Fangio had made an impressive start to his '58 campaign by taking pole for his home grand prix in what was, effectively, a privately-entered Maserati. However, by the end of the day the five-time World Champion would be unable to keep up. The time was drawing short. Everybody knew it. They just didn't want to accept it. Sadly, tragedy would cement the decision.
Fangio had taken part in the '58 Argentine Grand Prix driving for the privateer Scuderia Sud Americana. Fangio would take part in the event with the very same Maserati chassis he had earned his remarkable and memorable victory at the Nurburgring the year before. It was one of the best drives in grand prix history and only firmly cemented Fangio's already legendary status.
Fangio achieved the victory driving an aged Maserati 250F. Granted, it had been lightened and was further streamlined giving the car a bit of a new lease on life. However, it was still the same basic 250F that made its first appearance on the Formula One scene back in 1954. it was a great car for customers, but it seemed that only in the hands of drivers like Fangio and Jean Behra could it still compete and be successful.
Despite the age of man and machine, the '57 season would be perhaps the most dominant of Fangio's Formula One career. However, by the end of the season, Maserati would be out of the Formula One scene as a factory entity and Fangio would appear to have little interest in the upcoming season.
Fangio would be without a factory drive heading into 1958. But that didn't mean he didn't have opportunities. As a result, Fangio would take to his old mount in his home grand prix in January and would look, at least after practice, as if nothing had changed.
But a lot had changed. New regulations would come into effect at the start of the season and would have dramatic effects on the 250F. The banning of alcohol-based fuels hit at the heart of the Maserati and virtually made it uncompetitive overnight. The cooling effects of the alcohol-based fuel was gone and this meant the Maserati had to be careful about adequate cooling. Combined with the fact Maserati was no longer involved in Formula One, Fangio, and a good many others, would find the Maserati on its last legs.
Nonetheless, Fangio would make the best of it and would appear on form taking pole for the Argentine Grand Prix. He was firmly beaten when he crossed the line a distant 4th place, but even he couldn't win every time out. Was the Maserati that dated already? This question was confirmed either yes or no. What seemed to be confirmed, however, was Fangio's seeming lack of interest.
After scoring victory in the Buenos Aires Grand Prix, a non-championship event a couple of weeks after the first round of the Formula One World Championship, the scene around Fangio would look more like a farewell tour than someone just getting their season going. Drivers, like Mike Hawthorn, would seemingly just want to be close to the great champion as he accepted and the lauds and praise.
Of course, less than a month later, the Argentinean would be coming through his hotel after setting some practice times for the Cuban Grand Prix when he would be kidnapped by a couple of gunmen from Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement. He would miss the race but would be treated fairly. Suddenly, the apolitical Fangio would find his racing career becoming a political tool. He did not like this and would not allow himself to be used for his captors' gain. Amazingly, he would be released without harm, but, world politics had come crashing into his life and he would want none of it.
Then there was the second round of the World Championship. The Monaco Grand Prix would take place in the middle part of May. Despite a commanding victory the year before, Fangio would not be at the race. The lack of a competitive factory ride would motivate the Argentinean to head to the United States in order to accept an opportunity to try and qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
The lack of a competitive drive lent Fangio to accepting a $20,000 offer to come to Indianapolis and try to qualify a Kurtis-Offy. This was not the first time he had visited Indianapolis. Unfortunately, this visit would prove as unmemorable as the first as he would fail to qualify for the famed race.
The trip to Indianapolis meant Fangio not only missed the Monaco Grand Prix, but the Dutch round of the World Championship as well since it followed along shortly afterward. Fangio could have taken part in the Belgian Grand Prix in early June, but still, he would not be present. It was clear, Formula One would have to really begin thinking about life after Fangio. But Fangio wasn't done; at least not just yet.
The kidnapping in Cuba would bring about an end for Fangio's career in sportscar racing. All that was left was grand prix racing and the Argentinean had not been behind the wheel of a grand prix car since a Formula Libre race in early February. Choosing to skip, once again, Le Mans, the calendar would not flip into July.
Fangio had been nearly unbeatable at Reims until 1955. The tragic accident at Le Mans, in which Fangio would narrowly avoid, would cause the French round of the World Championship to be abandoned for that year. The following year, Fangio would come to Reims driving for Scuderia Ferrari. He had victory practically sown up until a late problem dropped him to 4th in the final standings. The Argentinean would go on to a dominant victory in the French round the following year, but that would take place at Rouen. Therefore, it had been since that incredible debut of the Mercedes-Benz W196 in 1954 that Fangio has ended up at least on the podium. And so, Fangio would again make his presence felt by appearing in Reims in early July. It would end up being the final time Fangio would ever take part in the French Grand Prix. In fact, it would be the last time in which the champion would ever take part in a grand prix.
Though the Maserati factory outfit had withdrawn from motor racing at the end of the '57 season, the outfit would continue building a couple of chassis which would become known as Piccolo cars. These cars were lightweight chassis using shorter T3 chassis and angled drive-shafts. Originally based upon the example built for the twelve-cylinder engine, these few 250Fs would be developed for Temple Buell who was financing his own team. These cars would be delivered for Buell's team in time for the Portuguese Grand Prix later on in 1958. However, one of them, 2533, would have a very special test in early July.
Entering the race under his own name, Fangio would actually arrive at Reims with a factory ride. However, he would need to use the lightweight chassis and other revisions to their absolute best as the Maserati had been firmly beaten by the competition back in 1956. Now it was 1958 and Ferrari had their new Dino 246 lining up against the Vanwalls from Vandervell's team. Formula One had certainly moved on, but Fangio would see if he could give the fans, and himself, one more highlight before calling it a career.
The Reims circuit provided racing fans a great opportunity to see the great champion at full speed one more time. Located just to the west of the important French city amidst the rolling countryside, the Reims circuit would measure 5.15 miles in length and was pure speed as it consisted of mostly long straights and fast sweeping esses. Originally making use of the streets in the village of Gueux, the circuit had changed come the 1950s, and with it, the speeds increased. This made the circuit an exciting venue as cars would often become embroiled in slip-streaming battles, such as the one witnessed in 1953 between Fangio and Mike Hawthorn. However, because of the nature of the circuit, it was also extremely dangerous and, in 1958, the circuit would touch off a terrible string of tragic events.
In practice, the new Ferrari Dino 246s would show the way with Hawthorn earning pole with a lap of 2:21.7. Luigi Musso would be just seven-tenths of a second slower and would grab 2nd place on the grid. The final spot on the front row would go to Harry Schell in the BRM. The BRMs were fast, but extremely fragile. Still, it would be exciting to see the BRM ahead of the Vanwalls on the grid.
Fangio, at the wheel of the Maserati, would appear absolutely mortal in practice. His best effort would end up more than two seconds slower than Hawthorn. Right up to a year ago, Fangio had been able to take a good car and make it do things no one thought possible. However, by the end of practice in Reims it would become abundantly clear there was really nothing left for the Maserati to give. Fangio, therefore, would end up on the third row of the grid in the 8th position. While he would be the obvious sentimental favorite heading into the race, it was clear he wasn't going to be the one leading the way unless everyone else ran into trouble.
Brilliant sunshine would bear down on the circuit. It would be a beautiful day for a motor race and a brilliant way in which to celebrate Fangio. An incredible crowd would assemble along the front stretch. The pits and the seating above them would be filled with people crammed together leaning over the edge straining to glimpse the action, to glimpse Fangio for what was likely one of his last races.
The cars would be lined up on the grid and the drivers would begin to take their places. A large crowd would surround Fangio, but it would be Hawthorn and Moss that would be the talk of everyone. These two were battling it out in a close fight for the championship. Fangio, on the other hand, would appear to be a visitor, a person seemingly on the outside looking in.
At the drop of the flag, it would be Schell that would delight. The American, who makes his home in Paris, would enthrall the French crowd as he led the way with Hawthorn following along close behind. Unfortunately for Schell, Reims was an ideal circuit for slipstreaming and Hawthorn come on a charge and would end up leading the first lap of the race. Fangio would make a good start and would also use the slipstream to his advantage. He would cross the line for the first time right around 6th place. Despite the fact it was obvious the Maserati no longer had the legs, Fangio continued to demonstrate his worth by being the only Maserati in the top ten through the first ten laps of the race.
Fangio would demonstrate his prowess all the more as he would begin to march his way up the order. Using the slipstream to his advantage, the Argentinean would soon climb up to 5th place and then to 4th. Fangio would be locked in a short duel with Moss at the time Luigi Musso determined to go after Hawthorn, and with tragic results.
Being an Italian driving for the famed Scuderia Ferrari, Musso would be under a great deal of pressure. Some mistakes away from the circuit had made the pressure even greater. He needed to get the best result possible. Hawthorn was pulling away with the lead. Musso sat in 2nd place. There was only one place better the Italian could get to. That meant he needed to start running laps as fast, and faster, than what Hawthorn had been running.
While Musso would set off after Hawthorn, Fangio would also be moving up the order, but something had changed. The World Champion would find himself having to work hard to get the Maserati to perform. In practice he had found the car he had been driving to be quite a bit different from that which he had taken the World Championship the year before. Upon inquiring about certain parts on the car he would find that what had been originally used on factory 250Fs had been changed to suit its intended owner. This would make the handling of the car not to Fangio's liking and would be just one way in which he would never really feel comfortable. He would be pushing hard each and every corner of each and every lap. The fun was gone. It was now hard work, and that would take Fangio back. It was evident it was time to consider leaving motor racing. What would happen next would make that decision a bit easier. He was never really comfortable throughout the weekend. He would find out why.
Musso would be on the ragged edge throughout the first ten laps of the race. On the run down to the Muizon hairpin however he would hang out over the ragged edge a little too far. The Ferrari would slip off the edge of the circuit and he would end up hitting one of the ditches that lined the circuit. Fangio would see the events transpire and would realize very quickly the Italian had been thrown from the car and was likely seriously injured. It would be about the time he passed the wrecked Ferrari that he would wonder, 'What am I doing, running with all these young people?'
Musso would be lifted by helicopter to the hospital fighting for his life. Hawthorn, meanwhile, would carry on in the lead. Tony Brooks would be promoted up to 2nd place as a result of the crash, but would soon find that his race was compromised with gearbox issues. Fangio would then find himself in 2nd place, but there was really no sense of him being able to stay there.
Moss and Jean Behra would be right there with Fangio and they would take over the fight for 2nd place while Fangio would be shuffled backward at about the halfway point as he made a pitstop. Trying to claw his way back to the front after the stop, the look on Fangio's face would tell the story. The iconic shot of him passing by the pits looking over displays a man truly wondering what he is doing and why he is doing it. The Argentinean would be having to fight hard just to make his war forward from just outside the points. The fun was gone. So too was Musso.
Hawthorn would be leading the race going away. Moss and Behra would be embroiled in an epic duel for 2nd place that would last until there were about ten laps remaining in the race. The fuel pump on the BRM would fail leaving Moss to carry on in 2nd place all by himself. Fangio would manage to get by Collins for 4th place, but would still have a little ways to go to finish the race.
Fangio had lost all interest, and therefore, had lost all concentration. He would spin on the last lap of the race. This enabled Collins to go by into 4th place and put Fangio in danger of being lapped in what was to be his final race.
Hawthorn would have such respect for the Argentinean that he would actually slow to ensure the famous champion didn't have to suffer the indignity of being lapped. Fangio would gather himself and would set off believing a 5th place to be his final result in Formula One.
Hawthorn would cruise to an easy victory defeating Moss by a margin of more than 20 seconds. Wolfgang von Trips would come through the race in good order to finish in 3rd place some 40 seconds behind Moss.
Collins would be in trouble. Nearing the start/finish line he would suffer some problems with his Ferrari and would slow dramatically. This would enable Fangio to streak by in the last moment to claim another 4th place while Collins struggled across the line to finish 5th.
It would not be a euphoric finish. It had been hard work and not a lot of fun for the Argentinean. What's more, it was known Musso had lost his life. There would be no celebration for Hawthorn really and certainly no fanfare for Fangio. The Argentinean would arrive back at the pits at the end of the race and would simply extract himself from the car without any emotion, without any feelings of possible regret. He would simply get out of the car and would walk away uttering 'It is finished' and would go and check on Musso. The race itself had not been enjoyable to Fangio, and the death of Musso only further added to the rather depressing mood.
The decision would be quick, and quiet. Nobody outside of the paddock really knew anything for sure. Everyone had an inkling, but there was very little certainty. The start in the French Grand Prix at Reims had come about as a result of first grand prix having taken place at the circuit back in 1948. It was right that he came to end his career right where it really started. Among the drivers, it was a given it was the right time, and the tragic deaths of Musso and Peter Collins at the Nurburgring a month later would only help to solidify the belief. Though these deaths would never be the actual reason for Fangio's departure from the scene, subconsciously they would make what had become work all that much harder.
Fangio had achieved so much in so little time, but he had also lost so many friends in such a short period of time as well. Though he loved what he had been doing for a decade it had been work nonetheless and it was wearing on him. All of the deaths and all of the sacrifices had finally mounted so high the Argentinean couldn't see his way forward any longer. But, he would have the opportunity to not just escape with nearly unbeatable records. He would get to escape with his life.
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