When Fangio Was Kidnapped

Fangio (center) with President Batista (right)

Juan Manuel Fangio is a legendary name in Motorsport and his five World Championships make him the only man except for Schumacher to have achieved that feat. Fangio was the Vettel of his day; the big name of Formula One and thus likely to make the front pages.

This was the logic that led to his kidnapping in 1958. In 1958, Cuba was in the midst of an armed revolution as rebels tried to remove President Fulgencio Batista from office. Batista was trying to keep the revolution under control and also keep up face internationally, hoping to reassure the world that all was good in his country.

As part of his plan to show that everything was normal, he planned the country’s second Grand Prix. The rebels, under Fidel Castro, vowed to disrupt proceedings and internationally embarrass and undermine Batista. The president, perhaps because he didn’t believe the rebels, paid no attention and held the event regardless.

The rebels realised the international coverage that F1 could bring them (Greenpeace invaded the Belgian Grand Prix in 2013 for the same reason) and decided that attacking the race would be a bad move. Instead, they opted to kidnap Fangio. Fangio had won the Cuban Grand Prix the year beforehand and was the most recognised racer at the event.

The evening before the race, Fangio was approached by an armed man in his hotel lobby. A friend of Fangio’s attempted to help him, but the armed man identified himself and his cause and eventually forced Fangio into a waiting car. It goes without saying that a nationwide search began immediately as the media learned of the kidnapping. It was already beginning to go bad for Batista.

Fangio later recalled how his captors explained to him exactly why he had been kidnapped, and that they explained that they were also going to kidnap Stirling Moss to tug at the heartstrings of British media. However, Fangio came to Stirling’s rescue by lying to the men and saying that Moss was in Cuba on his honeymoon, and that his kidnapping would be extremely distressing to his new wife.

Back with race officials, there was a question on whether or not the event would go ahead. Batista was certain that it would, acknowledging that if the event was cancelled, it would be a huge international embarrassment for him and his regime.

Fidel Castro’s second in command, Faustino Perez (no relation to Sergio!) had personally apologized to Fangio for the ordeal, assured him of his safety and even supplied him with a radio so that he could listen to the race which went on without him.

Almost straight away, it seemed like the rebels had indeed attacked the Grand Prix, plastering the track surface with oil to put drivers in danger, until it emerged that it was merely an oil leak on a competing car. However, Cuban driver Garcia Cifuentes, driving a Ferrari, hit the oil slick very early on and ploughed into the crowd, killing seven and injuring over forty more. Ulf Noriden, a Porsche driver who was one of the first responders, reported that he couldn’t even see the Ferrari amid the pile of bodies. Stirling Moss eventually won the race, only to find out the true horror of the crash when he crossed the finishing line.

President Batista’s grand plan failed on several counts, with the weekend remembered only for the tragic loss of life and the kidnaping of Fangio, who was handed over to the Argentinian embassy shortly after the race finished. Fangio, incredibly, remained friends with his kidnappers until his death in 1995.

The revolution eventually succeeded and Formula One returned to Cuba in 1960, at the Camp Columbia military airfield. Moss also won this race which was stained with the death of Ferrari driver Ettore Chimeri, who lost his life after smashing through a barrier and falling 150 feet into a ravine. Formula One later abandoned Cuba and never returned.


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