1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Two
The other major story in international racing news that year was the defection of world champion Juan Fangio from the Ferrari team to drive for arch-rival Maserati. Fangio had won for Ferrari at Sebring the previous year in a Ferrari 860 Monza with co-driver Eugenio Castellotti.
Speculation abounded as to why Fangio would leave the Ferrari team of his own volition. Everyone knew that the only way you leave Ferrari is if Enzo Ferrari personally fired you. Some wrote that Fangio had a history of not staying long with any particular team and the thought of driving the new 4.5 liter Maserati V8 brute of a car was too much to resist.
This turned out to be the case. In their successful attempt to lure Fangio from the Ferrari ranks the Maserati factory offered to supply him with no less than six brand new race cars for testing. Each of those cars would cost, in today’s dollars, between $170,000 and $190,000 each. The car he picked was the one he eventually drove to victory at Sebring in 1957.
Maybe Fangio’s only reason to leave Ferrari was that he was just looking for a better car to drive than Ferrari had in its stable and maybe not. For the moment let’s take a look at what happened at Sebring the previous year (1956). Fellow countryman Carlos Menditeguy, who was second only to Fangio in popularity in Argentina, was driving for factory Maserati while Fangio was with Ferrari. During the race Menditeguy missed the first turn in the Esses and flipped his car which landed upside down trapping him (no roll bars in those days).
He was badly injured and bleeding from cuts and head injuries but the corner workers were able to extract him from the car and eventually he was dispatched to Weems Hospital in Sebring.
Fangio and co-driver Eugenio Castellotti went on to win the race in their Ferrari 860 Monza and after the awards ceremony Fangio immediately went to the hospital to be with Menditeguy.
Seeing what terrible shape Carlos was in Fangio made the decision to stay by his bedside until Mrs. Menditeguy could arrive from Argentina. All the while Fangio was talking to doctors, hospital and Maserati officials to see if Carlos could get transferred to a hospital specializing in the kind of trauma that Carlos had experienced. At the time Menditeguy’s injuries were considered life threatening and Fangio was deeply concerned for his friend.
After Mrs. Menditeguy arrived her husband was transferred to a hospital in Palm Beach where x-rays showed he was suffering from two skull fractures. All during these trying days Fangio received numerous and sometimes angry telegrams from Ferrari in Modena requesting his presence to prepare for the next race. It was during this time that the relationship between Fangio and Ferrari began to sour.
Alec Ulmann was well aware of what Fangio was risking by staying with his friend and had referred to his actions as, “a remarkable act of sportsmanship.” Carlos Menditeguy eventually recovered from his injuries and raced for several more years. He retired from racing after competing in the Argentine Grand Prix in 1960.
Following the defection of Fangio to Maserati the burden for winning for Ferrari at Sebring fell on the shoulders of the 26-year-old Castellotti. On the 14th of March 1957, Castellotti was testing a new Ferrari car that was designed to compete with the new 4.5 liter Maserati that Fangio would drive.
In a private testing session, attended by Enzo Ferrari, at the Modena Autodrome in Italy a signal was given for Castellotti to pick up the speed but coming into a curve he lost control and the car impacted heavily. His body was thrown three hundred feet from the car. His tragic death from a skull fracture just one week before the Sebring race cast a somber mood over the team.
Probably due to his enormous world-wide popularity neither the Ferrari officials nor their drivers at Sebring that year would officially comment about Fangio’s defection to Maserati. However, that didn’t stop some of them from putting in their two cents regarding the new 4.5 Maserati that Fangio and Frenchman Jean Behra would drive.
Ferrari factory driver Alfonso de Portago, driving the #12 Ferrari 315 S (Sport), was very blunt when asked if he thought the Maserati “four-five” would last the race. “No I don’t,” he said.
Ferrari team leader Peter Collins, driving the #11 Ferrari 315 S, had little confidence in the four-five when he said, “It (the Maserati) hasn’t held together yet.” That was a reference to the first race of the season in Argentina that Ferrari had won after the new Maserati had retired.
There probably hasn’t been a Sebring race run that didn’t include some drama both on and off the track and 1957 was no exception.
Just days before the race the F.I.A. issued an appendix to its rules concerning the race, mandating that during the first tire change a team had to use the spare tire that all cars were required to carry.
This didn’t affect the Corvettes and some other cars but for Ferrari and Maserati it was the “kiss of death” because on their cars the wheels on the front and rear of the cars were of different sizes. So, if you came into the pits with a damaged wheel or flat tire and your spare didn’t match the size of the wheel to be replaced you were prohibited from changing the wheel. You would then have to withdraw your car from competition.
Ferrari team leader Peter Collins, a representative from Maserati and Alec Ulmann then met to discuss the problem. Collins, who was very knowledgeable about FIA rules, told the press that the new appendix was in violation of FIA’s own rules concerning how such changes were adopted. Supposedly such changes had to be approved unanimously by all the competitors or it couldn’t be put into effect. It is assumed that this argument carried the day with the FIA.
The ever-vocal Collins had a few choice words to say about the use of 55 gallon oil drums to outline the course and turns at Sebring. He protested that they should be “banned” and their use was “very, very dangerous…” Despite this complaint oil drums were used at Sebring for several more years.