The great Argentine race car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, winner of five Formula One driver’s world championships, competes in his last Grand Prix race–the French Grand Prix held outside Reims, France–on this day in 1958.
Fangio left school at the age of 11 and worked as an automobile mechanic in his hometown of San Jose de Balcarce, Argentina before beginning his driving career. He won his first major victory in the Gran Premio Internacional del Norte of 1940, racing a Chevrolet along the often-unpaved roads from Buenos Aires to Lima, Peru. In 1948, Fangio was invited to race a Simca-Gordini in the French Grand Prix, also at Reims, which marked his European racing debut. After a crash during a road race in Peru that fall killed his co-driver and friend Daniel Urrutia, Fangio considered retiring from racing, but in the end returned to Europe for his first full Formula One season the following year.
In Formula One, the top level of racing as sanctioned by the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA), drivers compete in single-seat, open-wheel vehicles typically built by large automakers (or “constructors,” in racing world parlance) and capable of achieving speeds of more than 230 mph. Individual Formula One events are known as Grands Prix. Fangio signed on in 1948 with Alfa Romeo, and won his first Formula One championship title with that team in 1951. Over the course of his racing career, he would drive some of the best cars Alfa-Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Maserati ever produced. Capturing four more Formula One titles by 1957, Fangio won an impressive 24 of 51 total Grand Prix races.
Reims, famous for its 13th-century cathedral, hosted the oldest Grand Prix race, the French Grand Prix, at its Reims-Gueux course a total of 14 times (the last time in 1966). In the race on July 6, 1958, the British driver Mike Hawthorn–who would win the driver’s world championship that season, but die tragically in a (non-racing) car accident the following January, at the age of 29–took the lead from the start in his 2.4-liter Ferrari Dino 246 and held on for the win. Fangio, driving a Maserati, finished fourth, in what would be the last race before announcing his retirement at the age of 47. The 1958 French Grand Prix also marked the Formula One debut of Phil Hill, who in 1960 would become the first American driver to win the world championship.