1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix – Race Profile Page Five
By 3 p.m. there were 15 cars officially withdrawn with one of them being the Corvette SS. Word was that persistent overheating problems led to the withdrawal. The official records showed the cause to be failed rear suspension. There were also two more cars in the pits for lengthy repairs. Fangio was still in the lead and Moss finally decided to turn his car over to his co-driver, Harry Schell. After waiting for 5 hours Schell was probably wondering if he would ever get a chance to drive. Lou Brero brought his #15 Ferrari 290 S into the pits and collapsed due to the heat. Masten Gregory took over. Brero recovered and returned later.
The burning sun and relentless heat were taking their toll on the spectators with many seeking any shady spot they could. Several of the concession stands temporarily ran out of cold beverages. Literally hundreds and hundreds of empty drink cups littered the ground in the spectator enclosure and the 55 gallon oil drums being used as trash receptacles were overflowing.
At 3:19 p.m. Portago brought in his #12 Ferrari 315 S with serious brake trouble. The mechanics couldn’t seem to remedy the problem and the car returned to the race with Luigi Musso at the wheel. Portago said the car has “no brakes.” Right before 4 p.m. Hawthorn brought in his D-Jag for a remarkably quick 6-minute brake change. Remarkable when you consider they had to reline the brakes on the Jag instead of change pads.
At the half-way point (4 p.m.) Fangio still led but a major mistake by the Maserati team led to a disqualification for one of their cars. It seemed that both Fangio and Carroll Shelby were running low on fuel. Shelby brought in his #21 Maserati 250 S and had just begun refueling when he was told to get back on the course because Fangio was coming in. After Fangio was serviced, Shelby returned for much needed fuel but was immediately disqualified. There was an FIA rule that you had to drive at least 20 laps before you can come in for more gas and the Maserati pits had forgotten about that rule. Maserati was forced to retire the car.
Between 4 & 6 p.m. Fangio and Behra maintained their lead. The Hill/von Tripps Ferrari came in for a regular pit stop but refused to start (dead battery) and was retired. The angle of the sun at that time of day was blinding for some of the drivers. Spectators were amazed when they observed Moss, sans goggles, take one hand off the steering wheel of his Maserati to shade his eyes as he went through the hairpin.
Drivers at Sebring that year commented later about the driving ability of Juan Fangio. While they were constantly fighting the steering wheel going through the turns they were amazed to watch Fangio take each turn gently holding the steering wheel on the big 4.5 Maserati turning it a little this way and a little that way. To some of them it seemed that Fangio was out for a Sunday drive. “He didn’t ever look like he was racing,” said Lotus driver Joe Sheppard.
By 8 p.m. Fangio was still first with Hawthorn, Portago and Schell following. That order hadn’t changed in over an hour. Portago had to pit because of a problem with his fuel pump. The stop cost him 30 minutes. Moss continued to gain on the leaders.
At 9 p.m. Fangio was still at the wheel of his car and was now four laps ahead. Because of pit stops and driver changes Moss was now in second with Hawthorn third, Masten Gregory fourth and Walt Hansgen fifth. Peter Collins was way off the pace with four minute laps due to failing brakes. The small but reliable Porsches were now in 8th, 9th and 10th position. They also had the Index of Performance well in hand.
At 9:30 there was some commotion in the Maserati pits. It seemed that during the scheduled final pit stop a mechanic had spilled a large quantity of gasoline on Fangio’s seat. If you ever wondered why drivers were required to exit the car during refueling then here is your answer.
In typical Italian fashion there was a lot of yelling and hand gestures. The team manager went off to find a replacement seat. They found one and Fangio returned to the race with his lead now at four laps. Just 30 minutes to go and everyone in the Maserati pits was holding his breath.
At 10 p.m. fireworks appeared over the track. It signaled the end of the race and a tremendous victory for Maserati. Coming in first were Fangio and Behra at the wheel of their Maserati 450 S with the Moss/Schell Maserati 300 S second. Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb were third in their Jaguar D-Type, Masten Gregory and Lou Brero were fourth in a Ferrari 290 S, Walt Hansgen and Russ Boss were fifth in a Cunningham D-Type Jag, Peter Collins and Maurice Trintignant were sixth in a factory Ferrari 315 S, Alfonso de Portago and Luigi Musso were seventh in factory Ferrari 315 S, Art Bunker and Charles Wallace were eighth in a Porsche 550 RS, Jean Pierre Kunstle and Ken Miles were ninth in a Porsche 550 RS, Howard Hively and Richie Ginther were tenth in a Ferrari 500 TRC. Bunker and Wallace also came away with a first in the Index of Performance which rated cars according to performance.
When Fangio brought the winning car into the pit area he was surrounded by fans and press alike. Under the bright lights of the motion picture cameras he graciously called over Jean Behra to join him in the victory celebration. Dozens of flash bulbs were going off at once. Once the camera lights were turned off and the flash bulbs faded Fangio unexpectedly excused himself and left Behra alone to talk to the people from the print media. Some reporters felt slighted by his quick departure.
Not until several days later was it revealed that Fangio left early to get medical attention for painful burn blisters he was suffering from his waist down to his knees on his right side. It seems that the insulation on the exhaust pipes, which ran along the driver’s side of the car, had worn away and his lower body was exposed to very hot temperatures. His discomfort had not been evident when he brought the car into the winner’s circle.
So, for those last three-and-one-half hours of the race El Chueco (“Knock-Kneed”) drove riding a very hot seat. No wonder his other nickname was El Maestro or “The Master.”
1957 Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix Epilogue:
The winning car of Fangio and Behra was 20 miles ahead of the second place Moss/Schell Maserati at the finish. They broke all existing Sebring records establishing a new distance record of 1,024.4 miles, a new average speed of 85.45 mph and Behra’s time of 3 minutes, 24.5 seconds was an amazing five seconds faster than the record set by Mike Hawthorn in 1956, driving for Jaguar.
Juan Manuel Fangio would go on to win his fifth and final World Driver’s Championship in 1957. This record would not be broken for 46 years.
The 1957 Sebring race would be Fangio’s last appearance at this event as a driver. In February of 1958 Fangio would be kidnapped by Fidel Castro’s rebels while at the Cuban Grand Prix. The rebels released Fangio after the race unharmed. Until his death Fangio and Castro would remain friends.
The Corvette Super Sport (SS) would never race competitively again because General Motors would sign on to the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association opposition to factory involvement in racing. To celebrate the first race at the new Daytona International Speedway in 1959, General Motors brought out the retired Corvette Super Sport. It did a lap of 155 mph during the opening-day ceremonies.
On December 1, 1957 Maserati announced that it would be withdrawing from factory support for racing because they were losing money. However, they would continue to build race cars for private entries.
For Further Reading & Listening:
The Sebring Story, Alec Ulmann, Chilton Book Company, 1969
“The Sebring-Winning Special, Escape Roads,” Autoweek January 5, 2004, p.29
The Sounds of Sebring 1957, Riverside Records, Bill Grauer Productions
“Fantastico Is For Fangio,” Kenneth Rudeen, Sports Illustrated Magazine, April 01, 1957
[Source: Louis Galanos]