The world's greatest-ever racing driver, the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio seemed invincible. Richard Williams charts his course to the top step on the podium

It is hard to imagine a modern racing driver being kidnapped at gunpoint by a revolutionary group looking for publicity. But that's what happened, just over half a century ago, to Juan Manuel Fangio. The great Argentine was 47 years old and on the brink of retirement when he visited Cuba for a sports car race and was snatched from his Havana hotel at gunpoint by Fidel Castro's rebels.

He had just won the last of his five world championships, and the kidnapping said everything about the scale of his global fame. It said even more about his personality that he was on good terms with his captors when they freed him unharmed. The rebels failed in their bid to get the race canceled, but they allowed Fangio to listen to the radio commentary before letting him go after 29 hours in which the story made headlines around the world.

The most famous racing driver of his or any previous era, he acquired an aura that lingered long after his career had come to an end. For the rest of his life, any room he entered was stirred by his presence. And, touched by his greatness, any car he had driven became an icon – none more so than the Mercedes-Benz W196 in which he won two Grands Prix, in Germany and Switzerland, on the way to his second world title in 1954. The W196 to be offered for sale at Goodwood is unique in two respects: carrying the chassis number 00006/54, it is one of only four surviving examples to be found outside the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart; and it is in completely unrestored condition, complete with a patina of small dents, paint cracks and oil smears, having been virtually unused since its heyday and lost to public view for a decade.

It is a car associated with Fangio at the height of his powers, when he exerted an unruffled superiority over such figures of the 1950s golden age as Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Eugenio Castellotti and Jean Behra, as well as over such rival machinery as the Lancia D50, the Maserati 250F and the Ferrari 625. He won in this car first at the Nürburgring, the world's most demanding closed circuit, and then at Bremgarten, in the last Swiss Grand Prix before that country's government – reacting to the terrible crash at Le Mans the following year – banned motor racing altogether. On both occasions the margin of his victory brooked no argument.

By then he was accepted by his peers and the public as the finest of his time, and perhaps of all time. But he had arrived in Europe in 1948, already 36 years old, as a man of unremarkable appearance – to the friends of his youth he was El Chueco, or Bandylegs -- and no reputation outside his native South America. When he returned home for good, less than a decade later, he took with him not just enough trophies to stock a museum but a unique status: his name had become synonymous with the glamor and romance of his sport.

Fangio spanned eras in the sport from the primitive to the scientific, but he retired before science – and concerns for the safety of drivers and spectators – had begun to turn it into the video game we see today. He and his rivals raced in cotton polo shirts and slacks, leather gloves and loafers, helmets made of bonded linen and cork, and air force surplus goggles, competing on circuits that featured kerbs, ditches, lamp posts, trees and unprotected crowds. A driver's courage and individual virtuosity could still determine the outcome.

So skilful was Fangio that in such a dangerous era he suffered only two serious accidents. The first happened in Peru in 1948, when he lost control of his Chevrolet coupé at night during the 9,000-mile Gran Premio de la America del Sur; he was unhurt, but his riding mechanic died from head injuries. The other occurred at Monza in the middle of the 1952 season, after he had driven through the night from Paris to northern Italy, arriving just in time for the race. Exhausted, he lost concentration and hit a grass bank, breaking vertebrae and spending several months out of action.

Otherwise his precision at the wheel and his sangfroid kept him clear of trouble, usually because he was out at the front of a race. When it became necessary, however, his competitive fire could be seen, and never more spectacularly than at the Nürburgring in 1957, after a botched pit stop at half-distance left his Maserati far behind the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. Using every ounce of his supreme talent, he hurled his car through the 175 corners of the 14-mile track through the Eifel forest and overhauled the Ferrari pair to take the checkered flag. It was his masterpiece, and the young Englishmen were among the first to congratulate him.

If his origins gave no hint of the achievements to come, they must have contributed to the modesty that made him so widely loved. He was born in 1911 to a couple whose families had left Italy for Argentina in the last years of the 19th century and settled in the small potato-growing town of Balcarce. His father was a stonemason, his mother a seamstress, and young Juan had worked as a mechanic in a local garage before making his name in the grueling road races that criss-crossed South America in the early 1940s. By the time he traveled to Europe for the first time in 1948, he had twice been crowned national champion. A year later he won almost everywhere in a Maserati, and in 1950 he was recruited to the powerful Alfa Romeo team for the first season of the new world championship. He and his team mates won the six European races, Fangio finishing second to Nino Farina in the title standings.

That winter he took the first step in what became a long relationship with Mercedes-Benz, whose Grand Prix team had been dominant before the war. As a way of testing the water before embarking on a full-scale return to activity, they accepted an invitation to compete in Argentina. For the 1951 races in Buenos Aires's Palermo Park, Alfred Neubauer, the team's legendary manager, took the dust sheets off Mercedes-Benz's pre-war Grand Prix cars and accepted a request from Perón's people to put the nation's new sporting hero behind the wheel of one of them. Not surprisingly, the cars were no longer competitive or reliable: Fangio finished third in the first of the two races and retired from the other.

Returning to Europe, and to Alfa Romeo, he took his first world title in 1951, at the age of 40. The next two seasons were spent with Maserati, but he had been sufficiently impressed by the way the Mercedes team went about their business to welcome an approach from the Germans to join them for their full-scale return to action in 1954 – and their offer of $2,250 per race. The unveiling of the Mercedes W196, with its dramatically streamlined all-enveloping bodywork, took place in July over the fast road circuit outside Rheims, where Fangio and Karl Kling finished an unchallenged first and second. Mercedes was back, and its rivals quailed.

On tighter circuits the streamlined bodywork limited the drivers' vision, and soon the team were deploying a more nimble open-wheeled W196, enabling Fangio to dismiss all opposition at the Nürburgring and Bremgarten. The streamliner returned for the high-speed banking of Monza, where another win confirmed his successful defense of the title.

He stayed with Mercedes in 1955, welcoming the 25-year-old Stirling Moss into the team as his No. 2. A year following in the master's wheeltracks, Moss later said, represented the finest possible finishing school for a young racing driver. "Here was a man who could take a wheelbarrow and make it fly like Concorde," Moss said.

One of his great assets was an instinct for getting himself into the right team at the right time. Mercedes's withdrawal from all competition at the end of the season, prompted by the involvement of one of its sports cars in the crash that left 82 dead at Le Mans, meant that he moved on to win a fourth title in 1956 in a Ferrari – although he and Enzo Ferrari, the company's founder, disliked each other -- and a fifth back at Maserati in 1957, before coming to the conclusion during the following season, that enough was enough.

The kidnapping in Cuba, and a failure to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 a few weeks later, had provoked thoughts of retirement. And so many of his rivals and team mates – Luigi Fagioli, Alberto Ascari, Onofre Marimón, Eugenio Castellotti, Alfonso de Portago -- had perished at the wheel. There was no formal announcement when he stepped out of the cockpit for the last time after finishing fourth at Rheims on 6 July 1958, following a race in which Luigi Musso became the latest fatality. But at Monza a few weeks later he was given a farewell dinner and a standing ovation by the much younger men who had lately been his rivals, and for whom he had set the standard.

Returning home, he ran his Mercedes dealership. He also ended his relationship with Andreina Berruet Espinosa (Beba), a woman from Balcarce who had accompanied him through much of his European career; most people thought of her as his wife, though they were never married and his eye was known to wander. "When I retired from racing," he reflected, "I thought, 'Now we can start a life together.' But something changed. We were beginning to argue, and the arguments got a bit rough. When a man and a woman lose mutual respect, the time has come to finish." He had long since allowed Beba's son Oscar -- born in 1938, after their liaison began -- to use his name.

In the 1980s he was made honorary president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina, a position he held for the rest of his life; the company's Buenos Aires technical center bears his name. When he was seen in Europe in later years it was often on the company's behalf, sometimes driving a demonstration lap in the shatteringly loud W196, and delighting spectators by giving them a glimpse of his famous brown helmet and that smooth, composed style at the wheel.

He died on 17 July 1995, aged 84. "Of course, he was by far the best of us all," said Moss. Others advance the claims of Tazio Nuvolari, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, whose seven titles eventually eclipsed the Argentine's five, but Fangio's advocates have a persuasive argument. Of the 52 Grands Prix in which he competed, he won 24 – a strike rate far better than his rivals'. His five championships were won in four different makes of car. And it was unthinkable that Fangio would do anything mean or underhand, or put a rival at risk in order to gain an advantage. He came from an age that still prized chivalry, a quality he embodied. Anyone lucky enough
to be in the proximity of this particular W196 cannot fail to
note how, almost 60 years later, it continues to breathe his spirit.

Richard Williams writes about sport for The Guardian. His books include The Death of Ayrton Senna and Enzo Ferrari: A Life.

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