Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 2: Juan Manuel Fangio

BBC Sport has profiled 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list. Veteran commentator Murray Walker provides his own reflections in a video of their career highlights, and chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles the driver. This week, number two - Juan Manuel Fangio.

It seems hard to believe now, but the world almost never got to see the genius of the man who is still regarded by many as the greatest racing driver there has ever been.

Juan Manuel Fangio set records so immense that, in percentage terms, they will surely never be beaten. The Argentine competed in 51 Formula 1 grands prix, of which he won 24, set 28 pole positions and 23 fastest laps. In seven full F1 seasons, he won five world championships.

Yet he almost never made it to Europe.

Fangio cut his teeth in long-distance races staged over thousands of miles on the dirt roads of South America.

In 1948, his car went off the road in Peru and tumbled down a mountainside. His co-driver Daniel Urrutia, his best friend, was thrown out and when Fangio found him, he was dying.

Fangio, already 37, at that stage had competed in only one grand prix, in France in 1948. Following Urrutia's death, he considered quitting. But he resolved to carry on and returned to Europe the following year. And so the legend began.

Fangio was average height and balding, and one of his two nicknames was 'El Chueco', or 'bandy legs', from his days playing football as a child. His motor racing career earned him another epithet - 'Maestro'.

Success in F1 came relatively late in life. Fangio was in his forties before he won his first world title in 1951. But even in losing the inaugural F1 world championship title in 1950 to Alfa Romeo team-mate Giuseppe Farina by a narrow margin, already there were signs that he was on another level from the rest.

One of the characteristics that makes great drivers stand out from the very good is the capacity to multi-task, to focus on things beyond simply driving a racing car on the limit. There have been few better examples of that than at Monaco in 1950.

A multi-car crash at Tabac on the first lap left the track blocked. Fangio, leading, was unaware of the incident, and as he headed along the harbour front he seemed sure to plough into the wreckage, which was out of his sight around the corner.

Instead, he suddenly slowed, stopping just short of the blockage. How had he known?

"I was lucky," he recounted. "There had been a similar accident in 1936 and I happened to see a photograph of it the day before the race. As I came out of the chicane, I was aware of something different with the crowd - a different colour.

"I was leading, but they were not watching me. They were looking down the road. Instead of their faces, I was seeing the backs of their heads. So something at Tabac was more interesting than the leader - and then I remembered the photograph and braked as hard as I could."

Luck, clearly, had had nothing to do with it.

After his first title, Fangio missed half of 1952 after suffering a broken neck in a crash in a non-championship race at Monza early in the season, the result of fatigue after driving all night from Paris to make the start of the race.

When he returned in 1953, his Maserati was outclassed by Alberto Ascari's Ferrari, but from 1954 he was unstoppable. Fangio won four titles in a row, two for Mercedes (after he won the first two races of '54 in a Maserati), and one for Ferrari, before returning to Maserati in 1957.

Stunningly fast but also clever and politically astute, Fangio always made sure he was in the right car, and his ability meant it was always his for the taking.

He was the epitome of elegance, calm and ease. His philosophy was always to win at the slowest possible speed. Out of the car, no-one had a bad word to say about him.

"What made him so great," said Stirling Moss, "was his concentration and his balance of the motor car. He wasn't a technician. He was just a great artist of driving. But above all that he was a gentleman and a wonderful man."

Fangio was so good that he rarely needed to push to the limit. So on the days he did give his ability free reign, it was somehow all the more shocking and impressive.

One of those days was at Monaco in 1956, when he drove probably the least Fangio-like race of his career.

His Lancia-Ferrari D50 was not the most elegant of cars, either in its appearance or its handling. Even allowing for that, this drive was something else.

Fangio spun on oil on the first lap. Moving back through the field, he damaged the nose of his car on that of team-mate Peter Collins. Back up to second, he hit the wall at Tabac.

His own car now barely driveable, he stopped and took over Collins's, rejoining the race 90 seconds behind the leader, Moss in a Maserati.

Fangio chased the Englishman for two hours, on - and sometimes over - the limit throughout. At the finish, he was six seconds behind.

Fangio described it as "maybe the strongest race I drove" but most would save that accolade for his final win.

The 1957 German Grand Prix has passed into F1 folklore as one of the defining races in the sport's history, arguably the greatest performance ever produced by any driver.

It took place at the Nurburgring, the 14-mile track through the Eifel mountains regarded as the toughest test of a racing driver ever devised.

Fangio was on pole in his Maserati 250F, about three seconds faster than Mike Hawthorn's Ferrari. He built up half a minute's lead before making a planned pit stop and rejoined 50 seconds behind with 10 laps remaining.

For three laps, he made no real impression on Hawthorn and team-mate Peter Collins, circulating together at the front, but then he let loose.

He began lapping 15 seconds faster than the old lap record - set by himself the year before. By the end of lap 19, he was 13 seconds behind Hawthorn and Collins. The next was a new lap record, more than eight seconds faster than his pole time. By the end of it he was right with the Ferraris, and soon swept by to victory.

Talking to the journalist Nigel Roebuck in 1979, Fangio left no doubts about the magnitude of the achievement.

"Even now, these many years later, I can feel fear when I think of that race," he said. "Only I knew what I had done, the chances I had taken.

"The Nurburgring, you know, was always my favourite circuit, without any doubt. I loved it, all of it, and I think that day I conquered it. On another day, it might have conquered me, who knows? But I believe that day I took myself and the car to the limit - and perhaps a little bit more. I had never driven like that before, and I knew I never would again."

The race made him world champion for the fifth time and the end of that season effectively brought the curtain down on his career. "It was becoming work for me," he said. He took part in only two of the first five grands prix of 1958, and after finishing fourth in France he retired, aged 47.

Fangio returned home to his birthplace, Balcarce, to run a Mercedes dealership, and was appointed president of Mercedes-Benz Argentina in 1974. From time to time, he returned to Europe to demonstrate his former race cars. He died in 1995.

One of his foreign trips in his later life was to the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he shared an embrace on the podium with Ayrton Senna, who worshipped him.

"Even if I or someone else can equal or beat Fangio's record," Senna once said, "it still will not compare with his achievement.

"What he did in his time is something that was an example of professionalism, of courage, of style and as a man, a human being. Every year there is a winner of the championship, but not necessarily a world champion. I think Fangio is the example of a true world champion."

Number 3 - Jim Clark

Number 4 - Michael Schumacher

Number 5 - Alain Prost

Number 6 - Sir Stirling Moss

Number 7 - Sir Jackie Stewart

Number 8 - Sebastian Vettel

Number 9 - Niki Lauda

Number 10 - Fernando Alonso

Number 11 - Alberto Ascari

Number 12 - Gilles Villeneuve

Number 13 - Nigel Mansell

Number 14 - Mika Hakkinen

Number 15 - Lewis Hamilton

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham