Juan Manuel Fangio (1911-1995) is considered one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all-time, winning five World Championship titles (1951, 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957). As well as driving in Formula 1, Moss also competed in sports car racing, which was not unusual amongst drivers of that era, compared to modern Formula 1 drivers. This interest in sports car racing lead to the most unusual incident of Fangio’s career – his kidnapping prior to the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix.
The Cuban Grand Prix was created by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1957 – the aim of the event was to increase tourism to the island, especially for visitors from the United States. Cuba had no purpose built racing circuits, so a street circuit was constructed in the Malecón district of the capital, Havana. The main straight was the esplanade near the sea, with the return section a block further inland.
Map of the circuit used for the Cuban Grand Prix in 1957 and 1958.
The race was held on the 25th of February 1957. Fangio was contracted to drive a Maserati 250F in the upcoming Formula 1 season, so he naturally drove a Maserati in the Grand Prix. His 300S finished first, ahead of Carroll Shelby driving a Ferrari 410S and Alfonso de Portago in a Ferrari 860 Monza.
Fangio prior to the start of the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix.
Having won the inaugural Grand Prix, Fangio accepted an invitation to return for the 1958 race, to be held on the 28th of February. Sparing no expense, Batista arranged for all of the international drivers to stay in the prestigious Hotel Lincoln in central Havana. On the eve of the grand prix, Fangio walked into the lobby of the hotel on his way to dinner, only to be confronted by a young man in a leather jacket brandishing a pistol. According to reports from the time, the slightly nervous assailant barked: “Fangio, you must come with me. I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement.”
The 26th of July Movement was a revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro. The name commemorates an attack on the Santiago de Cuba army barracks on July 26, 1953. The movement began formally in 1955, and its aim was the overthrow of the Batista regime.
One of Fangio’s companions picked up a paperweight and moved to throw it at the intruder, but the pistol jerked round. “Stay still,” the kidnapper said. “If you move, I shoot.” And with that Fangio accompanied the young man to a waiting car. The 26th of July Movement’s aim was simple – by capturing the biggest name in motorsport the revolutionaries would show up the government and attract worldwide publicity to their cause. Yet despite the news of the kidnapping spreading across the globe, Batista refused to be outdone and ordered the race to continue as usual while a team of police hunted down the kidnappers. Now under arrest and in an unknown location Fangio was taking it all in his stride and was being treated to a meal of steak and potatoes before getting a good nights’ sleep.
The front page of the French newspaper “France-soir”, with the kidnapping of Fangio being the top story.
As per Batista’s orders, the race started as planned, with Maurice Trintignant taking the place of the absent Fangio. A huge crowd attended due to a public holiday, and with no designated spectator stands, they stood on the side of the road, or watched from the balconies of adjacent units and apartments. From the start, Ferrari drivers Stirling Moss and Masten Gregory battled for the lead. After only a few laps, spectators started to notice that all drivers were having trouble controlling their cars on a track that had become very slippery. The cause was soon discovered – Robert Mieres had retired from the race on lap 5 due to a broken oil line in his Porsche, but not before he had laid down a greasy strip of oil all around the circuit.
Disaster then struck – local driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his yellow and black Ferrari and went head on into a bunch of spectators lining the circuit. Over 30 people were injured and seven killed as the car took out a makeshift bridge and flew over the crash barriers. The race was then immediately red-flagged after just 6 laps, with Moss declared the winner, ahead of Gregory and Caroll Shelby in 3rd place. Cifuentes, seriously injured in the crash, was taken to hospital lying on the bonnet of one of the competing cars. He was charged with manslaughter, but was cleared after a government enquiry.
British Pathe newsreel footage of the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix – including Fangio before his kidnapping and the Cifuentes accident.
Fangio was delivered to the Argentinian embassy after the race, which had turned into a disaster for the Batista regime. The 26th of July movement had received worldwide publicity, while the recriminations started regarding the lack of safety protection for spectators.
Fangio would go to compete in the 1958 Formula One World Championship – his final race French Grand Prix, where he finished 4th. Batista would be overthrown by Castro in December 1958. No Cuban Grand Prix was held in 1959, with the final race being held in February 1960, with Stirling Moss winning again.
The following sources were used in the creation of this blog post.