When F1’s Greatest Driver was Kidnapped at Gunpoint

In 1958, One the greatest Formula One drivers to ever take to the track was kidnapped at gunpoint by guerilla fighters in Havana, Cuba. This is the story about the Argentine Formula One World Champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, and his run in with Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. 

Sport, Motor Racing, Formula One, pic: 6th August 1957, German Grand Prix at the Nurbuergring, Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio, pictured winning the race, which gave him an unbeatable lead in the world Championship, Juan Fangio won the world championship five times in the 1950's (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Sport, Motor Racing, Formula One, pic: 6th August 1957, German Grand Prix at the Nurbuergring, Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio, pictured winning the race, which gave him an unbeatable lead in the world Championship, Juan Fangio won the world championship five times in the 1950’s (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The Cuban Grand Prix in 1958 was set to be one in which Fangio dominated. He had been the quickest driver in the Practice session in his Maserati, and had won the previous year’s non-championship event in 1957, but at the famous Lincoln Hotel, he was kidnapped at gunpoint on the eve of the race by two masked men affiliated with Fidel Castro’s revolution. The successful kidnapping of Fangio had an obvious premise: To gain massive exposure to the cause of the communistic revolution and embarrass the regime of Fulgencio Batista by camncelling the race. Batista was a pro-American that could not be overthrown legally. His vision of Havana was a Latina Las Vegas, and opposers to his regime quickly vanished or were gunned down in the street.

September 1958: American cars parked in front of President Batista's palace at Havana. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
September 1958: American cars parked in front of President Batista’s palace at Havana. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Fangio’s kidnapping served as a means to give the Cuban Revolution exposure. It took one of Formula One’s greatest drivers as a hostage, and the Argentinian driver was kept under guard, moving between three houses as the race weekend continued under Batista’s orders without the Maserati driver. Fangio’s rival at the time, Stirling Moss, was under guard at a safe-house over the race weekend and described the ordeal:

“It was a very disturbing night. 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.”

– Stirling Moss

(Original Caption) Trouble Dogs Cuban Grand Prix. Havana, Cuba. Britain's Ace Driver Stirling Moss is shown here Feb. 23rd after he completed his practice laps before the grand prix race here Feb. 24th. He tied for best practice times with world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who was still missing at race time after being kidnapped after practice by Cuban revolutionaries. The trouble-dogged race ran into still more trouble when the Ferrari of Garcia Cifuentes crashed into a retaining wall and into the crowd, killing at least five persons. After a poll of the drivers, the race was called off after five laps. Moss had been leading.
(Original Caption) Trouble Dogs Cuban Grand Prix. Havana, Cuba. Britain’s Ace Driver Stirling Moss is shown here Feb. 23rd after he completed his practice laps before the grand prix race here Feb. 24th. He tied for best practice times with world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who was still missing at race time after being kidnapped after practice by Cuban revolutionaries. The trouble-dogged race ran into still more trouble when the Ferrari of Garcia Cifuentes crashed into a retaining wall and into the crowd, killing at least five persons. After a poll of the drivers, the race was called off after five laps. Moss had been leading.

After the race that involved a collapsing bridge and a crash that injured 40 spectators and killed 7, Stirling Moss won the race and Fangio had been permitted by his captors to watch the Grand Prix on television. After the event, Fangio was released and had developed Stockholm Syndrome, a mental state that sympathises with those who imprison you. Following the ordeal, he said,

“Well, this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”

– Juan Manuel Fangio

Following the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Motor racing never returned, largely due to the perception that it was too conformist and conflictive to the newly formed Communist State.