The Maserati 250F was a great car. It was well-balanced; however, this does not mean that it was easy to drive on the edge. Cars of this era were heavy, but also had notoriously little grip. A driver, Paul Frere, described what it was like to drive a Formula 1 car in 1956:
“When things start to happen they happen so quickly that correcting action must be taken without delay and with the utmost accuracy: with a Grand Prix car it is extremely easy, owing to the quickness with which it responds, to overcorrect a slide and start a series of zigzags of increasing amplitude which will eventually bring you up—hard—against the bank, ditch, or whatever else happens to be at the side of the road.”
Another author, Paul Fearnley, was permitted to drive Fangio’s actual 1957 German Grand Prix car (chassis number 2529) around the Nurburgring in 2002. His words, captured by Motorsport Magazine, were profound. “Its throttle is feather-light and I hamfootedly kick the three Webers awake. My left tympanum goes into spasm.” The Maserati 250F, although well-balanced, took a master’s touch around the tricky Nürburgring.
Even with Fangio at the helm, it was not easy to navigate the Nürburgring. I will assume you are familiar with the ‘ring. If you are not, you should first go and look it up; it is pretty epic. The Nurburgring, circa 1957, was precisely 22,810 meters in length (14.173 miles). To win the race, you would need to be the first to complete 22 circuits, at breakneck speed.
Too long to memorize, one needed to at least remember the corners that could kill them. But, the driver also needed to compartmentalize their fears and have supreme confidence in their ability to squeeze the car through the narrow racing gaps of the newly partially-resurfaced Nurburgring.
Finally, Fangio’s main competition, the Scuderia Ferrari were dangerous contenders. Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn, both young British drivers for Ferrari, were about to face off a 46-year-old Fangio. Vanwall, a British team, had also been coming on relatively strong in 1957.
By any stretch of the imagination, Fangio’s task was challenging. To a mere mortal, it would have been terrifying to have the wobbly 1950s machinery shrieking down the narrow pavement of the ‘ring. And yet, pictures show Fangio smiling at the wheel of chassis 2529 as he calmly circled the lengthy track. He was at-one with the car by the end of the practice sessions. The year before, pole position was set at a lap speed of 86.3 mph. This year, Fangio tore through the track at 90.1 mph. Fangio had the speed, but something would go wrong in the race.
The Maserati team and the Scuderia Ferrari would have known each others relative fuel loads on race day. The trained eye could easily tell how much the tail of a car was drooping from fuel weight. Fangio would have known that Moss and Hawthorn were on full fuel, thereby planning to run a non-stop race. Conversely, Moss and Hawthorn would have seen Fangio’s 250F sitting high in the tail; it was only half-full on fuel. Fangio planned to hedge his bets and pit at the halfway mark for fuel and tires.
The front row was four red cars: Maserati and Ferrari. 200,000 people came out to watch the race that sunny day in August 1957. At 1:15 pm, the flag dropped and the drivers revved their engines and spun their tires as they left the starting line.
The Nürburgring’s long laps bring unique challenges, such as the inability to track the race for minutes, at a time. But, when the cars finally emerged nearly ten minutes later, Fangio was not in front. Rather, it was the Ferrari of Mike Hawthorn, followed by his teammate Peter Collins. Hawthorn had done a standing lap of 9:42.5. This was a cracking lap, and they would only get faster as the race went on.
At the end of the second of twenty-two laps, Hawthorn was still in the lead. Time was just starting to grow short for Fangio to pull out a lead. Remember, Fangio needed to stop for both tires and fuel at the halfway point; the Ferraris Hawthorn and Collins would drive straight through without interruption. On the second lap, Hawthorn lowered his time to 9:37.9. But, Fangio had furled his brow and dropped the proverbial hammer. Within a few seconds, Fangio finished his second lap in an even quicker 9:34.6.
Without too much difficulty, having waited to warm his tires, Fangio finally passed both of the leading Ferraris. According to Fangio’s own comments, he had never been more “one” with an automobile than on that day, mounted atop his Maserati 250F, chassis 2529.
Although Hawthorn and Collins stayed in close formation, Fangio was screaming over the hills, down through the valleys, and around the kinks, twists, and turns of the ‘ring. Over the next several laps, Fangio increased his lead by seven seconds a lap.
By lap eight, Fangio again dropped the course world record to 9:30.8. At this pace, could his tires even last to the halfway point? He was 28 seconds in the lead. This is about the average length of a late-1950s pitstop, without the time lost heading into and out of pit lane.
Behra, another Maserati 250F driver and teammate to Fangio had shot his tires by lap 10. He needed to pit even before the halfway mark. Fangio continued to only speed up. He finished his tenth lap in 9:25.5.
Finally, his worn tires could take more. Moreover, Fangio was almost out of his half-tank of fuel. Around 30 seconds ahead of the Ferraris, he stopped at the end of the twelfth lap. However, the pit stop was bungled.
The stop was a disaster. The mechanics needed to change the two rear tires and give his 250F another half tank of fuel. However, one of the mechanics dropped, and momentarily lost, the wheel nut. The mechanic fumbled about as he looked for the part necessary to re-secure the new tire to the car. The pit stop took a shocking fifty-two seconds.
The fifty-two seconds, plus the time at reduced speed in the pit lane, resulted in Fangio being down on the Ferrari’s by about forty-five seconds. Remember, in the entire first-half of the race, Fangio’s miraculous performance only pulled out a twenty-eight second lead. Now, with less laps remaining, Fangio would need to make up even more time.
It would take more than proficient driving and a bit of luck. Fangio knew something more was required. Rather than take off at demon pace, Fangio played it cool as his tires warmed up. Some have suggested that this was a ruse designed to get Hawthorn and Collins to lower their pace.
Whether intended or not, Fangio’s slower pace on those first few laps gave him even less time to catch the Ferraris, even if it may have lulled them into a false-sense of security. However, Fangio was back at ten-tenths soon enough. At the end of the sixteenth lap, Fangio was closing methodically. However, he remained in arrears by 33 seconds.
Fangio went on to drive even faster. His record lapping time dropped first to 9:28.5, and then to 9:25.3. With three laps to go; however, Juan-Manuel still had to cover 13.5 seconds of a gap. He caught and passed both Ferraris in half that time. He must have made up at least seven to eight seconds per lap on his well-worn tires.
Fangio not only won the 1957 German Grand Prix that day, but also won his final championship. One would be well-justified in asserting that this great race was the high-point of the career of a true great master.
Travis Turner of GPevolved.com