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Kidnapped in Cuba

Laurence Edmondson
July 25, 2013
Juan Manuel Fangio (centre) with President Fulgencio Batista (right) the day before Fangio was kidnapped by rebel forces © Press Association
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It's well known that sport and politics don't mix. But while most sportsmen feel uneasy in the world of politics, politicians have historically been all too keen to become involved in sport.

In 1958 President Fulgencio Batista was trying to retain an air of normality in Cuba. Fidel Castro's guerrilla forces were camping in the mountains and rioters were becoming more aggressive in the streets, but Batista was keen for business to continue as usual in downtown Havana .

Batista's vision was for the capital to become a Latino Las Vegas, where rich tourists from the United States would pump money into the country's coffers. And what better way to attract the wealthy and frivolous than a motor race.

The first Cuban Grand Prix was held in 1957 and by all accounts it had been a great success. Juan Manuel Fangio, the No. 1 driver of the era, won the race in front of streets lined with enthusiastic and curious spectators. In 1958 a repeat event was scheduled, but with the revolution less than a year away things did not go quite so smoothly.

Fangio came back to defend his title and alongside him on the grid were a host of other big name drivers, including the world No. 2 Stirling Moss. The drivers approached the non-championship race as any other, with the most famous among them staying at the luxurious Hotel Lincoln. On the eve of the grand prix Fangio walked into the lobby 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." One of Fangio's friends picked up a paperweight and moved to throw it at the intruder, but the pistol jerked round. "Stay still," its owner said. "If you move, I shoot." And with that, Fangio accompanied the young man to a waiting car.

The motive was simple, by capturing the biggest name in motorsport the rebels were showing up the government and attracting worldwide publicity to their cause. But despite the shocking news spreading across the globe, Batista would not be outdone and ordered the race to continue as usual while a crack team of police hunted down the kidnappers.

Moss was kept under guard throughout the night with a watchman knocking on the door every three hours to make sure he was still in his bed. "It was a very disturbing night," he recalled. "Fangio told the rebels, `You mustn't take Stirling because he's on his honeymoon' - which was a lie of course, but nevertheless was very decent of him."

Fangio, meanwhile, was taking it all in his stride and was being treated to a slap-up meal of steak and potatoes before "sleeping like a blessed one" in a well furnished apartment. Convinced that he was not in danger he went on to develop a case of Stockholm Syndrome, admitting afterwards that he sympathised with his captors' actions: "Well, this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it."

As ordered by Batista, on the morning of the race the cars were fired up in front of a 150,000-strong crowd with Maurice Trintignant filling in at Maserati for the missing Fangio. By this time the great Argentinean had been given a personal apology by Castro's second in command, Faustino Perez, and had even been supplied with a radio so that he could listen to the action. But Fangio was not in the mood. "I became a little sentimental," he said. "I did not want to listen because I felt nostalgic." It was just as well as Fangio's sentimental state of mind that morning could well have been pushed to the limit had he known what was happening on the track.

I couldn't even see the Ferrari. The bodies were piled all over. I was wading in arms and legs

It all started well with Moss and fellow Ferrari driver Masten Gregory taking an early lead in what was widely predicted to be a close fight. But by the time the leaders started their fifth lap almost every corner of the 3.5-mile circuit was slick with oil and the cars started to run perilously close to the barriers. At first the organisers suspected a second rebel sabotage, but it was later discovered that Roberto Mieres' Porsche had a broken oil line.

On the next lap the inevitable happened. 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 40 people were injured and seven killed as the wreckage took out a make-shift bridge and flew over the crash barriers. Porsche driver Ulf Noriden stopped on track and attempted to help: "I couldn't even see the Ferrari. The bodies were piled all over. I was wading in arms and legs."

Moss, unaware of the extent of the tragedy, continued racing against Gregory at the front of the field and went on to take one of the most bizarre victories of his career.

"I was driving around and the next thing I knew there had been an accident and a bridge had fallen down. Well I say a bridge, it was more like a couple of bits of wood with ladders either side, but nevertheless the red flag was out and everybody started going slowly. At that time I was dicing for position with Masten Gregory, although we weren't really racing because you don't race at the beginning of a 500km grand prix. So he was in front for some of the way, then I was, then he was when the accident happened.

"We came onto the start-finish straight with him slightly ahead and I could see the finish line coming up, so I snuck it back into second, put my foot down and went past to take the win. When we stopped he wasn't too pleased and said, 'Now listen, I was in the lead all that time...' And I said, 'Well yes, but not when we passed the finish line'.

"I knew that the only person who could issue the red flag was the clerk of the course and he could never have waved it from the bridge, so that one had to be an unauthorised one - he could never have got their so fast from his usual position on the start-finish line.

"So I said to Masten, 'Look, keep quiet, we'll pool our money together and then split it'. And that's exactly what we did, because otherwise it would have gone to the organisers or whoever to decide and it would be years before we got the money.

"So officially I was the winner. The truth was either of us could have won it, but what the hell, it didn't matter. Why have an argument about it? Especially with everything else that had happened that weekend."

The whole event had been a disaster, and when Fangio was handed over to the Argentine embassy soon after the race with worldwide headlines assured for Castro's revolutionaries, blame started to be apportioned. Cifuentes was rather unfairly charged with manslaughter while still fighting for his life in hospital and criminal charges were also filed against "person or persons unknown" for kidnapping Fangio.

Castro's revolution was successful over the New Year but it was not until 1960, at the Camp Columbia military airfield, that motor racing resumed. The main event was won by Moss but it was again tainted, this time by the death of Ettore Chimeri who crashed his Ferrari through a barrier and plunged 150 feet into a ravine. He later died in hospital.

Over the following years organised motor racing ceased on the island, never to return. Despite its popularity, the sport was considered too bourgeois by the communist regime. Put simply, it no longer matched the politics.

Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1

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