@JET: I agree that 15 seconds in a 10 min lap is comparable to 1 second in a 90 sec lap. But after all, 50 seconds are 50 seconds no matter how many or how long the laps are.
In that race there are more things than a mere different strategy: there is a pitstop that gone bad, the driver never giving up, going beyond its limits and keeping it all together in an "older than the Ferraris" car, there is a lap record way faster than an already excessively fast pole position and finally... the ring!
Inevitably, our conversation turned to the historic 1957 German Grand Prix. The last GP victory in Fangio’s personal record, the race that gave him the 1957 World Championship, his fifth in total and the fourth Championship in a row. Since then, no one has been able to do better than two in a row and three all together. Beyond this, the 1957 German GP is considered The Grand Prix, and perhaps the most intensely fought motor race ever.
It was over 500 km, a distance that a modern GP driver just wouldn’t believe. The cars? On the straightaway they were about as fast as today’s Coney Island Specials, but the brakes, steering, tires and gearbox were strictly vintage, and ground effects had never been heard of.
You had to be tough in those days. Not only because of the distance, but because engines were at the front and all the heat and oil fumes wafted back into the cockpit. Blisters and severe burns were so commonplace that drivers like Fangio usually don’t recall them when telling their stories. In the monstrous 1957 German GP, Juan drove one of the best motor races in history to win in 3 hours 30 minutes 38.3 seconds of total inspiration.
I got off to a good start in that 1957 season. I won the first three races: Argentina, Monaco and the French Grand Prix. Of course that’s ignoring Indianapolis, which had been grafted into the World Championship, but more as a gesture than anything else, because there wasn’t any connection between the two types of racing. Then came the British Grand Prix at Aintree, where the greatest threat was the Vanwall, the first British Formula 1 car to really go.
We were quite concerned about them when we came to the Ring for the German GP, but they proved surprisingly ineffective. It turned out the Vanwall suspension system wasn’t designed for a place like the Ring and its bumps. Either the mirrors fell off the cars or the drivers’ teeth shook loose. So the Vanwalls weren’t a factor in the race, and it was going to be a straight Ferrari-Maserati battle.
We had the Maserati 250F, a model that I liked very much. My car handled quite well and had very good brakes, and by this time I knew the Ring much better than before, so I knew I was going to give a good account of myself. On Friday I did 9 minutes 25-plus seconds without trying too hard, and it was a hell of a good time because it was about 30 sec less than I had done the year before with the Ferrari. Frankly, the only question during practice was who was going to be 2nd. It turned out to be Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari. Mike worked very hard and gradually got up to 3 sec behind me. When the practice was over, I was at the front, then Hawthorn, Jean Behra with another Maserati and Peter Collins with a Ferrari like Mike’s.
Of course, practice is one thing and the race is another. We had Pirelli tires; they were a bit soft and fitted our suspension very well but, if their grip was good, they also wore faster, particularly the rear tires. That meant we were going to have a pit stop at mid-race to change tires. The Ferraris were on Engleberts, which were harder than our Pirellis and gave the drivers a rougher ride, but we were sure they would go through the race without changing. We could bet they’d start out with the fuel tanks full and try to go through nonstop.
All this gave us a lot to think about, and finally we worked out a plan that was rather simple but seemed effective.
We were going to have to change tires anyway, so we decided to start with the fuel tank half full, grab the lead and try to build up as much lead as possible before pitting. Then another half tank for the second part of the race, so we’d be driving a light, nimble car, the tires would wear less and we wouldn’t have to worry about a second pit stop, which surely would be disastrous. On race day, as I went to the starting line, I had a plan. I should try to have at least 30 sec over the Ferraris at half distance, between laps 11 and 12, because after some practice we had discovered the mechanics needed that much advantage to send me back to the track ahead of the Ferraris. I remember race day was hot and to make matters worse the start was about 1:00 p.m. The two Ferraris shot off first, Hawthorn leading Collins, with me trailing carefully. Personally I never worried too much about haring off in the lead, least of all on a circuit like the Ring, because we didn’t have prerace laps in those days and you never knew what might await you on that first lap. So I slipped into 3rd and began to keep an eye open for wherever I could get by.
Get by? Those two guys were going like firemen; in fact, they looked as if they were racing each other instead of holding station. I preferred to sit back for a lap or two until I could see a bit more of a gap between them. On the 3rd lap I was already losing my patience and decided I’d waited enough, so I started pressing Collins. I took him just after the pits and shortly afterward I passed Hawthorn on the Adenau downslope. By the 4th lap I was well away and concentrating on my race plan.
From what I heard later, the two Brits kept in close company behind me, flat-out and racing each other, so much that they alternated several times between 2nd and 3rd. Their Ferrari, Tipo 801, was practically the same car I’d won with the year before, the Lancia-Ferrari D50, without the 1956 side fairings.
A beautiful car to drive, a small car…a toy. Still, I managed to keep ahead and gradually pull out and I could see that, bit by bit, I was building up the 30-sec lead I wanted. On lap 10, with a race plan similar to mine, Jean Behra stopped. He refueled, took on new tires and dropped from 4th to 9th, mixed up with the Vanwalls. On lap 11 I got the come-in sign and I pitted next lap. Everything was working like a clock. I had my 30 sec.
Out of the car, I gulped down almost a full bottle of mineral water, spilling part of it over my heated body and, after listening to some brief comments, I was ready to go. But suddenly I realized something was wrong. The mechanics were nervous, they were fouling up refueling and one of the wheels wouldn’t come off. All of a sudden; my 30 sec were vanishing into thin air. I stood looking at the car, with my back to the track, but sure enough the Ferraris screamed past and my car wasn’t ready yet.
Well, they got it ready finally and I climbed in as the car was already being pushed. I remember first I sat on the fuel tank to get a better view of the track behind, then I slipped into the seat and I was adjusting my goggles as I left the pit lane. Even today somebody recalls that race and wonders how I could be so impassive about it all. But what else could I do? Even with the new tires I knew I'd have to do a couple of laps not quite flat-out to scrub them in. I went to the pits with a 30-sec lead and now I was 48 sec behind, and next time around, 51 sec! Well, I thought, that was the end of a beautiful dream.
As the tires bedded in, I began to drive as fast as I had at the beginning, and soon found I was starting to gain ground. It also seems that Romulo Tavoni, the Ferrari team manager, thought I would never catch up, and so signaled Mike and Peter to take it easy. Perhaps he should have figured that I was looking for some extra aces up my sleeve.
Very often I realized that if you really were in a hurry you could sometimes take some curves a gear higher than usual. Risky, but effective. You didn’t get that comforting sensation of grip, but you went in much faster and came out like a gunblast if you chose the line properly.
There was no way I was going to give up, so I started to try the next-higher-gear stunt all over the circuit. Wherever I was going through and just lifting off in 5th, now I went through flat-out. One of those places was a left-hand bend where you had a hump as you barreled out, shot under a bridge and got onto the next straightaway. There is Armco there now, and soft shoulders, and they leveled out the hump when they rebuilt the circuit. But in those days we used to lift off a bit; for one thing, to set the car up better; for another, not to fly off into space.
Well, the first time I dared to go through flat-out, the car zoomed into the air, flew for about an hour, and landed at the very edge of the track, near the wire fencing they had then. Only God knows how the right reflex functioned to twitch the wheel, but there I was, back in business. So, that was it. From then on I took that bend flat-out. On that place alone I knew I was saving seconds that I had to have.
Some days you know you are 10/l0ths. I was never a hairy driver, but that day everything seemed to go right for me. Before I knew where I was, I had knocked off 20 sec and by lap 16 I was only 30 sec behind.
Now the Ferraris were really climbing the wall. Laps lasted around 10 minutes, and while their drivers were out there in the boondocks the pits had no way of communicating with them. Next lap they hung out so many signals it looked like Independence Day, but it was too late. By this time my car was running like a dream, relatively light, with good tires, and I was inspired. I started breaking the lap record every time I went by the pits. I had broken the record at the beginning, then Collins improved on my time at mid-race, but those final laps were crazy. I broke the record seven successive times. The Ring is a terrible circuit and I was out there on my own, which makes it much tougher to check your own speed and ascertain whether you’re really going as fast as you think you are. Forcing myself to maintain my rhythm, I remember having done 9:25.3 sec, which was the first time the Ring had been lapped at more than 190 km/h.
Well, the pit signals were more and more encouraging but the race was drawing to a close and the question was, would I have time to catch the two flying ingleses?
Just when I was getting worried, I saw a little red blot far ahead of me. All right, I thought, at least I’ll have a chance to fight for 2nd, but I didn’t know the other leading Ferrari was just a few yards ahead. It was when we arrived at the Adenau downslope that I realized the two Ferraris were so close together, and then I said to myself, “This is it! I can catch those two!”
I began the hunt, and as we shot past the pits I was breathing down Peter’s neck. Hawthorn was only a few yards in front but there were only 2 laps to go! Coming into the North Curve, just after the pits, I tried to take Collins but I overdid it and he was able to stay ahead. His line was better than mine into the next bend and he stayed in 2nd place. But I had the bit between my teeth. I couldn’t allow Peter to have the slightest relief, so I put pressure on him everywhere, going flat-out, the throttle pedal welded to the floorboard.
We got into a left-right-left switchback and I moved right beside him coming into a left-hander that had a narrow, little concrete bridge at the end of a blind up slope. Then another downslope and after that you turned sharp right, fast but very, very dodgy. The little bridge was coming at us at a million miles an hour and there we were, side by side, with me tap-dancing on the right shoulder of the road. Theoretically the bridge was just wide enough for both of us to go through together, but how brave can you get?
Finally it was Peter who lifted off at the last moment and I was 2nd. The other Ferrari was right there. It was coming nearer, swaying from side to side as Hawthorn really piled it on. I began to wonder if I was going to get through, but the opportunity came by itself just before Breidscheid, about halfway around the circuit. There were several bends, then a short straight in which we could breathe a bit, and then two bends, a 90-degree left and a sharp right. On the straight, with trees beside and in front of us, and a cliff to our left, Mike went right to take an ideal line when he came to the bend. That was my chance.
I hurled the car into the inside of the bend. I think I must have put two wheels on the grass verge because otherwise the two of us wouldn’t have made it through. Mike did a double take when he saw me where he didn’t expect me, and he lost the fine edge of his driving for a moment. Well, that’s the way it goes. You should never let the other guy have the inside of your bend.
So I got into the lead and at this moment I really turned it on because I wanted to get clear away as soon as I could to avoid any surprises from the boys behind me. The result was another lap record, at 9:17.4, 8 sec faster than in practice despite the car being as tired as I was.
In the last lap I made sure. I didn’t have too much margin to play with, because, of course, Mike was mad as hell and he wasn’t about to give anything else away. Nor was I after the hard work I’d put in to get back into the lead. When I got the checkered flag, Hawthorn was just 3 sec away. Well, they say races should be won with as short a lead as possible, don’t they?
There was a terrific release of tensions as we crossed the finish line. We carried on several hundred yards more, then went into the pits. The crowd there was absolutely crazy. They all shouted at the same time, smiling, trying to touch us, to hug us, caressing and patting the cars as if they were horses. I remember being lifted in the air, carried shoulder high, while I screamed for water, water, water, after three and a half hours driving in that pressure cooker.
On the podium the two English boys embraced me, and they seemed as glad I’d won as if they’d won themselves. What a day! Two great boys, they always showed they had a lot of respect for me and I am convinced they were really sincere in their happiness at my victory. There was Mike, gesticulating to explain how I’d passed him, and then Peter, always smiling. I asked why he’d dropped back a little after I passed him and he said a little stone shot by my tires had shattered his goggles.
The victory ceremony that day was something else, but even so I never imagined that so many years afterward people would still remember this race so clearly. The only thing I felt at the time was satisfaction at having won such a tough race and that I had won the World Championship again.
And somewhere deep inside me, I told myself that never, never again was I going to drive like I did that day.