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Juan Manuel Fangio makes Formula One debut

Juan Manuel Fangio–the Argentine race car driver dubbed “the Maestro”–makes his European racing debut at the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France in Reims, France on this day in 1948.

Born in San Jose de Balcarce, Argentina, in 1911, Fangio left school at the age of 11 and began working as an automobile mechanic. With financial support from the town of Balcarce, he won his first major racing victory driving a Chevrolet in the Gran Premio Internacional del Norte of 1940, a grueling road race between Buenos Aires and Lima, Peru. After a hiatus during World War II, Fangio made it to Europe, where he was invited to race a Simca-Gordini in the French Grand Prix in Reims on July 18, 1948. (Grands Prix are the events that make up a single season on the Formula One circuit, the highest class of European auto racing according to the Federation International de l’Automobile.) Though he retired from both of the races he entered that day, Fangio announced his potential as a worthy rival for his European counterparts.

In October 1948, Fangio’s Chevrolet rolled over a Peruvian cliff during a road race; though Fangio escaped almost uninjured, his co-driver and friend Daniel Urrutia was killed in the crash. After briefly considering retirement, Fangio returned to Europe the following summer for his first full European racing season. He won his first four races, and by the end of the season had racked up seven major wins. In 1950, the Formula One World Championship was created. Fangio, who had signed on with the Alfa Romeo team, was just shy of his 39th birthday at the start of that first championship season. He lost the title that year to his Italian teammate, Giuseppe Farina, but stayed with Alfa Romeo and held on to win his first Formula One championship title in 1951.

Over the course of his career, Fangio would drive some of the best cars Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo ever produced. In addition to five Formula One titles between 1951 and 1957, he triumphed in an incredible 24 of his 51 Grand Prix races. Perhaps his greatest achievement came in his last full season, at the German Grand Prix in Nurburgring in 1957. Fangio came from 56 seconds behind to overtake the rival Ferrari team, bettering the track record by an incredible 12 seconds on three consecutive laps. The victory gave Fangio his fifth Formula One title. He retired the following year.

Known for his spectacular technical ability and for his demure manner, Fangio has been called the greatest driver of all time. He died in July 1995, and was buried in his native Balcarce.

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