Saturday, September 15, 2012

FELICE BONETTO (1903-1953), La Carrera Panamericana.

Felice Bonetto 

(9 June 1903 in Manerbio, near Brescia, Italy – 21 November 1953 in Silao, Mexico) was a racing driver who raced in Formule One for the Maserati, Scuderia Milano and Alfa Romeo teams.
He enjoyed a brief Formula One career, including a win in the non-Championship Portuguese Grand Prix in 1953, and also some success in sports car racing (2nd at the 1949 Mille Miglia,  winner of the 1952 Targa Florio) until his fatal accident while driving a Lancia D24 on the Carrera Panamericana, that he was leading, when he left the road after jumping uneven pavement before colliding with a lamp-post. Ultimately, that race was won by Juan Manuel Fangio. Felice Bonetto is buried at the Italian section of Mexico City's Dolores Cemetery.

When you’re born in Brescia it only makes sense that you’ll become a racing driver. I’d say that this pipe may have been Felice Bonetto’s lucky charm, but it’s worth noting that he was disqualified from the 1952 German GP at the Nurburgring. Maybe he already knew he was disqualified and thought, “The Hell with it, I may as well enjoy a lovely drive around the Eifel Mountains. Now where is my pipe?”.
It would be only a year later that Felice’s drive would be anything but leisurely while leading the 1953 Carrera Panamericana for Lancia. It sounds a bit apocryphal, but Benetto reportedly marked dangerous corners along the route with blue signs. It was at one of these locations—despite this care in marking these corners—that Felice would take a 60mph corner at 125. Bonetto swerved his Lancia D24 into a building and was killed at the scene.Teammate Fangio went on to win.

For years we read and hear stories of great drivers and races and we stand in awe. One of the most celebrated automotive race wins of all time was when Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana. Anyone who races knows that regardless of every possible facet involved in winning a race there will always be some element of luck involved. Like any fan or student of La Carerra Panamericana I have known for years about the fact that Fangio won the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana without winning a single stage but until today I was not aware of some other interesting facts that led me to realize there was a whole lot of luck involved in Fangios win. Had it not been for a whole chain of events Fangio would never have won that race. It can also be said that you should never give up regardless of the adversity you may be faced with, and obvciouisly Fangio did not in this case. Nonetheless it's interesting to learn Fangio was not the shining star during this particular race that so many thought to him to be.

During the 1953 Carrera Panamericana one of the greatest Italian road racers, Felice Bonetto, was driving for the Scuderia Lancia team. Lancia had entered an incredible team of five cars for Felice Bonetto, Juan Manuel Fangio and Piero Taruffi, winner of the 1951 edition of the race, in three 3.3-litre D24 cars, and Giovanni Bracco and Eugenio Castellotti with two 3-litre models, with a crew of about 30 mechanics and engineer, with one service truck and with Gianni Lancia in person as team-manager, following the 6,000 kms race in a private airplane. Their best competitors were Umberto Maglioli - Pasquale Cassani, Mario Ricci - Forese Salviati and Luigi Chinetti - Fon de Portago in three 4,5-litre Ferrari 375MM, and other private Ferraris driven by Antonio Stagnoli - Giuseppe Scotuzzi, Guido Mancini - Fabrizio Serena and a couple of young American drivers, Phil Hill - Richie Ginther and Louis Rosier who raced alone his Talbot Lago. 

The first Carrera Panamericana of Felice in 1950 on one of the two Alfa-Romeo.

During private tests, before the start of the race, Bonetto with Taruffi and other Italians drivers, painted a blue or red sign to point out dangerous bends, bump in the road or trees beside the road. Also in the stretch between the towns of Toluca and Leon, where several vados, a sort of large gutters, crossed the road, Bonetto painted a lot of blue alarm signals on the asphalt; this will be ineffective to avoid him the fatal crash, some hours later.

On Thursday 19 November 1953 morning the IV Carrera Panamericana started: Bonetto was the winner of the 530 kms. first stage Tuxtla Gutierrez -Oaxaca, with 2'40" from Taruffi and Fangio.In the early hours of the race Angelo Stagnoli and his co-driver Giuseppe Scotuzzi lost their lives in a huge accident happened in the long straight near the small town of Tehuantepec, when for a tyre failure their car went off the road, overturned and exploded. In another accident happened nesr Tehuantepec River Bridge, six spectators were killed when the Ford 6 of Mickey Thompson-Roger Flores went off the road.

On the second day of race, Piero Taruffi won the stages OaxacaPuebla and PueblaMexico, but Bonetto still led the race retaining 41” advantage. Fangio had sustained an accident and his car’s axle was broken: Lancia mechanics were able to repair the car in the paddock before the start of the following stage, but Fangio seemed out of the race with a gap of seven minutes from Bonetto. 

On the second day of the 1953 La Carrera Panamericana, Felice Bonetto led the race on aggregate, retaining an advantage of 41sec. Fangio had sustained an accident and his car’s axle was broken but the Lancia mechanics were able to repair it before the start of the next stage. By now Fangio seemed out of the race with a gap of about seven minutes behind Bonetto.

After the start of the 420 kms stage Mexico – León, the course went uphill in a mountain road until 3100 meters below sea level, and after 100 kms redescended to pass the town of Toluca, and to go ahead via a long straight in which the cars used full throttle, towards Queretaro and Irapuato, Felice Bonetto leading. Gianni Lancia was afraid about the last faster stages of the Carrera Panamericana, where the strenght of Maglioli’s Ferrari could make up for lost time to Lancia’s, so he asked his drivers to maintain the positions. But el Zorro plateado Taruffi, beloved by Mexican crowd, probably wanted to win again the race, and closely followed his team mate and rival Bonetto. They arrived together at full speed in the foggy area before the small town of Silao: a large left bend was at the end of a long straight, with several spectators beside the road. While approaching the fast bend, Taruffi tried to get near Bonetto but was unable to negotiate the bend and went off the road in a cloud of dust. The car wasn’t damaged and he returned in a few minutes on track with the help of the spectators, and took up his run. In the meantime Bonetto didn’t slow down: perhaps he did not realize his competitor was out and he kept on pushing, also arriving in the stretch in the center of Silao, where he had put his painted blue danger signal. He passed at about 200 km/h (instead of wise 100, 120 km/h) over an one-meter large vado, his Lancia suddenly swerved and crashed against the balcony of a house on the right, ending its veering against a pole. Felice Bonetto fatally hit his head into the balcony and was immediately killed. 

After Bonetto's death, team owner Gianni Lancia wanted to withdraw, but Fangio, Bracco, Taruffi and Castellotti decided to keep on racing, in honor of their team mate. Eventually after the remaining cars had some problems Juan Manuel Fangio went on to win the race without ever winning a single stage.

According to the accident reports of Italian journalist Giovanni Canestrini, on the contrary Bonetto had perceived his competitor’s crash and instinctively relaxed his concentration: so he didn’t look at his danger signal painted on the asphalt and passed over the bump across the road too fast. 

It is also to be reported that Piero Taruffi claimed in some interviews that Bonetto received first aid a long time after his accident. Probably Taruffi asserted that because he felt somehow guilty for the death of his companion, however a few recent sources confirmed this information. According to these accounts nobody rushed to help Bonetto after his crash because, following the disaster of two days earlier, when six spectator were rolled over and killed by a car while they were standing on the road trying to rescue another accidented car, the Mexican Government imposed the National Army to shoot every man or animal (!) crossing the road during the race (see also the circumstances of this other fatality of the year before for a related case, so nobody had the nerve to approach the wrecked car for over a hour fearing to be shot down by the soldiers. Anyhow, since it's believed that Felice Bonetto had died instantly, this delay was probably not a factor in the death of the driver. 

After the death of Felice Bonetto, Gianni Lancia wanted to withdraw, but Fangio, Bracco, Taruffi and Castellotti decided to keep on racing, in honour of their unfortunate team mate. After Maglioli, their best opponent who had won the fourth stage Mexico – León, lost a wheel and finished his race, Lancia forced the drivers to maintain the positions and to drive with riding-mechanics on board. Taruffi won the fifth stage León - Durango, while Maglioli who had replaced Mario Ricci at the wheel of the third Ferrari 375MM of the Scuderia Guastalla, dominating the last three stages Durango - Parral, Parral-Chiuahua and Chiuahua-Ciudad Juarez.

Juan Manuel Fangio with Gino Bronzoni was the winner of the race at Ciudad Juárez, whitout any stage victory, being Piero Taruffi-Luigi Maggio second and Eugenio Castellotti-Carlo Luoni third. Giovanni Bracco did not finish the race, Maglioli-Ricci-Salviati were classified 6th. 

Felice Bonetto was an expert 50-year-old driver, he had started his racing career in the 30s (2nd overall in the 1933 Circuito delle Province Meridionali - Coppa Principessa di Piemonte, and 12th overall in the 1934 Mille Miglia race, driving a AlfaRomeo 8C 2600), but he obtained his greatest success after the Second World War, when he was a grown-up person: he won the 1947 Circuito di Firenze driving a Delage 3000, he was 2nd in the 1949 Napoli Grand Prix in a Ferrari, and in 1950 he won the Pontedecimo-Giovi hillclimb in a Osca and the Circuito do Porto in Portugal in a Alfa Romeo. In the Mille Miglia race he scored a 2nd place overall in 1949, at the wheel of a Ferrari 166MM Touring, behind Clemente Biondetti, a 6th place in 1951 in a Alfa Romeo 412 spider, and a 3rd place in 1953 in a Lancia D20. 

In 1951 he drove for Alfa Romeo the new 1900TI model and was the winner of the touring-cars class (15th overall) in the Giro di Sicilia. Then in 1952 he passed to Scuderia Lancia, and at the wheel of the legendary Aurelia B20, on March he scored a 2nd place in the Giro di Sicilia, not so far from the winner Paolo Marzotto, in a 2-litre Ferrari sportscar, on May he was 6th overall, first of the GT-cars class, in the Preis von Bremgarten, on June he obtained an 8th place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Enrico Anselmi as co-driver, and finally a great win in the Targa Florio, from team mates Gino Valenzano, second and Enrico Anselmi, third. The following season started with a DNF in the 1953 Giro di Sicilia, in a 2,5-litre Lancia Aurelia B22, and the 3rd place in the Mille Miglia with the D20 sportscar. After he did not finish the Le Mans 24 Hours with co-driver Gino Valenzano, he was 2nd in the Gran Premio di Monza behind Gigi Villoresi in a Ferrari, 9th in the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti, and 1st in the Grande Premio do Jubileu at Monsanto Circuit, Lisbon, from Stirling Moss in a Jaguar C-type. 

Bonetto also raced single-seaters, scoring 16 Formula 1 starts, from 1950 to 1953 (first start 1950 Swiss G.P. at Bremgarten, 5th overall in the Maserati of the Scuderia Milano), obtaining two 3rd places in the 1951 Italian G.P. sharing the Alfa Romeo 159A with Nino Farina, and in the 1953 Dutch G.P. sharing a works Maserati with José Froilán González. 

Felice Bonetto was survived by wife Liliana and 15-years-old son Roberto. Some years later Roberto Bonetto became a well known motorsport journalist in Italy. During his honeymoon in the 1970s he went to Mexico to visit the place of his father’s death. In the village of Silao he found two memorials for Felice Bonetto, a plaque on the wall of the house, where the fatal balcony had been demolished, and a monument with a bronze bust in Silao cemetery. There was a legend about this monument, inside which it seems Bonetto’s heart is preserved; the day after Bonetto's fatal accident, the Mexican doctor who made the postmortem examination decided that such a strong heart like Bonetto’s must remain in territory of Mexico!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for Great story. About the legend of Bonetto's heart, the actual bronze bust monument is at the Cimmitero Italiano in Mexico city. My uncle, Julio Giovine claimed that he belonged to the group if Italian descendants who laid the heart in the marble base of the bronze bust.