He didn’t start racing until he was 27 years old. His first Formula 1 race was at age 39. Not the way a career would begin today, but in 1950 the racing world was different. Juan Manuel Fangio would go on to win five world championships in a span of eight years. A new documentary, A Life of Speed – The Juan Manuel Fangio Story, is currently showing on Netflix.
I found the film fascinating mainly because I love watching racing films from long ago. There is a lot of footage of Grand Prix races from 1950- 1958. The black and white film adds an air of romance to the contests. I’m always shocked to see the three wide standing starts F1 used at that time. The first turn wasn’t the calamity you would expect.
The film proceeds in a chronological fashion, following Fangio from his childhood in Balcarce, Argentina, all the way to the European racing scene. He began his Formula 1 career the same year what we know as Formula 1 began, 1950. His first victory came at Monaco that year, driving for Alfa Romeo. The Alfas won all 11 races that year. Fangio’s teammate Nino Farina won the championship.
Fangio won the title the following year, then won four straight titles from 1954-1957. He is the only driver to win championships in four different cars- Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Ferrari, and Maserati. The title was up for grabs in the final race of 1957. Fangio needed to finish third or fourth to win. His car developed handling problems. The team asked driver Luigi Musso to step out of his car so Fangio could win the title. Musso refused, but his other teammate, Peter Collins, gave his car to Fangio, who finished second. Collins was also in contention for the championship.
The film has interviews with retired drivers including Jackie Stewart and Nico Rosberg. There are also interviews with former employees of the car factories for which Fangio drove. I was impressed with Rosberg’s appreciation for the drivers of the past and the history of the sport in general. When he spoke of Collins lending Fangio his car, Rosberg asked, “You think Lewis Hamilton would do that for me?”
I was disappointed that there were no words from Sir Stirling Moss, although he was mentioned. I have been a Moss fan since I first heard about him.
Was Fangio the greatest driver of all time? Andrew Bell of Sheffield University in England did a study to find out. He used several metrics and concluded that Fangio indeed was the greatest driver. I’m not sure how one compares eras because of how different the cars are today. But a very strong case supports his findings in favor of Fangio.
Two other segments of the film need to be mentioned. The first is footage I had never seen before of the fatal accident at LeMans in 1955 which killed 82 spectators. If you’ve seen film of the Sachs-McDonald accident at Indianapolis in 1964, you have an idea of what it looked like. It is frightening to watch.
The other feature I liked was the end of season television graphic of the year’s standings . I enjoyed seeing the names of the Formula 1 drivers of that era like Mike Hawthorn, Alberto Ascari, Jean Behra, and Hans Hermann. Hermann also is one of the interviewees.
Each year nestled somewhere between fifth and seventh place was that year’s Indianapolis 500 winner. From 1950-1960 the Indianapolis 500 results counted toward the world championship. The nine points earned for the win was good enough for the top ten in Formula 1. Some years just 34 points was enough for a world title.
A Life of Speed is a great film for fans who love the history of Formula 1 and racing in general. It is a comprehensive glimpse of one the sports greatest drivers.