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Who was Juan Manuel Fangio? True story behind Netflix’s A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Netflix's latest original documentary looks at the first F1 racing star - here's the life story of the legend

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Netflix has been treating us with their documentaries lately – and their latest offering is no different as the streaming service looks at acclaimed racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio.


After our very own University of Sheffield determined that the Argentine is the best F1 driver in history, the documentary looks to see what pushed Fangio to race back when safety measures were minimal and accidents were many – and we look at the life of the legend.

Here’s everything you need to know about the racing superstar, Formula One record-holder and now Netflix documentary subject.

His story is also available to read here or buy on DVD here,

Who was Juan Manuel Fangio?

Juan Manuel Fangio was, of course, a racing driver. Not just any racing driver, however, of the seven full Formula One seasons he competed in Fangio became champion a record-breaking five times and won 24 world championship Grand Prix races with 35 podium finishes. The first great Formula One star, he was considered the best driver in the world long before an academic study proved it.

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story
Juan Manuel Fangio

Fangio had been racing in South America since he was 18, but it was only after military service in World War Two that he received sponsorship from the government to race in Europe. Affectionately nicknamed the “Old Man” by rivals – Fangio was 37 when he first achieved regular success on the European circuit in 1949 – he won the first of his five Formula One titles in 1951. Over his career, he would drive for Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari, and in his 51 championship Grand Prix started from the front row 48 times and set 23 fastest race laps.

He picked up more nicknames along the way – “bow-legged” or “bandy legs” due to his unsportsmanlike physique, and “Maestro” as a sign of the respect that his fellow competitors had for him. His five Formula One victories was a record that stood for an incredible 47 years until beaten by fellow legend  Michael Schumacher, and he still holds the record for highest winning percentage in Formula One at 46.15 per cent – winning 24 of the 52 races he entered.

Juan Manuel Fangio
A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Did drivers really race without safety equipment?

Yes, the early drivers of Formula One drove with almost none of the protective equipment and safety features worn today. Races were often a lot longer and more physically demanding than modern equivalents – drivers would often suffer bleeding hands, and cross-ply tyre treads would often strip mid-race and spark plugs would foul.

Sadly fatalities were not uncommon – over 30 of Fangio’s racing peers lost their lives during his career.

Did Juan Manuel Fangio crash at Monza?

Yes – in 1952 Fangio missed his connecting flight to race in Monza and decided to drive overnight from Paris on the unforgiving pre-motorway mountain roads. Arriving at Monza at 2pm – only half an hour before the start of the race – Fangio still took part despite being badly fatigued and starting from the back. With his reaction times stunted, Fangio lost control on the second lap and hit a grass bank, causing his car to somersault.

It was a rare but serious accident for the racing pro – he was close to death for several hours thanks to injuries including a broken neck, and he spent the rest of the year recovering in Argentina. The race’s victor, Nino Farina, visited Fangio in hospital and gifted him the winner’s laurel wreath.

Was Juan Manuel Fangio kidnapped?

Yes – in 1958 Fangio was practising for the Cuban Grand Prix when he was kidnapped at gunpoint by two members of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement in Havana. The kidnappers’ plan was to force the cancellation of the race and embarrass the Batista regime, though the President refused to back down.

Fangio was given access to a radio and television to follow the race during captivity and was even allowed his own bedroom. He was released unharmed after 29 hours and reportedly stayed on good terms with his kidnappers afterwards.

How did Juan Manuel Fangio die?

Despite minimal safety features, extreme speeds, and a few near-misses, Fangio safely retired after the French Grand Prix in 1958. He later became honorary president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina in 1987, and died at his Argentinian home in 1995 from kidney failure and pneumonia, aged 84.


A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story is streaming on Netflix from Friday 20th March. If you’re looking for something else to watch check out our TV Guide.