurburgring.
Fangio’s lap for pole position took 9m 25.6s. The 22-lap race distance of 311.67 miles would take Fangio three and a half hours. To compare, Giancarlo Fisichella won last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix in just one hour and twenty-four minutes – just 40% of the time Fangio took to win the 1957 German Grand Prix for. Formula One was very, very different in 1957.
The Lancia-Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins lead away to begin with, with Fangio trailling them, but by lap three he capitalised on their squabbling to move clear into the lead. He remained there until lap 11, when he sacrificed his 22 second lead to come into the pits to refuel. Nowadays a fumbled pit stop might cost a driver a second or two. Fangio’s mechanics spent 1m 10s wrenching his tyres off and hammering new ones back on, while he chatted with chief mechanic Guerino Bertocchi and team manager Nello Ugolini and sipped a bottle of lemonade.
If this seems a little backward in retrospect, what followed was pure, timeless genius.
After bedding in his tyres on his out-lap, Fangio lay 51s behind Hawthorn and Collins. He began an awesome effort to reduce the gap. Afterwards, he spoke of sliding the car into each bend in a higher gear than he ordinarily used, keeping the revs as high as possible and leaping from one corner to the next. In one lap he gained an entire ten seconds on the leading pair. He then set a fastest lap 8.2s faster than his pole time had been.
As they began lap 20 Hawthorn screamed across the line two seconds ahead of Collins, with Fangio now just three seconds away. From the infrequent pit boards Fangio was uncertain whether he was tracking down one Ferrari or two. As they plunged down the Adenau descent he made out two bright red cars ahead of him.
He darted past Collins at the first opportunity, but ran too deep and was quickly relegated back to third again. Wasting no time, Fangio drew back alongisde at the next available straight and brushed Collins aside.
Eager not to give Hawthorn the chance to retaliate as Collins had, Fangio pounced on the leading Ferrari as they navigated a left-right chicane, pinning his rival to the outside of the corner, perilously close to an unguarded ditch. Fangio was through, having overcome a deficit of nearly a minute in eleven laps of the most terrifying circuit ever built.
“I was stretching myself to the limit,” said Fangio afterwards. “Until that race I had never demanded more of myself or the cars. Whenever I shut my eyes it was as if I were in the race again, making those leaps in the dark on those curves where I had never before had the courage to push things so far.”
Fangio’s greatest win was his 24th and last. It also clinched him his fifth and final driver’s championship title.