The paunchy, bowlegged little man who has just won an unprecedented fourth world driver championship is an instinctive athlete who has no disposition to dramatize or even explain his phenomenal skill.
When asked once to help a new team driver, Juan Manuel Fangio pointed inside the cockpit of his car and said, "This is the accelerator and that is the brake; I suggest you press rather more on this and rather less on that."
Fangio, himself, has been doing just that ever since he discovered the youthful joys of racing hopped-up Chevrolet jalopies over the dusty trails of his native Argentina. When he crashed the a la carte world of European road racing seven seasons ago he displayed an uncanny knack for driving a car beyond its known maximum within minutes of his first experience with it.
Part of Fangio's rare endowment is his awareness of the precise mechanical limitations of any machine he drives. As a car begins to disintegrate he adjusts his demands upon it to maintain the highest possible speed and still bring it to the finish line. He has finished at various times with one or more transmission gears inoperative, suspension collapsed, brakes expended, engine misfiring and broken lines spraying hot oil onto him.
His first world championship came in 1951 when he pushed a big Alfa Romeo to a narrow victory over Ferrari. In 1954 and 1955 The Master won with the Mercedes juggernaut, then switched this year to his durable opponent, Ferrari.
Violent crashes, which have catapulted him into the landscape at speeds upward of 100 mph too often to remember, have failed to diminish his courage. A broken neck suffered early in the 1952 season at Monza was his most serious injury; friends doubted that he could race again.
To those of us who stood in his darkened hospital room that day it seemed inconceivable that this singular competitor, then unable to move, still had the most brilliant career of modern racing ahead of him. The following season he was better than ever, if somewhat stiff-necked, and he ignored the whispered opinion that death would be certain if his neck is hurt again.
The Argentine's personality in and out of the cockpit is phlegmatic enough to suggest sleepwalking (or driving). When cornered, though, he is as gentle in demeanor as he is scrupulously proper on the race course. Fangio's dark and lively wife is a buffer to this reticence and a familiar support at every race.
At 45, Fangio sometimes speaks of retiring. But like other European champions before him, he rates the Indianapolis "500" high as a challenge; he has said he could retire only after trying Indianapolis. Having become a living legend ("fangio!" has entered the language in Argentina as a friendly charge of excusable insanity), acquired the money to live like a South American general and the boosters to succeed at politics, Fangio has reason enough to quit racing, but his whole identity has become so intensely focused on the objective of winning that his friends fear neither fame nor fortune nor common sense will divert him from his purpose until he has had the big crash.