The Bookworm Critique
"Juan Manuel Fangio:
Motor Racing's Grand Master"
By Karl Ludvigsen.;
Published by Haynes.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this book

Juan Manuel Fangio was arguably the greatest talent to slide in behind the steering wheel in the history of the sport. His race record is almost freakish - 200 starts netted the stocky Argentine driver 147 placed finishes, including 78 victories. Along the way, he collected no less than five world championships; a record that will probably never be surpassed. Fangio was also among motor racing's most effective ambassadors, as demonstrated by the fact that he remains a worldwide household name despite having retired more than forty years ago.

Released last year, this book is the third in a series that previously explored the careers of Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the two earlier books, however having just finished this one I can safely say that this is a situation that I'll be making every effort to rectify as soon as possible. Driver biographies tend to vary in quality to a greater extent than any other category of motorsport books (except, perhaps, officially approved team biographies), but this one delivers the goods in fine style from beginning to end.

The definition of the term 'biography' has become increasingly flexible over the years, and this book reflects the ways that these kinds of books are changing. It must be difficult to write about an individual like Fangio - his life and career have already been exhaustively documented, and coming up with new ways to explore such a driver would not be an easy task. In this case, the book is not an exhaustive account of Fangio's life, but it is clear from the outset that this is not really the author's intention.

Instead, 'Juan Manuel Fangio' is presented more as a celebration of the life of one of the sport's greatest names. This is a smart move, because it allows the author to provide a good deal of information about Fangio's life in a style that makes it accessible to the widest audience possible. To reader like me, to whom Fangio was more familiar through his reputation than solid information, a vast chunk of the story was completely new. But there is more than enough other good stuff tucked in between the covers to keep those who are more knowledgeable than I entertained. And irrespective of how well versed you are in the life and times of Juan Manuel, you'll have no problems making sense of the text. The book is written in an engaging style that makes it a pleasure to read and widely accessible, and yet it manages to refrain from becoming too light and breezy.

There were two aspects of the book that really appealed to me. The first was the manner in which the author was able to convey some impression of who Fangio was as a person, rather than simply settling for an account of what he did and when he did it. Careful use of anecdotes and quotes plays no small part in this, and while many of the stories may be familiar to those who know more about Fangio than me, most of them are surely worth revisiting. I've always particularly enjoyed the blunt, to-the-point style with which Fangio seemed to express himself (or at least, when he was speaking English), and nowhere is it better illustrated than in the following incident:

"At Spa Maserati had brought a fourth car for popular Belgian driver and Fangio friend Johnny Claes. Unable to get his car down to decent times Claes asked Fangio if he would try it. The Argentine did and promptly lapped at speeds akin to those he had set in his own car: 'But tell me,' Claes asked Fangio afterward, 'how on earth do you do it?' Paul Frere heard the reply: 'Fangio said nothing at first and extricated himself from the cockpit; he then went quietly to sit on the pit counter and, in his broken English, gave his very plain and simple explanation: "Less brakes, and more accelerator."'" (p. 84).

While I'm digging out excerpts from the book, there is one more that really stood out for me; particularly in light of the accolades that David Coulthard received for his efforts in dragging the McLaren into second place at Brazil last week despite suffering major problems with his gearbox. What follows is a description of Fangio's eventful race at the 1953 Mille Miglia, a 1000-mile road race through Italy:

"In the mountains between Florence and Bologna...the Alfa suddenly stopped answering its helm. Fangio and Sala lifted the bonnet and found, as Juan said, 'that the chassis itself had broken just where the steering box was mounted, and as I wound the steering from lock to lock so the broken support too moved around and allowed the steering box to "think for itself"! I found that when I steered to the left it went where I wanted, but when I steered to the right it would only really go straight on. So I drove on, keeping well down to the right of the road camber where I had the best chance of getting around the right-handed corners."'

'At the Alfa pits in Bologna they asked if welding equipment was available but were told it wasn't. "I went along braking with the gears alone," Fangio recalled, "so that only the rear end of the car would slow it down. Bridges were the most dangerous thing, because I had to take aim on them from a long way back to ensure we met them between the parapets. My mechanic and I sat in grim silence in the car, as we knew that something nasty could happen to us at any time.'" (p.82).

Fangio went on to finish in second place, only eleven minutes behind the winner.

The other major standout point in this book is the photographs, many of which are apparently available here for the first time. I'd probably go so far as to say that of all the books that I have reviewed thus far, this represents the best single collection of images in a single volume. They are as amazing as they are varied; featuring both action shots and a wide assortment of moments captured away from the track.

Of the latter, the one that particularly stood out for me featured one of the most astounding collection of drivers imaginable, captured in an informal chat together after an exhibition race in 1976. This single shot managed to include Brabham, Moss, Fangio, Ireland, Ginther, Phil Hill, Gurney, and Dreyfus, among others. And the best part about the whole thing is that many of the photos are actually available for sale, via an email address on the inside rear sleeve.

The one final part of the book worthy of note was the annotated bibliography. This is a really useful inclusion, and one that I wish more authors would consider using. It provides a quick and neat review of some of the other significant work that has been produced over the years, and creates a very convenient springboard for further reading; irrespective of whether one wishes to follow up a specific aspect of Fangio's life and career, or just wants to explore historic racing in more detail.

This is a difficult book to flaw. It's engaging and cohesive, well researched, nicely presented, and features an outstanding collection of photographs. For somebody whose knowledge of Fangio was as rudimentary as mine was, it's required reading. Meanwhile, the brilliant selection of images, coupled with the great writing and elegant presentation, means that racing history buffs will also be doing themselves a disservice if they don't check it out.

Editorial Note: Karl Ludvigsen, the author of the book reviewed above, is a member of Atlas F1. However, the review of his book was prepared before Mr. Ludvigsen has joined the staff, and his position with Atlas F1 has no bearing on the views expressed hereby.

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions

Want to buy this book? Click here. Want to buy a different F1 book? Click here.

[ Back to Atlas F1 Front Page ]