They have been beaten now, but his victory strike rate and sheer total of championships won – second only to Michael Schumacher – will remain etched in the pages of history.
But anyone who came to the sport after Fangio’s F1 career ended, almost five decades ago, may know little of the man beyond these bare statistics. Gerald Donaldson’s excellent biography fills in the blanks with a detailed history of F1’s first great.
Fangio contested the first world championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 at the age of 38 – not an age active Grand Prix drivers typically reach these days.
He already had a long and dramatic career behind him before he scored such memorable victories as that at the N??rburgring in 1957. Much of the opening chapters of the book focuses on his extraordinary exploits in the fiercely demanding Argentinian road racing competitions that took weeks to complete, covered thousands of miles, akin to doing a couple of Mille Miglias through mountains and jungle.
Throughout the book Donaldson returns to several key points about Fangio that go a long way to explaining why he was (and still is) held in such reverence. It wasn’t just his spectacular skill – though that was humbling enough – it was his own humility and politeness.
Conventional histories of Fangio also tend to underestimate his vital role in car repair. His mechanical training was vital in the Argentinian races, where he would effect enormous and complicated repairs that would have caused other drivers to retire.
Donaldson acknowledges that a substantial amount of his material comes from the official Fangio biography by Roberto Carrozo, but he has added plenty of other references, and not just from the usual suspects like Autosport.
Donaldson seems to have made the judicious call of using Fangio’s most uncritical admirers (such as Stirling Moss) quite sparingly, and is also careful to tip-toe around dubious claims made in some less reliable books.
It’s clearly the product of a vast amount of research and only the final pages of the book, which skims through his post-F1 life rather briskly, give any cause for disappointment. “The Life behind the Legend” is a first-rate biography of one of the sport’s genuine, incontrovertible greats.
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